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.