The Shoulder

The Shoulder

Shoulders rolled forward and tight.

The shoulder is one of the most complex joints in the human body and as such is vulnerable to all sorts of problems and injuries. It is a relatively shallow joint in comparison to our hip joint and is extremely dependant on muscle tone for correct alignment and joint stability. Imbalance in any of the muscles that surround the shoulder joint can easily cause postural problems not to mention shoulder pain.

As riders we tend to become aware of our shoulders when a postural fault is pointed out to us by an instructor. Common issues for riders include a) tight shoulders that are pulled up towards the ears, b) one shoulder being carried higher than the other and c) the most common problem of all, tight shoulders that are rounded forward.

Tight shoulders that are carried too high are normally the result of tension. Tight shoulders in the rider can cause pain or stiffness in their neck, back, and upper body as well as blocking the movement of the horse. The shoulders may feel tight and stiff as a result of stress, tension, fear and even overuse. Tight shoulders can be also caused by sitting for extended periods, incorrect sleeping positions, and injuries. Learning to relax the shoulders whilst off the horse and practising breathing control can both help.

Tight shoulders that are carried too high are normally the result of tension. Tight shoulders in the rider can cause pain or stiffness in their neck, back, and upper body as well as blocking the movement of the horse. The shoulders may feel tight and stiff as a result of stress, tension, fear and even overuse. Tight shoulders can be also caused by sitting for extended periods, incorrect sleeping positions, and injuries. Learning to relax the shoulders whilst off the horse and practising breathing control can both help.

Uneven shoulders or having one shoulder higher than the other is also a common problem. The discrepancy in the shoulders can be slight or significantly different. The cause can be muscular or structural (as in scoliosis) but invariably the imbalance in the shoulders is caused by the rider collapsing on one side. Becoming aware of your shoulder misalignment is the first important step, not only while you’re riding but also while you are standing or sitting. Whether the cause of your uneven shoulders is muscular or structural,  to correct the shoulder imbalance your body needs to be correctly aligned, with your shoulders the same height and facing forward. To make the changes you will need to work on stretching your “tight” side and strengthening your “long” side. Start using your non-dominant arm as much as you whilst doing yard work, join a Pilates or Yoga class and make an appointment with a massage therapist who specializes in myofascial release.

Probably the most common shoulder issue is that of rounded shoulders (also known as upper crossed syndrome) because our modern lifestyle exacerbates this condition. Rounded shoulders, along with a rounded upper back, and a chin that tends to be thrust forward become the norm, so that we are not even aware that this is how we are riding, sitting or standing! To try and correct this issue riders are frequently told that that need to take their shoulders back when they ride. Unfortunately this just doesn’t seem to work. It is not that you don’t want to do what the instructor says, it is just that your body seems to have a mind of its own and will often revert back to its default position within minutes.

Initial photograph taken on PI, the electronic horse. Upper body is behind the vertical, shoulders are rounded and feet are too far forward.

Whilst rounded shoulders and a head that pokes forward causes the rider’s weight to be too far in front of the horse’s centre of mass and pushes the horse onto his forehand, being told to take their shoulders back normally results in the rider taking their whole torso behind the vertical in an attempt to comply. Unfortunately, this takes their weight too far back, causes hyperextension in their lumbar spine and causes their horse to hollow behind the saddle.

The weight reading shows that there is far too much weight behind the centre of mass,
The rider’s position has been adjusted to bring his spine into alignment and balance. The shoulders are now positioned over the hip and heel.
The weight is now correct on a front /back alignment although is a little right heavy.

Rounded shoulders don’t just affect us when we are on our horses either. Generally, the posture we have when riding is fairly indicative of the posture we are going to have when we are on the ground or vice versa. There are many reasons why we tend to round our backs and roll our shoulders forwards, and certainly when we are riding the way we hold our reins can be one. However rounded shoulders are normally caused by tight pectoral muscles and weak muscles in the back (upper and lower trapezius, deltoids, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi to name just a few) which are created by your lifestyle. Sitting at a desk all day, using a computer, looking at a mobile phone or even sleeping curled up all cause poor posture, weak back muscles, tight pectoral muscles, tight hip flexors and a weak core.

Having rounded shoulders doesn’t just affect your riding it can present real dangers for your long-term health. The most common side effect of rounded shoulders and one you might be already experiencing is strain and pain. Rounded shoulders put a great deal of stress in the trapezoids, upper back, and neck muscles. At the very best this can result in general muscle aches, and at the other end of the scale, you might suffer from pain that needs medical intervention. Rounded shoulders can also trigger tension headaches, which can then become more severe, leading to migraine. Rounded shoulders can also lead to arthritis. What might start out as stiffness in the shoulder and neck and an occasional headache can eventually become a limited range of movement and chronic pain. As already mentioned, rounded shoulders put unnecessary strain on muscle tissue, vertebrae, and joints alike, leading to high levels of inflammation which break down the cartilage and lead to degenerative joint disease.

Having rounded shoulders can promote further postural distortions throughout the body. Remember that your body is similar to a chain-linked fence in that if something happens at the top, it’s going to be felt at the bottom too. Having rounded shoulders can increase your chances of developing conditions such as forward head posture, pelvic tilt, and knee problems!

As our head comes forward and our shoulders round, we increase the weight our cervical spine has to carry.

Over time, poor posture becomes very hard to correct; in part because our proprioceptive system tells us the way we are standing or sitting is straight even when it is not and in part because our muscles, fascia and ligaments are all affected..

The only way one can really solve the issue of rounded shoulders is by working on oneself off the horse. You need to strengthen the muscles of your upper back, the rhomboids (between the shoulder blades), the rear deltoids and lower trapezius (back of shoulders, upper back) as well as opening up the muscles in your chest and strengthening the muscles that support your spine. Generally, the more you can build strength in your shoulder girdle and balance that strength from front to back, the more your body will be able to maintain proper shoulder position in a relaxed and supple state.

Whist really correcting upper crossed syndrome will take several months of regular exercise, such as Pilates or Yoga to strengthen those muscles, becoming self-aware of the issue is a great place to start. When I am working with a rider at a Posture Assessment Clinic, I try to help the student take the “first steps” to correct this issue. Normally, the starting point is to get the rider in reasonable vertical balance by using PI’s weight sensors and cameras so the rider can “see” that they are tilting their torso back. Once the rider is basically in balance we can then start to open up their shoulders by stretching their chest and drawing their shoulders backwards and downwards using a simple exercise called “Dumb Waiter”.  This can be done on PI (my electronic horse) or equally if you have a calm, quiet horse whilst mounted, whilst standing or sitting on a hard chair or Swiss Ball. To do the exercise you need to bend your arms at the elbows, bring your upper arms to your sides, and hold your lower arms in front of you, palms upwards. Have your palms as flat as possible (imagine you are holding a small tray on each hand and don’t want to spill the drink on it). On an inhale, open your lower arms to the side, keeping your upper arms by your ribs. You should feel your shoulder blades drop down your back, and your chest open. Hold for a moment and then breathing out; bring your hands back together. You can also use this moment to see if one hand is lower than the other as if it is, it will show you that your shoulder on that side is lower and you are collapsing on that side.

While this exercise frees the shoulders and allows them to be placed back more effectively, it is only a temporary solution. Just stretching is not enough. Without the required strength in the opposing muscles the shoulders will not be able to stay back without a lot of effort, which causes tension. As a rider, you need to place your shoulders correctly but without tension so you need to strengthen those muscles in your back so you can hold the correct posture without strain.

I like to recommend regular Pilates classes to help riders improve their posture and increase body awareness. Done on a weekly basis, Pilates can not only correct your shoulder issues but will help you become more stable, balanced and supple in the saddle!

