Since my last blog entry, I decided to follow up the Centered Riding clinic that inspired that blog, with some lessons in the process of becoming a Centered Riding instructor.
It's an interesting journey. If you've never read Sally Swift's book, Centered Riding, I highly recommend that you do: there are great illustrations and visuals in there which can really help you with awareness and posture while you are riding.

The Equifitt work I do most of the time is about building balanced strength and flexibility, and developing muscle memory and correct muscle firing patterns for effective movement and good posture. If you were riding in an Equifitt clinic, you'd go home with some exercises selected for you, based on what your biomechanics are in the saddle, and other health or wellnes priorities you may have which have an impact on your riding. You would have recommendations to do the various exercises for several weeks: some every day, some a couple times a week over the following month to ensure improvement.

Improvement in flexibility takes doing something about it, every day. The good news is, even just a couple of minutes a day make a difference. Strength imbalances and 'faulty' muscle memory or movement patterns which may be causing tightness, or other structural issues (such as you may see a chiropractor to treat), would take longer to fix because muscle fibre builds relatively slowly, and it takes tens of thousands of repetitions to create a muscle memory...and even more to undo an ineffective one and replace it with a better one.

The catch is that you are always creating muscle memory. When you're in the saddle, you're out there hardwiring movement patterns. If they aren't the ones that are producing the results you need, then it's time to change them. It's exactly like training your horse: you're either reinforcing the desired behaviours, or you're training (rewarding, encouraging) the other behaviours.

Because the work I do as a personal trainer and clinician is all about your posture and effective riding, and Centered Riding ideas, like Equifitt training is all about correct biomechanics for horse and rider, people have been asking me what's different about my new journey into Centered Riding.

You create new muscle memory and a better feeling for true 'straight' on the ground through your rider fitness (stretching, strengthening, cardio..other aspects). You carry what you have on the ground into the saddle, but sometimes there's a little bit of a gap between your awareness on the ground, and in the saddle. This is where the Centered Riding images and exercises can help. If you have ever heard your coach tell you to imagine a string from the top of your head pulling you up, then you have already been introduced to a Centered Riding image.

In my case for example, even though I have been diligently training my core for good back posture, and doing balance training for sitting symmetrically in the saddle, I have had some challenges with flying lead changes. The challenges have brought me back to some basics in my riding. No matter how much good ground training you do, you still have to have good riding coaching to get to the next level. I have a good riding (dressage) coach, but she was not helping me catch the biomechanic issue that was behind the flying change problems. Since I couldn't see myself ride, I couldn't catch it for myself.

In my last Centered Riding lesson, my coach shortened my stirrups, took away my offset stirrups and told me to lift my little toes. Because of my fitness, I could just go with the changes. My fitness level made it possible to make a lot of progress in a very intense lesson, because I had the muscular strength, stamina and body awareness to just keep doing what I was told until we got to where the coach was trying to bring us. That was a trot that was so high off the forehand it felt like we were floating. I had been inadvertently driving my horse onto his forehand with too much pressure in my stirrup irons. No wonder canter pirhouette was hard work and canter generally had a front to back feel to it, rather than the back to front motion of energy needed for nice work through the back. In fact, it almost seemed that just by lifting my little toes, I suddenly needed leg aids 75% less strong to keep momentum, or change direction. My Centered Riding coach is not the person I'd go to in order to learn correct aids for canter half pass and lead changes. She also wouldn't be the person I'd go to for advice on building lean strong muscle and improving my own body control. But she was definitely the right person to help me take the biomechanic roadblocks out of the way.

The lazy version of myself (she/he is in all of us) had a bright idea: why not stop all this sweaty working out and core work, and just go with these easy loosening exercises we learned in the Centered Riding lesson?
Because I'd lose the self-carriage and stamina. Awareness and lightness can only work when you can hold yourself there for the duration of your ride, without using compensating patterns that would create other issues structurally or gymnastically (need for chiropractor, need for massage therapist). I never advocate strength training as a way to muscle your way through a ride.

Remember: the Ride Fit 1-2-3 blogspace is an 'online clinic' where you can post questions and pictures and get some feedback for free. You can also watch for my monthly rider fitness articles for Dressage Today at under 'Fitness Tip of the Month for Riders' (click HERE to go to one of them) or sign up on my website for free monthly tips (click HERE for the FREE Fittips Signup Page).

Until next time,
happy riding and training!

