Magic Suction Cups On A String: A Lesson Recap

*insert googly-heart-eyes here*
A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have a friend at the barn who was willing to take some video of Dino and I during a dressage school. It was a pretty good ride overall, but in reviewing the video and snagging some screen shots for the blog and social media, I noticed some things.

Namely that my body was not doing what I knew it should be. I saw myself in a chair seat a lot, despite the fact that my saddle was now practically perfect in every way, my middle was moving a LOT in the sitting trot and canter, and my arms were doing... something... that wasn't effective. Or nice to look at. Dino, while generally on the bit and not outright bracing or actively resisting me, was definitely holding tension in his body and ducking behind the bit from time to time.

So I texted my trainer and asked for a Centered Riding/body awareness lesson, STAT.

right arm, what u b doin?
Hi, let me introduce you to Chair Seat and Topline Tension
We managed to avoid the worst of the torrential downpours that hit Pennsylvania last week and ended up having a really fantastic, productive lesson that zeroed in on what I needed to do to remedy the majority of my positional issues.

She had me start off at the walk without stirrups, and right away knew that all of the Weird Arm Things TM I'd been doing stemmed from a deficiency in my back and core. Strangely apropos of all of the fun biomechanics posts that have been popping up all over the blogosphere, my trainer gave me a weird mental image that fixed me pretty instantly, and gave me a way to stabilize my core (or "bear down" or "become toad-shaped" depending on your preferred terminology) that totally changed my ride in a really incredible way.

In conjunction with a deep breath out, I had to imagine that on the tips of my shoulder blades were two suction cups facing each other, attached to a string that hung down the length of my spine, and that as I breathed out the string pulled down and pulled the suction cups together, as if they were on some kind of pulley system.

And let me tell you, those suction cups are magical.

When I engaged the suction cups, a lot of things happened. First and foremost, the image of pulling the string down through my spine powerfully engaged my core without putting tension into my seat or neck, and without a hollow in my lower back. My neck actually felt softer when I engaged the suction cups, which ended up being my "tell" for the rest of the lesson when I needed to check in with myself to see if I was using my body correctly. Pulling my shoulder blades together gave my chest and shoulders a kind of soft stability I've never been able to maintain before, and gave me the ability to give my hands forward from the elbow completely independently of the rest of my body, creating a truly independent, following hand that could release the contact correctly.

Which is exactly what I've been trying to accomplish lately! (Say it with me, I Love My Trainer)

Additionally, all of this helped to create a truly solid, strong outside rein connection. As we worked on walking circles and changing direction and bend, focusing on a few steps of straightness in between and keeping my suction cups engaged and all my parts coordinated, Dino started to respond to my suddenly vastly improved riding.

He really, really appreciated that stable outside rein, and went right to it. As my body became more compact-feeling, so did his, and our whole combined volume felt as if it had shrunk. I felt like I couldn't fall off if I tried, I was so connected and stuck into the saddle, and Dino just kept getting rounder and more uphill the more I supported him with this newfound connection in my strengthened core, steady outside rein, and independent hands. Despite the contact feeling stronger than what I'd normally begin a ride with, I never felt as if I were pulling on him, and Dino rarely ducked behind the bit during this lesson.

Eventually I was allowed my stirrups again, and we moved up into trot, working on a lot of the same things: Keeping the suction cups engaged with frequent exhalations, keeping the outside rein solid, and working on releasing forward with the inside rein to encourage Dino to hold his own body in the bend.

Again, as in the walk, it felt good. Really good. My elbows were bending in ways that they haven't in an embarrassingly long time, and I felt like I had a much more precise control over where Dino put his body when I controlled mine with the suction cups. Dino was happily forward and round and pushing into the contact in a delightful way.

I love you, Magic Suction Cups
So we added in some leg yields!

My trainer asked me to really focus on being accurate with where the movement began and ended, and to be sure I achieved straightness and engaged the suction cups before asking Dino to start going sideways. Especially since we were riding in the middle of a giant open field, my outside aids really had to be clear about where the boundaries were - both for Dino's body and for the movement itself.

The leg yields were so much easier and less dramatic with this newly-stabilized position! I didn't need a huge aid, they were straighter, and while the crossover still leaves a lot to be desired, they felt much more correct and straight than they did during our test at the show in June. And when I remembered to have a clear beginning and end, Dino understood better what was expected, and his obedience and way of going improved, too.

It was like the dressage movement was doing what it was designed to do, or something.

We finished with working on a trot leg yield to a canter depart in both directions. Again, it was SUPER important for me to clearly indicate where we were beginning and ending each part of the movement, and to be diligent about straightness throughout. Dino was a rockstar going to the left in this exercise, and I noticed a HUGE improvement in my seat while cantering with suction cups engaged! I'm not always a super effective rider in the canter, but this mental image greatly improved my stability and allowed me to influence my pony a lot more.

Suction Cup Wizardry At Work
Going to the right, where we ended, my brain started getting a little too fast. Both Dino and I had been working really hard the entire ride, and we were both getting a little mentally and physically tired. After my first frazzled attempt at the exercise to the right, my trainer had me stop and remember to breathe, and used her fingertips on my shoulder blades to remind me where they should be. Feeling a little more zen and focused, Dino and I made several more attempts at the exercise.

We had one go that was absolutely phenomenal - I used breathing out and engaging the suction cups as a half halt at every stage of the exercise as my trainer encouraged me to do, and everything seemed to click together. Dino went beautifully round and through and uphill, and I was sitting well and influencing him in the canter without just doing a lot of busy-riding. The contact felt amazing and I was just so excited that I was able to keep my right arm soft and giving the whole time! We did have a little trouble drifting through the outside aids at the end of the leg yield at times, but the work was just so much better quality than what I usually am able to accomplish.

This lesson was exactly what we needed - having a go-to mental image that can get me back to the correct position every time is such an enormous help in so many ways. Being able to stabilize myself through my core and create independent hands and arms changed my ride drastically, and Dino's way of going improved so, so much just with this small change in my position.

I can't wait to keep working on these concepts and see how much we continue to improve!


  1. magical suction cups. OMG i had to come read this blog when I saw that title: ) Great lesson and great out takes from it! Dino looks great (so do you don't be so hard on yourself) HA (seriously Dino weight looks great says one whose buckskin is getting rotund LOL)

  2. Omigosh, I tried the suction cups as soon as you explained them, and as I finished reading your post I was trying them out - and I feel ABS!!!!! Haha, this is the most fun I've ever had just sitting on the sofa reading horse blogs. I'm so happy for you! You and Dino look incredible <3

  3. That sounds like such a productive and awesome lesson! Congrats! You and Dino look fantastic out there!

  4. I LOVE that visual! And wow, what a productive lesson with some really huge take aways that sound like they're gonna last ya awhile. First level glory coming up, indeed!

  5. Interesting post! I use a slightly different visual of bottom of shoulder blades pulled down to hip bones but I have never thought of making my shoulder blades closer together. Have to try that as well...

  6. Ooh he looks fantastic! I love those awesome lessons where things click!

  7. I'm always excited to get video too and then always disappointed when I get it. It's awesome you have a trainer that is so focused on body mechanics and awareness.


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