Book Excerpt: The Competitive Edge III – Gravity, Balance, Kinetics of Horse and Rider

The Competitive Edge III: Gravity, Balance and Kinetics of the Horse and Rider

Kinetics is a branch of science that tries to explain the effects of forces, such as gravity, on the motion of material bodies, such as a horse and a rider. As a physician and dressage rider, Max Gahwyler has a unique perspective on kinetics and the physics of riding.

“We must eliminate our own natural human kinetics and replace them with new horse-oriented ones,” says Gahwyler in the third book in his Competitive Edge series, The Competitive Edge III: Gravity, Balance and Kinetics of the Horse and Rider.

In Chapter 10–The Effect of Weight, the Most Sophisticated Aid–Gahwyler explains how gravity or weight influences the horse and why using it is the key to more refined riding:

If you want to experience for yourself what the horse feels, get a backpack of more or less 20 pounds, and try to balance it well on your shoulders. Then have a friend shift the backpack to the left and you will see that, like it or not, you must compensate for the shift. You can compensate for the shift by enlarging your stance or stepping sideways. Or, another way to keep the center of gravity in the middle of the base of support is to throw a compensatory weight such as a leg and arm out to the other side. This, however, is not feasible for the horse who cannot use his balancing pole to do so as he is held between the reins and on the bit.

Similarly, the horse will try to compensate for the rider’s position on his back as the rider’s weight influences the horse’s balance from the moment the rider gets on the horse until he dismounts. The question is, are we just interfering with the horse, or are we suggesting to him his direction of movement by using our position deliberately to engage the combined center of gravity in one direction or the other or, putting it simply, by using our weight aids?

An outstanding European friend and rider admonished me many years ago, “Never push your horse around with crude aids-just take him with you and ride the movement you want ahead of him.”

This notion has been recognized for centuries by outstanding riders and is much better expressed in the following short collection of quotes than I could possibly put it myself.

We begin with [Fran?ois] Robichon de la Gu?rini?re, the founder of our present-day dressage who accomplished the transition from the Ecole de Versaille to what we do today. It was he who clearly defined the shoulder-in, changed the saddle and based his riding on mental and physical harmony with the horse, as discussed in his book, Ecole de Cavalerie (1729).

“Above all, he (the rider) will strive to prevent any unintentional changes of weight, as these are the gravest mistakes to be committed!

“The aids by weight are the most refined of all influences. Used unilaterally, they affect the position of the haunches, and bilaterally, they put the horse straight.”

Here, a quote from Gustav Steinbrecht, whose book The Gymnasium of the Horse (1876) is still the foundation of German dressage training, as he refers to a shoulder-in:

“In the shoulder-in, the rider must therefore often work more with the outside rein and leg and even put his weight more on the outside so as to always remain in control and be able to determine the degree of sideways travel of the horse’s outside legs, because the correct and unforced stepping over of the inside legs primarily depends on this.”

Another clear recognition of the importance of the weight aids is also found in the German Cavalry Regulations. These regulations were first issued in 1882, at the time of Steinbrecht, [Louis] Seeger and [Paul] Plinzner, renewed in 1912, and the final edition was made in 1937, just before World War II. This last edition is popularly referred to as the H.Dv 12. “If the rider changes his weight to the right or the left, he creates an impulse to the horse to deviate into this direction, from the preceding line.

“The mistaken inclination of most riders, is to act too much with their hands, and not enough with their legs or weight aids, and must be fought against continuously.

“The ability to consistently coordinate the center of gravity of the rider with the continuously changing center of gravity of the horse and to maintain it there is the art to follow the movement of the horse. “If the rider changes his balance to the right or to the left, he induces the horse to deviate in this direction from the preceding line. This weight aid is executed by putting more weight on the corresponding seat bone. In doing so, the hip will slightly sink down and the knee position be a bit lower. A serious mistake is to collapse the hip as this causes a change of weight to the wrong side.”

General [Albert] Decarpentry, one of the most accomplished and educated riders of France and co-founder of the FEI, makes this reference to weight aids in his Academic Equitation (1949):

“In lateral movements, the best manner in which the rider can conform to these conditions is by putting his weight on the stirrup that is on the side of the displacement. This causes his seat to shift slightly in the same direction and his body to lean imperceptibly that way also.”

Similarly, Alois Podhajsky, late director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and a medal winner in the 1936 Olympics, has the following to say about weight aids in The Complete Training of Horse and Rider (1967):

“When the weight of the body is transferred into the direction of the lateral movement, it will support the effect of the outside leg because the horse will try to step under the centre of gravity of the rider.”

Then there is the practical application of this principal described by Nuno Oliveira for the shoulder-in, as written in his Classical Principles of the Art of Training Horses (1983):

“Beware of the so-called shoulder-in, so frequently seen, in which the rider pulls on the inside rein while leaning on the same side, with his leg drawn back to jab the horse with the spur, which forces the poor animal to move laterally while twisted, and which takes all implusion away from the horse, leading to resistance against the rider.

. “The weight should be on the outside buttock as the outside leg acts softly but firmly.”

When you read Kyra Kyrklund’s book Dressage with Kyra (1998), you’ll find a wonderful summary of the same principles, too frequently forgotten in our present day dressage training of horse and rider.

“The rider has the following means of communication or aids at his disposal: the LEG, the HAND (and the VOICE as a supplement to these), and last but not least, the WEIGHT (SEAT), which is the most important aid. “Whether the rider intends it or not, his WEIGHT influences the horse all the time. By weight I mean the central point or centre of gravity of the whole seat of the rider, which extends down from the chest through the stomach and pelvis into the thighs. Through muscle tone and body control of this middle part of the rider, the weight becomes the control centre of all influence. The response to all leg and hand signals is dependent on the position of the weight and the seat.”

