"Nancy, your legs are out in front of you again." "Jim, please sit up straight!" "Mary, you’re tipping forward again." "Sondra, you need to try harder to keep those heels down!" Have you ever been frustrated when students make the same mistake over and over, appear uncoordinated or un-athletic, or just don’t seem to make progress? Or maybe you have students who get sore from riding, whose backs or knees ache, or are stiff, tense and bouncy. All these problems and many more can be due to the way people use their bodies, and all can be helped.
As riding teachers, we need to understand how the human body works in our sport, and apply good physical education in all levels of riding. However, many riding instructors know more about horses and horsemanship than about the human body and how it works. Some old traditional methods of instruction can lead riders to overstress their joints or backs, causing stiffness, tension, and athletic injuries. It’s frustrating and discouraging to hurt when you ride, and can hold back a rider’s progress or even make them give up the sport.
Pain, stress and discomfort are signals riding teachers should never ignore. As in other sports, muscles get tired and ache a bit while they are getting fit. However, joint or back pain is a "red flag" that means a rider is not using his body correctly, which may lead to joint problems, back trouble, stress injuries, or serious damage. Like coaches in other sports, riding instructors have a responsibility to help students use their bodies correctly to prevent injuries and disabilities, and make them stronger and safer.
A rider’s joints absorb the shock of the horse’s motion; if misused, they are vulnerable to stress and injuries. The three major "springs" are the ankles, knees, and hip joints; other important shock absorbers are shoulders, elbows, and the many joints of the spine. These joints can only work properly when the body is in balance, properly aligned, and free of excess tension. If a rider is out of balance, s/he will tense up or pinch with the knees; the springs and shock absorbers lock up and stop working. This causes stiff, bouncy riders, rough hands, arms and legs that swing or flop around, and a host of other problems. If the pelvis tips backward, forward or the body is out of balance, the hip joints, knees and ankles no longer do their job and the back takes most of the stress. In many forms of equitation, riders are told to arch their backs--if overdone, this can cause serious back trouble, enough to make some people have to give up riding.
For the joints to work properly, the angle of the feet should be the same as the angle of the thighs and knees. If the feet turn in or out more than the knees (especially toes inward), it puts stress on the sides of the ankles, torques the knee joints, and locks up the hips, causing stiffness, tension, discomfort, and eventually serious joint damage. Stiff western stirrup leathers sometimes force the rider’s toes in, causing sore knees. A rider with short, round legs on a wide-barreled horse must let her knees and thighs go out enough to fit around the horse; turning her toes in will severely stress her joints. A long-legged rider on a narrow horse doesn’t have to turn his knees or toes out as much, so his feet may be parallel to the horse’s side without strain. Ankle, knee or hip pain, or feet rolling sideways on the stirrup are signs that should warn the instructor to check foot and leg alignment before serious damage occurs.
Gripping with the knees or the back of the calf and thighs locks the hip joints and interferes with springs. Riders may do this because of incorrect stirrup length, tipping forward or backward out of balance, nervous tension, or because they have been told to grip with the knees or squeeze with their legs. Releasing the unnecessary knee or leg grip and allowing the joints to work can make a great difference to a rider’s comfort, security, and ability to "go with" the horse.
Everyone is an individual, and there are variations in bodies. Some people have tighter ligaments with less range of motion; they are physically unable to get their heels down as far as someone with looser ligaments. People with looser ligaments are very flexible and may seem "double jointed", but are more vulnerable to injury. In general, men usually have a higher center of gravity than women. Because of the shape of the male and female pelvis and seat bones, women and girls are more prone to arch their backs and tip forward, while boys and men more commonly sit back on their buttocks. Some students may have conditions such as scoliosis (curvature of the spine) or old injuries that limit their range of motion. A good instructor observes and listens to students and adapts instruction to the individual, instead of forcing everyone into the same mold. People of all body types, shapes, and sizes can become excellent riders, but each must do it in their own way.
Human bodies are not perfectly symmetrical--we all have a dominant eye, hand, and leg (usually not on the same side), so we are often uneven or stronger on one side. Everyone has unconscious physical habit patterns which feel normal and natural to us, but affect the way we use our bodies. We use our bodies in a characteristic way when we walk, drive a car, sit at a desk, flop down on the couch--or ride a horse. While we are mostly unaware of our physical habits, they affect our balance and athletic abilities, and horses feel and react to them. If you watch your riding students when they are standing or walking around, you may spot characteristic patterns (such as carrying one shoulder ahead of the other, one hip higher than the other, rounding the shoulders, or carrying the head out in front of the body), which show up in their riding.
