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.