Reflexes and habits
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Monday, September 21, 2015 08:06 PM
You hear a lot that horses are not designed to carry a rider. However, nobody is talking that humans are not designed to ride horses neither :) A lot of reactions and responses in human body are designed for the sole purpose of moving a person on his feet not on a horse. Unfortunately, these responses are so ingrained in us we do not realize we ride our horses with the same reactions if we were on the ground instead. Below are the several examples I discovered.
Biomechanics of human walking are such that we fall forward and catch ourselves with every step. This is very energy efficient way of moving. However, to initiate the process a human body must lean forward and let legs step forward to catch itself. Different people will initiate the walk differently. Some start with their chest, some with their pelvis/hips. But regardless of the part of the body, leaning forward is a very natural response when it comes to initiating the forward progression. It requires very little movement/leaning to start falling forward and moving a leg to catch yourself. You all can easily imagine how this will create a problem on a horse. Naturally, a rider subconsciously initiate the lean either with the chest or pelvis but nothing happens. The horse didn't move. Still not really registering that with the mind a rider will tighten the lower back and push the horse with the hips or lean forward more and start rocking. All these responses stem from a human way of initiating the movement not correct aiding of a horse. Tightening of the lower back is extremely common in riders myself including. Pelvis work very differently on a horse and discovering exactly how and retraining yourself is a huge undertaking. Only now I feel like I am starting to get the enormity of this problem. I am working on myself right now, teaching it to my students will be the next step.
Similar problem as walking. Humans turn by turning their head first then shoulders and feet simply follow. This is normal and very natural way of turning for us when we are on our own feet. The situation drastically changes when we are on a horse. We are all asymmetrical and we turn one way differently compare to the other. On a side where shoulder and hip are sort of "stuck together" turning the shoulders will be enough. Because hip will respond right away trying to stay "together" with the shoulder the horse will "hear" this request and turn. The other way shoulder and hip are not "glued" together so shoulders turn but that is it. Hips do not, so horse doesn't "hear" the request and doesn't turn. The natural reaction of a human body is to turn more which means turning shoulders further. Now the body is twisting out of the saddle and seatbones start to unplug and fall out. Also, riders naturally want to lean into the turn because that is how we move.
Modern humans sit in strollers and car seats before they even can sit on their own. They sit in cars, in front of TV and computers, in school, etc. Unless a child started riding before he/she got exposed to all this sitting a big chance exists that riding a horse will be viewed by the body like another sitting. Automatic response to the sitting is relaxing and giving up your balance to the surface you sit on. If you observe people sitting in doctor's waiting rooms, in theaters, or events almost nobody sits with their feet flat on the floor, the feet are mostly forward, rarely you will see someone sitting upright if a back support exists, people lean into it. During riding a conflict is created between a human body that automatically want to give up it's balance (last thing you want to do) and a horse that moves and moves sometimes fast and unpredictable. When a human body experience the shock of how uncomfortable horse's movement is it starts to panic, stiffen up, push with the feet to get away from a strange surface and use hands to grab on to something to prevent the fall. Fear of falling is the fear we are born with. It is actually way easier to learn to balance on a horse standing on your feet than to learn how to sit correctly because a human body is very well equipped to deal with the balance issues on its feet but not on its seatbones.
Muscle Chains
We all know how trying to move one part of the body may create an unwanted movement in another. For example, common task of keeping your shoulders back usually creates tension in the lower back. Unfortunately, correct riding position has several places that trigger such chain reactions. Below are the ones I am aware of:
  • Many riders have their hands turned fingernails down. This rotation triggers chain reaction in the shoulder joints. The upper arms "want" to rotate inward at the shoulder joints making elbows stick out and rounding shoulders.
  • Expanding on the previous statement. Legs must be slightly rotated inward to keep thighs and knees flat against the saddle and toes pointing forward. This creates a chain reaction in the arms. They also want to rotate inward. However, they must be able to rotate outward in shoulder joints and the wrists. Try it for yourself and you will feel whatever rotation you initiate either inward or outward either with arms or legs the other extremities what to follow the same direction. These actions must be independent in the saddle so shoulders can stay open, the wrists able to rotate outward to give an aid and legs are rotated slightly inward to stay quietly and adhesively against the horse's sides.
  • In the saddle pelvis does not advance forward. It slightly rotates from vertical to forward (seatbones pointing forward) position following the movement of the horse. This motion is aided by core muscles. However, any rotation of the pelvis initiated by core muscles will automatically try to drop the chest and round the shoulders. Keeping your pelvis effortlessly matching horse's back movement without having any effect on the upper body is a challenge. Particularly in canter where this movement is biggest. Trying to forcefully keep shoulders open will as mentioned above tighten lower back which will hinder the pelvis movement and the horse will feel the tightness of the rider.
  • Giving a leg aid usually triggers muscle tension in other parts of the body - side, shoulder, hand. Giving a leg aid absolutely independently requires focus and training. Actually, giving a precise aid without triggering unwanted tension or movement anywhere else in the body is much harder than it looks. It requires great body awareness to catch yourself tensing up or shifting when you didn't intend to.
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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