Breathe Some Magic Into Your Riding

I have spoken before on the importance of your breathing whilst your ride.

However I want to focus less on the hip relaxing today and more on the energy and connection with your horse.

To be honest it can be quite a difficult thing to explain how and why horses respond to our breathing pattern when we ride them and there can only really be hypothetical answers ranging from it being how our body language/position etc. changes subconsciously, they feel vibrations and electromagnetic fields to plain old magic!

So rather than try and give you any of these arguments I’m just going to give you some things to try out and you can come to your own conclusion.

Just sat still on your horse or at a walk breathe right into your belly and then progress this by imagining you are breathing right into your thighs wrapped around your horse.  Do this for a couple of minutes just focusing on your breath going right down into your thighs, down your legs and imagining that breath being felt by your horse. How does your horse respond?

If your horse is really tuned in and communicating with you, you may just find he starts to match your breath too, breathing in and out with you so you draw energy from each other’s breath. Imagine how connected you must be for that to happen?

You could also try breathing in for 8 beats (that’s hoof beats not full strides!) and out for 8 beats. This is great way to relax either you or your horse-or both! It can be useful to practice this at home and then it is comforting exercise when you really need it out at a show or on a hack.

When you are in a rising trot and want your horse to stretch down and really use his back, I want you to rise and breath out but think –breath down-yep rise up and breath down! Just try it…….does your horse stretch down a little bit more? This is only way I know how to get a horse to stretch down!

A great way to improve your seat in the sitting trot and canter is to try breathing in for 2 strides and out for 2 strides. This may be because it helps to free up your hips which in turn can also help to free up a lazy horse but to be honest don’t think about the why’s and wherefores just accept the magic as it happens!

Rest not Press

There has been much talk in my classes recently about foot position and various stirrups to help with position or pain issues.

 

The stirrups I think are great, I’ve had a pair of Sprengers for years and I honestly feel like they helped with my Peroneal Tendon issue (that’s side of shin FYI).

 

However whilst discussing the various new technologies in stirrups I noticed there was some variation in how we are taught to place our foot in the stirrups.

 

Not necessarily the positioning as ball of foot seemed to be the general consensus and although toes up heels down is considered the bench mark we all agreed that a parallel foot is sufficient-phew! My heels were never going to get lower anyway!

 

When it came to weight distribution there appeared to be a difference of opinion.

 

If you’re a regular reader you will know I am an avid follower of Mary Wanless and her Rider Biomechanics work. Mary advises you to “rest not press” the foot in the stirrup.Mary comes from a Physics background and refers to Newton’s Third Law of motion.

 

“For every action there is an equal and opposite action”

 

In relation to riding this means that if you press down with your foot, whether that be the ball or the heel this will cause the joints to straighten and you will inadvertently pop the rest of you up. This causes you to brace your muscles rather than actively recruit them.

 

So, what to do instead?

 

In order to effectively use your seat, be stable and able to make clear aids you need to utilise the big muscles of the hips and legs. You need to use them to bear your weight, this creates a light seat, and what I call relaxed tension which simply put means the muscles are working but they are not tense.

 

Your foot should be resting in the stirrup and you want to be bearing a light weight equal through the ball of the foot, but there is also weight being taken down through the thighs which enables you to control your leg aids.

 

Next time you ride I want you to think about bearing your own weight. Rest your foot on the stirrup, activate your legs and encourage them to hold your weight up without tensing or bracing.

Are You Really Riding?

I’m sure you know that riding is a sport, and that we riders can get quite offended if someone suggests that the horse does all the work.

 

However, when you are riding are you really behaving like an athlete yourself, or in fact are you on autopilot just rising up and down to your trot and not really thinking about how effective you are being in this partnership?

 

If riding is a sport, then each time you train you should be tuned into your body and how effective it is being today.

 

If you ask runners or tennis players for example they rarely go into a training session and just go through the motions. Their whole body is switched on, muscles primed and ready to perform.

