It Seems Like I Cannot "Feel" My Upper Back

It Seems Like I Cannot “Feel” My Upper Back

All through my riding career, most of my riding instructors (at least the good ones) have gotten after me for “slouching” in the saddle. As long as my MS was not too bad, I could work around my slouching back, but it has held me back my entire riding life.

You see I did not KNOW that I could not feel my muscles working in my upper back (above the top of the shoulder blades up to my neck.) All my life my spine has been somewhat curved, and my body's resting position bore no resemblance to a straight back. When my riding teachers yelled at me to straighten my back I really, really tried to do so but I failed every time. Then came the wonderful day when I learned (from a book) exactly HOW to get my shoulders back without using my shoulder muscles, all I had to do was to push my gut out right below my sternum and my shoulders went back enough to satisfy my riding teachers, but my upper back still was hunched over. Then I learned how to keep my head from slumping forward (by keeping my face vertical) and my riding teachers got even happier with me, but they STILL got after me about my upper back. This went on for years, with me trying to satisfy my riding teachers, improving incrementally, but failing completely to straighten my upper back.

Then I bought the Equicube and I started using it during my lessons. At first, during the one minute that I was strong enough to carry the Equicube, my back straightened enough to satisfy my riding teacher (for the first time in a decade of lessons), and I was able to keep my upper back straight even after I could no longer manage to carry the Equicube due to my weak arm muscles.

My problem is that I cannot “feel” the difference between my normal slouch and my upper back being straight. I cannot “feel” the muscles, and I cannot feel it when I get out of my slouch. I have to believe my riding teacher when she tells me how wonderful my back looks after the Equicube, but I have absolutely no idea how my back got there. Finally I realized that my proprioceptive sense just does not work on my upper back, I have no idea what muscles I use to straighten it, and I cannot feel it in my spine when I get into proper position. It is almost like my upper back, its muscles and its bones do not exist according to my body's perceptions, except for the painful muscle cramps I get from not straightening my back!

When I started doing the “rider's push-ups” months ago, my body, for the first time in decades, “told” me that my base (lower legs, knees and thighs) were developing well enough so I could think about starting to jump again, low jumps of a foot or so. I told my riding teacher and she told me there was no way that she would let me jump until I proved that I could safely canter again. This is fine, this is what I pay her for, to keep me from killing myself by doing stupid stuff on horseback. And I did practice my canter some, but it was nowhere near where it was back decades ago before my MS really messed up my riding. When Debbie and I talked about the canter my last lesson I finally realized that my body had been telling me that I had been doing all my canters during the last decade WRONG, that my slouching back was what was messing me up at the canter, it was why the horses did not canter well under me, and it was why the horses were telling me “why don't you learn to ride!” when I tried to canter.

So I told Debbie that I needed to use the Equicube for several more months before my body would feel strong enough to canter. Right now, in my imagination, I figure that if I ever get strong enough in my arms and back to carry the Equicube for a whole lesson (30 minutes,) that I would finally be strong enough to safely canter again without bothering the horse (you know I really hate it when a horse tells me I don't know how to ride since I've been riding for over four decades!) It is my slouching back that prevents the horse from “lifting” into the canter, my slouching upper back has been driving the poor horses' forehands into the ground so it is really, really hard for them to give me a canter immediately. Yes, I can emphasize my aids by giving the horse “Pony Club kicks”, but that really plays havoc with my security in the saddle, which means when the horse finally canters it is not a good, united canter, but a mad scramble by the horse to try and obey me in spite of my ridiculous unsteadiness in the saddle.

It may take me six months or so to get my body “remodeled” enough so I can canter effectively. It may take me many, many more months until I learn (again) how to coordinate my body so I can effectively improve the horses' canters. IF I ever get my body working well enough so I can influence the horses' canters, playing with the stride length, playing with the balance of the horse, and working on the horses' responsiveness to my aids, then I might be a good enough rider and I might be strong enough to consider jumping the horses safely and without abusing the horse.

Before I learned about the “rider's push-ups” and before I started using the Equicube I had absolutely no realistic hope to start jumping again. I would LOVE to be able to jump 3'6” again, but at my age this is probably not a realistic goal. However I do think that my desire to jump 2' jumps is a realistic goal if I finally manage to “fix” my slouching upper back. This will take me many, many hours of hard work in the saddle, so right now I hope that, on my 70th birthday, I will be able to jump safely and effectively even if it is just over a 2 foot jump. That gives me over three years to get there.

Ah, dreams. Where would we be without our dreams?

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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