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.
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.
- Chin Tuck
- Swan Dive
- Spine Twist
- Chest opener (over ball) or Dumb Waiter
- All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat, The Hundreds, Scissors
- Full walk out on ball
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.
- 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
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.
- Jack knife with ball
- Ham string stretch
- 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.