 

How many of us can truly say when we ride our bodies are switched on, muscles firing to perform at their best? But you expect your horse to do this?

 

If you watch the top riders you will see their muscles are switched on and active when they ride; no ones pootling around Badminton on autopilot! Yet I see many riders even those at competition just getting on board and  expecting their horse to perform whilst they just sit on top maybe with the odd flap of a leg or twiddle of a rein…….

 

So I want you to think about this when you ride this weekend, no you may not be riding around Badminton but I presume when you ride you want to be improving and therefore it is a training session?

 

Embrace your inner Equestrian Athlete and get on with the intention of really working hard yourself, using your body and focusing on your part on improving your partnership with your horse.

 

Stable Seat

Hip Stability is the key to seat stability and indeed stability of the legs.

There are some big muscles involved in stabilising the Pelvis, as well as some small ones and they all need to work together when you ride to enable your pelvis to be a solid foundation for your body.

Briefly, we are looking at the Glutes (that’s your bum), the abductors which are the outside of your hip, the adductors which are the inner thigh (although I find few riders struggle with strength here) and to some degree the hamstrings at the back of the leg, the quads at the front and the abdominals.

As discussed last week, toes turning out can be a sign that the hip muscles are not able to stabilise correctly.

Lack of hip stability can also present as a wobbly lower leg, tipping forward or back and difficulty sitting to a horses’ movement.

 

There are lots of exercises to work hip stability but here are a couple of my favourites.

 

Bridge

Single Leg Lift

SLDL

Rev Lunge Knee Up

Toes Turning Out?

An incredibly common problem I see is riders toes turning out. It's frustrating isn’t it; as you have a lovely ride and someone takes a picture and all seems well until you realise your feet are pointing at quarter to three!

 

I also imagine over the years your instructor may have tried to turn your foot in causing you to yelp that it won’t go that way!

 

There can be a few common reasons why riders feet turn out.

 

One reason is tight abductors. The abductors are the muscles around your outer hip and bum. These are the muscles that turn your hip out -and therefore turn your foot out! When we sit on a horse these muscles which sit on the outside of our hip are put into a shortened position as our inner thighs (adductors) are lengthened to go around the horse. Due to this continual shortening they can become "over shortened" and unable to relax back down which then travels down the leg and rotates the whole thing.

 

Another reason could be a spasm in the Piriformis muscle. The Piriformis is a muscle located deep in the glutes and is a hip rotator, so it’s very action is to turn the foot out. As with the abductors it can become tight and then hold the hip externally rotated-causing the duck feet effect.

 

In both of these cases another issue that needs to be addressed is Hip Stability. If there is weakness in the abductor and glute muscles they will “latch on” to try and create stability.

 

For this reason I always like to take two pronged approach to this issue.

 

Step one. Release the muscle.

Step two. Strengthen the muscle.

 

We are of course going to start with releasing the muscle.

 

Release The Muscle:

In order to help the muscle relax and lengthen we need to release any impingement that may be present.

 

Start with the Anti Spasm exercise for the Piriformis.

https://youtu.be/EVd1RBbrmtE

 

Then try releasing the abductors and Piriformis with a ball or foam roller-personally I prefer a ball. Any ball will do such as a tennis ball, of a hockey ball or one of those spike physio balls I hand out all the time.

 

For the Piriformis sit with the ball somewhere between your seat ball and your outer thigh-you’ll know when you’ve hit it! Roll around there, pressing and releasing until you feel the tension fade.

https://studio.youtube.com/video/xdOrJtIxy5E/edit

 

For the abductors I find the traditional foam rolling technique too strong for most people so I suggest just hand rolling the ball down the outer thigh from the outside of the hip to the outside of the knee.

https://studio.youtube.com/video/-fJ5gjz7YhI/edit

We will have a look at hip stability next week.

 

 

 

 

Bottom Rib to Hip

I work regularly with riders on how they can better activate their core whilst riding. It’s not that most riders don’t have great core stability they just struggle to activate it whilst riding.