Because physical habit patterns are unconscious, they can’t be corrected simply by saying, "Straighten up!" or just trying not to do it that way. Changing body habits is a process, not a quick fix. The body "lies" to you, because no one has perfect proprioception (your sense of where your body is in space and what it is doing). For instance, your unconscious habit pattern and your body's perception might make believe you are sitting up straight when you’re actually tipping forward. If your instructor physically sits you up straight, you’d say, "But now I feel as if I’m leaning backward!" because to your body, tipping forward feels normal and sitting up straight feels unnatural. Many frustrating encounters between students and instructors are born from this.
Body awareness is essential in order to change body habits. If Kathy isn’t aware that her legs swing when she trots, no amount of reminding, nagging, or instruction will change it until she can say, "Now I feel the difference!" To change a body problem, a rider must first become aware of what it feels like when they are riding in their old habitual pattern, and then in the new, unfamiliar, but correct way. Exaggeration can help--for instance, if Tony never gets his heels down, have him ride with his heels really up, long enough to learn what "heels up" feels like, and where he feels it in his body. (Of course, do this in a way that’s safe for the rider and non-abusive to the horse.) Then, have him ride with heels down and compare the feelings. When you have a student try a new, correct feeling (heels down, sitting up straight, etc.), always ask if it’s painful--if it hurts, the new position is not quite right and must be adjusted to prevent stress and injury. Then ask if the correct position or technique feels different or strange. Once they have identified that strange feeling that is actually correct, they must keep coming back to it until eventually it feels less strange, more familiar, and finally becomes a new habit.
One thing that can get in the way is too much input. Beginning riders are often overloaded with new information, instructions, and experiences. It may be more than a student can handle to feel what their body is doing while trying to keep their balance, control an unfamiliar horse, steer, and listen to directions, especially while sitting up high on a big, powerful creature with a mind of its own! Slowing down the action can make it easier to feel and process instruction, for more advanced riders as well as beginners. Teach & try out new techniques at a halt, then use the walk as a slow-motion laboratory to practice a new feeling, technique, or balance until you feel you’ve "got it", then see how it works in faster gaits. If awareness is impossible, you’re probably trying to teach (or ride) too much too quickly.
Here are some tips for teaching riding with better body awareness and physical education:
1. Study and learn about the human body, how it works, and how this applies to riding. (Centered Riding® Instructor courses, clinics and workshops can be of great help to instructors.)
2. Treat riding students as athletes: they need to stretch out before riding, warm up and cool down, develop strength, flexibility and fitness, eat well, and avoid athletic injuries just as in other sports.
3. Use a model or poster of the human skeleton to show your students where their major joints, pelvis, seat bones, etc. are and how they function in riding. Teach them to find these places in their own bodies and to be aware of how they feel when riding correctly and in balance.
4. Teach your students that riding in balance makes them safer, easier on the horse, and also more comfortable, because their joints and springs work better.
5. Use body awareness to help students become aware of and improve their use of their body and to overcome unconscious habit patterns. As you practice this yourself, you will have insights that help you teach your students to use their bodies better.
6. Never ignore pain, discomfort or physical stress, or encourage students to force their bodies into a "correct" form that stresses their joints or back. Instruction must be adapted to individuals’ body style and capabilities.
About the Author:
Susan E. Harris is an international clinician, teacher and author of horse books, including Horse Gaits, Balance & Movement, the three US Pony Club Manuals of Horsemanship, Grooming to Win and, with Peggy Brown, the new videos, Anatomy in Motion™ I: The Visible Horse and & Anatomy in Motion II: The Visible Rider™. A Senior Centered Riding instructor and former apprentice of Sally Swift, Susan teaches clinics in Centered Riding® and in Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement across North America and around the world. Her demonstrations, "The Visible Horse", in which she paints the muscles and skeleton on a living horse, and "The Visible Rider", in which a rider in a "bone suit" demonstrates how the human body works in riding, have been popular attractions at equestrian expos, including the American Riding Instructor National Symposium, CHA National Conference, Equitana USA and Equitana Asia Pacific.
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