Region 5: Dressage Training Clinic - James Shaw, Tai Chi

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James Shaw Tai Chi Clinic Teaches Riders to Ride from Within

By Julia McSherry

Twelve lucky participants learned more about riding with less force through releasing areas of tension in their bodies that impede the horse's ability to move freely at the James Shaw Tai Chi for Equestrians Clinic February 26-27 at Windy Creek Ranch in Longmont. Sponsored by SVB Equestrian, LLC and Windy Creek, the clinic provided an opportunity for two mornings of ground work followed by mounted lessons that created a better understanding of how breath and balance can make a more effective rider.

Shaw, who has worked with Conrad Schumacher, Betsy Steiner, Lyndon Gray and many riders from beginner through Olympic, offers numerous tips for translating Tai Chi movements into better dressage riding. Concentrating on ground work will help immensely in the saddle.

Tai Chi is similar to yoga and Pilates in that it focuses on breath, balance, and body core to improve communication between horse and rider. But there are differences as well. Tai Chi uses the bones and proper structural alignment over muscles. It is important to identify and bring to consciousness imbalances in our own body and work to be able to correct them before getting into the saddle. The horse can feel our imbalances and these imbalances impact the way the horse moves. Tai Chi principles apply to everything and can make you a better rider at age 70 than 40, moving healthier at 80 than 60.

Tai Chi fosters an independent seat for riding by training the body to turn at the waist or belly button for sitting trot.

Foundation in breath and balance is essential. For example, if you hold your breath, nothing gets better. Breath is one thing we can learn to control with practice. Who doesn't forget to breathe when we are in stress conditions, such as in the middle of a test at a show, but it's here where practice on the ground can make deep breathing natural, something we don't have to remember to do. Since breathing impacts weight in the sit bones, it's possible to breathe into upward and downward transitions rather than relying on the leg aides.

According to Shaw, we have the ability to control our breath 100 per cent of the time. Breath is the only thing we can control 100 percent of the time. Our breath sets the rhythm of our bodies. It impacts our center of balance. When it moves down into our body, the horse's energy comes up to fill that space. It is then that you can feel each step push up through your body. This is key for getting in synch with the horse to feel the movements rather than look for them.

Shaw believes if that you focus too much on your horse, your horse doesn't focus on you. When you focus on you especially your breath, the horse relaxes and focuses on you as well. Tai Chi also helps one become self aware, to look inward deeper. It is a healing art, which incidentally helps the immune system.

Breath and balance are essential to health and to effective riding. "Breathe in through your nose like smelling a flower," he explains to his students. "Breathe out through your mouth like playing a flute." Breathing out through the nose tightens the throat creating tension. This tension transfers to the horse.

Smile to relax the jaw. Inhale/exhale one count apart, that is one count longer on the exhale. Releasing all the air from the abdomen opens the space to breathe in a full belly of air.

Try halting on the exhale. The horse drops its head when the back releases, when breath lowers into the body. Practice at the walk, breathing in for three counts, out for four for a regular walk and in for five counts out for six counts for a slower walk, more relaxed on a longer rein. You can change the rhythm of the gait by changing your breath.

Shaw also explains that the pelvis (sit bones), femur, and lower back comprise the seat. Balance here, in the core, is what you need to make the horse go straight. If the horse drifts right, breathe into the left sit bone. If the horse drifts left, breathe into the right sit bone.

The sit bones tell you where your weight is and you need to control your weight with breath. A key concept is how our weight drops from your sit bones into the horse.

Ground work and practicing simple breathing exercises mounted at the walk can be amazing to foster riding improvement. Shaw encourages riders every time they ride to get on and at the walk, check the breath, awareness of the sit bones, making sure all the "gates" (a Tai Chi term) are open in the body. The sit bones drop when the horse's back foot hits the ground. Riders can learn to feel each of the horse's foot falls through the sit bones. This is important for feeling when to give aids for transitions. "You should be able to feel the foot falls all the way up your spine to the back of the skull," Shaw emphasizes. "Many people block in their lower back. Practicing at the walk is very beneficial and makes the walk much more interesting to ride as well.

If the rider pushes down too much into the stirrups, they can't feel the sit bones. Riding without stirrups is beneficial. If the rider's body opens to receive the energy from the foot falls, it creates throughness as the horse moves over the back to the poll. The rider has to have it too.

Weight in the proper sit bone is very important for balance of the horse. For example, more weight should be on the inside sit bone when working the horse in circles. To get the correct diagonal, ask for the trot as the inside sit bone drops because the rider's sit bone drops as the horse's same back foot is stepping forward. More efficient turns can be made when aids are given when the horse's inside leg is in the air. Seventy percent of the power in the canter is received into the inside sit bone so that means we need to learn how to maintain much more contact with the inside sit bone during the canter. Sit bone weight is critical in canter departs and flying changes. When you lose contact with the sit bones, the horse shortens its stride.

In Tai Chi, as in dressage, relaxation and balance are the root of power. Power, not strength, results in calm and precise movement.

James Shaw will return to Windy Creek Ranch September 9-11. For information, contact Sarah V. Barnes at sarahvbarnes@yahoo.com. James Shaw has been a student of the martial arts for over 20 years and translates Tai Chi to dressage principles with riders throughout the U.S. and United Kingdom. He is the author of Ride from Within: Use Tai Chi Principles to Awaken Your Natural Balance and Rhythm.

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