Often when asked to sit up tall we simply stretch up-often sticking our chests out (your headlights as I call them) and have then created admittedly a taller frame at the front but our abdominals are now in an elongated position and we will be shorter at the back. Then in order to try and stabilise riders will often lean back a little more as the horse moves forward creating a hollow back.

In order for our core to work effectively we actually need to be equal in length at the back and at the front.

This enables us to use our front and back equally and be able to truly stabilise and go with the movement of the horse.

Now of course for some riders they are actually using too much front and too little back and in fact need to open up, but I see way less of these riders so I’m going to focus on the former position for this week,

Essentially to create equal length front and back we need to close the front a little which in turn if done correctly will activate the muscles of the abdominals and hip flexors enabling them to work correctly.

I use the cue –take your  bottom rib closer to your hips, which is basically a tiny ab crunch. (The ladies in my class has changed this phrase to P!bes to B**bs….I’m sorry but apparently that makes it easier to remember!)

To find the right muscles and movement pattern before you get on your horse you can try this exercise on the floor. It’s like an ab crunch but with about 2/3 less movement.

So I want you to lie on the floor, knees bent feet hip width apart. Your hands go behind your head-purely for support they do not pull on your head at all! Your elbows should also stay out to the sides throughout. You are going to recruit your abdominals and as you breathe out pull them back towards your spine. Do a few breaths like this first to get the hang of it, breathe in let your belly rise, breathe out, recruit and draw in towards your spine. You are trying to prevent your belly from popping up as you lift up. Now breathe in to prepare as your breathe out recruit the abdominals and send your bottom rib towards your hips, your shoulders lifting slightly as you do so-however the bottom of your shoulder blades should still be on the floor. Keep your eyes focused to the top corner of the room. Your belly should not pop up as you lift.

If you feel this in your neck you are not recruiting your abdominals correctly and may need to focus on just the breathing pattern for a while until you master it.

Once you can feel this recruitment pattern try recruiting bottom rib to hip whilst on your horse. This adjustment will appear really minor and you should remember to keep your shoulders open as the rib cage drops-otherwise you will be in the opposite problem of too hunched!

Give this a go and let me know how it feels and if it helped!

 

Influence the Tense Horse

If you ride a tense of stressy horse it can be difficult to understand how you can influence him other than hanging on for the ride and pushing forward.

 

However there are some things you can do with your own body that will help a little-or at least not make it worse!

 

It seems obvious but it can be really tricky to actually do, but try it to hold tension in your own body.

 

Start with your breathing. Breathing into your Diaphragm or belly breathing taps into your Vagus Nerve which creates relaxation in your own body that will transfer to your horse. It also encourages relaxation of your Psoas muscle that sits at the front of your hip, this will allow your seat and leg position to be more relaxed.

 

Keeping your elbows closed into your sides encourages you to switch on your back muscles which will allow your arms and hands to relax down the reins. You will have a much more stable but relaxed contact if it comes from your back rather than your arms.

 

Before you get on rolling your glutes on a small ball can release tension in your seat, and of course some general movements such as arms swings or fig 8s, leg swings, squats and lunges can encourage muscles to switch on and work more efficiently rather than bracing under tension.

 

If all else fails have a little sing song as it will help you do the above without even realising! I’d avoid any Mariah Carey high notes though……..

Pre Ride Switch On

Last week I attended a course by Andy Thomas, who is the physio for many of the top level Equestrians including the British and American teams.

 

We discussed pre ride warm ups. Of course it is common place to warm your horse up at the beginning of every ride, but what about yourself?

 

I rarely see riders do anything to prepare themselves for the schooling session, Dressage test etc.

 

With any other sport athletes perform a warm up before they start. The purpose is to prepare the body for the work you are about to ask it to do.

 

For riding I also think it is important to realign the body before you start as hours spent hunched over desks, driving or doing yard work are not conducive to a good riding position.

 

So how should you warm up to ride?

