Upper Body. Part I.
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, January 15, 2015 07:11 PM
Lately in my riding I have been paying a particular attention to my upper body position. I have a tall torso and that creates a challenge to keep it very stable and properly aligned. I have a tendency to tense my lower back and to collapse forward and through the left side. This makes my half-halts ineffective and I start pulling on the reins. In theory I knew the importance of upper body stability but in practice I thought I am doing it :) The upper body works like a lever and not just during half-halts but in general for a balancing purpose . It can greatly enhance a rider's ability to balance and collect his/her horse. But it only can work if it is well aligned and connected with the pelvis. It must be stable and strong without becoming stiff and it must not collapse under outside forces like momentarily strong contact, bounce of the trot, rocking motion of canter or centrifugal forces of a turn.
The very well-known and important ear-shoulder-hip-heel vertical line is a very superficial way of checking rider's alignment. A rider can meet this criteria and still has knees/toes out, arched/tense lower back, pelvis that is tilted forward and chest that is too lifted. Please read the following blog to find out more on the pelvis and legs alignment. Click here.
The other important component is core stability and correct breathing. These two go together, a rider cannot develop one without another. The stable core is the foundation of the upper body. Without it a rider will tense in wrong places like gripping with the knees, locking hips/lower back, shoulders and neck. Stable core gives a rider's body sense of security for the lower back. When lower back feels secure it can relax and work as needed with a positive tone which create suppleness. Neither stiff and locked lower back or too loose and wobbly lower back will feel good to a horse. However, a stable core will not automatically guarantee stable upper body position (this is where I made a mistake).
Now when the parts below upper body well seated, aligned, supple the challenge is to keep upper body stable/supple, correctly aligned and then use it effectively. One thing is to position everything correctly at a halt, another is to keep it positioned correctly at a 10 m circle in canter, for example. These are two very different tasks. Many riders do not realize the sheer forces acting on their bodies during trot/ canter, more forces during turns, circles, lateral work to name a few. Some of these forces will get absorbed in the hip/knee/ankle joints plus into core. In simplified explanation the upper body has to deal with centrifugal forces of turns that throw an object outward and with forces of strong contact even if it is momentary and/or uneven contact (stronger in one rein than another) when the horse loses it's balance and leans into rein/reins for support. To preserve correct posture and balance a rider must resist to these forces and this were things can go wrong in so many ways.
The three main problems that riders encounter are:
  • The natural human ability to balance on their feet rather than on their seatbones. Which means balancing on the seatbones is awkward and brings all kind of compensations (two-point canter seat is easier to learn than three-point canter seat).
  • Subconscious reaction of a human body to balance itself in a "most convenient" way. This means using stronger muscles and parts of the body like arms/hands that are designed to help us catch ourselves during loss of balance. A response to use our hands is so ingrained and involuntary it takes a long time and persistent training to get rid of on a horse. In my opinion it is a detrimental practice to give children reins when they haven't yet learned to balance themselves in the saddle the correct way.
  • The rider's desire to "help" his/her horse perform which makes riders lose their correct alignment and twist, lift, lean, push, stretch, etc
How does a rider approach this challenge and start working toward more balanced upper body position regardless of forces acted upon it? There is no easy or simple fix. I will list the steps that are very important in my opinion. However, it is only one approach and these steps are not the only ones needed in order to achieve more stable upper body.
  • The first thing a rider must develop is ability to watch what is happening in his/her body on a horse and off the horse, notice consistent patterns of tension and then ask a question "Why". A rider does not have to deal with these issues alone. There is a whole host of professionals that can help starting with physiotherapists, body workers, riding instructors to name a few. But the desire to learn about your habitual patterns must start with you.
  • Working off the horse to develop flexibility, core control, better sense of balance and quiet strength to hold certain postures,especially, during balancing acts - Yoga, Pilates, Physio Ball, etc. There are classes, Internet, books, the list of resources is endless.
  • Develop an ability to really listen to your horse, easier said than done, trust me. He is only reacting to what he feels is happening. He does not have an agenda to annoy or upset a rider. 90% of the time he simply tries to figure out what you want. He does have his own imbalances and asymmetry issues and they are as hard to fix as yours. The problem is you are the only one who can fix it, he doesn't care. The bottom line watch yourself, watch your horse. Observe, observe and observe...
  • Do not be afraid to create hypotheses and test them during your ride. You do not have to invent the wheel again. There are numerous people who done already a lot in this field like Mary Wanless, Beth Baumert, Sally Swift, Suzanne von Dietze to name a few. But you still have to digest and own the knowledge they share with you. As I said there is no easy way.
In the next blog I will give more practical advice on how to develop a more stable upper body and use it to influence the horse. The one idea to start thinking about is 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, 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 :)
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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