Improving Your Riding Skills - Using a Horse Simulator!
So, last weekend I did a thing. A thing that's been on my list since I first heard Barbro Ask-Upmark talking about it on the Horse Radio Network podcast over a year ago.
I went and rode a horse simulator. His name is Butterfly, and he lives in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. I was lucky - he was only a 2.5 drive for me and I got to do more than half the drive with a friend who also wanted to see what the horse simulator was like. He is absolutely beautiful. On a loose rein he carries his head to the left which I found most amusing.
I headed off after chores on a beautiful Saturday morning to meet up with my dear friend Joanne, and her friend Kara (who now is on my friend list- and I don't just mean Facebook!)
While this photo is super dark what it does illustrate is the screen in front of you as you ride (the space itself was lovely - a well lit, climate controlled room in a barn with comfy, folding chairs, yummy cookies and lots of neat cards to investigate if you got bored (I didn't!). That green circle on the screen is you. I found it quite distracting and if I paid it any attention at all as my red dot (goal was to have it minimal) was huge. Apparently the machine could detect my total lack of core as easily as anyone looking at my midriff would!
My friends kept their dots down to virtually nothing with little effort though. YAY them, and a reason for me to get back there soon. (Added side bonus of the trip - I have been pretty diligent working on my core this week - twice a day even!)
Once I got over watching the screen I had to deal with another unexpected happening. Touching. There is a fair bit of instructor touching on this tool. Which makes sense when you think about it - Butterfly will keep on trucking along at whatever gait is set no matter what happens around him. Trotting along having someone touch you is WEIRD though. (And, I don't like massages, have never had a pedicure etc.) That said it was invaluable to have the extra help finding a way to do exactly what you were struggling with. A little extra support can go a long long way.
The instructor (who is AMAZING, so gentle, positive, and helpful!) has a whole lot of tools she can use to help you find the right way to carry and use your body. Stretchy bands, balls of various sizes and purposes and more. For whatever reason my body behaved quite nicely on Butterfly and I managed not to tip forwards as I often do, nor did my shoulders round and slouch. My seat bones did not want to engage, there was a tool for that!! (Could I blame years of riding hot hot horses or my lack of core? How about I take responsibility for that and start working on it!)
All three of us are decent riders, with a lot of miles under our respective belts. I personally wasn't sure what to expect, was it going to feel like a carousel horse or like a real horse? Truth is it's somewhere in the middle, some things are so very horse like it's amazing. Other things don't feel all that horse like at all. Posting is WEIRD for example. I had to think to post. I never have to think to post. Yesterday I was trying to break down why it was so different and I think the mechanical horses motion is more forward and backward and a real horse has an element of side to side as well. I would have struggled to tell you which diagonal I was on riding Butterfly and on a living breathing horse I always know, even without thinking about it, which diagonal is which.
We spent a lot of time on the bio-mechanics of position- each of us had different things to work on. Engaging my core was a big thing. Going with people increased the learning immeasurably honestly, it also upped the fun factor enormously. Watching other people and chatting (quietly) about what we saw helped me nearly as much as being on Butterfly did. In fact we all felt our learning was increased by our shared experience. And, we got to hash over the details of the fun and the learning, afterwards - added bonus!
Joanne commented that: "the simulator allowed me to focus on the issue I already knew was a problem (leg too far forward) but had kept pushing to the back because" of the common belief “I need to get the horse doing this or that first, then I’ll work on my leg”. Such a great observation eh? And such an easy trap to fall into.
Kara was our guinea pig and went first - she used more tools than any of us, and her totally analytical mind was apparent from her first moment on the horse. What she loved was "a chance to work on my body...isolating the core, sitting evenly with a loose back and seat, keeping the leg long and toes in and shoulders back and down. Having the steady rhythm of “Butterfly”, the mirrors, the screen and of course the instructor's eye was so helpful. " I see a theme here eh? Kara continued "It was also fun using tools to help really get the feel of the correct position...for me I got to sit on the squishy ball to help my seat, use the resistance bands to help with my shoulders and the chip clip to keep me mindful of my core. The simulator was hard work but a ton of fun!"
I didn't think to ask if anyone was sore the next day. Our instructor warned us we might be. I wasn't which was a very good thing as I had a show the next day and my horse needed to walk and move the whole time we were on the grounds!
I have spent the week riding and thinking, went to a show the day after and watched another lesson, on a real horse this time, two days ago. Perhaps the biggest gift the interactive horse simulator gave me was to spark my learning again. I ride alone too often and can easily fall into ruts. Thinking through each element of my position was a very very good thing.
Butterfly also sports a most beautiful Albion Saddle. I have admired them from afar for quite awhile (tack hoarder that I am). Getting to really ride in one was a most distinct side benefit of the experience for me!
Be warned - if you are my friend, and if you like horses, I will probably suggest we go for a ride on Butterfly someday - and soon! And if you can get yourself to the farm he lives on I highly recommend it! Go learn, go challenge yourself. Go grow.
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