Upper Body
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Monday, February 29, 2016 07:52 PM
This time we are discussing upper body's role in rider's ability to balance on a horse and influence horse's movement. In one sentence - upper body must stay very quiet, stable, upright and centered at all times (three-point seat only) . The common problems that are seen in upper body:
  • Excessive leaning forward/back, left/right. This problem is usually due to lack of core strength and/or lack of balance
  • Pumping shoulders or excessive rocking. Riders do that to "drive" their horse forward. Other reason is locked hip joints and canter motion moves the whole torso not just pelvis
  • Excessive twisting during turns. Either rider simply too inexperienced and perceives turning on a horse like turning on his/her feet. Or, common for everybody, a human body is asymmetrical and twists/collapses one way but not the other
  • The front is collapsed and back and shoulders are too round. The reason is usually bad posture off the horse and/or an assumption of sitting on a horse like sitting in a chair
  • The front is too long and back is tense and arched, shoulders too far back. This is common in young girls, particularly jumpers, more common in women than men
  • Position of the arms will affect upper body balance. Elbows pulled backwards, hands pulled down will inevitably make upper body collapse or lean forward
One of the challenges of controlling upper body comes from the fact that it is not in contact with the horse. Our legs are, our seatbones and buttocks are, our pelvis is but not upper body. Because of that it is very easy to lose the correct alignment, become shifted one way, particularly to outside during turns and circles due to centrifugal force. Or, lean in trying to help a horse to turn. The taller a rider is, particularly in the torso the harder it is for him/her to control upper body posture. Ideal rider's conformation for dressage is long legs and short upper body. Everybody else must learn to overcome their shortcomings.
One of the very important prerequisites to stable upper body is supple core. Supple means strong and flexible. Lack of either will bring stiffness, instability and severely handicap a rider in his/her ability to influence the horse. Just strength itself is not enough because tight core muscles will pull rider's chest down, impede breathing and create stiffness. The important quality of rider's core is to relax and contract in harmony with horse's movement. The most difficult gait is trot because of the tempo and diagonal nature of this gait. The core must adjust with the same speed as horse's foot falls - 1-2-1-2-1-2... The weak core will simply unable to contract and release that fast and the strong core may find it is easier to simply stay tight all the time. When exercising core muscles it is better to choose a variety of movements that not only hold contraction statically like in plank, or move with a lot of amplitude like in sit-ups, but also pulsate with small and fairly fast contractions and releases like laughing. Check this exercise on my website pelvis figure eights. Supple core is very important because it allows pelvis/seatbones to move with the horse's back while upper body rides quietly on top of that movement absolutely undisturbed. Weak or turned off core will force the lower back to assume the role of stabilizing upper body. Lower back is not designed for that, it will simply stiffen up.
Another challenge that core brings is asymmetrical strength. If you have ever done twisting core exercises you know very well how one direction is always easier than another. Stronger side will contract faster and with more power and pull upper body toward itself making riders collapse and twist more to one side. Even the best riders in the world have this issue. It is just not that obvious.
If you catch yourself being stronger on one side exercise more on the weaker side to help balance it out.
Left and right handedness creates habitual responses in upper body. Upper body shifts away from your dominant hand to help stabilize the body and allow the hand to do it's job like reaching, lifting something, opening doors, drawing while standing, etc. On a horse a rider may automatically shift away from the dominant hand upon activation of the hand for a half-halt. This habitual response will be very helpful when dominant hand is outside one but not when it is inside one. Shifting upper body away from the dominant hand when it is inside one and is trying to ask a horse to flex will collapse the hip and disconnect the inside seatbone. It is incredibly hard to catch this habitual response in your own body. One of the ways to help yourself is by using your other hand more for every day tasks such pouring coffee, holding a pot, reaching out to get something, always change sides when mucking stalls, shoveling snow, throwing hay over fence. Catch yourself employing your strong side for something, pause and use other side even if it is less coordinated, slower and not so efficient. Also, ride with reins in one hand and alternate the hands.
