Juli Thorson says: I’ve ridden since toddlerhood, inside and outside the show ring, and with over 50 years of saddle time, consider myself to be a reasonably competent rider. But like most people with full time jobs (I’m the editor at Horse & Rider), I don’t get to ride every day. Also like the majority of horse owners, I don’t ride regularly with a trainer. Perfect recipe for small riding errors to develop and continue unchecked until they’re habits. I’m overdue for a tune-up riding lesson with a pro like Al Dunning, who’s known for his coaching skills.
Although he’s been winning world-level titles since the 1970s, Al doesn’t reserve all his knowledge for himself. Instead, he devotes much of his energy to teaching others, whether through his clinics and instructional products, or through individual lessons like the one he gave me at his ranch in Arizona. Here’s a slice of what I learned.
Al Dunning says: I see right off that Juli’s not relaxed, and it’s partly because her upper body is out of balance in little ways. Her shoulders aren’t square over her hips–notice how her rein hand’s way out ahead of her free hand, and how she’s brought her left shoulder too far forward as well. Juli can fix a lot of this just by bringing her left shoulder back, and her rein arm and hand with it. Another small fix: She’ll steer more precisely if she rotates and flattens her wrist to point her index finger down the center of the mane. It’s good that Juli has her eyes up, but she’s looking too far to the inside, and that puts a twist in her neck that also hinders her balance. I’m telling her to look only as far as the outer edge of the horse’s inside ear.
Al says: I’ve helped Juli correct some of her upper-body horsemanship flaws by getting her to square her shoulders over her hips and change where she looks. Now, I’m pointing out another balance-related problem she can change with a small fix. She’s got too much arch in her back–not a lot, but enough to matter–and it’s because her pelvis is tilted forward by a few degrees. See the way the side jeans seam below her belt is angled forward? That’s a clue. By rotating her pelvis back just enough to straighten that seam, Juli can eliminate the stiff arch in her back. Then, without that tension, she’ll find it easier to bring her legs back farther, until her heels are directly under her hips. That’ll give her better control over the horse’s hindquarters.
Al says: Juli resumes trotting circles while incorporating most of my suggested fixes, but still turns her head to look too far to the inside of her circle. I’ll keep after her on this. It’s been an uncorrected habit, so it’s something she needs to stay aware of and be sure to work on. Now I see something else that needs a fix. Juli’s got a lack of weight in her right stirrup, and to keep her balance, compensates by opening the angle of her left knee. Chain reaction: Her knee comes away from her horse, for loss of contact; her left toe twists out; and her heel gets in too close to the horse. This lack of weight on the right stirrup tells me Juli’s probably a naturally left-sided rider, and that she needs to be deliberate about finding ways to strengthen her weaker side.
Juli says: Getting into the position he wants me to tweak toward–back straight, arms carried evenly, hips directly over heels, feet pointed straight ahead, eyes up–Al asks me to imagine what would happen if he turned his head, twisted his shoulders, let his pelvis rock forward, and took the weight off one foot, as I’d inadvertently been doing. “You’d fall over,” I admit. No wonder I’m stiff in our opening photo; I’m compensating for all the flaws in my balance points. Next, Al tells me to imagine that he has a horse under him. When riding from his balanced, evenly weighted position, he points out, he’s able to stay relaxed and ready to go right with the horse, no matter what it does. This clicks for me–“evenly weighted” has been a missingpiece of my feel-picture puzzle.
Al says: Juli’s now much better balanced, and as a result, is able to do a workmanlike job of galloping circles in rhythm with the horse. I’d like to see her bring her right shoulder just a bit more forward, to square it up with her left, but overall, her improvement’s pretty dramatic. Now I’m going to step up the degree of difficulty, by asking her to do a stop.
Al says: I tell Juli to establish good forward rhythm, then to pick a stopping point, look up and at it, and think about rounding her back and “adding weight” to her seat when she gets there and wants to stop. Except for allowing her left wrist to turn over, she’s in great position as she gets it done. She’s balanced well enough to stop the horse with her seat instead of by pulling on his mouth.
Juli says: Though I don’t ordinarily ride reiners, Al instructs me to try some turnarounds. He tells me to send the horse to the left with pressure from my right leg, not by dragging him over with the reins, and to take my left leg slightly away from the horse so he’s free to turn. This is a good test of my ability to keep weight in my right stirrup.
Al says: I’d say Juli’s improved greatly as a rider in only about 30 minutes. Riding a turnaround at speed isn’t the easiest thing to do, but Juli’s able to stay balanced over the horse’s center of gravity, without looking too far left, and while using just the right amount of rein and leg pressure to turn the horse around. That’s progress!
BONUS TIPS FROM AL
Al says: I’m doing what I call “setting up the rider,” which amounts to my helping Juli get into the best position for balanced, effective riding (see photo at right). This is something I do with every new rider I work with.
As I do that, I’m also sizing up that rider, to get some impressions of what I have to work with. Here, I’m thinking, “Nice horse in good working condition, wearing a quality saddle that fits him and the rider both–thumbs up, because we won’t have an unfit horse and poor tack as things to hold us back.”
I’m also taking positive note of the shirt Juli’s chosen to ride in. It fits her well and is nicely tucked in, so I can easily see how she holds her back and shoulders. Having appropriate attire isn’t just for looks. It also makes a difference in what a rider gets out of a lesson.
If she weren’t doing so already, I’d be instructing Juli to sit squarely in the middle of her saddle, with her chin level and eyes up. Many riders tend to look down when they ride, and that’s a bad habit that really hinders balance.
I’ve checked to see that Juli has her reins even, and that she’s not holding them too short or too loose for ease in steering and guiding. Here, I’m demonstrating how I want her to carry her free arm when she’s riding. By matching its position to that of her reining arm, held about halfway between her leg and saddle horn, she gives herself an automatic balance booster. (Balance isn’t just what keeps you from falling off your horse. It’s also the quality you must make solid in your riding before you can develop good rhythm, feel, and timing.)
Juli says: Al’s tip on where to hold my free arm really did improve my feel and timing. I’d been letting it hang straight down behind my thigh, and as a result, had slipped into the habit of riding with slightly crooked shoulders. That took away from my overall balance, which also hurt my feel and timing.
Al says: I’ll finish getting Juli set up to ride by checking her leg position. I like that she’s sitting in the middle of her saddle, with her thighs and knees rolled in, rather than resting her jeans’ pockets back on the cantle. This puts her right over the balance point of her horse, so she’ll be able to go with him when he moves, and also enables her to ride with her toes turned just slightly out, for best use of her heel and spur.
Juli says: Al sends me out on a circle, and my crooked-shoulders habit pops right back up (see photo at left). I allow my left shoulder to get out ahead of my right–and Al notices right away.
Al says: To fix her crooked shoulders, Juli just needs to bring her reining hand back more over her saddle horn. But she gets big pluses for the way her right ear, shoulder, hip and heel are aligned directly over one another even while her horse is in motion. Her heels are well down, and she’s right in the middle of her horse, with even space in front of and behind her. As a horsemanship judge or coach, those are things I definitely look for.
This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.