Fit to Ride 1-2-3: Centered Riding, Balimo and Awareness

Hi, As you know, you can post questions to the Ride Fit blog, along with photos (if you have them and want to) and take advantage of the blog as a free online 'clinic' to help you with specific suggestions for getting more alignment between your riding, and your fitness activities.

Just as with other sports, there is no single workout you can pull out of a box that will make you a better rider. There are some principles: good posture, for example, is essential to good riding whatever your discipline, ability or disability.

The fact that there is no answer in a box, but guidelines and a lot of variety to choose from is what makes your riding journey and your creation of your solution to a healthy lifestyle and effective riding so fun. So, you can ride Western on a paint and be inspired by Parelli, and I can ride Dressage on my Arabian and be inspired by Sally Swift and we can both come to the same place of working in harmony with our horses. Horses aren't particularly aware of our labels for them, what we call the saddle on their back, or which books we have at home.

We can learn from so many sources, and we live at a time when the learning opportunities are literally limitless. If you live in an area where there are frequent clinics, you are particularly blessed. I am blessed. I live in Ontario between Ottawa and Toronto, which to me is the bread-basket of access to equestrian expertise. And to fitness expertise. Between the riding and horsemanship clinics I attend, and fitness and sport conditioning conferences and workshops, it's like going to University all over again- I spend about 200 hours a year just learning about those two things: better riding, and better sport conditioning.

One of my jobs is teaching rider fitness at University of Guelph, Kemptville Campus where Equifitt is based. This led to speaking at a symposium there last year, so I kind of felt it was a good idea to support their Balance in Motion symposium this year. Last year I learned a lot from the other speakers about equine biomechanics and cool stuff like Bowen therapy for horses. This year, the agenda was all about Balimo and Centered Riding, and since bodywork is pretty much right in my line of work, and I'd read Sally Swift's book Centered Riding and refer to many of her ideas in my clinics, AND I wanted to support the college, I cancelled a few personal plans and signed up.

Here's where I let my hair down a bit and talk to you like one human being trying to do, be and give the best they can to another: the week before the symposium I had been having a particularly bad fit of 'I'm not good enough-itis'. In fitness and sport, if you're a man people take you much more seriously. Instantly. Even if you're 15 years my junior. I had been thinking: if only I were shinier I wouldn't have to work 60-70hrs a week to run my business. If I were a man. If I were taller. Does it sound familiar? How about variations of 'if I were only perfect I'd be such a better rider'. Oh yeah, and it's cousin 'if I were born with a silver spoon in my mouth and also had the perfect horse and access to the best trainers 7 days a week, AND were fabulous and perfect.......I'd be SUCH a better rider/trainer/coach. And I'd probably be in awesome shape without even having to work hard at all this fitness and diet and exercise stuff. Life would be a cake-walk.

It had to be the shortened daylight hours or a full moon or something, but it happens to all of us. Those days when we feel sorry for ourselves, and up against unfair obstacles we can't do anything about. Usually when that happens, I remind myself of a few facts: Sally Swift wrote her first book when she was already in her 70's. Until she passed away this past year, she was old. She was a woman. She was virtually a nobody for the longest time from little rural no-where Vermont. I don't mean Vermont is no-where: I live close enough to Vermont to get there regularly for skiing and hiking, and it's one of my favourite places in the world to spend a weekend. But when you live down some rural road somewhere far away from the world's favourite metropolises, you can get tempted to think you're in a backwater that's going no-where, and the life circumstances that took you there are tying you down. So, I like to remind myself of Sally. Old. A woman. Nobody who trained with any particular big names, or hob-nobbed with powerful publishing moguls to help her launch a career as a guru. She didn't list for the Olympics or make the Young Riders team. She apparently had terrible scoliosis. The least likely candidate to write the world's most popular equestrian book ever published to date, and the most authoritative work on the specific topic of how to ride straight.

Of course, by straight, in riding we mean something that is dynamic. Not straight like a soldier standing at attention. But straight like a dancer standing on one toe holding an acrobat standing on his shoulders. Straight like a tight-rope walker-- a system in constant responsive flux to maintain balance in motion. Right, I'm brought back to that symposium in Kemptville, which was in fact called, Balance in Motion. So there I was, sitting on a hard little lecture hall chair with my clipboard and tea looking at a guru: this clinician who taught both Balimo and Centered Riding, spent many years learning from Sally Swift herself, and gets asked to travel all over the world to do Balimo and Centered Riding clinics. Me and my unfortunate-to-be-a-woman, not tall enough, not beautiful enough, not wealthy enough, not smart enough self-pitying self sat down and found myself looking at this amazingly successful person. She was short (very short), round, old and weathered.....and her assistant had one leg. I am dead serious. (I surely hope that if the clinician is reading this, that she will understand what a tremendously good service she was doing just being herself, and being good at her work, and generous with her knowledge.)

