Stable Shoulders = Soft Contact

Much is spoken of soft hands and soft elbows when riding however very rarely is much thought given to the shoulders other than are they rounded?

The thing is the soft and stillness of your hands and elbows relies on a well functioning shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle refers to the Scapula and the Clavicle and the Coracoid Joint that connects them together.

There are many muscles involved with Shoulder Function but the main ones to consider are Serratus Anterior, Pec Minor, Levator Scapulae, Rhomboids and Trapezuis.

As the shoulder is not a weight bearing joint stability has been sacrificed in favour of mobility.

This unfortunately means it is a prime candidate for instability and dysfunction. If you do not have a stable shoulder girdle you will not have stable elbows or hands as their actions start at the shoulder.

As many of us spend hours of the day in poor posture (Hunching, lifting……)the first thing we must do to improve our shoulders is to actually restore their movement patterns and function.

These are two great exercises for just that.

Firstly the shoulder blade decompression. This can help to loosen the shoulder muscles and help you to feel their movement.

On all fours without bending your elbows retract your shoulder blades-this will feel like you are dropping them down and that your shoulders come up. You should aim to keep your neck and shoulder muscles relaxed throughout. Just do 10-20 of these.

The second exercise focuses on restoring the most basic function of the shoulder blades and that is to retract.

This is much harder than you think if you are not used to doing it! Standing up put one arm in front of you keeping it straight and your neck and upper shoulders relaxed retract your shoulder blade so that the arm moves backwards. Everything else should stay still-no hunching your shoulders or poking your chin out! Once you can do the arms singularly do both together. I like to start singularly to encourage symmetry and spot any imbalance.

Once you are up to both arms moving relaxed and freely start to hold the retraction for 5-10 seconds maintaining a relaxed neck and upper shoulders also notice if your elbows try to turn out.........



Sitting Up Tall

Last week we talked 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 and shortening and activating the core at the front.

Remember how I mentioned that 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 is to create space at the rib cage and height.

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.

Can You Stick Your Rib To Your Hip?

This week I have been looking at how riders can better activate their core whilst riding. As I regularly come across riders who have great core strength on the ground but struggle to activate this on the horse.

The thing is when on a horse the position many riders often put themselves in actually stretches the abdominals and therefore makes it more difficult for them to work. When we are 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.

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

In order to create this and then be able to use our core effectively we need to be able to stabilise from our bottom rib to our hips and then extend up from our upper ribs to keep the torso straight rather than hunched.

As this is all quite complicated when you first begin to work with it so I am just going to ask you to work on activating the core and imaging you are trying to get your bottom rib closer to your hips for this week.

This can be done by modifying the basic crunch exercise. I very rarely do abdominal crunches with clients as they actually have very little benefit to the abdominals (they actually work the hip flexors) and more potential to cause back pain.

However when done correctly they are a great exercise to teach riders this bottom rib to hip concept.

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 as you do so. 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.

These are really tough to get right so don't be disheartened if you find them difficult.

Work up to doing 3 sets of ten reps.

Next week I will show you part 2 where we learn to then lift from the ribs without switching the core muscles off so get practising these before then!




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What Does Your “Bum Shake” Say?

This week I attended The Mary Wanless Ride With Your Mind Demo Day. If you are not familiar with Marys’ work she places great emphasis on rider biomechanics and how we as riders can affect our horses’ way of going. She was years ahead of her time!

One of the things Mary spoke about was the power of a handshake. You know how particularly in Corporate Settings your handshake will give the other person clues about your personality, well every time we get on our horse we give him our own hand shake…………..except it’s a “Bum Shake”.

When you are in the saddle your horse is learning important things about you.

Do you sit heavy or very light?

Are you sat equally on both seat bones?

Do you follow his movement quietly, slide around in the saddle or are you merely perched on top?

Do you sit up near his withers, or back towards his quarters or in the middle?

He is noticing these things and in turn they will affect his way of going for you.

Try to imagine (or actually doing this is really powerful) you are walking carrying a rucksack.

  • The rucksack is very heavy-how does your walk alter to deal with this? Do you lean forward and pull from your shoulders (or perhaps I should say do you go on your forehand…..)
  • The rucksack is very light-how do you walk now? More briskly perhaps-maybe you break into a little jog?
  • The rucksack has a shorter strap on one side so it is pulling one way-how do you walk now? Do you have to alter your posture to try and counteract this? Or maybe you start to drift as you walk?
  • The rucksack is moving around quite a lot-how does that feel? The rucksack is very light and very still-can you still feel it there, are you still noticing its presence?
  • The rucksack is sat very high up on your shoulders-how does it feel? The rucksack is down on the top of your bum-how does that feel?

You are your horses’ rucksack. Except in your horses case the rucksack also has limbs attached that wrap around his middle and attach to his head so he can feel every breath.

Next time you ride your horse think about the bum shake greeting you give him and then ask what kind of rucksack you would be?

If you aren’t convinced you are good load to carry it might be time to do some schooling on yourself.