Stamina isn’t just for horses

Yesterday morning started out with icy roads and overturned cars. Fortunately I wasn’t among them, but I came close to it. My destination was a seminar on horse and rider biomechanics, presented by my trainer Karin Bielefeld. In spite of the road hazards the event hosted a full house (which may have given us the misleading impression that we weren’t as cold as we thought we were). The fact that for eight frigid hours we all paid attention, asked questions, followed instructions, and wanted even more attested to the interest and enthusiasm brought to the table by all involved. Consider this sufficient explanation for all of us looking like we are bundled up for an arctic excursion.


Did someone leave some giant jawbreakers out here?

This was the scene that greeted participants as they entered the riding arena. It doesn’t look like it has much to do with biomechanics, but those who were wondering were not left uninformed for long.


A campfire would have been nice in the middle of this circle.

This deck area is right next to the ring, and it’s the perfect place to set up whatever props you need to illustrate what you’re talking about. Every participant had a folder chock full of information to keep and study after each presentation and discussion. The special thing about this particular seminar is that it embraced two parts, one theory and one actual riding. Auditors got to experience everything the riders did in the preliminary presentations even though they would not be riding an actual horse later on in the day. So, back to those big rubber balls…


The rider sitting on the ball quickly discovers that the slightest movement affects the ball. In the same manner, the rider pushing his seat forward or backward, sitting to one side or the other, moving only one seat bone forward, sitting more heavily on one seat bone, or even tightening only one buttock will move the ball, even if only incrementally. By the same token, these incremental movements can also be felt by the horse. Which is why riders often get the “wrong”  results, or unintended results, when they are unaware that these small movements can have such a direct cause and effect.


Here everyone gets to see for themselves how easy it is to influence the movement of the horse underneath you. The direction the ball moves from your pressure on it is the direction of the pressure felt by the horse in accordance with your movement. By sitting across from one another each person could look at another’s movement and track the movement of the ball.

Now that everyone felt how many different ways they could move their seat it was time to see how core movements could also travel all the way up the reins to the horse’s mouth. Who knew?


Here we have a “horse”, on the left, and a “rider” on the right. The “horse” holds the bit in one hand and aims to detect any difference in the bit position or pressure generated by the fingers, arms, core, back, or chest of the “rider”.  The “horses” were astounded to discover how every tiny tweak, every smallest half-halt, causes a definitive movement of the bit. Even moving one seat bone forward or tightening the abs creates a feeling through the bit! Imagine how annoyed a horse must feel at a rider who is constantly fiddling with the bit or moving various parts of their body around! No wonder they often seem to tune us out!


Everybody got a chance to be both “horse” and “rider”. The hard chairs helped the “riders” feel where their seat bones were at any given point in time.

Having acquired some experience with body position and contact, participants next got to experience balance–both their own and that of the horse. Behold the balance beam–

beam front1WEB

This very low balance beam can be a difficult proposition if you aren’t allowed to look down. Some participants veered off after only a couple of steps. The solution becomes a matter of trust.

beam front2WEB

It’s quite simple if you can just rest your hands on a consistently level surface that you trust. These sidewalkers provide a consistent unchanging support, not holding the person up but providing a reference point she can have confidence in. This carries over to the idea of the horse accepting the bit and using it to create his own balance. When the horse knows that a consistent reliable contact will be there, he can rest comfortably on the bit without leaning on it and without the rider pulling on it. After experimenting with this phenomenon only once, the human participants could rest on their partners’ support and easily walk the beam without looking down.

Along the way scattered among these exercises and experiments were informational nuggets about what dressage really is and where it came from, what “aids” are and how a horse understands them, signs to look for that your horse is relaxed, cardiovascularly fit, and mentally ready to work with you. Also included in the information folder given to each participant was a series of drawings and explanatory text detailing the physical structure of the horse and how each part must develop to enable horse and rider to work together. On the last page we are consoled with this message: “In closing dressage is very simple and straightforward. It’s understanding why that’s hard!”

This got us up to lunch time. Home made hot crock pot meals provided by barn volunteers. Most welcome!

Next it was on to the lessons for the riders. In the interest of not making your eyes glaze over, I will present only three that illustrated specific points not usually seen in riding clinics.

