Opening Up as a Rider – Practicing Expansion

Opening Up as a Rider – Practicing Expansion

Opening Up as a Rider – Practicing Expansion

Have you ever considered how different it could all be if you could open up more as a rider? Specifically around how, physically in the saddle, if you could expand yourself a little bit more, the difference it could have on your riding. And your mindset. Even your horse’s way of going… Over the past few months, I have been running an in-person program on my farm South Africa based on Connection and Groundwork.  It has been such an amazing experience working with all these different riders

We focused specifically on energy work, and becoming more aware of how we can intentionally use this to connect with our horses. 

It was so much fun.  And, it got me thinking about riding and how so many riders are blocking the kind of flow with the energy in their riding, especially with their physical body.   So, in this week’s episode of the Daily Strides Podcast, I would love to walk you through a few simple exercises you can do, from the saddle, to begin to identify where you are, potentially, contracting as a rider.

Noticing What You’re Doing…

So, you will probably agree with me that, as a rider, once you notice something that you’re doing in the saddle, you can’t ‘unnotice’ it. I mean, you can try to ignore it… However, once it’s out in the open, it’s out in the open!  So today, I would love to help you begin to notice where, potentially, you are contracting through your body, rather than expanding. Where you are blocking rather than allowing ease and flow to happen inside of your conversation with your horse.

When you are contracting, you are shutting down; making things smaller.  This will usually have a detrimental effect on your riding because it affects your position and posture.

It will also negatively impact what your horse is doing, especially how well he is working and understanding your communication. And, of course, it impacts the trust and the partnership element of the combination as well. Sometimes, you may begin to notice the tension or contraction because there will be other symptoms or ‘clues’ that show up.  The key is to notice them, and then begin to take steps to dissipate, change, or replace the ‘contraction’ with openness and expansiveness through your body.

Starting In Walk

I suggest starting this work while in the walk in the arena with your horse. Now, as I mentioned, we were initially doing this work on the ground.  However, I successfully crossed this over to being ‘in the saddle’ inside of Connection this month, so that is what I want to do today for you. So, as your horse is walking, begin to assess your body and notice where you may be holding any excessive tension.

Keep in mind that there are the more obvious places, such as lower back or elbows.  And there are also those less obvious places in your body that can hold excessive tension.  Your jaw for example.

I used to hold a lot of tension in my jaw and I clenched my teeth.  As I’ve mentioned, once I became aware of this unconscious tension, it became something I could consciously begin to ‘undo’ in my riding.  You may notice ‘tightness or ‘squeezing closed’ through your knees. This is a common one, and most riders don’t realize it is happening until it’s pointed out.

The key is to really bring your awareness down into your own body and feel how it feels to be in the saddle, Notice what your body is telling you… 

Triggering Words or Thoughts

So, after a while of simply walking and being aware of your body, you can begin to ask bigger questions.  What I found really interesting when working with riders was the response to the word ‘prepare’. Especially when it was used before any changes or transitions.  As soon as I would tell riders to ‘prepare’ for something ‘new’, a lot of riders began to physically ‘contract’.

So my second exercise for you to begin working on is to ‘prepare’ to introduce and ride a circle.  Notice how your body changes as you ‘prepare’ to go from straight to circle…

Maybe it’s a tendency to unnecessarily fiddle with or gather up the reins. It could be a tendency to grip up with the inside leg.  Do you tilt your body? Or shift weight your weight around in the saddle, maybe to the inside? Perhaps your inside shoulder ‘ducks’ or lowers slightly…  The key thing to look out for is where the ‘ease and flow’ gets lost or blocked due to excessive tension and ‘contraction’ becoming a part of your physical body.

If you can notice or catch yourself making big changes to your body to accommodate or ‘prepare’ the circle, begin to question why… Is it necessary? Or is this a learned habit?

I suggest continuing to work on this for a day or two.  Stay here until you can feel that your ‘preparation’ is not as contracted as it was before and one movement can simply flow into the next…  Another idea worth mentioning here is how once we notice and begin to shift the ‘blockage’ or contraction in one area of our body, it just might show up again somewhere else!  So spend time practicing…

Stepping Up a Gear…

Now, from here, I want you to begin thinking about stepping up a gear into the trot.  Both the trot itself and your transitions in and out of it as well.  With the trot, you might find that all is good when you and your horse are slowly sauntering along.  You will feel open and expansive in your riding.  However, as soon as the energy levels increase a little, the contraction begins…

Often, as soon as you are aware of ‘more’ in the trot riders can begin to ‘crumple up’ in the saddle. They round their backs, bring their hands closer together, change their lower leg, and tip forwards onto their fork.

None of these things are very ‘expansive’ and they 100% have the potential to block the ‘ease and flow’ we spoke about for the walk.  Another unfortunate side effect of ‘crumpling’ is that your aids can often agitate or even frighten your horse, which compounds the tension!

Just like in the walk, begin to notice where you are creating or holding onto any excess tension in your body when trotting.  Start in rising trot, and later work in sitting trot.  Also, use your transitions in and out of the trot as a way to examine this in your riding.  Any place where your body feels ‘smaller’ or tighter, is worth looking at a little more carefully…

Expansion in the Canter

When we think of ‘expansion’ and ‘canter’, our minds can (and often do) jump to the conclusion of ‘explosion’! This is, obviously, not what I am referring to here!  One of the most common areas I see the ‘contraction’ coming into the rider’s body when it comes to canter, is the transition to get to canter!  Instead of the rider being in ‘self-carriage’ and allowing the horse the space to canter, a lot of riders ‘collapse and ‘chase’ the horse into the canter… Nope and nope!

And with the canter, because there is more energy involved, it can often highlight any areas of the body where excessive tension and contraction are showing up for the rider…

The canter, by its very nature, is ‘upward’ in its trajectory. Therefore it is so important that you remain open, in self-carriage, and ready to allow the ‘ease and flow’ through your body. As you ask for and then ride the canter, allow your awareness to scan your body for excessive tension. What are your hands doing? Are your elbows straight?

Once you begin to open up you will then find it easier to move your body in a way that feels good and that also allows the energy to flow.

Applying This When Jumping

Finally, this concept is not just for flatwork or dressage.  I think that working on creating a consistent state of expansion in your body is important for all disciplines and activities with horses.  When the energy is flowing, there is a good chance that communication is also flowing between you and your horse.

When jumping, the ‘contraction’ begins around three strides before the jump. It’s important to focus on training yourself to remain ‘open’ all the way to the jump, especially through your chest, shoulders, and upper body. 

Curling up into a ball and doing your best hamster impression, whether before, over, or after the jump stops you from balancing yourself.  This, in turn, prevents your horse from using himself to the best of his ability over the jump as well.  Start over poles on the ground and work through your body from there.

Allowing & Letting Go

Very often, the reason we begin to ‘contract’ or tighten our bodies is due to a response to something.  This can be something that happens in the moment (such as our horse spooking), or it can be something that we have learned to do… A memory or a repeating pattern.

The key to changing this in your riding is to notice it, and then simply choose to let it go.  Practice opening up and feeling your energy grow

This expansion is how you can begin to connect with your horse in a whole new way and on a whole new level in your riding. I have linked to similar posts on this topic below.

Happy Riding

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