Upper Body. Part II.
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, January 28, 2015 11:38 AM
I finished the previous blog with the idea - your upper body with the pelvis underneath it must be like a tensile structure resembling a rectangular shape - the bottom is seatbones/hips, the top is shoulders. It must be supple, vertical, level, centered, square and stable at ALL TIMES. No wobbliness, collapsing, twisting, leaning, stretching or moving too much. This is the only way to sit into the horse's movement without disturbing it. Organizing legs and hands after that is relatively easy :)
Now why is it so difficult to remain quiet on a horse? Staying balanced on a horse is as difficult if not more difficult as riding a unicycle. For some reason, riding a unicycle does sound like a challenge but riding a horse is not so much. Unlike unicycle a horse also can trot and canter which are quite bouncy and canter is also uneven - rolling from outside hind to inside front leg.
If you are bound to become a rider later in your life I am sure you had a rocking horse in your early childhood. That is not a good thing :) A rocking horse does not move until a child makes it to move by rocking his/her body. You cannot imagine how many adult riders continue to "rock" their horses trying to make them "move". A real horse moves by itself no rider's "help" required.
Why it is so important to sit as quiet as possible without any unnecessary movement? Imagine you are carrying a big enough backpack that affects your balance. Do you want it well packed, no things bouncing inside or pocking you in the back and very evenly packed so it does not pull you to one side? Have you ever carried a child on your shoulders or back who couldn't sit quietly and was wiggling all over the place? If you haven't, do try you will know how a horse feels. Do not think for a second that your weight, balance or lack of it does not make any difference to a horse. A horse of 500 kg of weight carrying a 70 kg rider carries 1/7 of it's weight, It is like a 70 kg person carrying 10 kg backpack! Plus it is proven by studies that horse's efforts increase 2 to 3 folds with rider on compare to when no rider is riding the horse. If a rider weighs more all these numbers will increase.
Now, why then riding instructors keep giving advice like "relax", "follow your horse", "move your hips", "pull your shoulders back", "stretch up, sit tall", etc. All this advice works for particular circumstances and if a rider understands it correctly. Here is the really confusing part. You can really influence your horse for the better by "stretching up", "twisting", or "pushing down". The trick is you do it all inside of your very square and rectangular shape. You do not actually stretch up, you create a sensation of stretching in yourself. Your core muscles will be working against your back muscles and "stretching up" will create a lift in your horse. It is an aid for collection. If you simply stretch up which means you actually lifted your shoulders and arched your back nothing will happen except you will become very stiff and your horse most likely will fall on the forehand and drop his back. You end up pulling on the reins.
Like a very good tightrope walker your body has to keep itself very balanced by engaging muscles against each other. Even simple action of sitting on a physioball will give you an idea of what I mean. The moment you relax/tighten something more than another the ball rolls from under you. Like a person learning to walk on a rope at first a rider is really struggling: falling forward, backwards, leaning, collapsing, using his/her hands to catch balance. With practice a tightrope walker starts to look "relaxed", "quiet", like he/she simply walks on a rope, like it is "easy". Same with riding... Do a tightrope walker and a rider become relaxed? No, they become correctly toned, supple, in control.
Lets assume you are developing your core and flexible hips and you can find a position where your pelvis feels very vertical with seatbones deep down and you control that position with your core muscles. Pelvis moves with the horse's back. This movement is small and supple which means controlled. Your lower back stays supple because it does not have to protect the spine, core does that.
You have been observing your habitual patterns and found and working on those that lock your body in unfavorable position like pushing one shoulder always forward, or collapsing to one side, etc
You are also working on your posture and proper balance over your feet on the ground. All this will allow you to find a better balance on a horse.
Things to work on and observe while riding:
  • The movement of the horse is absorbed below upper body. Upper body quietly rides on top of that movement. No "rocking" of the horse.
  • Shoulders are part of the upper body not part of the hands. Shoulders appear "relaxed" when rider is not pulling on the reins and the balance is correct. A rider will tighten the shoulders to catch his/her balance or while pulling on the reins for whatever reason. Keep shoulders down, pushing them away from each other. "Blend" them into your back.
  • Practice off the horse a correct lifting of moderate load. Then remember a feel you had in your core, back and shoulders. Similar muscle engagement is required for stable upper body position.
  • The maintenance of an upright upper body position is created through a sense of "lift" in the front. It should remind you of lifting a load. However, muscles of your buttocks will not be involved. The muscles that are involved are bottom of your core "pulling up" on the front of the pelvis and big muscles of your back working against core muscles to keep the upper body from collapsing forward. Leaning loosely backwards or arching lower back while lifting the chest has nothing to do with it.
  • The turns/circles require a sense of "spiraling" or "twist" when the inside seatbone is pushed forward and down and inside shoulder "opens". Again, it is all only a sense. The movement is minuscule almost invisible. Actual pushing, opening and moving with only make a rider tense and unbalanced. Mostly it is done through the core muscles, oblique in particular and back muscles assisting. The common problems of leaning too much forward or inside are either compensations for lack of balance/stability, desire to "help" a horse, or a habitual response in anticipation of a turn (like on a bicycle).
  • Like a tower supported by guy wires your upper body stays vertical no matter what forces push it around. The tower has a little give but do not collapse or brake down. Same with the upper body. It is supple to be able to give a little but never reaching a point when it starts losing its balance.
  • If you see a picture of yourself riding and you see an elbow sticking out a bit, one heel raised, or shoulder dropped. These are things to look into, contemplate on them and find a culprit that usually resides in uneven strength and length of your abdominal/back muscles, hips that are not symmetrically flexible/strong and through trickling down effect may reach the end of your leg or hand like a tight sole or wobbly wrist.
Making yourself balanced on a horse is a life long commitment. However, it is worth it. It improves your riding, your health and subsequently your whole life!
Happy riding...
 
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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