This clinic was conducted by Hans Hollenbach of Xenora Horse Empowerment and covered by ON THE HORSE Magazine.
The Seat Symposium focuses solely on improving the rider. Although it was very clear to all auditors how well the horse’s responded to their rider’s improved posture and body awareness! The clinic began with about an hour of theory explaining the biomechanics of the horse and how the prevalent “Push/Pull” system of riding is causing premature breakdown in our sport horses.
Riding either helps the horse, or destroys the horse. Most riders don’t do anything deliberate to hurt the horse, it is what they are taught. Proper riding is not muscle, it is not force – it is mechanics. The purpose of the seat symposium is to educate riders on how body position and balance can affect the biomechanics and movement of the horse.
Hans said to participants, “We must have the willingness to change for the betterment of our horses. And the willingness to change becomes a conviction to change. If you have the willingness to change, you are on the road to recovery. You must condition your mind and body to a new default. This is how conscious incompetence becomes unconscious competence.”
Hans explained that most teaching has been based on external forces such as whips and spurs that are causing knee jerk reactions from our horses. He asked auditors to think of a ballet dancer that was being whipped, and how they are only reacting to the whip – they are not moving from the inside out. We are so impatient with the horses, but they are living beings and need time to process our requests. The rider’s job is to influence through seat, the horse will show you correct limb placement. Pushing and shoving with the seat interferes with the horse’s ability to determine limb placement. The more you push and shove, the less the horse wants to move – and then it’s “Give me spurs, give me the whip!” The push/pull system is teaching your horse to ignore one of your aids!
How the Horse’s Back Really Functions
Many trainers emphasize creating “swing” in a horse’s back – imagine a crocodile dragging its belly on the ground, the spine swinging as it walks. Excessive swing such as this will eventually cause damage to your horse’s spinal cord. In actuality, the Longissimus Dorsi puts opposite forces onto the vertebrae to stabilize the spine, it does not make it “swing”. Horses are contracted on the side they are stronger. It is believed that most horses have right eye dominance. This right eye dominance leads to over bending to the left while grazing, and thus over development of that side, which is why most horses are stronger to the left.
Every lateral bend is accompanied by a longitudinal rotation of the spine. If the horse’s spine is rotated to the left through overdevelopment, it will be more difficult for the horse to bend laterally to the right, as the spine will not easily rotate to the right. The horse will go to the right, but the spine will still fall to the left. Vice versa if the horse is stronger and more developed on the right side. Horses must be worked correctly in both directions in order to develop even muscle tone.
The job of the neck muscles are to fight gravity, but when riders use draw reins they simply pull the neck down, overload the front end, and throw off the horse’s balance. The long withers pull forward, the back APPEARS to rise, but the lumbar region gets more tense and tighter.
When the spine rotates correctly and the outside hind steps forward and under, the horse will be able to drop his head. Deny contact when you can and allow the horse to find cadence, rhythm, and head set. The less you carry the neck, the faster you develop the topline.
How do you change a horse? Their brain – because what fires together, wires together. You can only change limb kinematics by changing the neurological paths. Once we sit on a horse, we’ve changed their balance and how they move. Every horse carries more weight on the forehand no matter what, unless they are performing movements such as airs above ground or canter pirouettes. 57% of forward locomotion comes from the shoulder and front legs, 43% is generated by the hind legs. The front end creates upward lift, while the hind legs main job is breaking and balance control. When you are going in the direction that the horse’s strong leg is stepping under, the weak leg will step to the outside and this direction will feel easier. Hoof development and growth will show how the horse is landing!
Elastic Strain Energy (ESE)
Elastic Strain Energy that is created and stored in the horse’s front and back legs provide the ability to push off – and this is what is believed to contribute to their superior locomotory efficiency. When the horse releases this energy, it results in an upward thrust, and the energy rolls like dominoes through the vertebrae until it loses force. In a correctly moving horse, the upward thrust comes from the shoulder – and this is why the back function has been misinterpreted.
Do not run a horse off its natural balance and frequency, as this will shorten the horse’s stride and take away the opposition needed for ESE. Until you have developed power for your horse to move through its tendons, you are riding him sick. Slow develops muscle power.
Do not use bounces when training your horse, it is believed that it helps to make a horse faster with the front end, but this is not the case. High speed cameras have shown that the horse must land and take off from the foreleg when performing bounces – this will destroy horse’s front legs. Slow trot work makes fast front legs for jumping!
How the Rider Can Affect the Horse
Rein control should be a point of reference for the horse. Half halts and transitions should be ridden from the spine, not the hands. Open hands are compensation for an unsteady seat. Hands should not be low – the presence of the bit in the corner of the mouth stimulates saliva, increases swallowing, and works the topline. A mouth that is forced closed with nosebands, flashes, etc. is a tight back. Lift your hands before downward transitions to shift the balance to the hind end.
Riding on your seat bones requires you to engage your core. Balance control is very important. When you are able to sit with your outside hip slightly back and your weight on your inside seat bone, you have a better base of support! When you are in a balanced position, you will be able to put the horse into a balanced position where he can execute the movement. Balance without rhythm is not possible, and vice versa.
Quick tip to deepen your seat and connection: The tip of the tongue is the Ying Meridian, it goes to the pubic bone, around the pelvis, and up to the roof of the mouth. Putting your tongue to the roof of your mouth will deepen your seat and ground you. Try it next time you ride!
