When I first went to Germany I was mystified about something (many things!) they talked about rather constantly.
Swing over the back.
When Elmar, Rudolf’s top rider at the time, was kind enough to visit us in Washington for a week training session in about 1993 he conveyed to us that he did not see riders developing swing in their horses.
I asked him which of our horses were correct over the back?
His answer? None.
That motley equine crew included several ex race horses, an Arabian, a Morgan and a few crossbred Warmbloods–mostly French lines. None of these is known to easily develop a softly swinging back. And told that “Use of the seat was important,” yet knowing nothing about how to go about that, we were failing utterly.
(Sadly, we were lost and stayed lost for quite a while.)
You can’t demand swing, it must be developed, and this is not done by constantly holding against–nor floating off into the ether. (Though at least that way you are not preventing it!) The trick is you have to both allow swing in how you use your back/hip and sometimes lightly encourage it–a combination of regulating the rhythm, supporting lightly with the leg and moderating softly with the seat/hand.
And then not let them do anything that prevents development of swing, like throwing legs or a “passagey” trot for instance. (Running off, chasing the rhythm, roll backs and exuberant bucking are also in the list to avoid as well, but I was feeling snooty and did not want to mention them. Actually, sometimes a bit of a buck helps–I remember clinging to the neck of one horse in Germany with Rudolf in the corner growling something about, “A sign of a tight back!” At the time I was certain he was talking about the horse.)
Lacking horses that swing over the back rather naturally, how is a person supposed to learn how to develop that quality? You can’t teach something you have never felt, or in many cases in the US even seen!
Below is a short clip of a horse demonstrating a relaxed swing over the back in the very first part of the ride, yesterday morning, with Melynnda Thiessen up. The horse is a TB/Hannoverian that was bred here in Spokane by Patricia Peterson from one of my stallions, Watson, and a very good Thoroughbred mare. He spent most of his life in California under one of my other students Kelly McGinnis who has done a very nice job with him.
If you want to watch it, look for a couple of things in the horse and then the rider as they pass by the camera and head away.
1. Relaxed rise and fall of each of the horse’s hips–creating “swing”. (Along with good diagonal pairing, engagement, etc all)
2. Relaxed rise and fall of the rider’s hips, to assist/suggest the “swing”. (Along with control of the upper body, engagement of shoulder, etc all)
THIS IS NOT “swishing” the seat across the saddle laterally, nor gouging the saddle towards the horses ears. The movement is more like a soft drop that follows the actual movement of the back–and it is done with controlled relaxation–nothing else in the lower pelvis anyway. It is much more obvious in the horse than the rider, and that is how it should be–subtle.
The above is good riding. And on a slightly worry-prone horse horse that would LOVE to “throw the legs,” and move in tension.
Long Pause. . . .
How is a person going to do that with rigid hip flexors or knees jammed up against a thigh block?
I feel like a nag saying a lot more about it, because frankly that’s about it. You are supposed to be able to move your hip–think flexible, not go-go dancer–and stabilize the torso via other methods. I think I wrote something about that. . .
But in this clip you see a really happy horse. Of course the other parts of the work were much more “spectacular”–but this is the one I like the best.
Anyway, re training: Leg movement is flashy and easy to see–but it is not right precisely because it is movement through tension. The swing part? Just the opposite and we don’t see much encouragement of this difficult and yet basic skill that runs along the longitudinal, not the lateral training of the horse. (Translation: you don’t get it by leg yielding or stretching per se.) It really doesn’t happen just by lowering the neck, and you need to keep it when you raise the neck anyway, so you can’t depend on that. Many people interpret it as a long horse falling on the forehand. It is not.
How come swing is so little practiced or focused on, as it is so helpful to the ride?
We are a backwater, I know it. But I don’t exactly see great pictures of it in the big leauges anymore either where it seems the correct, actual trot has fairly gone the way of the Dodo.
Anyway, it looks easy and natural in the clip, but just ask Melynnda how difficult this is to learn. It took me years–and there are a lot of paths on the map. But it is an essential skill. Sure, “fancy” is great: a horse wanting to show you his or her stuff. And though big weird trots are “in” just now, I don’t recall any revisions in the scale of training saying a “passagey” trot was now the desired method of transport. Swing is fun! Might keep that in the back of one’s riding mind. Just a thought!
Hint: Don’t pay much attention to bad riding–it makes you think it is okay.
(I could watch this for hours!)