Horse and Rider

It so happens that our UK training is only a few miles from an iconoclastic riding school that has been employing the Anatomy Trains in dressage training.  So on my day off, in response to an invitation, I borrow a car, and switching my mind back to English driving – shifting with the left and watching for the left edge of the road – tootle off down country lanes to the Overdale Equestrian Centre (www.mary-wanless.com).

I arrived in the midst of a clinic by the Grand Prix rider Heather Blitz, who declined a spot – for the sake of her horse who, to qualify, would have had to make four cross-ocean journeys on a plane  – in the recent Chinese Olympics.  Long in every aspect, this Kansas girl now with a mid-Atlantic accent, a temporary home in Denmark but no fixed abode, travels to teach and develop her skills.

In the middle of a huge covered shed carpeted with a thick grey layer chewed up bits of rubber tires, she stands wreathed with a headset that broadcasts her voice to the rider and the 20 or so participants lining one end of the ring.  The student rides her horse around the ring while Heather talks her through control of the horse or control of her body.  Then Heather would ride herself to work with the horse, and the student would ride again.

I am no horseman, and have no knowledge of dressage at all, but I can see when someone ‘has it’, (as Quan does, totally naturally) and Heather is poetry in motion – totally professional but totally at ease.  Everything that needs to move in response to the horse does, and nothing that doesn’t.  Her entire self is gathered in and in deep communication with the horse. The signals, even to a horse she has never met before that moment, are so subtle that it took all my observation to see her coax the horse, who would compliantly go right, left, up to a canter, down to a walk, all in a few seconds – clearly in rapt attention to Heather.

Heather is the guest teacher, but the head honcho for the center is Mary Wanless, a small but potent ball of explosive but highly disciplined energy, with the bluest eyes on God’s earth.  She needs no mike – her large voice issues from her small body and commands the whole arena.  Before we even have the chance to shake hands, I know I am in the presence of a fellow traveler – driven, serious about everything but herself, on a lonely road that both satisfies and frustrates her, headed for a goal that she can dimly see but is palpably present inside her soul, excited and fatigued in equal measure, and mostly waking up each morning knowing that everything she has done so far is more or less a failure in terms of that vision, requiring a redoubling of energy and commitment to achieve yet another approximation of the light that burns so vividly within.

When the Q&A part of the seminar begins, Mary draws me into the circle of chairs and asks me about her scheme to divide the rider into thirds.  She drew a line from the coracoid process to the outside of the pubic bone (corresponding to the connection from pectoralis minor to the arcuate fascia along the outside of the rectus abdominis  – what my students will recognize as the ‘front pillar’). By drawing these lines in, she gathers the sides into the core, compacting and ‘bearing down’ (a kind of Valsalva maneuver that increases the stiffness of the abdominopelvic cavity and brings the rider’s torso into the horse).

There ensued a brief discussion of riding stability in terms of the Lateral, Functional, and Deep Front Lines, where I attempted to sound knowledgeable, but as I said at the end of the discussion:  The body is very specific.  If you want to train for riding, ride.  If you want to train for bodywork, do bodywork.  The body learns by doing the very thing you want to do.  Prior training for an activity is spotty at best, and spot training to build muscle in no way guarantees that that strength will be available when you take up the desired activity.  Building individual muscles may strengthen them, but it can weaken the body as a whole.

Good biomechanics for riders has crossed my field of vision a few times in my 30 years in this field, but never have I seen such dedication and depth of exploration.  The ability to gather another being under you and communicate through movement alone what you want it to do – and have it work!  This reaches into the core of the rider’s being: spirit, psychology, physiology, movement, communication – lucky students of Heather and Mary!

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