Beneath your riding clothes and skin lies your skeleton --that bony framework that supports your entire body. Joints and ligaments allow these bones to move, and muscles and tendons help create the movement.
The skeleton is one common denominator of us all. Allowing for variations in bone size and length, we all have the same skeletal make up. As riders and instructors, we can use that skeleton to help us find correct body alignment, balance and efficient movement, regardless of out student’s size or build.
A basic knowledge of human anatomy is of great importance to instructors of all sports, if we are to understand the dynamics of movement. We also need to be aware of what movement is safe in allowing the body to move freely without putting undue stress on joints, ligaments, or muscles. This is especially important in working with children, as damage done to bodies in the name of sport can follow them throughout their lives. So often, riding instructors know all about the horse and the horse’s body, but know very little about the how the human body works.
We all know that in a correct riding position we look for a vertical; line through shoulder, hip and heel. Of course there will be some slight variations based on stirrup length and riding discipline, but not much. We also need to recognize that when we ride, the body is in motion--constant motion as it follows the movements of the horse and as it balances and re-balances in combination with the horse’s balance. Riding is dynamic, and to be our best, we must learn to move and flow with the horse, allowing our joints to follow and absorb the impact of the horse’s gaits and movements.
Let’s consider how the skeleton needs to be aligned to allow this freedom of motion to occur.
The foot needs to find a spot in the stirrup where it can support the whole weight of the body, if necessary, for posting, galloping, jumping and work in half-seat. The toes do not have enough strength to carry the weight of the body, so the stirrup must be positioned farther back, or a little behind the ball of the foot for support. The toes must have freedom to move and spread out in the boot, or tension and stiffness will result.
The leg has three major joints: the ankle, knee and hip joints. These joints are the rider’s "springs." They support the body while allowing it to move. Each of these joints must be allowed to move freely, or the springs will not work and tension or even soft-tissue damage will result. Respect variations in the body of the rider you are working with, as well as allowing for the size and build of the horse. A short rider on a big-barreled horse will usually carry her leg rolled out and around that horse, as opposed to a long-legged rider on a slab-sided horse who can more easily be "down against" that particular animal. The knee and foot angle of the rider should match up closely. When they do not, it causes torque and stress in the knee joint, and knee damage can be the result. How many riders do you know with bad knees? Remember the instructor who shouted, "Keep your toes in parallel to the horse"? That instructor thought that the toes in looked pretty good, but disregarded the fact that the knee cannot work properly if the foot position is artificial. A good instructor respects the build and ability of the rider and exercises caution to prevent injury. Sometimes what looks good does not work effectively.
The hip joint is often a problem area for riders. Muscle tension often prevents the hip joint from being open and moving freely. Many people do not have a clear idea of exactly where this joint is. Often helping the rider locate the joint will begin to allow the freeing and mobility of the hip joint necessary for good riding.
The knee joint is a hinge joint that opens and closes while riding. When a rider rolls her knees in or pinches with the knee, this slight twisting action can result in progressive knee damage. If the horse moves suddenly or unexpectedly, a twist or torque in the joint can be result in a nasty strain.
The ankle is an incredibly complex set of bones that allows the foot to function. Often, riders will hold tension in the ankle joint by trying to hold their leg still or trying to force their heel down. This tension is very hard on the ankle joint itself and locks up one of the most important springs in the leg. While the heel should be lower than the toe, forcing the heel down to look good is very damaging to the ankle joint as well as to the rest of the body The one time that the heel is carried well down, but never locked, is over fences or when galloping.
The leg joints have to work together in balance for the "springs" to work. When the legs absorb most of the shock of impact, the stress on the rider's back is greatly reduced. The spine (the vertebrae) is the central core of the skeletal system. It protects the delicate spinal cord and connects the body The back was not designed to take up a great deal of hard, repetitive impact. This is the job of the legs. Correct alignment and use of the legs will greatly reduce the strain on the back and help to eliminate the common riders' complaint of low back pain
The pelvis is the base of the trunk of the body . When we ride we sit on our two seat bones, which are two large arched bones at the base of the pelvis. After many hours in the saddle, riders often feel as if those seat bones are two hard little points when, in fact, the seat bones are larger than one would think. One of the keys to helping a rider get into a correct balanced position is to help them balance their pelvis.
If we consider the pelvis as a great bowl (the word "pelvis" is a Greek word for a bowl or vessel), we would like to carefully balance that bowl so that the imaginary contents don't spill out. If the rider sits with a hollow back, the contents would spill out the front of the bowl. The rider with a roached back will lose everything out the back. Either extreme, a hollow or roached back, will put undue stress on the vertebrae and muscles in the back again leading to back, pain and progressive damage. We need to help our students find "neutral pelvis," where the pelvis is balanced with the seat bones helping the feet support the weight of the upper body.
