Crooked Riders = Crooked Horses: Develop Your Awareness of Balance and Symmetry
Like many young girls, I grew up carousing around my neighborhood bareback on my pony. The saddle came out for 4-H, otherwise, I stuck to her sleek back like glue. In college, I went on to work for a dressage trainer, never thinking that moving with the motion of a horse could be a problem. In my mid-20s, lured north to the arctic, I quit riding. I moved with my husband to the Brooks Range, mushed dogs, hauled wood, chopped ice, climbed mountains. Fifteen years later, I left Alaska with the strength to haul three weeks of food and gear over the continent’s highest peak, the flexibility to climb rock walls, and the balance to hike over steep, uneven terrain. Back on a horse in the “lower-48”, I found I’d lost my natural seat. I felt in balance, even, and strong, but I had a hard time following the movement of my horse. I could remember “sitting in” a big warmblood’s extended trot, and asking for more. When I closed my eyes I could feel the smooth, even tempe changes, and the strong, elevated piaffe of the Lusitano stallion I once rode, but I couldn’t get there. I wasn’t fluid, nor did I have accurate awareness of how I was using myself. My awareness and proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses were skewed.
What does a rider’s awareness have to do with a horse’s straightness? A lot, because our perception of ourselves often does not match reality. Our brain may tell us we are straight while the whole world of mirrors, trainers, judges, and friends tell us otherwise. We are so habituated to our tense muscles we can’t detect them. We blame the effects of our imbalance and tension on our horses, we blame it on ill-fitting saddles, we complain about the judge’s marks. We have a hard time admitting that life—with all of the various injuries and falls, the habits and fashions we’ve adopted, our thoughts and emotions—has not only changed the balanced bodies we knew as children, but also has changed our ability to perceive ourselves accurately as we walk, drive a car, or ride a horse.
A dynamical definition of straightness and ambidexterity is that the horse, through suppleness and activity, moves equally well in both directions through all figures and exercises—the same holds true for the balanced rider.
How many riders know, with real confidence, just how symmetrical and in-balance they are? How many detect the tightening of the muscles of their ribcage and restrictions on the breath experienced when leaning a little forward, backward, or to one side? Proprioception and kinesthetic sense provide information about body position and movement in space. We develop these two senses as infants and we refine them throughout life. Because of our various experiences with our environment, our refinements may improve or distort our sense of balance and movement. If you habitually sit or stand out of balance, then sitting out of balance will feel normal, anything else will feel odd. That may be okay if you only have to think of yourself but when you sit out of balance on your horse, you will inadvertently be asking your horse to adjust to your imbalance every time you ride.
Do you know what happens from head to toe when you turn right and left? If you turn to the left by contracting your ribs and lifting your left seat bone, and turn to the right while pressing harder with your right seat bone, you are turning around your right seat bone no matter which way you turn. You are also likely blocking your horse’s movement in turns. When your proprioception and kinesthetic sense are inaccurate, you can’t feel subtle differences in your self or your horse.
However, there is good news. We can improve these senses and consequently improve the balance, coordination, dexterity, and freedom of movement needed to ride well. We can learn to detect crookedness, imbalance, and excess tension in ourselves. We can improve our ability to sit squarely and balanced in the saddle; the ability to use hands, legs, and seat independently; and the ability to have smooth and relaxed muscle control when responding to the horse’s movement or applying the aids—by improving our awareness of when we are balanced, supple, and tension free.
Side Bar 1: Correcting Crookedness: Aligning the Ribcage
Develop your sense of having equal length on each side of your ribcage, while sitting and while giving leg aids to your horse. The following movement sequence will help develop your sense of a maintaining a straight spine from side to side. After doing it in a chair you can practice on your horse in straight lines and then while bending through a corner using your inside leg and weighting your inside seat bone—when you do that remember to keep your inside arm relaxed.
Sit on a flat bench or chair without touching the back, thighs parallel to the ground, hands resting on thighs, feet hip width apart and flat on the floor. As you do each movement remember to do it slowly 10 or more times, stay in the range of not straining or stretching, and bring your attention to your seat bones, ribs, chest, and head. Pause between each movement and after each 3 or 4 movement sequence lie on your back on a mat on the floor and rest.
1) Tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder and then come back to the starting position. It is not important how far you tilt, go slowly, keep your face forward, and repeat the movement several times. Don’t stretch or strain or try to achieve any amount of tilt, just stay in an easy, pleasant range, even if it is a very small movement. Notice what is happening in your ribs and chest as you do this.
2) Starting with a very small movement begin to lift your right seat bone. What happens? Does your right foot press into the floor? Does your head tilt toward your shoulder? What happens in your left seat bone and left ribs?
Pause. You can rest by lying down on your back on a flat surface or just rest in the chair.
3) Lift your right seat while you tilt your head toward your right shoulder. Do this slowly, observing what happens in your left and right ribs, seat bones, and feet.
Pause again and then tilt your head toward your right shoulder. Is this movement different than it was at first?
4 – 6) Repeat these movements on the left side.
Rest. Bring your attention to how your weight is distributed on each side of your pelvis.
7) Sit facing forward again. Slowly tilt your head toward your right shoulder while lifting the weight off your left seat bone. Notice whether you lean to the left, or if your spine makes an S curve.
8) Tilt your head to the right again and return it to the starting position. Did your right hip lift?
9) Tilt your head toward your left shoulder while you lift your weight off your right seat bone.
