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Clinic with Jeff Moore


2014/04/01





By Peggy Gaboury and Nancy Brannon

Do you know the position of your body parts in space? The obvious answer would be, “Well, duh. Of course, I do.” But do you really? Proprioception refers to the sensory information that allows us to sense the relative position of neighboring body parts and the strength of effort being employed in movement. The sense is provided by proprioceptors in the skin, skeletal striated muscles, and in joints. Proprioception and kinesthesia, the sensation of joint motion and acceleration, are the primary sensory feedback mechanisms for motor control and posture.

Proprioception includes the senses of position and movement of our limbs and trunk, the sense of effort, the sense of force, and the sense of heaviness. Dressage trainer J. Ashton (Jeff) Moore emphasizes how essential proprioception is to riding and training – at any level, in any discipline.

“Jeff” Moore was in the Eads, TN area for a clinic at Renaissance Farms, hosted by Andrea Lugar, March 22-25. He shared valuable information and insight to help riders develop better awareness of their body position and effort used, and how this awareness can vastly improve their riding and their horses’ performance.

Jeff Moore is an International Judge in Vaulting, and a National Senior judge in Dressage and Sport Horse Breeding.  He gives clinics in dressage, jumping, and vaulting, and has competed in dressage at Grand Prix, in hunters, jumpers, sport horse breeding, quadrille, and vaulting.  He has long been involved with the training of dressage judges. He is author of the USDF Judge’s Handbook, the USDF Judges’ Checklist, USDF Glossary of Judging Terms (adapted by the FEI), and several treatises on applying equestrian disciplines for Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy, as well as contributions to veterinary publications

With so much interdisciplinary experience, it is, perhaps, natural for Moore to question the underlying concepts that we commonly use in teaching and training dressage. Moore believes, “A better understanding of how horses and humans function – independently and as Centaur – encourages more insightful, more systematic, and kinder training methods, as well as more knowledgeable judging.”

The seminar for the first day of this four-day clinic was entitled “Feel, Recognition, and Proprioception.”  “Feel” is the ability of the rider to sense what is happening underneath him/her. “Recognition” lets the rider define how that feel relates to what the horse is doing, bio-mechanically. “Proprioception” is the body awareness and control that allows a rider to successfully influence the horse.

Moore and the participants examined 11 commonly used phrases in riding instruction, phrases that describe problems in the horse’s way of moving and problems with the rider’s position or application of aids. They talked about the different words that people use to describe what they feel. Moore emphasized that none of the words are wrong, but the words that people use indicate how they are thinking and frame how they might respond to the problem. A rider, whose feel of what is happening is informed by a good understanding of how the horse works bio-mechanically, will be more successful at translating that feel in to effective response. 

When an instructor tells the rider, “Your leg is too far forward,” what does that mean and how should the rider respond? Moore answered that most riders respond by bringing the leg back from the hip joint. “But the leg actually has two main parts, the knee and foot. Just tighten the hamstring to bend the knee,” he said, and thus bring the foot back underneath the rider, rather than bringing the whole leg back from the hip joint. Moore went into some detail on which muscles operate which body parts and ways to improve position. He had the participants imagine in their minds and practice moving particular muscles – in the chairs before doing it on the horse. “If you can’t sit in a chair and do it, how can you do it better on a moving horse?” he asked the audience. The chair exercises are important because “What instructors tell you to do doesn’t tell you how to get there,” he said.

Another example he discussed is scapular stabilizers. “You don’t have to learn anatomy; these are the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades. So when an instructor tells you, ‘sit up straight;’ ‘get your shoulders back;’ the usual response of rider is to lean back. Then you hear: ‘don’t lean back.’” Moore explained how to get the shoulder blades flattened against the thorax, which is not by pinching the shoulder blades together, a common response.

Moore said, “Our perceptions don’t always fit with reality.” Using another example of clinching forearm muscles, and illustrating proper position and use of the hands, wrists, and forearms in rein aids, he explained the difference between using strong and weaker muscles. He said, “The Germans have a saying – ‘ride the horse off your back’ – which means to use the larger back muscles rather than the smaller arm muscles.” Moore then explained “relaxation, which is learning not to use muscles that are not involved” in particular aids.

Other problems were discussed. If the horse leans one way, does the rider collapse the seat the other way?  If the horse surges forward does the rider automatically pull back with the hand and grip with the leg?  What does that tell the horse? If the rider tries to balance the horse from left to right, does she push herself out of balance with her left leg?  What happens to the horse then?  If the horse bulges out through the left shoulder, does the rider try to grab the right rein harder?  Does the horse turn in the direction of the rein or lean further away from it?  If the horse speeds up, does the insecure rider stand in the stirrups and haul on the reins to make the horse stop?  Does the horse stop, or brace harder and run further? 

All these are questions for which riders have to learn the most effective response.  “Feel” with “recognition” enables the rider to examine the problem rationally. To address the problem, the rider will have to have good sense of proprioception, the body’s sense of where it is in space, the rider being aware of her own body, and aware of the horse’s body, both while stable – standing still – and while moving. 

Riders can’t be very effective with the horse until they understand what they are saying to the horse with their bodies. Horses think in linear terms, i.e., this, then that; in yes/no, on/off binary thinking; and they learn in retrospect – they have no foreknowledge. Moore explains, “Horses do not have a clue what we want; they only figure it out after the fact, only by experimentation, and only if we are good enough at consistent patterning.”

One objective of Moore’s teaching is to change the negative feedback-loop that often escalates tension in the relationship between the horse and rider.  The rider “feels” something that the horse is doing, perhaps correctly, but more often, misunderstands and mislabels what she feels.  Or she labels the feel correctly, but fails to recognize how it relates to the horse’s balance.  She tries something she thinks will work and things get worse. So she tries harder and longer, “shouting” with her body, and the horse becomes more tense and more defensive.  The outcome is an unhappy horse and a miserable rider.

The solution has to be better understanding of how the horse works, and better self-understanding for the rider. Riders often understand very little of how their bodies move, and even less of how they are affected by the movement of the horse. 

Moore has a great bag of tricks and tactics to help riders develop better body awareness. He uses hay strings to simulate reins, with water balloons tied to them for weight. Practice with them enables riders to acquire more even, and lighter, rein contact by being able “to see with the eye what I’m doing with my body parts,” Moore said. Participants tried Moore’s “arm waves” exercise: while holding the hay strings (attached to water balloons) as reins, move your hands up, out, and around without moving the balloons or changing pressure. “Moving your hands in various directions without changing pressure on the reins has no effect on the horse, except that the horse normally gets better,” Moore explained. Why? Because it helps the rider’s hands be more consistent and lighter in pressure.

The more hilarious moments of the lecture came as the audience tried the motor skill exercises. Try rubbing your hand and patting your stomach - while skipping! Make a circle in the air with one hand, a serpentine with the other, then tap your whip while doing both. Not easy, eh?

Moore uses mini-trampolines to help riders feel hip movement. For example, simulate sitting the trot on a mini-trampoline, while keeping your hands still and not moving the balloons. “Sitting the trot is an up-swing effect, like a trampoline effect,” Moore explained. Even though riders may think their hands are still, the balloons reveal movement!  Participant Evie Tumlin commented, “This is cool!”

Understanding proprioception and how it works in riding and training is the beginning of learning. The next stage is to apply these skills on horseback, as Moore coached participants in mounted sessions. All participants received a detailed handout of Moore’s seminar notes. Read more about J. Ashton (Jeff) Moore’s training philosophy at: http://osierlea.org/

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