The ribs curve out from the back, forming the chest cavity and protecting the heart and lungs. In order to breathe effectively, the ribs will move and slightly separate with each breath. When we ride, we don't really think much about the great rib cage, but we should allow it to swing softly and help us breathe deeply using our diaphragm. The ribs are the frame work on which the shoulder girdle rests.
The shoulder girdle is comprised of the hands, arms, shoulder joints, shoulder blades and collar bones. It may surprise you to know that the bones of the entire shoulder only connect bone-to-bone on the skeleton in one place, and that is in the front where the collarbones join the sternum or breastbone. This means that the shoulder girdle is an extremely free moving system of engineering that allows us almost unlimited range of motion with our arms.
In riding, we all work to have good hands, the mark of all good riders. But good hands have little to do with the hands themselves. Good hands come from good arms and shoulders. As the rest of the body moves in synchronization with the horse, the arms and hands must be free to move independently and communicate with the horse, and the joints of the shoulder girdle, arms, and hands must take up any shock to keep it from being transmitted to the horse’s mouth.
The hands must hold the reins securely back where the fingers and palm join. Many riders think that holding the reins lightly on their fingertips means light hands, when actually this causes stiffness in the fingers and hands, resulting in intermittent contact which is very distressing to most horses. The wrist joints should be softly aligned with the rest of the forearm and should have little motion, as they serve as a soft connection to the rest of the arm. Floppy "puppy paws" or tweaking wrists irritate the horse and are bad for the actual wrist joint.
The elbows are joints often forgotten. The elbows must open and close as the horse moves to follow the head and neck movement of the horse. Even in trot, when the horse's head is relatively still, this opening and closing of the elbows allows the rider’s body to post without the motion passing down through the hands and reins to the horse's mouth. When a rider locks her elbows, all the motion must come from the shoulders; stiff, bouncy hands and back and shoulder strain are the results.
The shoulder joints also follow and allow the horse to move, as the shoulder blades slide across the back of the rider’s ribs. What would happen to these soft, following arms if an instructor told a student to "Throw your shoulders back!" or "Pinch your shoulder blades together"? A student with rounded shoulders is usually riding with a collapsed chest and hunching their shoulders up around their neck like a turtle for protection. Very often, humans unconsciously carry their shoulders with muscle tension, rather than allowing the shoulder girdle to be supported by the rib cage. Muscle tension, stiffness and even pain in the neck and shoulders is the result. Sound familiar? Freeing the shoulder girdle, correct breathing, and finding how all the joints of the shoulder girdle move and work together will go a long way to achieving a balanced, upright posture and quiet, independent hands.
Then we come to the head, with that big human brain that so often wants to take over our lives and lead the body about. The human skull weighs about 11-13 pounds -- the size of a man's bowling ball! Think about carrying a bowling ball around on top of you all day. When that bowling ball or the skull is out of balance, the muscles and other soft tissue must come into play to literally keep the head on. This often results in muscle pain and tension in the back of the neck and down between the shoulder blades. Balancing the head on top of a lengthened, flexible neck will help alleviate this tension and creates a balanced and attractive posture in the saddle. Often, what looks like hunched shoulders is actually an unbalanced head and neck.
We have touched very lightly here on the skeleton and how proper alignment of the skeleton affects the rider's position and ability to move freely on the horse. The best instructors and coaches of all sports study the human body and how the body moves. We owe it to our students to teach them how to use their bodies efficiently and effectively without causing pain or damage. We owe it to our horses to ride softly and in balance, allowing them to do their jobs without undue interference from their riders. Helping your students learn to ride their bones is a secret to correct riding and a wonderful aid to effective teaching!
Additional sources of information on the body, skeletal alignment, and use of the body in riding are the books Centered Riding by Sally Swift, Balance in Movement: The Seat of the Rider, by Susanne von Dietze, and the video-tape, Anatomy in Motion II: The Visible Rider by Susan E. Harris and Peggy Brown.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Peggy Brown is a clinician and instructor of Centered Riding and Centered Driving from Maumee, Ohio (USA). She is a lifetime member of the American Driving Society and has trained, taught, and competed in driving for forty years. She holds judges cards with the American Haflinger Registry. She currently competes in the US and Canada in Pleasure driving, Combined Driving and under saddle events with her Haflingers and German Riding Pony, and was the Bronze Medal Winner in the 1997 American Pleasure Driving Championship. Peggy's Haflingers won the 1998 CDE Great Lakes Challenge Award, the North American Haflinger Registry Pleasure Driving Championship, and the Champion Versatility Award. Peggy was longlisted for three years in Advanced Combined Driving. She is certified as an Expert Instructor in driving and multiple disciplines with the American Riding Instructor Association and was honored in 2005 to receive the Instructor of the Year Award. A qualified Centered Riding and Driving Clinician, she is available for clinics, lectures, and demonstrations.
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