Friday, November 20, 2020

Left leg vs right leg - picking apart the biomechanics

I know, I seem to be doing a bunch of biomechanics posts of late, but that's where my brain is at so that's where the blog is at.

Following up on my last post about keeping my legs close is understanding how my right and left leg are different, how that affects my riding, and what I need to do to make them more even. My left leg is the stronger leg, and tends to stay more under me and doesn't brace or swing.

Let's start with the obvious differences. In these pics, I'm not actively focused on doing anything different with my legs. Let's call this "normal": 

Perhaps the most obvious difference here is the angle behind my knee - the right leg is MUCH more open than the left. You can also see that my lower right leg has slipped forward and is bracing on the stirrup - especially obvious because the stirrup leather is pushed forward instead of being perpendicular to the ground. My left thigh is brushing against the block and is parallel to it, while my right thigh is nowhere near the block, and the angle of the front of my thigh and the block are quite different. We could also discuss my pelvis here, which definitely affects the leg, but let's just focus on the leg.

Next set: I'm actively focused on "keeping my legs close."

The angle behind my knee is more even between the right and left legs, but the right knee is still more open than the left and the lower leg is still a bit braced and forward., which you can also see in the stirrup leather still being a little in front of the vertical. There's still a big gap between the block and my thigh on the right leg, but there's no gap on my left thigh (I should note that I don't ride jammed against the block, it's more the feeling of the fabric of my breeches brushing the block). So, keeping my legs close has helped a bit, but my legs still aren't as even as they should be, and the bracing on the right leg is going to (and constantly does) cause problems.

Final set: I'm actively focused on pushing my right heel away from the horse, bending my right knee, and keeping contact between the fabric of my breeches and the thigh blocks:

The behind-the-knee angles are MUCH more even here, and the right stirrup is parallel to the ground. The right thigh isn't quite parallel to the block, but there is no longer a gap between my thigh and the block.

Buuuut, I'm struggling to keep that position. You can see that my right knee has dropped down and back as I'm using my lower right leg to keep his haunches in line for the left bend. Ah well, it's a work in progress!

The biggest difference I feel when my right knee has more bend in it is that I'm not as stiff in the hip, and no longer pushing my right seatbone out of the saddle. Keeping my right thigh on has the added benefit of making me more stable in the saddle, especially during transitions, which is when I like to brace the most.

Which of your legs is stronger? Do you notice an imbalance between your legs, and if so, in what ways, and how does it affect your riding?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Keep your legs close

I tend to ride with my leg off the horse. From the hip all the way down.

This isn't to say I don't USE my leg and seat - I do, but I really have to make a fairly big movement to connect to the horse, especially since I'm pretty tall and I ride smallish horses. My leg has a long way to go to be able to influence the horse.

Legs are in correct position for SI, but outside leg is nowhere near the horse. Inside leg is probably not being effective either given that we should be doing SI but we're definitely not.

When I rode with Mary Wanless, it was immediately obvious that my thigh was completely off the horse, as I didn't use it to post and instead posted off my stirrups. Using my thigh - but without pinching with my knee - was a revelation, but also a hard habit to get into. To this day, I struggle with keeping my thigh on (it's especially hard to keep thigh on but hip open in sitting trot!), but my lower leg is even worse.

Enter the idea of "keeping your legs close." I don't need to keep them ON, because that will just cause confusion. But I need them to be more supportive, like a very light hug, so that when I DO need to cue, I can do so immediately instead of having a time gap between when I start the cue and when it actually reaches the horse.

No hug, Leo was easily able to pull me forward.

Turns out, having my legs actively (if quietly) engaged is also really helpful in keeping my seat on the horse. In downward transitions especially, or when Leo gets a little quick, I tend to brace my leg forward. This not only takes my legs forward and away from his sides, but because I'm bracing against the stirrups and literally pushing myself out of the saddle, it pops my seatbones off. In that moment, I have no way to influence the horse, either from my leg or seat. It also leaves me in a precarious position, as I am liable to have put myself behind the horse's motion, usually quickly followed by collapsing forward as the momentum catches up with me (stupid physics).