Some simple exercises that can help correct rounded shoulders are given below:

Stretching Over the Ball

From a seated position on a Swiss Ball, walk your feet away from the ball until the small of your back is in contact with the ball. Allow your upper back to drop back so that you are draped over the ball, with your head hanging downwards. Take your arms slowly backwards above your head and then bring them down so that your arms are hanging out to the side, palms upwards.  Breathe deeply and relax your spine and shoulders as you allow the weight of your arms to stretch your chest muscles (when out to the side) or open up your shoulders (when overhead).

Spine Extension

Activates the muscles of your upper-back – a great way to compensate for “computer-posture”.

Sit on an exercise ball with your feet a hip’s-width apart. Lift your arms out to either side with and bend your elbows.  Now, rotate your arms so that your hands reach towards the ceiling – as though surrendering. Keeping your shoulder blades wide, lift your sternum towards the ceiling by engaging the muscles of your back between your shoulder blades. Hold this small thoracic extension for a count of 10 and then release. Repeat 10 times.

Anterior Deltoid Stretch

Lie down on a foam roller with your entire spine supported (sacrum to skull). If you don’t have a foam roller you can use a rolled blanket, towel, or yoga mat. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Bring your elbows and shoulders to 90 degrees, so the upper arms are at right angles to your upper body, and your forearms are parallel to the roller (as in “hands up”). Relax your elbows and wrists toward the floor (they may or may not reach). Try to keep your forearms parallel to the floor; the wrists will want to be further away from the floor than the elbows, but try not to let that happen. You should feel the stretch across the chest muscles and maybe even the fronts of the shoulders. Your elbows and wrists probably won’t touch the floor, but don’t worry about that. Make sure your lower ribs aren’t jutting out. Work on allowing your body to relax and letting your chest and shoulders open for at least five steady breaths.​

Trapezius Stretch and Myofascial Release

Seated or standing, relax your right ear down toward your right shoulder. Keep your shoulders level with the floor; avoid letting one shoulder lift higher than the other. Relax your left arm down, and imagine you’re reaching for something on the floor with your left hand. To amplify the stretch, bring your left hand to the left side of your head to apply gentle pressure. Experiment by slowly lowering and lifting your chin to find a better stretch. If you find a particularly tight spot, hold there and take several relaxed breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Plank with Scapular Retraction  

Assume a forearm or low plank position.  Kneel down on all fours, place your forearms on the floor keeping your elbows bent and directly under shoulders; clasp your hands. Straighten your legs, tucking your toes under and come up into a plank position. Your feet should be hip-width apart, and your elbows should be shoulder-width apart. Contract your abdominals and engage your glute muscles. You should now be in a straight line from head to heels. Hold for a count of 5 before allowing your chest to drop towards the floor and your shoulder blades (scapula) to move towards each other. Then take your chest back up, moving your scapula away from each other. Hold each movement for a count of 5 and repeat 5 times.

The Knee

The Knee

A correctly placed knee prevents knee injury and can be used for subtle aids when we ride. However very few people actually spend a great deal of time thinking about their knees until they start to experience knee pain when they ride, a problem that is far more common than one might think. There is also some conflicting advice as to what we are supposed to do with our knees – turn knees in vs turn knees out, and for those old enough to remember – hold a 10 shilling note! So it is hardly surprising if one gets confused as to what is correct.

One of the main problems is that our knees are designed to move in only one direction, which is basically to act like a hinge. Knees are not designed to rotate.  The knee likes to move in a bending and straightening way (flexion and extension). It doesn’t like to be kinked, twisted, or rotated. So if you turn your foot into a parallel position by rotating at your knee, your knees will eventually hurt. Over the years, this pressure causes the medial collateral ligament to tighten and the lateral ligament to weaken and stretch which puts wear and tear on the joint and causes arthritis.  Basically it is our hips or more specifically our hip flexors and gluteal muscles (the muscles in our bottom) that control the rotation of our thigh and therefore the correct placement of our knee.

So on that note, let’s look at some of the common problems I see with knees when I give lessons, as well as some of the reasons why one might get pain in the knees either during or after the ride.

1. Incorrect leg position.

When you ride your ankle should be beneath your hip, as in the old adage “ear, shoulder, hip, heel” alignment. Your thigh bone should be rotated in from the hip joint, which allows the flat of your thigh to be in close contact with the saddle, your knee to touch but not grip the saddle and your lower leg to hang down the side of the horse so that the inside of the lower leg can be applied as and when needed, with an inward (not backward) nudge. To achieve this, your pelvis needs to be in neutral alignment. Too short a stirrup is a major contributor to knee pain. In addition, too short stirrups push your bottom towards the back of the saddle, causing posterior rotation to the pelvis (chair seat) which blocks your hips and forces your lower leg forwards. Too long stirrups tend to cause lower back pain rather than knee pain as they create an anterior tilt to the pelvis (overarched back). Riding with your stirrups too long also tends to take the heels too far back, which can in turn make the knee creep upwards.

2. Gripping with the knees

If you grip with your knees to stay on your horse, you may not only have sore knees but you will block the movement of your horse.  Gripping with the knees is also tiring for the rider, causing general stiffness, and pushing the rider’s seat out of the saddle. Gripping with the knees can also make the knees creep upwards. Unfortunately, gripping with the knees is very common, particularly with beginners and those who feel insecure in the saddle. The classical masters all mention that the thigh needs to be turned to lie flat on the saddle to allow the knee to find the correct position, neither gripping or flapping. Getting the thigh to lie flat takes some effort initially but can be achieved by rotating the leg at the hip slightly inward by pulling the large thigh muscle with your hand, so that the muscles lies behind the thigh rather between the bone and the saddle. However to maintain this position easily you may well need to work on opening your hips, by strengthening your hip flexors, your core and stretching your psoas. The position of the thigh directly influences the position of the knee and when the thigh and knee are in the correct position, gripping doesn’t happen.

3. Knees turned out

There is a huge difference between taking your knees away from the saddle and turning your knees out. Taking your knees away from the saddle momentarily by lifting your thighs out from the hip is a great exercise. It enables you to check that you aren’t gripping with the legs and whether your pelvis is in neutral, not to mention helping to free the hips. Turning your knees away from the saddle is completely different; it blocks the hip and tenses the gluteal muscles , the biceps femoris (the big muscle at the back of your thigh) and gastrocnmius (big calf muscle). All this results in an insecure seat and encourages excessive and very often involuntary movement of the lower leg. The remedy is the same as mentioned above. Grab hold of your thigh and pull the big muscles backwards and outwards so that the flat of your thigh can rest against the saddle. If your thigh is right, your knee is also right.

4. Rotating at the knee

We have probably all been told at some time or another that our feet should be parallel to the horse’s sides. But we haven’t necessarily been told how to achieve it. If the big muscle at the back of your thigh is between your femur and the saddle, your knees will naturally be facing outwards. To counter this it is common for riders to rotate their lower leg and foot forward by twisting at the knee. Apart from the fact that this will pretty much guarantee that you will suffer from knee pain both when you ride and in later life the incorrect placement of the thigh ensures that your hips are blocked and you can’t follow the movement of the horse.

5. Knees creeping up

Mostly our knees start to creep up when we grip with them. If your stirrups are too long and you have to reach for them you will probably tense your legs when your horse starts moving or goes up a gait. As the thighs start to tighten, the knees rise and the hips lock. As our hips and knees become blocked so does the movement of the horse. His movement therefore become less smooth, which makes one tense even more, which forces the knee to rise further etc. etc. Another reason why the knees creep up can be tightness of the psoas muscle. This in itself closes our hip joint, and pulls our thighs and knees upwards. Apart from stretching our psoas off horse with pilates and yoga exercises, one can also think about trying to capture the feel of kneeling when you ride to encourage your hips to open and your knee to stay down and still.

