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What does "riding the ribcage" mean?

From: Sylvia

Dear Jessica, I was lucky enough to ride with you in a clinic some years ago in Montana, and although I took copious notes when others were riding, I wasn't able to write down everything from my own session. There was one thing you said to me that seemed strange at the time, but now after two years with a good classical instructor (and thank you so much for recommending him, he is wonderful!) I am remembering things you said and "hearing" them differently. Your comment had to do with my preoccupation with my hands and the horse's head and neck position. I know better now! You told me to ride the ribcage, but that was the end of the sentence and I cannot remember the wording of the rest of it. I really want to remember, because everything else I wrote down has taken on new clarity and meaning for me since I have come so much farther in my riding education. Can you remember what it was you said about riding the ribcage? I don't think it was just a "catchphrase" and I want to know whether that is what I am learning to do now. Thank you, and although you won't remember me, I will never forget your teaching and I hope someday to have the privilege of riding with you again. I believe you will find me much improved! Sylvia

Hi Sylvia - I do remember you, actually. You were riding an elderly bay Trakhener with an extremely flexible neck, and you couldn't understand why you could bring his head back to your knee on either side without changing the direction in which he was trotting... Your hardest job at that clinic was to try to help your horse become less rubbery and more straight and organized. ;-)

What I said, I'm sure, was that you should not try to pull the horse into a turn or otherwise try to ride him from front to back, and that you shouldn't try to make his head and neck position the focus of your riding! Regardless of where his head and neck happened to be at any time, they would have to accompany his BODY wherever it went, and your job as a rider was to direct the movements of the horse's BODY. My words were almost certainly "Instead of trying to pull him into turns, just keep his head in front of his neck, his neck in front of his shoulder, his shoulder in front of his ribcage, and then RIDE THE RIBCAGE in the direction you want to go."

It sounds to me as though you've reached a point at which riding the ribcage comes naturally - your next stage of riding will teach you to "ride the hindquarters". And before you ask, that's another useful saying you can remember: "Beginner riders ride what they see in front of them - the head and neck. Intermediate riders ride what's underneath them: the ribcage. Advanced riders ride what's behind them: the hindquarters." It gives you something to work toward, anyway.

One of the problems with the overuse of large bending gestures, such as are practiced by some teachers of "French" riding and by some teachers of "Natural Horsemanship", is that the horse becomes very rubbery and flexible in the neck, but is never given a chance to develop the ability to bend through the body and use its back and belly muscles properly. Don't mistake me - when REAL French dressage is being taught, and when GOOD "NH" is being taught, horses are not pulled from side to side, but taught to use their bodies, with the long-term aim of helping the horse become straight and strong and supple, so that it will be able to shift its balance and more of its weight back onto its hindquarters.

It sounds as though you've made great progress with a good instructor - congratulations to you, and congratulate him for me as well! A good student is a joy to teach.


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