The belly button may be the most neglected part of the rider’s anatomy. Too bad it has that silly name, or riders would probably talk about it more.
Luckily, Shannon Peters does (and I owe all my knowledge of riding with your belly button to her). One day, I watched her teach a student who was having trouble bending her horse, both getting tighter and tighter as they struggled together. Shannon suggested that the rider point her belly button where she wanted her horse to go and voila! — what was once hard was now easy. The rider became softer and the horse bent easily.
Could it be that simple? Yes. If we’re not afraid to talk about belly buttons.
As instructors, our primary tool is language. Of course, we’re happy to demonstrate what we’re talking about on a horse, or stand in front of a jump to prove to a rider that they can stop straight and quickly once they’re over it, or hold the reins from the ground to help a rider develop feel, but it’s most often what we say and how we say it that helps our riders ride better.
Denny Emerson said it perfectly today on his Facebook page — “The litmus test is in the individual ability to know what is valid, and the ability to transmit that validity in a way that others can discern it.”
That’s why talking about belly buttons is magic. Telling riders to point their belly buttons where they want to go is actually no different than instructing students on “the spiral seat.” Unfortunately, like the half halt, “the spiral seat” is a dungeon of confusion. As a phrase, it makes no sense. It sounds convoluted and no one understands it. You can try explaining the twist in the torso that defines the spiral seat but why bother when you have a belly button?
And now you know what it’s there for. Just point your belly button where you want to go (and make sure your eyes are looking the same way), and watch your horse bend. If your horse seems really stiff and unbendable and you can’t keep your horse on anything vaguely resembling a 20 meter circle, try letting go of all your other aids, drop your reins, and see how effective it is to ride with just your belly button. If you’re having trouble with shoulder in to renvers in Second Level Test 3, try asking for the bend with your belly button and see if it doesn’t improve.
Biomechanically, of course, the reason that riding with your belly button works is that when you change your belly button, you change the rest of your body subtly without being aware of it. There’s a natural shift of weight and natural added pressure from the inside leg, and a natural turning of the outside shoulder in the direction of movement. Your hands and legs get softer as you change your focus. But no one needs to think about all of that. Just remember your belly button (or your students’ belly buttons), and you’ll be all set.