"Collecting" My Thoughts
by Jan Young
Years ago I discovered that much can be learned about riding while taking a walk. "Riding while walking" helps me isolate and think about my various body parts and movements while the horse is not part of the equation. Sometimes thinking too much about my riding while riding can keep me from thinking about and feeling the horse and being in the moment. But riding while walking frees me to analyze--even over-analyze, as I am prone to do. Currently my walks are mostly to the mailbox and back--not far, a mere ten-minute walk. I have found that my mailbox musings have helped me fine-tune my riding and therefore my overall horsemanship.
My recent ruminations have been about collection. I had already discovered that the human riding in a collected posture helps the horse carry himself in a collected posture--balanced and ready. As I walked, picturing myself in the saddle, "feeling" the horse in self-carriage, I inadvertently discovered that my walking this way actually improved my own balance and posture on the ground.
Collection in horses is about carrying more weight on the hindquarters than the front--not being "on the forehand." I had already figured out that in the saddle, my sagging shoulders and collapsed chest causes the horse to be on the forehand. If my head is tipped forward or down, I lead with my shoulders. Because I have always struggled with good posture (and actually ride with better posture than I walk), I thought about applying this to my vertical body on my walks. Even though I don't have front legs, I felt my walking posture was "on the forehand"--leading with my shoulders.
When the horse's weight is shifted to the hindquarters, it feels like he is lifting his withers. I don't have withers, but my breastbone might be similar, since the ribs are attached to it. So I tried lifting my sternum, keeping my shoulders relaxed. That felt good. Now, what else could I try?
As the horse lengthens the topline, he lifts his belly, so I thought about sucking my belly in--"lifting" it. It felt good to hold this posture while I walked, but I noticed my head was tilted forward, which made it hard to lift my sternum. I thought of the horse's poll being lifted, how his neck comes up and back to rise from the withers. I made sure my neck was up, my head high, not angled forward.
My head now felt more balanced. As I played with my head position, and thought about my "poll," I found that taking the base of my neck farther back brought my chin slightly down and in, similar to a horse in collection. Self-carriage was starting to feel really good!
With a lifted belly, the horse tucks his pelvis to carry himself more on the hindquarters. Sucking in my belly tucked my pelvis slightly. I knew that tucking the pelvis improves the position of my seatbones in the saddle. Now I could feel that a tucked pelvis also felt better when walking. I realized that I had been walking with my tailbone "out behind," which slightly arched my lower back--a position to avoid in the saddle. So it was logical to tuck my tailbone and feel my lower back straighten and soften.
Weighting the hindquarters in the saddle doesn't mean my seatbones rock back so far that I slouch. Nor do I want to rock too far forward onto my crotch with my tailbone pushed out behind me. I balance best right in the middle, sitting tall but relaxed, with a soft lower back. As I played with these positions on my mailbox walks, I learned something interesting. I realized that my "normal" way of walking resulted in different strides than when I walk in the collected posture!
For years I have noticed two ways of striding in horses: longer strides, kicking out farther forward with a straighter leg, and shorter strides, stepping with a lighter cat-like footfall and the knee staying more bent. A horse's natural build plays into this, but I know that a horse who carries his neck long and low and whose stride is longer and more strung out can be "put together" to move in a more collected manner.
When I give no thought to my walking posture, walking with my head and shoulders slightly forward and my tailbone more out behind me instead of tucked, my stride is longer and straighter, my footfall is heavier. Carrying myself in a collected posture results in shorter quicker strides, with a lighter footfall and my knees staying more bent.
I used to walk faster by swinging my arms and legs farther, longer, faster--my seatbones making long movements forward and back. Now my seatbones feel like they are moving in a more rotary motion, like bicycle pedals. My tailbone/pelvis is more tucked as I suck my bellybutton in. My knees stay more bent, my feet don't go as far forward, but step more quickly, and feel lighter and more catlike.
I find that my arms don't swing long and straight like they used to, but tend to bend at the elbow with a smaller swing closer to my body, more left-right than forward-back. I notice that walking in this manner makes it easy to imagine my rope McCarty in my hands, swinging slightly left-right and up-down when my horse is really walking out.
A horse in collection is slightly more "crouched" on the hocks; the hocks stay a little more bent and engaged, more "under" the horse. A horse walking quickly like this is a joy to watch, appearing to be almost trotting, or about to break into a little trot any moment. Not a pushy walk, as in trying to take over--just light, quick, catty and eagerly forward.
I believe the way to get that kind of walk is to ride like I am talking about walking. That is the point of this diatribe.
As I walked and mused and imagined myself sitting correctly in the saddle, I pictured myself loping. It suddenly clicked why, years ago, I struggled with loping. Back then, I didn't know about sitting collected. When I loped, I made the common mistake of leading and even pumping with my shoulders. My upper body was too forward and active. But now, in the collected posture, I lead with my hips, and my upper body is erect and much quieter.
One day I accidentally discovered something else on my mailbox walk. Wearing a visor, I tied my hood snugly around my face, tilting my head down to avoid the icy wind. But then I could only see the gravel right in front of my feet. I didn't like being unable to see ahead of me. I wondered, is this how a horse feels when his face is pulled behind the vertical, his chin approaching his chest? With limited vision, how can he feel balanced, ready and athletic? How could he work a cow?
But if you are walking upright and collected, with your head upright over your neck, not tilted forward--then when you tuck your chin, your eyes are still in front of you, not tilted under, and you kind of feel the vertebrae in your neck opening or expanding, like a horse rounding at the poll rather than at the third vertebrae. His neck slightly arches and rounds, and he comes under himself a little more.
One day my walk involved icy tracks in the snow. Instead of walking collected, I was leaning forward slightly and taking longer strides. After slipping a few times, and having flashbacks of falling on ice and breaking my wrist a few years back, I tried shorter strides and the more collected walk I had been playing with. I immediately noticed much better balance! When a horse is concerned about his balance in poor footing, it would seem that riding in a more collected frame could help, with shorter steps rather than longer striding steps.
Another snowy day, I was taking short steps but realized I was slouching, not walking in a collected/balanced frame or posture. When I lifted my chest and shoulders, I felt much more balanced on the slick road. So is it lifting the chest and shoulders? No. I tried doing that while allowing my body to be slack and saggy. No good. But when I lifted my chest with my body in a more "collected" feel, I felt balanced.
Walking to the mail after hoeing one day, I was very tired and my lower back ached. I knew I was plodding, but I didn't have the umph to care about walking "right." Shoulders sagging, head tipped forward (on the forehand again), my strides felt "clunky" compared to the balanced walking I had been doing. I decided to try walking "the better way" and presto! Wow, my back didn't ache and it was much easier to walk--smoother and quicker. On my way back up the driveway, I dragged the wheelie bin from the road to the house. I tried walking both ways, and even there, it was much easier with my pelvis tucked, with better posture and shorter strides.
Collection/balance seem to be centered in my core, abdomen, tailbone and lower back. It is not a product of short steps (holding the horse in with the reins). Collection is about balance, about being "ready"--ready to move off the hind legs in any direction, like a basketball player standing balanced, ready to move in any direction, ready to catch or pass. Your muscles are not slack and saggy, but not tight or tense either. They are engaged and ready.
The horse will mirror my body, so it is important that I ride in a collected posture. Otherwise my aids will give confusing, murky, mixed messages. Collection is not about dressage or fanciness. It is about being balanced, ready, more athletic. All the horsemanship in the world won't help much if you don't ride well. It always comes back to working on OURSELVES.