 6. Feet too far in the stirrup

According to the International Society of Rider Biomechanics your stirrups should be positioned beneath the balls of your foot. This is great advice, as the positioning gives your foot support and allows the ankle to be supple and soft which keeps the knee soft and supple. More experienced riders may have just their toes resting in the stirrup, which also allows the ankle to be soft and supple. The Spanish Riding School traditionally taught that there should be so little weight in the stirrups that it should look like a puff of wind could blow them away. The one thing in common with all of these practices is that the positioning allows the ankle to flex with the horse’s movement which in turn allows the knee to flex. If you jam your feet into the stirrups, so that the bar of the stirrup is under your arch rather than under the ball of your foot, your ankles can no longer flex when the horse moves, which puts an enormous concussive pressure on your knees and blocks your hips which in turn will block the movement of the horse. However the problem is often not you jamming your foot into the stirrups but your foot sliding too far into the stirrup. This tends to happen when the lower leg is too far back, either because the stirrups are too long or your hamstrings are too tight. Pilates, yoga or regular stretching can help your hamstrings, whilst shortening your stirrups slightly will take care of the former.

7. Blocked ankles

Blocked ankles mean blocked knees which in turn mean blocked hips and a restricted horse. Blocked (or braced) ankles invariably come about by the rider trying to force their heels down. Our ankles should always be soft and supple so that they are able to flex with the movement of the horse. However so many of us have been taught that our heels should be the lowest point that it is very common to see a rider forcing their lower leg forward and thrusting their heel down. And whilst this might make a good defensive riding position it blocks the ankle, which as mentioned above, blocks the knee and the hip.

As already mentioned, it is is relatively easy to place your knee in the correct position by adjusting the rotation of your thigh. However it is relatively hard to maintain this position easily without working on the necessary muscles. Attending a regular Pilates, Yoga, Rider Exercise, Equi Pilates or Swiss Ball class can make a phenomenal difference to your riding. After all the correct positioning of the knee not only solves pain issues it allows us to ride with more finesse.

Posture & Balance

Posture & Balance

When I first started teaching Rider Biomechanics it was perfectly clear to me on the ground whether a rider was sitting straight in their saddle, over to one side, leaning forwards or leaning backwards. However, it soon became abundantly obvious that what I was seeing and what some students thought they were doing were poles apart.  There was a disparity between where the rider’s brain told her ‘straight’ was and the reality I was seeing. It wouldn’t matter if I told the student to raise their right shoulder a hundred times, they would for a moment in time, but either their proprioceptive system (the body’s internal GPS) would tell them that the new position was wrong and would take them back to their reality of straight or actual tightness in certain muscle groups would prevent them from being able to make the changes I wanted them to.

Unfortunately if we want to become good riders, communicate clearly with our horse and not compromise our horse physically, we need to be able to sit in balance. So being able to sit up straight is an essential skill for riders. At the halt, when viewed from the side, the rider’s ears, shoulders, hips and heels should align. When viewed from the front, the horse’s neck, withers and spine should form a straight line and the rider’s nose, chin, breastbone and belly button should be perpendicular to the horse’s spine. Viewed from the rear, the rider’s head and spine should also align with the horse’s spine. As I mentioned, being able to obtain this neutral position is essential if you wish to have clear communication with your horse. But with the student’s proprioceptive system lying to them, trying to help them find this “ideal posture” was like searching for the Holy Grail.

I soon realised that I wasn’t going to be able to make these changes happen by just telling the student to stop dropping their left shoulder. I needed the rider to see themselves as I saw them and to understand how collapsing a left shoulder could cause their horse to drift to the right.  It was whilst trying to find the solution to these problems that the idea of PI, my electronic horse was conceived. Six years down the line, PI has become an unbelievable successful teaching tool. Cameras mounted to the side and rear show the rider where her body really is in space, whilst sensors at PI’s feet show her exactly where her weight is. Faced with both her weight and a video of herself on the screen in front of her, the student’s proprioceptive system is proved the liar it is.

Self awareness of one’s postural habits and understanding how it feels to have a neutral pelvis and spine and equal weight in both seat bones is the first step towards correcting poor posture.  Only when one can find a neutral pelvis and sit in balance can one start learning how to use the pelvis and weight in nuanced ways to communicate with the horse.

Most people take their normal postural habits with them when they get in the saddle. If they normally tilt their head to one side when they are standing, then they will do the same thing when they sit on a horse. Because so many of us work in offices, a lot of people assume the classic ‘computer posture’ with chin jutting forward, shoulders rounded and the upper body behind the vertical, others overarch their lower backs and virtually everyone sits too far back in the saddle.  Some riders slouch off to the left or right placing their hips, shoulders, and head out of alignment. This puts more weight on one or the other seat bone, puts more weight in one or the other stirrup, puts the saddle off center on the horse, or creates any one of several other off balance scenarios. And when someone has ridden crookedly for years that crooked position feels correct even when they can see for themselves just how crooked they are.

Correcting the problem literally requires retraining the brain to understand what really straight and balanced feels like. It is not easy. Whilst the rider sits on PI, we use the weight displays and cameras to work out how we need to adjust her body to bring it in to alignment. Sometimes the rider is able to make the necessary adjustments herself; other times I use my hands to help the rider find straightness. All too frequently the rider is tight in her hips and lacks sufficient core, sometimes the pelvis is uneven with one side higher or lower than the other. Permanently correcting these issues cannot be done in one session, or even on board a horse but awareness and understanding is the first step. The rider needs to understand where the issue is and what causes the problem and then work on correcting herself, using Pilates, yoga or Feldenkrais type exercises.

Posture, Position and PI

Posture, Position and PI

As a Rider Biomechanics Coach, I know that the way a rider sits on her horse influences the way the horse moves. Obviously, there are lots of other reasons why a horse may not be moving properly, such as the horse’s own asymmetry or a poorly fitting saddle, but one of the most common reasons is our own position and the way we sit on our horse.

The way we sit, or to put it another way, our posture, balance and alignment matters to the horse. Being able to take your pelvis from neutral alignment, apply a subtle weight aid and then take your pelvis back to neutral alignment can make your riding appear more like dancing with your horse. Your aids become invisible; you and your horse appear to be moving as one. A rider with a good seat allows their horse to move to the very best of his ability. Fractional adjustments in your weight will help your horse find his own balance and enable him to move with rhythm and relaxation.

Whilst most of us recognise that there is room for improvement in our riding and know that we need to make sure we are sitting properly and not compromising our horse’s balance, back or movement, there are others who are prepared to pay to have their horse’s back fixed regularly, blame their saddler for not fitting the saddle properly or change their instructor as regularly as their underwear rather than look closer at their own position.  Without a good seat, even the best back-person or most superb saddler will not be enough to allow your horse to move with optimal balance and rhythm. Taking regular lessons can help improve your seat but to improve our riding we need to know what our body is really doing and work on our body’s deficiencies off the horse!

One of the reasons it is so hard to correct poor postural habits is that our body’s proprioceptive system is very good at lying to us. Part of the sensorimotor control system, which is responsible for our balance, the proprioceptive system is actually made up of whole heap of proprioceptors that are sensitive to stretch or pressure in our muscles, tendons, and joints. It is these sensors that help the brain to know just where our feet and legs are, how our head is positioned and whether our torso is erect.

Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, our proprioceptive system doesn’t always tell us where our limbs or spine really are.  Our proprioception capabilities can become impaired due to injury but we can also loose proprioceptive capabilities because of poor postural habits such as always carrying a handbag on one shoulder, sitting hunched over a computer or even just because of our age. It is because our proprioceptive system feeds our brain false information that we revert back to our “normal” position so frequently during riding lessons. If you have ever had an instructor tell you repeatedly to straighten your back, look up, square your shoulders or stop leaning back – then the chances are your proprioceptive system is telling you fibs.

To improve our own riding we need to really look at our position and posture, and work out what adjustments we need to make in our body. Self awareness of crookedness is the first step towards straightness and alignment. This is where I find the use of PI (my electronic horse) so very beneficial. Sensitive sensors under PI’s “feet” give continuous feedback of your weight distribution and whether you are sitting with equal weight on each seat bone, leaning too far forward or too far back. The cameras and video footage enables you to “see” in real time just how your shoulder/hip/heel alignment lines up and helps you learn to find what the correct position should feel like. Once you can sit easily in total balance and alignment, PI then allows you to experience how an adjustment of a hip or a tilt of a torso can affect your weight.

Just as we are able to help our horse make postural changes through gymnastic training, we can also help ourselves and retrain our proprioceptive system with the right exercises. If we want our horse to engage his core and stretch his top line, it is essential that we can engage ours! If your spine isn’t aligned and stabilized by strong core muscles and your hips are stiff, it’s going to be impossible for your horse to move correctly!

Pilates, Yoga and Swiss Ball classes are all perfect for riders as they help improve the posture as well as increasing flexibility in the hips and strengthening the core. In all these classes the alignment of the spine and a neutral pelvis are a key tenet. It is this basic postural principle that can help riders understand where and how to sit in the saddle.

What is Rider Biomechanics?

What is Rider Biomechanics?

Biomechanics seems to have become the buzz word in the equine industry in the last 10 or so years. Everyone these days is a biomechanics coach, but what does biomechanics really mean and is biomechanics really important to you or your horse?

Lets us look at the meaning first. If we look at Wikipedia, biomechanics is defined as “ the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms”. But what does that really mean and how does that relate to you, your horse or your riding?

In a nutshell, Biomechanics is the science of the movement of a living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement or are influenced by an outside force such as gravity, pressure or weight.

I like to break Rider Biomechanics into 3 components – the biomechanics of the human, the biomechanics of the horse and finally the biomechanics of the horse and human combination – rider biomechanics.

Basically all horses and all humans are born asymmetrical and as we grow older our asymmetry increases. This asymmetry places unnecessary strains and stresses on joints and ligaments, and if not dealt with can cause real physical problems for both ourselves and our horses.

The Biomechanics of the Horse

Like us, horses are born right or left handed – or more correctly in their case, left or right footed. They have a hollow and a stiff side and naturally carry more weight on their forehand.  Understanding the longitudinal (front/back) imbalance is easy, although this cannot be corrected until the lateral (side/side) imbalance has been dealt with. Understanding the lateral imbalances and indeed working out just which side is hollow and which is stiff can be far harder. 

The actual terms “hollow” and “stiff” have been used for centuries. The term hollow is used to define the side of the horse that is more contracted, whilst the term stiff is used for the side that is more stretched. In more extreme cases your horse can look a little like a banana, with the stiff side being more convex and the hollow side, more concave. This isn’t a major problem if the horse is never going to be ridden but in order to carry a rider without undue strain, the horse needs to develop a strong back, be equally strong and supple on both sides and learn to carry his weight more equally. Therefore the horse needs to be taught how to improve both his balance and straightness – his biomechanics, using gymnastic exercises.  It is only by training our horse’s muscles and straightening him that it is possible to achieve optimum movement, posture and position. A straightened horse will be physically and mentally in balance, symmetrical and supple and be able to carry his rider with ease. This training is often easier to do without the hindrance of a rider and can be achieved by working with the horse on-line, in hand or on the longe.

The Biomechanics of the Human

As I have already mentioned, all humans are asymmetrical. Most of us collapse more on one side, stand with one shoulder higher than the other, have a dominant hip or place more weight on one foot than the other. In addition to our asymmetry, all too many of us are overweight and lack muscle tone which exacerbates the asymmetry. Another big problem for so many of us, is our lack of ability to isolate certain muscles or body parts, so that we use a hand inadvertently when bringing a hip forward or we clench our gluteal muscles (bottom) when doing a half halt.

To remain healthy and certainly to become better riders we need to take responsibility for our own bodies, become aware of our posture, and work to improve our suppleness and balance. Pilates classes (either mat-based or using a Swiss ball) are absolutely perfect to create awareness, increase suppleness and core strength and teach us how to isolate specific body parts.

The Horse & Human Combination – Rider Biomechanics

Finally we come to the horse and rider combination, or rider biomechanics.  Every time we sit on a horse, we influence the way our horse moves, or he influences the way we sit. If we sit more heavily to our left our horse will move to the left. If we hollow our back, our horse will hollow his. Conversely a horse with a hollow back can cause us to hollow ours!  We need to be aware of our position and weight when we sit on our horse, we need to be able to adjust our position at any moment in time to help our horse achieve correct balance and alignment. We need to remember that our seat is the one aid we cannot take away, and do our utmost to make sure that our sitting on our horse’s back becomes as pleasurable an experience for him as riding him is for us.

When I teach, I like to use PI (my electronic horse) initially to help my student acquire “self awareness”. The weight sensors and cameras enable the student to see their own asymmetries and they have the time to learn what a neutral pelvis feels like without having to worry about the movement of the horse. The rein sensors enable them to see just how heavy handed (or not) they are and they can practice “giving and re-taking” of the reins and half halts without any detrimental effects on their horse’s mouth.

Once we become aware of our own, and our horse’s asymmetries we can use “dressage” exercises as physiotherapy for our horse. Changes of bend in motion are really good for developing the lateral suppleness of the horse as well as the suppleness of our own hips.

The Importance of the Seat

The Importance of the Seat

A good seat is an essential if we want to be a good rider. Every book and every trainer seems to agree on this. How a good seat can be achieved or what constitutes a good seat, is perhaps a little less clear.

Perhaps the first question we need to ask ourselves is why our seat is so important when we ride? The answer is because apart from being our base of support, it is our primary aid. The seat provides an important form of communication between us and our horse. It is the only aid we cannot stop using while we are sitting on a horse; we can stop using the reins, we can stop using our legs but we cannot stop using our seat! If we are crooked either laterally or vertically it WILL affect the way our horse goes. All too many of us don’t exercise nearly enough, long hours sitting at a computer affects the way we sit, add in weak core muscles and tight hips and it is not surprising that so many of our horses have back issues.

Only a supple, well balanced seat allows the possibility of subtle influence. Our ultimate goal should be to be able to reduce our aids down to just tiny changes in our weight and position, so that to anyone watching it looks as though we and our horse are moving as one being.

Unfortunately, for most of us, a good seat doesn’t come naturally. And yet without a good seat we cannot expect a consistent and light contact or deliver our aids effectively. Our hands and our legs are reliant on our seat. Our horses don’t necessarily help us either. It is far, far easier to sit correctly whilst being lunged on a beautifully balanced schoolmaster than riding our own asymmetrically horse that has his own postural issues.  However for most of us, the former isn’t always an option so we have to make the best of what we have.

So let us look first at what is meant by a good seat. Traditionally the classical “good” seat has a three-point contact, comprising the two seat bones and crotch or the two seat bones, crotch and inner thighs. But a good seat surely has to vary depending on the chosen discipline. The answer of course is yes, the seat does need to change depending on your discipline, the movement required and whether you are riding a young, green horse or Prix St George super star. Nor is the seat static, horses are living moving beings and so our seat has to be dynamic not rigid.  But no matter whether we are riding dressage, out hacking, showing jumping or even eventing we need an independent and balanced seat that is supple enough to be able to mirror the movement of the horse!