The mare above had an unusually intense episode of distraction and unruliness upon entering the ring. The rider is an accomplished equestrian. Nevertheless, she was making little progress quieting the horse enough to have a productive ride. Karin’s solution was the exact opposite of what we usually see trainers and riders doing in such a case, which is, lunge or chase the horse until it’s had enough and gives up the behavior. The solution  related precisely to points made earlier in the morning about determining if your horse is mentally prepared to work with you. The horse was turned loose in the ring, and the rider was instructed to quiet her mind and body and concentrate only on the horse and her own quietness. She had a lunge whip which initially she held vertically between her body and the horse (the horse was quite pushy) but used it only to direct the horse occasionally, not incite it to action. The horse was allowed to go where it wished as long as it did not stop at any point to get distracted by the audience or perhaps investigate the muck bucket in a corner. Then it was gently prodded recognize the rider and to move along. Eventually it would occasionally stop and look at the rider, sometimes taking a few steps toward her. The rider was then instructed to walk away from the horse, which then followed her. When the horse had repeated its tactics of trotting off and returning to follow a few times, horse and rider eventually stopped and faced each other a few feet apart. The rider mentally invited the horse to enter her space, which after some consideration it did and was rewarded with some soft strokes. The rider was then able to mount with a vastly reduced level of fuss and Karin directed her how to use her body to keep the low-key spirit going. The mare was still a bit tense, but as the ride progressed she became increasingly relaxed and as you can see in the two photos above her body language went from stiff to flowing. The auditors could clearly see this progression, which is not often so obvious in clinics where the horses are for the most part obedient and cooperative.


Cute western horse shows dressage is good for everybody.

Our second example above is short and sweet. The rider was puzzled about her cute western horse’s tendency to always want to turn left away from the wall. This was a super easy fix once Karin helped her realize that she rode with her body tilted to the left!

robin trotWEB

Go along, get along.

This is a paint mare who is one of those incredible “all-purpose” horses–she jumps, she does barrel racing, she does dressage. She is sensitive, but here she is happily going along until…

In the left photo, she is getting very annoyed at her rider, who has become too active for her. Too many confusing and/or annoying signals. In the right photo, she is launching into her protest buck. Lesson for rider: keep it quiet! Just like we all experienced on the exercise balls and with the “horse and rider” bridle experiment!

About Alli Farkas

Equine and landscape artist specializing in rural Americana
This entry was posted in dressage, horses, riding clinic, Willow Tree and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Stamina isn’t just for horses

  1. Jan Fed says:

    This looks so interesting! So, did the mare buck the rider off? Nice pics Ali…have to go back and read in entirety.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nancy A Powers says:

    Very nice captures, Alli. Great clinic! I’ve done that same work with the ball and the bit. Very helpful stuff for those wanting to learn…..and we should never stop learning! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. anne leueen says:

    Riding the ball is something I have been assigned in the past. I still get on it at the gym on a regular basis. Interesting post with lots of good information.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Looks like an interesting seminar. Just being able to captivate an audience for eight hours says a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alli Farkas says:

      Riders seldom get a personal experience as to what it feels like from the horse’s perspective. I didn’t cover even half of the exercises that were presented, but each one elucidated an “aha!” moment from the participants, and I think the revelations were what kept their rapt interest. One exercise which really makes the “point” is the poking exercise. The instructor just starts poking someone in the arm without any warning or explanation. Lightly at first, then stronger and stronger until the person expresses an objection and/or puzzlement. This is the same thing as a rider who constantly bangs their legs against the horse while riding–it’s quite common, especially with riders who don’t have “forward” thinking horses. The horse has two choices: some get annoyed and get physical about their annoyance, others just tune the rider out completely. This exercise really sticks in a rider’s mind once they have been the object of it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. jofox2108 says:

    This was so interesting! I am fascinated by the relationship between animals and people. Being a teacher my normal focus is children (and in my home life dogs) but it amazes me how similar the lessons are for all mammals. When you wrote about the horse which was distracted and unruly on entering the ring and the way the rider was taught to reforge the relationship, I realised that it is the same process for children who are having behaviour problems. When we have a child in a temper, many teachers are told to keep at the child until he or she surrenders. But when I worked with children with behaviour issues I found giving him or her space to decompress and gently reforging the relationship was more effective. Thanks for a super post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. rangewriter says:

    Alli, this was a fascinating post for me. I grew up riding western horses, more or less a self-taught rider. At 18 I felt very accomplished. Nearly 50 years later, I realize how very little I knew.

    Horsemanship has come a long way since I was heavily involved in it. I love that riders and handlers are working so much harder on understanding what’s going on in the horse’s head, rather than just trying to convince them to submit to our commands, regardless of how those commands ignore the animal’s physiology and innate instincts.

    I love the exercises on the balls, but even better is the to and fro between “horse” with bit in hand and rider with reins in hand. This all makes so much sense to me. You did an amazing job of encapsulating all the information in that long seminar into digestible pieces for your readers. Your photos illustrate you points very well.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Alli Farkas says:

      Thanks so much for your comments Linda! You echo much of what my trainer said after she read my blog post! It’s always so encouraging in these times of conflicting thoughts (on just about everything) to find folks who are thoughtful and sensible!

      Liked by 1 person

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