There are times in life when you understand you have been definitively and lovingly corrected by 180 degrees. When I finished apologizing profusely to God for the insanity of my ingratitude and even laziness...using my self-pity to be mentally lazy by getting occupied with my thoughts about what I didn't have rather than using my time to keep working on being and giving everything I can .....I spent the next three days listening to the only other people I've ever heard besides myself talk about rider biomechanics and alignment. For one, I felt like the ugly duckling that had found another swan. Secondly, I learned a lot. As I was saying above, you can learn from everywhere, everything, everyone. If you get a chance to attend a talk or clinic or lesson from a Balimo or Centered Riding coach, it will be worth it.

Horse and human biomechanics are what they are, whatever name you put to them. It was very encouraging to me to benchmark the work I do, against the perspectives of this clinician and of her teachers- the venerable Sally Swift, and professor of kinesiology Eckart Meyners. Of the degrees I have, kinesiology is not one of them. So, seeing that a German professor had organized a system of analysis for rider biomechanics that is very similar to my own was awesome encouragement. Of course, I'm not a professor in kinesiology, so there were additional aspects that added to my knowledge. Plus, if you coach or speak as I do, you find you can always learn better techniques for presenting ideas, and new tools for tackling problems you encounter. I particularly like learning from older coaches because they are like an aged wine: they have had time to pull things together and give you back something that is both complex, and simple.

Anyway, this blog is getting long and I need to get back to what I wanted to tell you about Centered Riding and Balimo. If you could put it in a nutshell made of two words, those words would be awareness and flow.

When I do a clinic,or observe a rider's photos, I am looking for blockages in your ability to create balanced alignment, and follow the movement of your horse in your body. Wherever there is a blockage, it is a clue to tightness, or lack of appropriate muscle engagement somewhere in the body. Balimo and Centered Riding seek the same goals. However, where rider fitness is about creating balance and ability to move through application of exercises to condition and re-train your body over time, Balimo and Centered Riding approaches seemed to offer concepts and exercises that have an immediate impact on your awareness and posture.

It starts with awareness. You can't fix what you aren't even aware of. Your body and your mind create patterns, and you follow these neural, emotional and neur-muscular pathways as you ride. You default to them, unless you change them deliberately. Often and especially with the relatively sedentary life we lead, our bodies' neuro-muscular connections and freedom of movement are kind of messed up by the limited motions we use in daily life. For example, sitting in a chair all the time at work and in the car disengages your lower abdominals. Then you get in the saddle and are busy thinking about how to make a figure 8...the pathway to your lower abdominals is basically not in use, so your pelvis rocks forward and you try with other means to maintain straight and upright posture. My approach would mostly be to get you off the horse, investigate the degree of tightness in your hip flexors and your low abdominal muscle tone, and prescribe some stretching exercise for those flexors, and some toning exercises for those abs, which I'd ask you to do several sets of, several times a week for a month or so.

What I saw happen on the Balimo day was a little different, and the Centered Riding day a little different from that. The Centered Riding perspective would have the coach stop you, and give you some exercises to do in the saddle, designed to help you re-find true 'straight' (stacked above your seatbones). In doing the exercises, you would start to find those lower abdominals again, and engage them in your attempts to do the mounted visualization or exercise.

On Balimo day, you would be asked to dismount, do some lower abdominal engaging exercises on the ground, then get back on and ride again, this time with a new feeling of engaging your lower abdominals. The Balimo coach might also manually press on those tight hip flexors (a kind of fascial and muscle release exercise), and ask you to poke those sleepy lower abs before you did the prescribed floor exercises, so that your brain's wakeup button would be hit, and it could find and dust off the old unused neuro-muscular pathway to your lower abs, so that you could then engage them properly.

Of course, if you wanted to make some permanent and lasting changes to the tightness of your hip flexors and strength of your abs, you'd have to follow up both the Centered Riding and Balimo exercises with some good old strength and stretch exercises regularly, over time. Conversely, if you wanted to apply your nice strong abs and supple body to good riding, you'd need to transfer your ground based awareness into awareness and correct engagement in the saddle.

There is great complementarity between awareness, engagement and strength. The difference between an athlete and someone else is mostly in the athlete's exceptional ability for precise 'on/off' control of muscles in the body. There is a little bit of a misconception out there that strength training could be all wrong for riders because it would make you tight and bulky. That's like saying that strength training for Tiger Woods would be all wrong because bulky muscles would impede his swing. It's true that bulk and tightness aren't what we want for riding, but it's not true that training muscle strength correctly results in bulk and tightness. It is true that we need to 'finesse' not 'muscle' our language with our horse as we ride.

This is of course, a really huge oversimplification of all of Balimo, Centered Riding and rider fitness. I invite you to comment on your experiences, and of course, feel free to submit questions or photos to this blog post. I try and respond in the next blog.

Until then, happy riding and training....

Heather Sansom
(sign up on the website for free monthly fitness tips)

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Comment by Jan Jollymour on November 5, 2009 at 4:30pm
Hi, Heather:

Great discussion!

I'm really glad you tied the two approaches together - the Centered Riding/Balimo approach and the straight and fit rider adjunct. As we've discussed, both are necessary and useful, and putting the two together results in synergystic responses. I am finding that the strength/suppleness relationship is even more complex than I had originally thougt, which leads me back to your "you can learn something from everyone" note, even if the someone is yourself!

Keep up the good work.

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