 

Firstly we need to switch on the muscles we are about to use, and in some circumstances release any that are “hypertonic “ or “over tight” as I explain it to clients.

 

Which muscles are you going to use? The short answer is of course all of them but most importantly the legs and glutes, the core/back muscles.

 

I find it also helpful to switch on my stabiliser muscles by doing some balance work.

 

I know this sounds like a lot of things to do and perhaps like something that involves needing a gym or equipment before you’ve even got on your horse.

 

That is absolutely not the case, in just 2-4 moves for just a couple of minutes before you get on I promise will make the world of difference to your ride.

 

I’ve done a couple of routines that you can try out, either separately or altogether depending on how you feel.

 

I have used Dumb Waiters to switch on my back muscles, reverse lunges to a standing balance to switch on legs, glutes and the stabilisers.

 

In another I have used press ups on a mounting block to switch on the back/core and crab walks for legs, glutes and hip stabilisers.

Cue your rein contact

Last week i talked about cues and how giving yourself just a couple of things to focus on can make your life much easier as well as actually helping you to learn faster.

 

Following this we had a discussion about rein contact in one of my classes- we happened to be doing some exercises to improve it at the time.

 

In my humble opinion (and the opinion of many biomechanics based teachers) a stable but soft rein contact comes from stable shoulders.

 

The muscles surrounding the Scapula (the shoulder blade) and those down your spine create stability in your shoulders and torso to enable your arms to both remain still and move freely.

 

Of course having good muscle strength and control in these areas helps but there are also some cues that you can use whilst riding that will help to tap into this strength.

 

Close your elbows to your side -the enables you switch on your back muscles.

 

Close your “back armpit” i.e snug the back of your arm close to your body with a little squeeze. This activates the muscles between your shoulder blades.

 

Finally imagine someone is pushing onto the front of your hands and you are resisting their push-it can help to get a friend to push against your hands and you resist them to get the feeling you are after. What you should find is this activates the front of your body.

 

See what we’ve done there? We’ve activated the muscles at the back of the body and then the muscles at the front.

 

3 Cues:

  • Elbows into side
  • Close back armpit
  • Resist a push with your hands

 

If you are struggling with your rein contact try this out and let me know how you get on.

Improve with cues

When you embark on an “improve your riding” project it can all feel like an impossible task. There are so many things to remember and then do all at once, whilst on top of a moving animal!

 

So, what to do?

 

Whenever you are trying to master something give yourself just 2-3 cues max-even just 1 if you are really struggling. That way you can just focus on the most important elements, nail those and then tidy it up later.

 

As an example I spent some time essentially re-learning my rising trot mechanism in order to be able to influence the horse more with my body.

 

This involved such things as:

 

Hinge more over the knee

More ab recruitment

Tuck tail bone under

Keep elbows in

Draw shoulder blades back and down

Look straight ahead

Stabilise lower leg

 

Thats 7 cues there and to be honest there were probably more!

 

Instead of trying to do all of those new things at once I focused on the ones that would make the most immediate impact.

 

For me that was the stability of my trot so I focused on:

Hingeing over the knee

Tucking the tail bone under

Recruiting abs

 

This was more than enough to be getting on with and they were all in linked areas so it was essentially re-aliging my pelvis as a starting point.

 

Once I had got those pretty much there, I added in stabilising the lower leg and then looking straight ahead.

 

It is only now that these are “almost” second nature that I have started to focus on my elbows and shoulders.

 

Now this seems like a long process, but on the other hand if I had just tried to change everything all at once I would have found it too difficult and probably given up-so I would not have imrpved my rising trot at all.

 

However this way, I have been continually month by month, ride by ride been slowly making changes and improving my trot.

 

What do you want to improve in your riding? Break down the things that you need to focus on to improve and then just pick no more than 3 from that list to start with.

 

Imagine how much you could have improved in 1,2,3 and 6 months from now;my rising trot looks like a different rider!

 

Biomechanics, Posture and Performance for the Equestrian

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