An independent and balanced seat means that the rider needs to be able to maintain their own balance (self carriage) during upward and downwards transitions and sudden lateral movements (such as turns or even shying) without the use of artificial support (reins, neck strap, saddle), or gripping with their legs! If this is the definition of a good seat, how few of us actually have it? No wonder then that the Spanish Riding School used to expect their students to do 6 months to a year on a lunge without stirrups.

At the very least, our aim should be to allow our seat to follow the horse’s movement smoothly and to keep our centre of gravity in harmony with that of the horse. Only once we have learnt to sit without tension in secure balance can we really follow the movement smoothly and be effective with our aids. An outwardly correct position with tension in the wrong muscles just causes our horse to brace.

Contact & Rein Pressure

Contact & Rein Pressure

Contact is the third building block in the classic German Scales of Training pyramid following after Rhythm and Suppleness (sometimes shown as Relaxation). However, the question of what contact is, or more to the point, just how much contact is needed and how soft or how firm the contact should be, seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with.

According to Gustav Steinbrecht (“Gymnasium of the Horse”) there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, namely, light contact, soft contact and finally firm contact.  He states that a perfect light contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, so the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance can be improved by correct contact.

Contact therefore is, in fact, ever-changing – dependent on the balance and the self-carriage of the horse. The more your horse is in self carriage the lighter the contact is. However, as we all know, there are moments during training when things don’t go to plan and our horse isn’t balanced let alone in self carriage and falls on the forehand. And when this happens, he will get heavier in the hand. The important thing here is not to try to fix the problem by pulling on the reins or shortening them even further but to try and help the horse to rebalance himself by using a downward transition or a series of half halts and double checking that you are sitting extra correctly and that you have your core engaged.

In the most basic terms, contact refers to the situation in which the reins are stretched in a straight line between the mouth of the horse and the hands of the rider. To an onlooker, correct contact should appear as an unbroken straight line from the rider’s elbow (which should be held at or above the hip) to the mouth of the horse.  For this to happen, the rider mustn’t have their hands too high or too low but at the appropriate height for the head carriage of the horse. As a rough guide the hands should be held just above and in front of the pommel of the saddle.

How the hands are held is also important to the quality of the contact. They should be held thumb uppermost with the thumbs pointing towards the horse’s opposite ear and slightly downwards as though pouring a pot of tea. Many riders ride with what I call piano hands – where the hands are turned over as if playing a piano. This position prevents riders from being able to really follow their horse’s head with their hands (so the contact is rigid rather than elastic) so they try to compensate for this by opening their fingers in the mistaken belief this makes their hands light. But instead of having a light-feeling contact, they have almost no contact or no feeling and their lower arms can’t give to the horse or be elastic. When the knuckles are almost vertical (thumbs on top) the two bones of our lower arm run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive and our contact more elastic.

It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands!  Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!

Equally one should never ride the horse from the front to the back but all too frequently this is what we do. The horse should move forward into your hands. In training for contact the horse must play an active part and the rider’s hand a waiting, passive part. In the original German version of the Scales of Training the word Anlehnung is used, which translated literally means “ leaning to” and not “pulling in”. A rider’s hand that is too active backwards or too hard leads to disruption in the horse’s balance.

Contact gives us the ability to communicate with our horse (and the horse with us). To be correct the contact should feel alive.  If you hold your hands correctly, you feel a connection with your horse. When he chews the bit, you feel a small vibration on the reins. When we have correct contact we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit and then through the reins to our hand where we feel that energy as a subtle pulse.

Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.

To have correct contact you need to sit correctly, using your core muscles to hold yourself in balance. An independent and supple seat is the cornerstone and prerequisite of soft contact. Your arms and legs are extensions of this correct position and are able to retain their position without brace. The upper arms hang straight down to your hips and support and frame your core. In this position, you won’t need to pull on your reins to stay in balance and conversely if the horse leans on the reins, you have the strength of your core to keep you from being pulled forward. Even when we ride with contact, we have to bear in mind that our reins are only a secondary aid. Our seat is the primary aid and it is the engagement of our core that helps the horse to engage his abdominals and find his balance.

The amount of actual ‘weight’ in your hands when taking contact will vary from horse to horse due to conformation differences and as already explained, the “frame” or level of schooling of our horse. The contact feels at its heaviest when the horse is stretching forward and down, becomes lighter as the horse comes into balance and even lighter when the weight starts to shift to the hind legs so that the horse now ‘carries’ himself (self carriage).

Another important factor is we have to learn to accept the contact from the horse as he moves into our hand. So many riders ‘give’ the rein as soon as they feel the horse coming to their hand. If they do this regularly, their horse will never be able to step in to the contact. You need to have a steady hand that ‘accepts’ the contact and closes the circle of aids. If you give away the connection at the same time you ask the horse to step under and carry more weight on his hindquarters the effect is like squeezing a toothpaste tube with the top open,  the energy runs out the front and the horse doesn’t achieve the rounded frame you want.

When the rein contact is loose and floppy the horse cannot feel fine finger communication. Without rein contact he cannot learn to go into the round balanced frame needed for true self carriage. However once the horse can hold a round balanced frame, the reins may be given to him for a few strides to see if he can maintain self carriage.

Too strong a contact will block forward movement and prevent the horse from feeling light communication and whilst it might force the horse’s head into position, he will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth), drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation. Too strong a contact also causes discomfort, numbs the mouth and can damage the nerves.

So what is correct contact?  As already mentioned the reins must be neither too short nor too long but form a straight line between your elbow and the horse’s mouth. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it. In fact the definition of contact given by British Dressage says it all “ the ideal contact is a light, even, elastic feel in both reins and this is achieved by aids from the legs and seat, not the hand”.

Having said all that it is really hard to know just how hard you grip the reins. If you live in the UK my electronic horse, PI, is a great tool for seeing what really happens when you take up the reins. Sensors positioned at the bit record the actual amount of rein contact that you take up and show you just how light or heavy your contact really is. If your contact is more than 1.6kgs per rein the display goes amber to show that your contact is too heavy.

It is interesting to see what really happens when you give a half halt and whether you throw the reins away when you release it. It is also fascinating to see what happens to the contact when we do a rising trot!

So far on PI I have seen as little as 250 grams of pressure per rein to over 4kgs per rein. The contact can differ between the hands too – with the maximum variation between the left and right hand recorded so far being a massive 2.5kgs!  Remember that our contact should be even – assuming we are riding on a straight line and our horse is in balance. Unfortunately, hands that are too strong are all too common. A recent study in Sweden found that their riders took an average of between 1.5kg and a massive 2.5 kg of rein contact in each hand. So much for that light, elastic contact that BD talk about!

 

 

 

 

Correcting Crookedness

Correcting Crookedness

I originally wrote this post in 2018 but  it is as relevant now as it was then.

As anyone who has followed my articles for any length of time or attended one of my clinics or classes  will know, I am pretty obsessed by asymmetry (both our own and our horses) and how being crooked can have a major effect on our health, the health of our horse and our riding. So I thought we could have another look at what we can do to help solve some of those crookedness issues!

As far as we, the human, are concerned, there are three major front/back crookedness patterns that we tend to suffer from. Before we look at these and how to help correct them, we need to make sure we know what the ideal is.

Good posture is basically nothing more than correct spinal alignment. This alignment is commonly called neutral spine and it defines correct posture, whether we are standing, or sitting in the saddle.