Leo fell out of the canter because my leg was forward and I was behind the motion - you can see how hollow my lower back is (another longtime struggle) and how I'm braced against the stirrups, and he's braced against me.

So, my job for the next while is to actively "keep my legs close" AT ALL TIMES when riding. This helps my balance (and therefore Leo's), AND it means I can support him more quickly when he needs a bit of help. It also magically fixed his tendency to fall out on his left shoulder when tracking right (who knew a little outside thigh could keep your horse straight??), rescue his haunches when he wants to travel with a hind leg out, and it means I can be quicker when I ask for small changes of bend, a titch more impulsion... all those things you actually need your legs for. WHO KNEW?

Still a lot to work on, but he was super balanced and light in this moment, and so was I. I want more of this!!!

Also, today is the third anniversary of the time Taran and I went to USDF Nationals. It's still the highlight of my riding career, and I will never forget the little grey pony who took me so far. May he rest in peace.

Victory lap in the Alltech <3

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

How a piece of bailing twine made my horse uphill (really!)

As a short-backed, short-necked drafty breed, Leo isn't exactly the most uphill creature on the planet. While he's not built downhill, he's also not a naturally uphill kind of guy. Plus, we've been working on stretching down and out and relaxing his underneck muscle, which sets him on his forehand. I also have an unfortunate habit of riding him a little (ok sometimes a lot) over-tempo, which also dumps him on his forehand.

Definitely over-tempo and on his forehand here - the RH is about to leave the ground but the LF is still solidly weight-bearing. Oops.

So, how to get your horse off the forehand 101? For me that has always been lots of transitions, and usually it works well. But while the result is overall pleasant, it's not enough to make the 2nd level movements consistently easy or get his shoulders mobile enough for the fancy stuff at 3rd. Plus, it doesn't take much for me to get tense and pull a bit, and for him to dump down and not be able to recover without a major reset (think halt-reinback).

This is pleasant but it's kind of blah.

There are these nagging problems, like our change of direction in trot tends to be rushed for a few steps because we lose balance. Or the first full stride in the canter transition is huge because we've lost balance. Or I let him get behind my leg and he loses balance. Etc etc etc.

Enter the lowly piece of bailing twine:

You too can have one of these super fancy training gadgets!

I swear you guys, this thing is MAGIC. I held it between my middle and index fingers with minimal tension around his neck, and right away I could feel his chest push down and out. Obviously I could see it too, since his poll drops, and I could feel it in my seat as well, but the feeling of the chest going down and out was really something new. All I needed to do was raise my hands up (straight up, not back) an inch or so, and that reminded him to lift his chest back up. It also helped me sit a bit deeper in the saddle in that moment, essentially half-halting with my seat, further encouraging his chest up and his pelvis under. All that without touching his face!  

The first day of the clinic, I used it quite a lot. The second day, Leo came out MUCH lighter in the front with very little help from the twine. My job was to rebalance him every.single.time he got a bit heavy in front - no more "oops" and don't fix it moments. I got much better and faster at helping him, and relied on the twine less and less. By the third day, he was a bit tired but he felt SO much more balanced - more engaged behind and up in front. Moving his shoulders around felt effortless, and I finally got my legs situated so I could control his hind end better (that's for another post though). 

Here are videos of trot and canter each day, for comparison:

Trot progression

Canter progression

Hopefully you can see (and hear) when he gets down in front and when he feels more balanced. I think he was best on the second day, but there is a lot to like about the third day as well.

I plan to continue to ride with the twine to help with feel and balance, although I will likely just start our rides holding it and then let it lay on his neck. It has really been a great teaching tool, allowing me to feel the "chest down" sensation in a whole new way. I need to be 100% committed to NOT allowing him to get his shoulders down, EVER. That also means that *I* cannot get my shoulders forward or look down, because it affects his balance so much. But the feeling when he is truly balanced and uphill is just so incredible and easy, I can't wait until that is our new normal!

More of this please!