Saturday, December 8, 2018

SOM Clinic April 2018

Back in April of this year, I attended a Science of Motion clinic with Nimo.  It was an interesting experience for sure!  One thing that happened was that another lady attending the clinic generously offered to let me ride in her Macel Samba saddle.  This saddle, along with a recently-developed jumping version - the Macel Rafale - are the only two saddles that Jean Luc Cornille (JLC)recommends.  The big problem for most people, though, is how expensive they are.  I think they are over $5,000 now, which is a price point out of reach for most people (although I totally understand the argument that a saddle like this could last decades, which is much longer than a car that costs more and is reduced to metal salvage in a much shorter period of time).  Plus, you can't demo the saddle before buying and that is a lot of money to spend for a saddle you haven't been able to try.  So I was both excited to try the saddle and terrified that it would somehow become damaged while I was sitting in it.

This particular model has an 18" seat with a long flap (which is definitely too long for me), and a medium tree
To be honest, I kind of expected angels to sing and a heavenly light to appear when I sat in the saddle.  Neither of those things happened (although that is typically what I expect when trying a new saddle, and in all fairness, neither of those things ever happened for any of the other saddles either).  In fact, nothing much happened.  I would describe my ride in it as nondescript, and it took me awhile (many months in fact) to understand the importance of that feeling.  One of the most important things that JLC always talks about is how modern dressage saddles get in the way of a rider's ability to ride.  The deep seats and big thigh blocks are supposed to lock the rider in place, which seems like a good idea when you see some of the huge movements that top level dressage horses produce.  But, those saddles create extra forces that the rider has to manage, which can create a bigger problem than the saddle was trying to solve.  (You can see a set of diagrams that explains those forces in this Facebook post.)  So the idea is to ride in a saddle that has a flatter seat and minimal thigh padding to give the rider the ability to move where she needs to be.

Another issue is the thick padding that is used for the panels on the saddles and the tendency to fit saddles a little too wide.  The thick padding can interfere with the stability of the saddle, which can be amplified by a saddle that is a bit too wide.  A lack of stability can make it harder for the rider to communicate with the horse (see this article).

It is very difficult to find a dressage saddle that has:  a flat seat, minimal to no thigh blocks, thinner padding on the panels, and fits the horse and rider.  Hence the recommendation for the Macel Samba, which meets all the requirements about the seat, thigh blocks and padding and is designed to fit probably most horses and riders.  You might be able to find an older model of a different brand or (foreshadowing...) an all-purpose style saddle that gets closer to that ideal, though.

Anyway, I started off my super expensive session with JLC hoping that Nimo wouldn't buck me off or refuse to move because he didn't like the saddle, and that I would be able to ride well enough in it to get something out of my lesson.  Also, I really hoped that I didn't scratch it or dent it or otherwise damage its luxurious perfection.

As it turned out, Nimo worked very well in the saddle and did at least as well as he would have in my saddle, and I did not do anything really embarrassing like falling off or scraping the saddle against the wall.  I rode in a double bridle, which I did primarily because JLC prefers a double bridle almost always, and I wanted to get feedback on my use of the reins (or more importantly, my lack thereof) and how it worked for Nimo.

We worked only in the walk and trot because I told JLC my focus that day was on achieving more lightness in the trot.  You may remember that during my last clinic session with him, I worked on getting a kind of square trot that has minimal suspension (and therefore fewer forces for both horse and rider to manage).  That square trot was great, but I felt ready to push for real collection.

My instructor managed to get a short video of us during the lesson.  The quality is bad because cell phones and filming indoors don't work well and because she was sort of rushed, but there are a few moments when you can see us better, and it also gives you a feel for what a lesson with JLC is like.  You'll see that he wasn't fussing at me about position or aids.  Instead he was telling me things like, "Slower.  Even slower.  Yes.  Now slower again."

This instruction is because SOM is not based on using aids.  There are no direct and indirect rein effects.  There is no driving seat.  There is no windshield wiper leg aid for canter.  Everything is about achieving what JLC has recently coined "tensegrity."  I can't really explain it in a brief statement, but it has to do with the rider being able to maintain and change the tone of her body in response to her horse, as a way to "filter" unwanted motion, and as a way to ask for correct motion.  Here are a few links to articles that explain the concept in more detail:

Harmonic Tensegrity

Meaning of Life 18: New Eyes

Mechanoresponsiveness 29

You might be wondering, "If there is no formula for applying aids, how do you get the horse to do anything, much less what you want it to do?"  I think JLC would say something along the lines of, "Horses are much more sensitive than we realize and they are able to respond to nuances in the tone of our body in ways that conventional and even traditional dressage fail to recognize."  Essentially, your job as the rider is to figure out how your body needs to communicate with the horse in a way that doesn't involve pulling on the reins, kicking with your legs, dramatically shifting your weight, or jabbing with your spurs.  The whip can be helpful for some horses if used judiciously and not as punishment but as a way to reinforce a request for a horse that is having trouble knowing what you want (potentially due to its previous training).  (I have taken to riding with a whip again, and when I use it, it often doesn't even touch Nimo - he is so sensitive to the motion that I typically just flick it above his haunches if I decide to use it.)

Regrettably, I am one of the most uncoordinated humans to ever walk this planet, so the above sounds fantastic, but in practice is probably the most difficult thing I've ever tried to do.  (In case you don't believe me about being so uncoordinated, let me share the story of the time I was walking on a perfectly flat surface (the sidewalk in front of our house) in flat soled, comfortable, well-fitting shoes and fell down for literally no reason.  I sprained my foot badly enough that I ended up in the ER, got a boot, and instructions to use the crutches for at least two weeks plus do physical therapy.  It ended up being about 8-9 months before I had full range of motion on that foot without any pain or discomfort.  I then proceeded to sprain my other foot in almost exactly the same way a couple of years later while riding Nimo in a small indoor arena.  He spooked at something (possibly his reflection in the viewing area window...) and bolted sideways for a few strides before settling.  Somehow my ankle managed to fold over on itself, resulting in a horrible ripping sound coming from within my foot and an immediate Grade 4-5 lameness on my part.  My foot never even came out of the stirrup, but I ended up back in the ER.)

I struggled with how to use my body effectively quite a bit in this lesson, although we did get some good stuff.  The biggest problem that I had was that I was sitting too much on my gluts.  Translation, I needed to somehow get off my seat bones without getting out of the saddle.  The epiphany that resulted in me figuring out how to do that did not come for another three months.  I'll write more about it in a later post.

Anyway, as for this lesson, it was a great introduction to working more on lightness, but it was simply a step in the right direction of what is becoming a very long journey.


  1. LOVE the way you carry the reins, your hand/arm position! I work on this too (P. Karl). I think with the Germans have this word too: Koerperspannung.

    1. Oh, thank you, lytha! I always feel like I haven't quite got them in the right place - too high or too low. And I have no doubt the Germans have a word for it:) I find it simultaneously amazing and frustrating how the Germans come up with words that basically mean a whole paragraph of complicated concepts. (I took German in high school and even read a humorous essay written by Mark Twain, "The Awful German Language," for a speech team competition one year.)

  2. I know next to nothing about SOM, but I completely agree about saddles getting in the way. I ride in an Albion Original Comfort: flat seat, pretty flat panels and medium wide tree. Found it used after learning that my new, fancy dressage saddle was preventing me from riding in balance. That was an expensive realization.

    1. I had the same thing happen to me, Val. My expensive dressage saddle is sitting in my office waiting for someone to buy it on eBay:)