With ideal posture the body’s centre of gravity is balanced over the centre of the foot, with the weight being balanced equally on both feet. Proper alignment is observed when a plumb line falls from the mid line of the ear, through the shoulder, the greater trochanter (at the hip), slightly anterior (front) of the knee to finish just slightly anterior of the ankle. When assessing the posture from the front, the plumb line should halve the body, with the line passing through the forehead, the centre of the sternum, and the pubis. In addition the head should be level (not tilted), the shoulders should be even without any elevation or depression and the point of hips (ASIS) even.

The most common postural deviations are round backed (kyphosis), over arched back (lordosis) and swaybacked (s-shaped). In addition to these front/back crookedness types, there is also left-right crookedness which includes scoliosis. Obviously being aware of what your posture’s default is, is essential before you can start to correct it. If you don’t know then you may need to consider having a posture assessment.

Awareness of our body (proprioception) is all about our ability to stay safely upright without compromising our joints or ligaments.  The skeleton is supported and moved by the muscles of our body. If our skeleton is out of alignment, then our muscles and ligaments are either overworking or under working to compensate and these muscular imbalances leave our body vulnerable to injury.

So how do we start to correct our crookedness – well fundamentally we can alter our body’s awareness and posture through exercise. It can be Pilates, Swiss Ball, Yoga or Feldenkrais, but exercise, carefully controlled, correct exercise is the key.

Let us look more closely now at each of the 3 main postural types, and what exercises can most help each type.

Round Backed

This posture is where the shoulders are rounded, resulting in an excessive curve of the upper back. You may sometimes hear this referred to as Upper Cross Syndrome. This posture type is common with office workers, or those who spend a long time sitting at a computer, reading, driving or watching tv. Indicators of this postural style include:

  • Head/chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine hyper-extended.
  • Shoulder-blades may elevate and rotate upwards and outwards.
  • Thoracic spine has increased flexion.
  • Pectoral muscles are tight.
  • Rectus abdominis and internal obliques are tight and external obliques are weak/
  • Lower and mid trapezius and rear deltoids are lengthened with the shoulders pulled forward.

Consequences of round backed posture in the saddle:

  • Strains rider’s intervertebral discs.
  • Leads to chair seat with rider behind horse’s movement.
  • Frequently causes rider to look down and round their shoulders.
  • Makes it difficult for the horse to step underneath his point of mass.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Chin Tuck
  • Swan Dive
  • Spine Twist
  • Cobra
  • Chest opener (over ball) or Dumb Waiter
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat, The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Full walk out on ball

Over Arched Back

This posture type is common in pregnant women, dancers, gymnasts, those who carry too much weight around the belly and those who participate in sport requiring repeated lumbar hyper-extension. If your back over arches you may have some of the following:

  • Pelvis tilts forwards (hip bones are in front of pubic bone).
  • Rectus abdominis and external obliques are lengthened and are usually weak.
  • Gluteals (maximus and medius) are weak with poor tone.
  • Hamstrings are tight.
  • Lumbar spine is hyper extended.
  • Knees may be hyper-extended.
  • One hip is frequently tighter than the other.

Consequences of over arched back posture in the saddle:

  • Causes low or mid back pain.
  • Causes horse to invert and hollow his back.
  • Limits suppleness in the rider’s shoulder girdle.
  • Makes it hard to find elastic contact.
  • Makes it hard for rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Pelvic tucks
  • Cat & Horse (mat)
  • Arch & Chair (ball)
  • Hamstring stretch
  • Side Clam
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat. The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Seated walk out on ball

Sway Backed

This postural type is common in people who stand for long periods of time, particularly when they rest the majority of the body weight on one leg. This posture’s main features are:

  • Head and chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine is slightly flexed.
  • Lumbar spine is flexed.
  • Posterior tilted pelvis (pelvis is swayed forward in relation to feet).
  • Weak hip flexors (stretched).
  • Upper rectus abdominis short and tight but lower abdominis weak.
  • Knees hyper-extended.
  • Hamstrings short

Consequences of sway backed posture in the saddle:

  • Puts rider behind the motion, can cause leaning on the reins.
  • Makes it hard for the horse to step under his point of weight.
  • Restricts the movement of the rider’s pelvis.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Jack knife with ball
  • Ham string stretch
  • Bridge
  • Boat
  • Squats
  • Plank
  • Plank with side bend
  • Side Plank

Like us, our horses are probably crooked. Hollow on one side, and stiff on the other. Just as we need to recognize our postural type so we can do the right exercise for us, we need to know what our horse’s natural tendencies are.

Like ours, our horse’s proprioceptive system will lie to him. We need to help the horse have a greater awareness of his body. We need to help him find better balance because otherwise we leave his body vulnerable to injury.

So what is “straightness” in a horse?  Straightness as a term used in the training pyramid refers to the horse’s feet being aligned on the line of travel. This means that the inside pair of legs are on the inside of the line, the outside pair of legs on the outside of the line, with the spine (in theory, if not practice) forming a segment of the line.  So on a straight line the horse’s spine would be straight and on a curved line, the spine would be bent. Unfortunately one of the main problems with this is that the horse’s shoulders are narrower than his quarters and your horse will invariably try to line up one front leg with the hind leg on the same side, rather than centring his shoulders directly in front of the pelvis.

When you’re riding whole school (going large), most horses will tend to lean against the rail with their outside shoulder, so that their outside front leg is the same distance from the rail as their outside hind leg, which means that his shoulders are no longer centred in front of his pelvis and the horse is crooked. Because the inside hind leg is no longer able to step forward and under the centre of mass, the outside shoulder will have to support the share of weight that the inside hind leg should be carrying but isn’t.

Very often we become aware of our horse’s asymmetry because our saddle slips to one side. Our initial thought may be to tighten the girth and the second that we need to change our saddle.  But this is probably not the answer. Recent research in Australia has shown that over tightening a girth results in deterioration in the overall performance of race horses. And whilst we may not be racing, over tightening a girth will certainly affect our horse’s biomechanics. A better fitting saddle may be the solution, and having your saddle checked out by a Master Saddler or qualified fitter is always worthwhile to ensure that it does fit properly, but in my experience, a slipping saddle is often caused by how our horse flexes (or rather doesn’t) his hind legs and carries his body weight. So before changing your saddle or over tightening the girth try sending your horse to the gym.

Just as we are right or left handed our horses will favour their left or right side. Over time this leads to the over development of shoulder muscles and/or haunches on the side (normally the stiff) they prefer to weight. Your horse will be heavier in the hand on the stiff side, fall out or in with his shoulders on the stiff side and fall in with his haunches on the hollow side. When a horse is crooked he has difficulty in stepping underneath his body mass with his hind leg on his hollow side. This can lead to a shortened stride with the hind leg on the stiffer side and cause problems with the correct flexing of the joints. When the hind leg can’t flex properly, the hip on that side rises. This can cause the saddle and rider to slide over to the other side. Changing your saddle will therefore not alleviate the problem, only a rehab program where you work on correcting your horse’s crookedness will correct the muscle imbalance.

We can choose to work with our horse either on the ground or in the saddle, or with a combination of both. I find it easier to start on the ground, either on-line or in hand as then I can actually see how my horse is moving and teach him the movements without the interference of my weight. Other people prefer to do all the exercises under saddle. There is no right or wrong, it is whatever is easier for you and your horse but fundamentally the exercises to correct your horse’s crookedness are the same. To achieve straightness we need to teach the horse to bring his hind legs under his centre of gravity and flex the joints during the weight bearing phase of the leg, this can be done by working on curved lines, changing the bend and using lateral movements.

Basically we can choose exercises that create body awareness and coordination, supple the entire body of the horse or target individual muscle groups.  The following two exercises allow us to analyze our horse’s crookedness as well as generally supple his entire body.

