The Christmas holiday normally gives me a little time to do some reading, usually a mix of technical books and some more easy reading ones. This Christmas I revisited François de la Guérinière’s sizeable work, “School of Horsemanship”, a book I have read many times over the years and I always find a new understanding of the methods for training a horse.
It’s a challenging book, my copy is 322 pages of A4 size, and it covers every part of horse ownership from choosing horses by conformation and suitability, descriptions of paces and airs, to tack and stable management. Whilst the book contains some outdated advice on care, treating illness and dealing with problem horses, the relatively short chapters covering training, about 80 pages, are as relevant today as they have ever been.
With the rider’s position being such an important aspect of good riding, starting 2020 with a blog about François de la Guérinière notes on the subject should help to get us all on track for productive riding this year. A rider who sits well moves with their horse and can feel the movement and responses and can properly influence the horse towards greater collection.
The chapter on the rider’s posture in the book is only 4 pages long and begins by describing the overall requirement of the rider.
“By grace, I comprehend a air of ease and freedom which must be maintained in a controlled and yet supple posture, be it in order to maintain the depth of the seat in the saddle where necessary, or to relax at the appropriate moment, keeping in so far as possible during all the movement of the horse that exact equilibrium which comes for judicious balance of the body’s weight. Furthermore, the rider’s movements must be so subtle that they serve to improve his seat, rather than being ostentatious aids to the horse. “ (page 108)
The important point in this section is in the very first sentence, the controlled and balanced rider improves both the horse and themselves, whereas the unbalanced rider will never achieve the horse’s full potential.
He then notes that he feels that some of the methods in use at the time were diminishing the brilliance of the art of dressage.
“Given that this accomplishment has been neglected, and that nonchalance joined to a certain laxity has displaced the efforts made in the past to acquire and maintain that attractive seat which so charms the spectator and brings out the beauty of a handsome horse, it gives no cause for surprise to note that the art of horsemanship has lost a measure of its former brilliance.” (page 108)
Next, he covers mounting, insisting that the rider is responsible for checking the tack and they always mount quietly and with great care. Once in the saddle the rider must check their position, ensuring their seat is centered and on tipping towards the cantle.
His notes on holding the reins describes how to hold them in the left hand only whereas today, we use the reins in two hands, but he comments
“The bridle hand governs the forehand and should be placed over the neck of the horse neither too near or too the off side, two inches above elbow height and in front of the saddle, so that the latter does not interfere with the effect of the reins.” (page 110)
The reins are then centered over the horse’s withers with a quiet steady hand. With the reins in two hands it is much easier to allow them to wander off to the side or drop down towards the rider’s thigh. I have found that it is better to teach riders to carry their hands as a level pair just above the withers. This is so that, whilst they are developing an independent seat, their hands interfere less with the horse’s mouth, and once the rider has a secure seat and good control of their arms, they can then position their hands to help the horse more.
For the rider’s legs, de la Guérinière comments that they
“…serve to guide and control the body and the hind quarters of the horse: their proper position is to be straight and relaxed from the knee to the foot, close to the horse without touching it, the thighs and calves turned somewhat inward, so that the side of the thigh rests close along the flap of the saddle. The legs must, however, be held firm in addition to being relaxed, for if they were not they would touch the horse’s belly incessantly, which circumstances would put the horse into a state of continual confusion.” (page 110 – 111)
This is a particularly difficult position to obtain with the legs, to be relaxed and firm at the same time! This is obtained from a good balanced seat, and having the thighs rotated as described, which makes the rider’s legs stable (firm) with the minimal muscle involvement (relaxed).
The position and use of the rider’s foot is of great importance, but can only be achieved from a correct leg and seat position.
“The heel of the foot should be held a little lower than the toe, but not overly much, for that would make the leg rigid; it should also be turned very slightly to the inside, in order to control the spur easily, and not be too close to the belly, which it should meet at approximately a hand’s breadth behind the girth…..
…. If the toe were turned too far outward, the heel would be too close to the belly and the spur would touch the horse incessantly…
… Properly speaking, it is not the legs which are turned when riding, but rather the upper thighs; and when the thighs, and consequently the legs, are turned in one direction or another as much as they ought to be, so will be the feet. (page 111)
De la Guérinière notes that maintaining this position when the horse is in motion is difficult, and advises that riders spend five or six months in sitting trot without stirrups in order to develop good balance and a deep seat.
“It is by degrees that a rider gains this firmness of seat, which must proceed from equilibrium and not from the iron grip of the calves and heels which should be left to rough riding jockeys.“ (page 111)
He closes the chapter by admitting that, should the horse spook or shy it is necessary for the rider to change his posture in order to stay in the saddle (we’ve all been there!), but he insists that proper posture should be restored as soon as the horse is under control.
“By a natural process and without noticing, the rider will with time assimilate the method for maintaining a deep seat and an erect posture without rigidity or ungainliness; he will become relaxed and poised without laxity or nonchalance... (page 112)
And a final comment on balance.
…and above all without being bent forward, which is the gravest fault of all; for responsive horses move well or poorly depending upon whether or not the counterbalance made by the rider’s body is properly maintained. (page 112)
As riders we must continually check and correct our position until it becomes instinctive, so that we make it as easy as possible for our horses to follow our aids with ease.
Book – School of Horsemanship by François de la Guérinière, translated by Tracy Boucher, published by J. A. Allan press
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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