Wash your hands and observe if you rub your hands equally or you hold one hand and rub with another? If you catch yourself rubbing with only one hand try switching hands and notice how awkward it feels. Becoming more aware of how you do simple things like that will help you develop better awareness of how you do things on a horse.
Human Habits
Humans are very active with upper body. We use it when we are on our feet in a similar way a horse uses it's neck when playing at liberty to help balance ourselves. We turn by looking first then turning our shoulders and our feet follow. When we lose balance we spread our arms, wave our upper body and catch ourselves. Neither of these habitual responses are good when you are in the saddle. A rider cannot simply turn shoulders and expect the horse to follow his/her request. Moving arms, using reins to catch your balance and leaning out of the saddle will make your horse extremely concerned, most likely uncomfortable and at the worst panicky. These habitual responses are very hard to control not to mention get rid of. One of the ways to work on it is riding on the lunge line with no reins and no stirrups, doing calisthenics exercises. For young riders vaulting is absolutely invaluable and should be a part of a program in every riding school. I have done it in my youth and it is super fun and develops sense of rhythm, coordination and athleticism in young riders. And the school only needs one horse for it! :)
Besides general tips described above there are very specific images and ideas that can help a rider control upper body position:
  • The line of rider's shoulders and the line of horse's shoulders must be parallel to each other on straight lines, during turns and lateral work. A rider must adhere to this rule very literally. Every rider have a tendency to have one shoulder slightly more forward compare to the other. This means one direction rider's shoulders will be ahead of the horse's and the other direction rider's shoulders will be behind horse's shoulders. Even little difference will affect horse's ability to turn with ease and balance. Often this will be manifested in rider's hands position. One hand will be ahead of another. The forward hand will be on the side that advances forward too much, particularly when being on the outside during turns/circles.
  • In every turn and on every circle glancing down a rider must see that his/her gaze falls upon horse's crest right at the base of the neck. Not to the inside and not to the outside of the neck. Do not look down for long, just a quick glance once in a while. This insures rider's upper body is centered above the horse.
  • Beth Baumert in her book "When two spines align: Dressage Dynamics" talks about vertical line through the rider's body. For the turns a rider slightly spiral inward his/her vertical line. This spiraling has nothing to do with loose turn of the shoulders. It is a feel of torque through the entire spinal column that goes all the way down into rider's seatbones.
  • Elbows must stay on the hips if not literally then figuratively. If you become aware that one of your elbows keeps disconnecting and pulling away from your upper body this is a sign of imbalance. The same side of your body is stretching away and elbow is just a symptom. Basically your arm is trying to catch your balance by moving away as your body senses its instability even if it is not yet falling off the horse. Usually one elbow does it more than another.
  • Focus on carrying your chest very upright and very quiet. Imagine it just glides forward. No pumping up and down, no rocking left and right, no twisting back and forth. Whatever movement is happening below the chest it gets absorbed in the hips and core and shouldn't move up through the spine.
  • Sally Swift idea of neatly stacking up all your body parts - pelvis, core, chest, shoulders, head must sit one on top another. Often it is not the hips that fall to the side but the middle, the ribcage or even the head can pull rider's centre of gravity to the side. There is no one particularly important part, they ALL must stay in their places. And rider's job to check himself/herself over to make sure they are stacked up.
  • When everything is balanced correctly it feels quite effortless to be in the movement with a horse. If you become aware you are stiffening up in an effort to stay balanced (particularly if the stiffness is localized) you can be sure something is not in a right place. A lot of time it is not even the same side. For example, if rider's left side is pulling away the right side will tighten to hold the left from falling. This is incorrect reaction. The rider must bring the left side back to it's place instead of letting right side hold it.
  • Sometimes the whole side will be either sagging down or pulling down on the rest of the upper body. This will be manifested in dropped shoulder and also often dropped hand. If you catch yourself riding with hands that are not level and one is often higher than another for no apparent reason this is a sign of imbalance. Do not ignore this. Start with simple approach - try to keep your hands level and observe how your body reacts to it. This will help you find deeper root of this problem.
Happy riding...
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