Exercise One – Diagnosing Crookedness – Figure 8

Mark out 2 x 10 metre circles (volte) with cones to mark gates ways at 12, 9, 6 and 3, with the circles sharing a common gateway at 3 and 9. Ensure that both circles are perfectly round and exactly the same size.

Ride the circles at a walk and then a trot. Observe what happens. As a result of natural crookedness most horses will make the circle on the hollow side smaller and larger on the stiffer side.

Exercise Two – Spiral Volte  – Improving Crookedness

  • Ride a 10m circle (volte) in the first corner of the long side of the arena.
  • When your horse is parallel to the short side of the arena, enlarge the volte 2 strides from the inside leg, so that the shoulders and hips move out simultaneously. When enlarging the circle to the horse’s stiff side he will want to lead with his shoulders, when enlarging the circle towards the horse’s hollow side he will want to lead with his quarters. Ensure that both hips and shoulders move together, if the shoulders or hips lead there is no gymnastic benefit.
  • The moment you have enlarged the circle by 2 strides, turn the shoulders to resume the volte. This way the volte remains the same size throughout as it progresses along the long side of the school.
  • When you reach the second corner of the long side change the rein through a figure 8 to a new 10m volte and repeat the exercise on the other rein.
  • Start at a walk and when you and your horse know the pattern try it at a trot.
The Importance of the Feet

The Importance of the Feet

So far in this series we have looked at “the importance of straightness” and “the importance of the hips”. But just as you can’t build a house without a good foundation, we can’t correct the posture of either our horse or ourselves without looking at our feet. Both horses and humans will find a way to favour the leg (foot) they prefer, so working on both our own and our horse’s asymmetry needs to be a continual process. We can obviously help to address the issue by improving our awareness (of both our own and our horse tendencies) and changing our proprioception. The problem for both us and our horses is that we are set (subconsciously) in a whole pattern and it is only when we become aware of the root cause of the problem that we can start to fix it. And that cause is all too frequently our feet.

Let us look first at ourselves without the horse. Yoga teachers often use the word grounded. It can be a verb (to ground through the feet) or an adjective (a grounded feeling). Taking it literally, we can start by feeling our physical connection to the ground. Feel all the different points on your feet that are touching the ground right now. Is your heel resting on its inner edge, or its outer edge, or the middle? Is there more weight on your toes or on your heels or is the weight equal? Is the ankle tipping to one side or the other, putting weight on a certain side of the arch? Become aware of how you are standing.

Now, through this connection to the floor, let the rest of your body relax towards the ground. Imagine the heaviness of your shins and calves flowing through your ankle to the ground.  Picture the weight of your knee and thigh bones flowing downwards, then imagine the weight of your pelvis sinking towards the floor. Let the weight of the spine and the head flow down towards this stable base. Now you might start to feel “grounded.”

Grounding is not always a feeling of heaviness, it is also energising. With both feet on the floor, notice how the ground holds firm and doesn’t sink. Imagine your feet resting on a pillow, and then feel the comparative hardness of the actual floor. It quite literally supports you. It even pushes back. The “ground reaction force” is studied by athletes and it is this “ground reaction force” we need to use as riders to help our horse obtain true impulsion. In other words “ground reaction force” is the rebound of your action against the ground, or when we are riding the rebound action of our horse’s hoof against the ground when it is placed correctly.

The idea of grounding is a mental shift; we might not feel or think about it when we are practicing yoga or Pilates but all the standing and balancing poses should focus on lifting off and pushing away from the floor. Sports and good posture do the same. We have to welcome the floor, with our feet, and lift off from there. Then our posture will have a stable foundation.

Just like your horse, your foot position is a critical factor with every step you take. Most of us are either “pigeon toed” or “duck footed” and this affects both our knees and our hips. It is only when we walk with our feet pointing forward that the muscles and ligaments that surround our hips and knees are able to work properly.

The simplest way to check whether your feet are in alignment is to use the straight edge of an exercise mat. Line up

the outside edge of your foot so that it runs parallel to the edge of the mat. Now your foot is straight and your pelvis can work correctly – however the chances are this positioning will feel abnormal.

To test out how much our feet can influence the freedom of movement of our pelvis try this exercise. Sit up straight, towards the front of a hard chair, with equal weight in each seat bone.  Your knees should be at approximately 90° and your feet pointing straight ahead with the weight equally distributed across your foot. Now, without raising your heel, try and lift your right hip, taking the weight from your right seat bone and closing the gap between your rib cage and hip bone, without moving your torso.  Do this a few times and then try your left hip. Once you feel that you have the movement try transferring your weight into the outside of your foot and try again. Then turn your feet out and try.

Now let us look at the horse. We know that if we want our horse to use his body correctly, he has to be in balance. The fact that he can have 60 per cent of his weight on his forehand whilst he is grazing isn’t a problem – providing there is no one sitting on his back. However the moment we sit on his back things change. If his hind legs are behind or to the side of his central mass then physics dictate that the combined weight of both the horse and the rider is on his forehand. That in itself can cause long term damage to the fore limbs and shoulders but if the rider tries to change the head set by just using the reins that damage can manifest itself with problems in the poll and neck,  kissing spine or damage in the lumbar sacral area.

As you will know yourself, if you lose balance you will tense your body to avoid falling over, perhaps even taking a step or two forward or backwards that you hadn’t intended. That also happens to our horse. If he doesn’t feel secure

on his feet then the horse will brace and in more extreme cases, rush or refuse to move! How many people have horses on which they use stronger and stronger bits because their horse “leans” on it, perhaps the horse is only leaning on the bit to help with his balance?

Although it may seem impossible, lots of horses don’t seem to know they have four feet. Like us, our horse will have a dominant side – perhaps his left, perhaps his right and most of his weight will be carried on the front leg of that side (that’s the shoulder that falls out or in on a circle). Some horses struggle so much with the concept of transferring weight on to the other 3 legs they refuse to lift that particular hoof when being trimmed, shod or having their feet picked out. Our response is frequently, that our horse is naughty or stupid – but it may well not be that – it could easily be that our horse is frightened of falling over.

As always one of the best ways to see if there is a problem, and to start to teach the horse how to use all 4 legs, is on the ground. Start (assuming it is safe to do so) with standing in front or a little to one side of your horse. Observe if the forelegs are vertical or if the horse is leaning over them so they are a little behind the vertical. Is the weight more on one front leg than the other? If he is leaning over his front legs ask him to shift his weight back, does he take a step backwards or does he just shift his weight? Once he is standing with a little more weight on his hind legs ask if he can transfer his weight from one foreleg to the other, can he just shift his weight or does he need to move his feet? Once you can influence the front feet take a look at the hind feet. Is one hind leg a little to the side and is one leg further back? Ideally we want all 4 feet standing squarely underneath.  Try asking for the leg that is trailing behind to step forward a little. With time and patience you can start to influence the way your horse stands. However it does take time, patience and appropriate exercises – remember your own problems with your own proprioceptive system.

This is where working on a circle and asking your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg and lateral exercises in hand can really help. It teaches the horse to have awareness of his feet and how to engage the correct muscles without the added burden of the rider’s weight.

Once we’re in the saddle we need to take a further look at ourselves before we turn attention to the horse. Weighting the inside more than the outside of our foot can shorten the space between our hip and shoulder on that side. Whilst turning one foot out more than the other can increase the weight in the seat bone on the opposite side. Turning both feet out blocks our hips, as does carrying the weight on the outside of the foot. Rolling the weight to the outside of the foot also raises the heel and strains both the ankle and knee. In order to have both feet pointing forward with the weight equally distributed between the inside and outside of the foot we need to rotate our thigh bone (femur) at the hip. This can be done by standing in the stirrups and grabbing the inside of your thigh by taking your hand around th

e back of your thigh and pulling your inside thigh outwards and back. Do this and then carefully sit down allowing your knee to drop downwards. Initially the position won’t last – that damned proprioceptive system will ensure you go back to what is the norm for you. But by being aware of your own tendencies and making the correction on a frequent basis will eventually pay off.