During the seat symposium, riders were instructed to choose their horse’s best direction as they would be travelling in only one direction for the purposes of the clinic. Each of the three riders was instructed to begin in the sitting trot, while the auditors made comments about the rider’s posture and position. Hans had each rider dismount to perform the below exercises and releases in order to see how it affected their posture, balance, and seat.
The first rider was Whitney and her young horse Griffin, and they chose to go to the left. Whitney appeared to sit supple, perhaps a little above the horse. Hans showed riders how she was avoiding the upward force of the horse by keeping her neck forward, which caused kyphosis (roundness) in her upper back.
Hans asked Whitney to dismount, remove her helmet, and sit in a chair. He assessed her range of motion looking left and right. She had less range of motion to the left, and Hans said that her neck needed to be released in the atlas area, and on the right side. He worked the area for a couple minutes, and then instructed Whitney to get back on and go back to the left in the sitting trot. There was immediate improvement after the right side of her neck was released – she immediately looked more connected to the horse with improved posture. She was using her joints better because she could sit more correctly.
Forward head posture can cause up to 60 lbs of excess weight on the back of the neck!! There was not a single person in the arena who did not sit up a little bit after Hans told us this. I bet you just checked your posture as well!
Next, Hans instructed Whitney to get off and lay on the mat on her stomach. He assessed the range of motion in her mid-upper back by having her lift one arm at a time, as high as she could five times with the head turned to the same side (Left arm lifting, looking left). Then she looked to the right, and raised her left arm as high as she could five times. She then repeated this looking both ways while raising her right arm. Hans showed Whitney how to release the tendons in her shoulder so she could open her chest and sit proud on her horse.
Upon remounting, the kyphosis in her upper back was noticeably less, she sat even straighter, and her arms were able to maintain a better and steadier connection with her horse’s mouth.
Whitney dismounted again to assess her hips, or more specifically, her psoas and hip flexors. She laid on her back on the mat, and with a bent left leg, tried to put her knee to the ground on the right side, and then repeated with her right leg to the left. The Psoas connects in the lumbar region, and runs to the knee. If your Psoas is tight, your hips will rotate in – causing you to pinch with your knees. Pinching with your knees gives contraindications to your horse, as your leg may say GO, but your seat says NO.
In order to release Whitney’s hips, Hans had her sit on the edge of a chair with her legs spread as they would be on a horse. While lifting the heel of her right leg, she was able to “pluck” the psoas in order to release it. She repeated this on her left leg as well. Next, Hans instructed her to lean back in the chair, and lift her right leg while using cross fibre friction on her right hip flexors. She also repeated this on the left side. Tendons are part of a system and take time to relax, but it can be done!
Next, Hans had Whitney take a seat on the Balimo Chair with her arms in a riding position, imagining she was sitting on a clock. She was instructed to move her pelvis from 12-6 (forward and back), and from 3-9 (side to side). After noting she was restricted to the right, Hans had Whitney stand up and sit again to the right side of the chair before moving again side to side, and front to back.
Releasing these two areas enabled Whitney to sit deeper and more with the horse. She was better able to move her legs off of the horse in order to “open the door” for the movement she was asking for.
Hans also brought his apprentice to the clinic, Jocelyn, who has been riding and training with him for more than seven years. It was very clear to see before she even got on a horse that her posture was perfect, and she looked very much an athlete. She got on each horse at the end of the clinic to work them a little bit, and with ease she was able to make each horse look like they were dancing. She was able to achieve the “Pegasus State” in a matter of minutes with each horse because she was able to feel the horse and respond correctly.
Hans said to auditors, “This is possible for everyone, but you must pay attention to detail. You must learn to feel the horse, and respond via conscious decision.”
It was very impressive to see over the course of each of the three rider’s sessions how their posture and balance changed, and even how it improved the way their horses were able to move and respond to their requests. As riders, we all take our fair share of falls and injuries, so it is important to make sure that we take proper care of our bodies. It is vital that we are able to sit balanced and quietly while absorbing the upwards thrust.
1. Tara’s first circle of trot.
2. Hans showing Tara how to release tendons in her shoulder so she can sit proud on the horse!
3. Tara’s improved position at the end of the clinic!
1. Aimee’s first circle of trot.
2. Hans helping Aimee to release tension in her shoulders – OUCH!
3. Aimee’s improved position at the end of the clinic!
Quotes From Hans Hollenbach
“If you are not able to absorb the horse, you will move like a toilet seat on a high speed train.”
“Don’t tell me the horse is your friend, because you haven’t done anything nice to your friend.” [In reference to most training
“If you got the wrong response and you think you did nothing wrong – look harder.”
“Ask early, expect nothing, and keep it playful. Stimulate the horse’s brain to work with you!”
“Everyone is good for something, even as a bad example.”
“Take inventory when you get on of how the horse feels today, and work based on that.”
“Stop being a human doing and become a human being.”
“Stand like a golf player with a full diaper.”
“Despite the rider’s efforts – the horse did well.”
“Train smart, don’t train hard.”
“Don’t expect miracles – take small steps in the right direction.”
“To make an ordinary horse move extraordinary is when real riding starts!”
For more information on Hans and his techniques, visit www.xenora.ca