10) Tilt your head to the left and discover what happens in your seat bones.
11) Tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder while you lift your right seat bone and then, without stopping in the middle, tilt your head left and lift your left seat bone. Go back and forth and, going slowly, notice which side is easier. Can you allow your chest, ribs, and lower back to soften and bend? Can you allow your opposite ribs to open freely? What happens to your weight in you seat bones? What about your feet?
12) Keep your head and eyes facing forward and continue lifting one seat bone and then the other. Can you feel your ribs becoming long and then short on each side?
Stop and notice how you are sitting. Do you have a better sense of sitting on each seat bone, length and flexibility through your ribs?
Rest lying down for a moment.
13) Sit on both seat bones and slowly slide your right foot toward your left ankle and return it.
14) Slowly begin to bring your right ear closer to your right shoulder while you slide your right foot toward your left ankle. What do you feel in your seat bones and ribs?
15) Bring your left ear closer to your left shoulder while again sliding your right foot closer to your left ankle. Try to make the movements light and easy.
16) Pause and then slide your right foot toward your left ankle again. Do you feel a difference in how your seat bones are weighted? Do you lean back or forward during these movements? What is happening in your ribs?
17-19) Pause and then repeat movements 13-16 with the left foot.
20) Sit and sense your awareness of your ribs, seat bones, chest, and head. Stand and walk around. Do you have more flexibility and a better sense of how your legs can be independent of your seat? Try these movements while sitting on a calm horse. Do you have a better sense of what your ribs and seat bones are doing when you use your lower leg? Do you have a sense of sitting tall while you use your legs?
Side Bar 2: Explorations in Perception: Tension and Turning
For these two explorations, first do this introductory exploration to find your neutral pelvis.
Sit on a flat wooden chair or bench at a height so your thighs are parallel to the floor and your feet are flat on the floor. Put your hands softly on your thighs. Slowly, round your back and look down and come back to your original place. Do this small movement 10 or more times. Pause and then slowly arch your back and come back to neutral many times. Now slowly begin to arch and round your back, and make the movement smaller and smaller until you find the place where you are between arching and rounding. You may now feel more aware of and balanced on your seat bones and your breath may come easier. Bring your attention to your sense of ease while sitting. Rest by lying down on a flat surface or just rest sitting up.
How do you learn to reduce tension? You can learn to reduce tension by increasing awareness and discovering what it feels like to balance through the skeleton using only the minimal amount of muscle tone to achieve each desired movement. As you become aware of the effects of tension on your horse you can learn to let it go.
Come back to sitting evenly on both seat bones. A few times, slowly tilt your pelvis forward and look up and tilt your pelvis back and look down, make this movement many times, making it smaller and smaller until you find where your head is looking forward and your pelvis is in the middle—neither tilted forward nor back. Now, making small movements, tilt your pelvis forward and back, but this time look up when you round and look down when you arch your lower back. Pause and once again arch, look up, and allow your belly to come forward. You may want to breath in. Then round, look down, and breath out. Do this several times. Again find neutral by slowly making the movement smaller. Pause and sense the difference. Do you feel more supported through your spine?
Now, begin to experiment with tilting your pelvis forward and back while you hold parts of yourself with tension. Pull your stomach in and up—what happens to your upper chest and neck? Your upper thighs? Your shoulders? How easy is it to arch and round your low back?
Pull your shoulders back. Do this slowly and discover what happens to your lower back, your inner thighs. After arching and rounding with shoulders pulled back, pause, find the neutral place and rest a moment. Now strain to sit tall. Observe what happens in your seat bones and feet. How easy is it to arch and round now? One last time find neutral and this time gently push out with your lower abdomen so you feel your tummy and low back filling out and again arch and round. Can you feel your ability to move through the range of motion of your hips easily? Again, try these movements while sitting on a horse.
Perceiving Symmetry in Turning
Turning your self symmetrically when you ride is important for your horse’s balance and ability to turn easily in either direction.
Sit on both seat bones, feet flat on the floor about hip width apart, hands softly on thighs. Slowly, without reaching the point of stretching, turn to look to the right. Take note of how far you turn. Do this slowly several times and examine what happens. What happens in your feet and ankles? Do you shift the weight in your seat bones? What happens in your ribcage? What do your eyes, neck, and shoulders do when you turn to the right? Pause, and then turn to the left several times. What happens this way. Go slowly so you can perceive small differences. Is one way easier?
Now, turn to the right several times while looking to the left with your eyes. Turn to the right, look left and then come back to the middle. Do this several times. Then turn once everything right. Is there a difference? Again, observe what happens in your feet, ribs, seat bones, head and chest. Now try this to the left. Slowly explore this simple movement until it is easy to turn both ways. Try these movements on a horse and observe what happens. Is your horse getting the same signal left and right?
Acknowledgements: This article was conceived after discovering a method to find my own straightness and after reading Erik Herbermann’s 2006 article in USDF Connection about correcting crookedness in the horse. The Awareness Through Movement® lesson in Sidebar 1 came in part from Relaxercize by Zemach-Bersin and Reese, Harper, San Francisco, 1990.
Michele Morseth has studied the Feldenkrais Method and is a clinician, author, and dressage enthusiast. She teaches riders to develop balance, fluidity, control, and coordination and helps horses in a variety of disciplines improve balance and athleticism. She operates Sit The Trot! from Central Oregon and can be reached at potentmoves at gmail.com