Once we have sorted ourselves out, we can start to think of helping our horse become more aware of his feet. We all know the benefits of doing lots of transitions but you can take this a step further by stopping into individual hooves.

Obviously in order to do this exercise, you need to know how to feel the footfall of your horse and ideally how to stirrup step as well. Assuming you know both of these basics, ride at a walk on a 20m circle.  Think of your circle as a clock, to make this easier it is a good idea to place markers at 12 ‘o’ clock, 3 ‘o’ clock, 6 ‘o’ clock, and 9 ‘o’ clock.  The idea is that you are going to stop at each marker by transitioning to a halt over 3 strides of each individual leg. Start with the outside fore and half halt into this foot when that foot is on the ground. The half halt needs to be applied between the moments the foot touches down and before it passes the vertical. You can do a half halt either by using a stirrup step on the same side as the foot you are targeting, by using a slight drop in the pelvis on that side, or by the rein on that side (or any combination of the former). Apply the half halt twice (i.e. for two strides of the outside fore) and then on the third stride stop into the outside fore. Check if your horse has stopped square. If he hasn’t ask him to move the relevant leg or ask him to take a step backwards if your rein back is good.  Walk on again and this time, target the outside hind.  Check your halt and then walk on again. Now target the inside fore and finally the inside hind. Repeat the exercise a few times and then try it on the other rein. Do all the half halts and stops go through equally? Or is one foot much harder to communicate with? If your horse is weighting the opposite shoulder to the foreleg you are targeting, or not stepping through properly with his hind legs they won’t. This exercise can be used as both a diagnostic and as a corrective exercise and the half halts and stops should become more permeable with repetition.

Many people believe that a supposed weakness or bad habit must be overcome through some forceful routine. That is not true, awareness is the key and then we can target the issue with appropriate exercises. This way, our (or our horse’s) flexibility, balance and alignment will increase automatically.

The Importance of our Hips

The Importance of our Hips

Our hips have a major influence on the way we ride and the way our horse goes. Tight hips are a major cause of us bouncing in the saddle at a sitting trot, excessive movement of our lower leg, head nod (in the human) not to mention restricting forward movement in our horse. Problems in the hips aren’t just related to tightness either.  Our hips can be tight and weak at the same time not to mention be unbalanced either on the side to side or back to front planes. If our pelvis isn’t level and one hip is higher than the other, then our horse will fill the gap and lift his hip on that side, so that the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of our pelvis is inadvertently further forward than the other, then our horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position most of the time. If we consistently have too much weight in one seat bone, then our horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as fall in or out on a circle in that direction. If our pelvis is always tipped forward then our horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back, whilst if our pelvis is always tilted backwards so that we sit in a chair seat, then our horse’s back will sag and his hind legs will trail out behind. Conversely we can use our hips to create the correct bend in our horse, lengthen the stride, half halt and ask for lateral movements

As riders we need our hips to be able to move from a neutral position, with our seat bones pointing down, to the desired position we require to give our horse an aid, and then back to neutral again. Therefore to become good riders we need to not only to have an awareness of what our pelvis is doing, i.e. whether our hips are level or unbalanced, we also need to have mobile hips so we can adjust our pelvis to do what we want it to do, when we want to do it. Tight hips can lead to all sorts of problems in our own body too. They are a major cause of common issues such as lower back pain, hip pain, and so much more. Therefore correcting our hips is not just about our riding it is about our own health too. So identifying and correcting any  pelvic tilt could not only radically improve your riding it could very well end any lower back pain, hip and knee problems you may experience as well!

The first step therefore is to diagnose if you have uneven hips? The chances are that your hips are uneven if you:

Carry one shoulder higher than the other.

Carry one shoulder more forward than the other.

You tend to stand with more weight on leg.

One side of your torso appears longer than the other.

One leg appears longer than the other.

Your horse drifts to the outside on a circle on one rein.

Your horse drifts to the inside on a circle on one rein.

You struggle to ride a straight centre line without using your reins to correct.

Your horse turns more easily one way

You struggle for canter leads on one rein.

It is common to develop muscle imbalances around the hip. Sitting for long periods of time, driving, sleeping on our side, slouching to one side and standing with more weight on one leg than the other can all exacerbate uneven hips. Hip exercises can be used to address the problem but before we look into what we can do let’s look a little deeper into the problem area.

There are several muscles around our hip area that need to be strengthened and/or stretched to allow our hips to move correctly,  but probably the most important of these muscles is the iliopsoas, which comprises of the iliacus and the psoas, which lie deep in the back of the abdomen. Other important hip flexor muscles include the periformis, the tensor fasciae latae (TFL), the rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscles) as well as the gluteus maximus (which is on the back of your hip or buttocks) and the gluteus medius, which is the primary muscle on the side of your hip.

Beneficial exercises include Warrior One, the Bridge, and the Boat.

Warrior One

Stand with your feet a hip’s width apart. Exhale as you step your feet wide, about 4 to 5 feet.

Turn your right foot out 90 degrees, so your toes are pointing to the top of your exercise mat.

Pivot your left foot inwards at a 45-degree angle.

Align your front heel with the arch of your back foot. Bring your left hip bone towards the front of your ma, to align your hips as much as you can.

Press your weight through your left heel. Then, exhale as you bend your right knee over your right ankle. Your shin should be perpendicular to the floor

Reach up with your arms. Broaden across your belly, lengthen the sides of your waist, and lift through your chest.

You can keep your arms parallel, or press your palms together.

Gently tilt your head back and gaze up at your thumbs. Keep your shoulders dropped away from your ears. Feel your shoulder blades pressing firmly inward.

Press down through the outer edge of your back foot, keeping your back leg straight.

Hold for up to one minute.

To release the pose, press your weight through your back heel and straighten your front leg. Lower your arms. Turn to the left, reversing the position of your feet, and repeat for the same length of time on the opposite side.

Bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor – toes pointing forwards, a hips width apart. Your knees should be pointing straight upwards. Ensure that your feet, knees and hips are aligned.

Check that your head isn’t tilted and that shoulders are level.

Place your arms by your side, palms downwards. Feel your spine on the ground. Your spine should be in neutral with the natural arch in place. Breathe slowly and fluidly.

On an inhalation, engage your psoas, tuck your pelvis forward so that the small of your back touches the ground  and start to lift your spine, one vertebra at a time, off the floor. Leave your shoulders grounded and keep your pelvis tucked forward, as you press your belly upwards. Hold and feel the stretch for a count of 20.

On your next out breath – reverse the movement, one vertebra at a time. Keep your pelvis tilted and your psoas and abdominals engaged. When the small of your back touches the ground relax your pelvis into the starting position. Relax for one breath cycle and on the next inhalation, repeat.

The Boat

Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat, toes pointing forward, about a hips width apart. Ensure knees are aligned with hips.

Grasp the back of your thighs, just below the knee, or the front of your calves just below the knee. Breathe into your centre. Extend upwards through your spine.

Gently rock backwards onto your seat bones. Engage your psoas and lift your feet off the ground.

Keep your shoulders relaxed. And slowly raise your legs until your lower legs are horizontal to the ground.

Stretch your arms forward, palms facing inwards. Hold for a count of 20.

Return your lower legs to the floor.