1. The Rider’s Head Position: Part 1 in a 4 part series
We obviously hear “look up” from riding coaches all the time, and apart from “not looking down” or “don’t look at the fence”, very rarely is it explained how important the balance of the rider’s head position is in higher level work.
Consideration needs to be given if the peak of your helmet is not constantly level to the horizon – what damage are you doing to your horse’s spine, in fact what damage are you doing to your horse’s entire body?
We have to be especially carefully the longer the hours we are in the saddle. You can try it for yourself there now: tilt your head to the right, with your right ear lower than your left. You’ll feel your right seat bone heavier, your right hip lower, and your tailbone point off to the left. Depending on your chair you might also feel your right leg come more on, become more bent and that heel be more up.
Riding long hours such as trail riding, endurance and performance training with the rider with their head tilted off to one side will seriously affect the horse, if not injure them in the longer term.
The ruination of advanced work.
We hear “look up” that coaches tell beginners all the time, but somehow it gets lost at the higher levels. Tilting in, or looking down can be the ruination of the pirouette balance, and often responsible for very different marks to the left and right in half pass, and bigger flying changes in one direction and smaller in the other direction, right up to tempis.
In jumping if the rider looks down it also affects their hands and feet badly, it’s “part of the package” of leg swinging back, heels coming up, and falling out of control onto the hand. If the rider leans off to one side it’s often called “ducking off” over one shoulder which makes the horse jump out of balanced and crooked.
If the rider’s head tilt is bad enough it can even cross the front feet of the horse to cross over mid-jump! Even if a rider’s head tilt was not truly responsible for a rotational fall, it certainly isn’t as strong and correct for the rider to feel the horse losing balance, and be able to use their strong balanced riding to position to manually upright the horse again and remain safe. This is why cross country riders are much more “heels down” and more upright ready to help if their horse gets into trouble as the fences, on the whole, will not give away, and a rotational fall in cross country is far more deadly than the same fall in hunting where the fences will give way and not so common to trap the horse’s legs tripping them up.
“Looking down” in the hunter world and heaving the rider over the fence sometimes is falsely used to make the jump look more powerful, but could be though of more of an “acting technique” rather than and actual biomechanical principal.
Rotational falls are the fear of the professional. We see them in eventing when the legs get trapped and the horse flips over. We see it in polo & polocrosse when three horses crash together (a highly illegal move) get in front of the center of gravity and flip the middle horse over. We see it in any horse on any day – simply tripping can cause a horse to flip over any moment of the day – and especially downhill a professional rider will be in such a position as to protect the horse from falling – especially at speed. They simply could not “lift” a horse out of trouble if they were looking down.
The rider’s head is responsible for putting the horse on the forehand, or doing the exact opposite putting the weight on the quarters. A jockey leans forward, often looking down and “digging into it” to get the flattest fastest straightest line possible for the race horse on the race track.
However the higher level dressage rider will do the exact opposite lift their nose and look up which shifts more weight onto the two back feet of the horse, and the true masters will feel too much weight go back, interrupting the regularity and impulsion and even look forward and a little down again to “ease off” and allow the horse less engagement and more forward (at the expense of a little on the forehand). It’s using engagement -vs- on the forehand (which also affects impulsion & regularity) simply by looking up and down.
It’s virtually impossible to correctly engage a horse and have weight transfer more and more to the back feet and look down at the same time.
Where you look in lateral movements such as shoulder-in is vital to consistency if you look at the inside ear, then change and look at the outside ear, then look somewhere else it will be very inconsistent.
The highest level reiners, although very rare, even use the spotting technique It has not been tested to see if a reining spin truly becomes more powerful, or if it is included in the “showmanship” aspect, but the technique has certainly been used by World Champions in the past.
Side/Side (falling in, jack-knife, crooked)
Easy question: which side of the helmet is lower?
Having one side of the helmet lower is also responsible for “loss of balance” – overweighting one foot instead of equally balanced and engaged over both back feet.
Having the rider’s head tilted off to one side also is a great contributor to falling in, falling out, jack-knifed shoulders and crossing over behind.
This is where a mirror comes in handy! Ride (or jump!) directly into the mirror and the rider can see for themselves which side of the helmet is closer to the ground: the side/side balance. Most riders have i-phones they can stick on the side of the fence for self analysis.
Forward/backward (engagement/on the forehand)
Easy question: which is lower the front or the back of the helmet?
For forward/backward issues (looking down), it is rarely “12 o’clock” the very front of the helmet perfectly central and looking down. It is normally looking down and to one side. In jumping it’s called “ducking” off one shoulder to the side, and in dressage & reining very much responsible for falling in, cutting corners and poor circle shape.
Two quick questions:
- Are you looking down (front of the helmet lower), and
- Is the peak of your helmet level to the horizon.
On the ground exercise
Get an empty (for safety!) water bottle and firstly walk a serpentine in an arena without the horse, then do it with a horse if you can. This is not just a beginner exercise, but amazing to help get the competitive edge.
FALLING OUT: Trot a circle and look at the horse’s outside ear, direct your belly button towards the outside ear as well. Unless there are strong opposing aids from your hands or heels, the horse will “fall out” of the circle – the circle will get bigger. When the horse falls out that is the start of shoulder in.
FALLING IN: Trot a circle and look at the horse’s inside ear, and direct your belly button towards the horse’s inside ear. When the horse falls in…that’s the early start of an easy half pass.
With enough impulsion para-equestrian ride these movements with those aids if they do not have legs to push the horse sideways.
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