And, later, an excellent reminder, “However, it must not be forgotten that if it is easier to communicate with a sensitive horse, it is also easier for an alert and intelligent horse to learn bad habits.”

It is probably not surprising that when the FEI rules were written by such figures as General Decarpentry, Dr. Gustav Rau, and General Halsing Berset in 1921, the basic concept of dressage was formulated not just as a sport, but the option of developing dressage into an art form. The recognition that weight is the most sophisticated and effective aid is clearly expressed in the following statement from the FEI.

“The horse thus gives the impression of doing of his own accord what is required of him. Confident and attentive, he submits generously to the control of his rider, remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.”

This statement does not refer to legs, hands, spurs, or whips, but to the invisible aids of weight, executed by putting more weight in one seat bone or the other, and by doing so, slightly shifting the center of gravity. This induces a well-trained horse to follow his natural response to correct the shift and, in so doing, execute exactly what the rider wants.

In the older literatures, we see this expressed by the statement “putting more weight in one stirrup or the other.” This should be done, however, without moving the seat and/or collapsing the hip, or by leaning in one direction or the other. The weight aids are not executed by shifting the seat, but by putting more weight on one seat bone or the other. The most common mistake of collapsing the hip does exactly the opposite of what we intend to do.

Now, when starting out a young horse, we must make a conscious decision to use weight as an aid from the very beginning, which requires a fairly sophisticated rider. It also requires that the rider feel where each leg is at any given moment. Too often riders rely on kicking, pulling and inflicting pain, teaching the horse in this process to completely disregard these types of aids and to simply avoid the pain as much as possible to execute the movements.

Looked at in this way, we see that the use of seat and weight are the only aids that are not based on the principle of inflicting pain. Instead, they use balance and natural reflexes in a much more sophisticated way to get what we want. However, not understanding either principle often leads to contradictory aids, confusing the horse and leading to resistance. This is particularly true when the weight of the rider tells the horse to go one way and the spurs, aids, and whip or reins force him to go in the other direction. Certainly we cannot expect a free, forward moving, light and elegant movement executed under such circumstances. Ballerinas are not trained by the ballet master wielding a whip and a poke.

Returning to practical consideration, let’s look at what happens when we put a rider on a horse who is standing still and square, assuming we use an educated, sophisticated rider who knows where his seat and weight is in relation to the horse.

1. The horse does not change his natural center of gravity; it remains where it used to be prior to the rider mounting.

2. The rider’s center of gravity and mass is definitely well above the horse depending on how tall and heavy the upper body of the rider is.

3. Also, the saddle is above the horse’s center.

Conclusion: This creates a new center of gravity of the combined masses, which is higher than the original one of the horse.

As a result:

1. The balance becomes more delicate since the center of gravity and the center of mass are higher above the base of support than before.

2. The subcortical reflexes [the brain’s automatic responses] for balance must be readjusted and become more and more fine-tuned for the new situation.

Looking at the situation vertically, we can draw the following conclusion:

1. The rider’s leaning forward or backward will never really throw the horse off balance, but clearly can effect the horse in the way he moves.

2. But lateral changes by the rider (leaning out to one side or the other) become more intrusive or disturbing to the horse. And the narrower the horse’s stance, the more any lateral change of the center of gravity demands an immediate response from the subcortical reflex mechanism of the horse to maintain the center over its base of support.

So we see that the higher the new center of gravity, the more delicate its balance is, depending directly on the narrowness of the horse’s stance. A wide horse is less affected whereas a narrow horse is immediately affected by anything related to the position of the rider, which, if used correctly, can become extremely effective as an aid.

We see this consistently in the halt at X where very often the horse steps out behind because of the position and unequal seat of the rider. The horse is just trying to rearrange the center of gravity under the rider’s seat bones. So remember, irrespective of how we sit on the horse, we influence the center of gravity. This can be helpful or disruptive to the balance of the horse, depending on what we are doing. Above all, we must be very conscious of what we do to the horse and that the reaction of the horse is to keep the center of gravity within the support base.

You must master the total coordination of your legs and hands from a confirmed seat in all three gaits before you can begin to master the techniques for using the weight aids. The techniques are actually very simple, extremely effective and more easily executed than the other aids. The tricky part is that they are based on a seat in complete harmony with the horse’s kinetics and a full understanding on the part of the rider of what is going on under him.

If you consider the horse and rider as a unit, the head of the rider is the highest point. The human head weights approximately 25 pounds and so just looking to the right or the left shifts 25 pounds in this direction. As a normal reaction in turning the head, we also lower the shoulder on the same side a bit, which puts additional weight on the seat bone, lowers the hip of the corresponding side and puts more weight on the corresponding seat bone.

But, if you watch riders in dressage, as a group they seem to have a fixation on the ears of the horse, and never look at the position and point of where they should be going or really want to go.

On the other hand, hunter/jumper and Western riders always look where they want to go or where the next jump is, changing unconsciously their weight distribution, which is then simply followed by the horse. That is the basis of the saying for teaching young riders to jump: “Just look where you want to go and the horse follows your eyes.”

Understanding these principles and the effect of gravity on kinetics can make dressage riding almost effortless, a mutually shared pleasure between horse and rider and the decisive step in the direction to develop a true expression of art.

In addition to writing The Competitive Edge Part I, on improving dressage scores and Part II, on moving up the levels, Max Gahwyler, M.D., is a popular clinician and speaker. He also is an American Horse Shows Association “S” judge and a member of the U.S. Dressage Federation historical and test-writing committees. He lives with his wife, Doris, in Darien, Conn.

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