It’s not dramatic when I say that riding in a clinic with Kirsten Nelsen this weekend was life-changing. Her whole philosophy is called Training for Optimal Balance, which includes both physical and mental balance for horses and riders. She is a follower of Jean Luc Cornille and his philosophy of the Science of Motion.
The weekend began with a 2 1/2-hour lecture with a horse and rider demonstrating as Kirsten began explaining her concepts. I wish I could distill all of my many revelations into this blog post. But I have rewritten it several times and there’s just so much to cover.
Create stability for the spine by being a still rider.
As a rider, I’ve been taught to let my hips to swing, to “allow” the hind legs to reach up and the back to “swing.” That kind of seems to make sense, right?
Well, not if you consider that the body’s function (for horses and for humans) is to protect the central nervous system – the brain and spinal column. And when you consider that a rider’s weight exerts force that is equal to three times their body weight on the horse’s back – well, how much energy does the horse have to use to keep his back muscles tight to protect his spine while I’ve been swinging around on his back? What kind of stiffness and even soreness does that cause?
So, Kirsten works with riders on stillness in the saddle. My favorite metaphor was imagining a bowl of water in your hips/pelvis, and trying to keep the water from sloshing out of the bowl. It’s a lot of work. But what it does is create stability for the spine, so the horse is able to direct all that side-to-side energy into horizontal and vertical energy instead.
This is where balance begins.
Frequency of the gait.
Each horse has a “frequency” of footfalls that make it easy to balance the push and the brake phase of the step. When on the forehand, the “push” part of the step is usually far behind the hindquarters, and the “brake” phase is not up under the horse’s abdomen.
Imagine how it feels to walk in balance, nice and upright. Now imagine if you leaned your shoulders forward, pulling your body forward and down. Your steps become shorter in front (the “brake”) and the energy goes out behind your feet. That’s how it is for a horse going on the forehand.
So how would you get back to your comfortable, balanced walk? By lifting your shoulders and head to be aligned with your spine. Same goes for the horse. By slowing down, it allows them to find the right speed and frequency of footfalls to begin to lift through their shoulders and the base of their neck. It allows them to find their coordination to manage the brake and push phases of the step. When it’s right, it feels like a lot more spring in their step.
On the rider’s part, I have started to learn to do this by helping the horse balance by managing the horizontal energy (more forward) and the vertical energy (more stop). My spine and back can say, “a little more stop,” while my lower legs can say, “a little more walk.” It feels like gathering up the energy and directing it in the right way. Or collecting the energy. Maybe that’s why it’s called collection.
Side note: This feels really freaking cool when it happens.
Ride from in to out.
This concept really resonated with me. Instead of trying to create collection by using hands and legs to influence the head and feet, riding from my spine/pelvis influences the horse’s back. This in turn leads to true collection and impulsion, rather than trying the manufacture it using my extremities on the horse’s extremities.
Posture vs. conformation.
When you look at Drifter as he stands normally, he looks long. Long neck, long back. Not terribly long legs. One of the first things Kirsten said to me during my lesson was that this is not his “conformation” – rather, it’s his posture. He slouches.
I didn’t really, truly understand this until midway through the ride. He was starting to lift the front and drive through the hindquarters. I could feel a huge difference in his carriage. We were able to achieve moments of it at the walk and the trot.
At this point, Kirsten said that it looked like his conformation was changing before her eyes. His neck looked more muscular, his back looked shorter and his legs looked longer. His physical conformation looked more packaged and correct.
All the people watching later told me that it was incredible to see how he changed in front of them. These photos don’t quite do it justice, but can give an idea.
Weight of the head and neck.
I, like many, always thought stretchy circles were a good thing to work on lengthening the back and encouraging hind engagement. But I changed my mind this weekend. A horse’s head and neck equals 10% of their body weight. Imagine holding something that weighs 10% of your body weight out from your body, low and stretched. That’s not comfortable; it’s hard. It requires your muscles in your arm, back and neck to clench. It’s fatiguing.
Doing a lot of that work can also be extremely damaging. The weight on the forehand like that creates an incredible amount of force on the front hooves and legs. It can also create unwanted strain on hocks that eventually destroys them.
Kirsten has worked with laminitic and navicular horses – the kind of horses that are considered chronically lame and unfit to be ridden – and by changing their balance, has brought them back to soundness. Amazing.
All of this Training for Optimal Balance works to make the horse feel safe and comfortable. It has long-term health implications, from taking stress off their front legs to working with the actual anatomy of their spines, to ensuring the hocks are working properly. It also has to do with their mental balance – never pushing to hard, always helping them to that happy place where they feel safe and comfortable.
Besides riding and practicing what we learned, I would like to find and buy a copy of Jean Luc Cornille’s book, Transversal Rotations in the Equine Vertebral Column. You know, for some light reading.
I feel like there was so much that I can’t even begin to cover in this blog. We also covered concepts like elastic strain energy vs. muscular energy, and the rotation of the spine vs. “bending” around a circle (which the equine spine can’t actually physically do).
The bottom line is that I changed so much. Everything about how I ride is different. It’s better. I can already see a difference after one hour. All I want to do is go ride and practice! I highly, highly encourage you to jump at the chance to take a Kirsten Nelsen clinic if there is one near you. She is based out of Florida but she travels for clinics all the time. If you’re in Wisconsin, she’ll be back once a month until September.
If you’re interested in reading more, this is a pretty great primer on some of the concepts on Jean Luc’s Science of Motion website. Warning: It gets a little dense, but it’s so, so fascinating.