Reaction Riding

If you see the videos of my classes you will see sometimes we’re outside in the arena having a great laugh balancing on gym balls and wobble boards throwing stuff at each other, sometimes without looking at the person or saying a different name etc to make it more difficult.


Of course there is usually lots of laughing and everyone does enjoy themselves but is there some method in this madness?


Of course there is!


How many times have you been merrily trotting along on your horse then suddenly you’re going sideways or facing the other direction? Those pesky pony eating invisible monsters!


To stay aboard and hopefully maintain some control takes not only good core stability but also super fact reaction skills.


The majority of the time you are on your horse your body is reacting to the movement underneath you so spooky horse or not your ability to ride consistently well is affected by your reaction time. Of course spooking and “surprise” behaviour just add an extra test into the mix but your ability to react can make the difference between a minor second of non compliance or a hitting the deck scenario.


So that’s what we’re really up to on those gym balls throwing stuff.


Why not have a go at training your reflexes and reaction times yourself?


You don’t need a group of crazy women on unstable surfaces (although I highly recommend it for the fun element). Instead why not try.


  • Learn to balance seated or kneeling on a gym ball. It will move underneath you meaning your body has to react to stay balanced.
  • Throw and catch a ball with one hand.
  • Throw a ball against a wall.
  • Try the ball throwing on a gym ball……
  • Play with a Reactor ball -it’s an odd shape so when you throw it on the floor it pings off all over the place meaning you have to be sharp to keep up!


Are You Symmetrical?

As riders our aim is to be as symmetrical as possible that is with equal balance and strength front to back and side to side. This gives us the best foundation for absorbing and working with the force of the horse underneath us.

Of course in real life 100% symmetry is not really going to happen but we can aim for 99% right?

When riding we want an equal connection and reaction time from the top to the bottom of our body.

You see if we give aids we want them to be instant, clear and concise and of course to get the desired reaction.

If you need to give an aid for say Shoulder in. You put your inside rein on and  your inside leg on to create the bend at the shoulders and then the outside rein and outside leg then also act at the same time to support the movement and stop the horse falling in at the shoulder or turning and the hind from swinging out.

Now when done well this all happens simultaneously, but if we do not have equal strength and reaction time what may actually happen is this: Inside rein comes on and creates bend at neck, inside leg kicks in and has to try and create bend from the rest of the horse. The horse starts to turn before the outside rein kicks in so in fact it has to now try to turn the horse back whilst the outside leg is basically a lost cause! You see what happened here was not one aid of bend at the shoulder, stay on the track moving forward but in fact a series of smaller aids one after the other-I know the scenario will sound familiar to many of you!

This is why equality and harmony from top to toe and side to side is vital! We very rarely give an aid with just one part of our body, with a right hand aid the right leg, left hand and leg support and vice versa etc. If the support act doesn’t kick in at the same time as the aid your horse will do exactly what that aid asked him to do-in the above example turn his neck………as your leg didn’t support and tell him shoulder.

This of course doesn’t just apply to shoulder in, it applies to any aid in fact. It applies to your ability to ride straight lines – what if the left side asked for forward first before the right side came too?

Then of course circles, lateral work and so on.

Then back to front and back equality.  This is a big area in the ways it presents and causes problems so I may write about it in more detail another time as it is commonly misunderstood, however the basic premise is that your should be equally working the front and back of your body the entire time you are riding. This not only creates a good neutral alignment but it also enables you to absorb the movement of your horse more effectively and therefore give better aids and in many cases prevent the many cases of back pain, shoulder pain, hip pain etc.

Let’s try this really simple exercise to see whether your top and bottom, front and back, left and right can fire at the same time.

Starting on your back. Try lifting your left arm and leg up at the same time-does one lift quicker than the other? Now try the right side? Now try opposite sides so left arm right leg. Notice if it is consistently say your arms that lift first, can you make arms and legs lift at the same time?

Now try the same exercise on your front. Notice if this feels easier or harder than on your back. If it feels harder you perhaps favour your muscles on the front of your body and of course vice versa if it was easier on your front you favour your back muscles. Again can you lift top and bottom and left and right at the same time or does one always fire first?


This will give you an idea as to how you give aids on your horse.

I always lift a leg first, my left side was much easier and more equal and I favour my front muscles. How about you?


Create some space in your ribs

Often I talk about recruiting your core correctly whilst riding by visualising sticking your bottom rib to your hips. I have found this technique works really well, however another element to this is being able to keep the chest open to avoid the shoulders rolling in.


Unfortunately as most of us spend the majority of our time hunched over a desk we struggle to do this and instead bend from our lumbar spine sticking the chest up to create an open feeling in our chest. This unfortunately then undoes all the good work you had done on creating a neutral pelvis as by lifting the chest you have more than likely lengthened the front.


In order to be in balance the front and back of your body should be the same length.  In order to create an open shoulder and chest without compromising this length we need to create space at the rib cage and keep the abdominals switched on and short.


This is actually very subtle when you see it but I promise you the effects can be magical. I have mentioned before how if we are hunched and heavy in front this transfers more weight to the front of our horse, which can go a few ways from a very heavy horse in the hands, being on the forehand or struggling to really use the shoulders-either way it’s not what we are after.


To help you learn this technique I have an exercise for Thoracic extension. That is essentially upper back extension. It is a really subtle and small movement that focuses on keeping that bottom rib to hip with core engaged and then trying to separate the other ribs up and away and from each other.


Begin lying on your front, arms down by your sides.

Engage your abdominals so that you should feel them lift away from the floor a little. Keep your bottom ribs on the floor throughout, gently starting at the top of your chest imagine separating your ribs out and lift forward so that your head will come up but the only movement should be in your upper back. Return to the start position.


This can be made harder by putting your hands on your forehead as this adds additional weight.

This exercise should be done slowly and with real focus on the ribs. Try working up to 2 x 10 reps.


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.



Single Leg Lift


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.


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.


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.

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……..