Heather Sansom, owner
sign up on the equifitt website for free monthly rider fitness tips!

, and don't get tired partway through the lesson.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 26, 2009 at 7:57pm
Thank you for your response. I use offset stirrups on occasion, but I use them in the forward seat method where the weight of the foot goes to the INSIDE of the stirrup (with the stirrup eye to the outside), with the extra weight on the ball of the big toe. Unfortunately the off-set stirrups I can find (Stubben) are too offset for me now. I miss my of Eldonian offset stirrups that I lost decades ago which were not so extreme. Anyway this is part of the reason I was not "seeing" what you were doing. Thank you for the clarification.
And isn't it amazing how much our horses can improve when we correct ourselves!
Comment by Heather Sansom at on November 26, 2009 at 10:30am
oh yes...that extended trot was seated, not rising, and also very easy to sit. Also, my heels were aligned under my hips, just to clarify that we aren't talking about letting your foot creep forward.
In clinics, I have seen more riders pinch with their knees and have their feet kind of up and out (pronated angle on the foot). It's just as important not to create a knee pinch situation with what you do with your feet, because that will definitely stop absorption of the horse's motion in your hips, throw your pelvis forward, and cause a chain of other undesireable effects upwards. Not to mention stiffen your horse's back.
Comment by Heather Sansom at on November 26, 2009 at 10:23am
Thanks Jan!
Jackie, to respond to your questions, the offset stirrups I had been using (for the past 5 years) are offset in two ways: 1. the footrest was angled back, 2. the hole was over to the side (so you place the stirrup such that the hole is closer to hte horse's body and your heel is helped to angle down when mounted with foot in stirrup). Mechanically, they were throwing weight into the lateral side of my foot (outside, away from horse), and creating tension at the knee. I would never have believed anything problematic was going on, as I have quite a relaxed neutral and very long leg. However, when she suggested I change out the stirrups I thought I'd do so to humour her (since I paid for the lesson, and one must respect elders...and at least other coaches, since as a coach I expect people to do what I tell them too....). Smart choice because it was one change that made a difference.
As for lifting the little toe, it's never a good idea riding to try and accomplish something, by creating tension somewhere else becuase all you do is stop the flow of your body's ability to absorb the motion of the horse. I have very strong shins because I train them with toe lifting, on the ground, to balance out my natural tendency to very strong calves. I combine with stretching my calves all the time. This creates freedom in my ankle to relax and absorb motion...and also protects me when I'm hiking which is my main leisure passion (hiking the Adirondacks nearby). I just don't want a strain to happen hiking or snowshoing which compromises my riding. So what I did to lift the little toes was just lift them, and let the front outside part of my foot follow. I could maintain it (though sometimes had to remind myself to re-lift them becuase old muscle memory drove them down again when I wasn't paying attention). This was MY correction to that part of my foot being trained to jam downwards by my offset stirrups. Jamming my heel down would have just made the problem worse. The whole goal here was to reduce pressure of my foot in the stirrup so I could stop driving my hardworking horse onto his forehand with my feet, while my legs and stick pestered him from behind to come up. Once we got the driving down action stopped, he wanted to go forward,so the driving from behind became minimal.
I'm in the middle of this journey, so I have yet to see how this technique of sitting light on my horse becomes also the 'deep' seat desired in dressage. For now though, we actually got a SIGH AND A BIG WUFFLY RELAXING BREATH OUT DURING EXTENDED TROT. I've seen that relaxation in walk, and once in a while in canter, but when your horse reaches into extended trot and you have applied almost no leg, and he wuffles pleasureably while stretching up over his back in mid-motion and reaching longer, I'm thinking something's working here.
Don't worry about auto-correcting through you're whole ride. You'll ride like that the rest of your life: if it's not one thing, it'll be another. Just like a professional dancer looks symmetrical to us, but their experience of their performance includes thousands of corrections and compensations they are keenly aware of.
Comment by Jan Jollymour on November 26, 2009 at 9:51am
Hi, Heather!

Another great article! I sent it on to a new student of mine, who has Parkinson's disease, and has recently been classified as a para dressage rider. She is very strong, but not very flexible, and you've made some particularly pertinent points about that this month, as well as including the information about muscle memory. I continue to share your blogs with a numver of friends and clients, as the information is so pertinent to them and their riding issues. It's particularly helpful to me as a coach whenyou include anecdotes about your own riding issues, as most adult amateurs tend to think they are the only ones with riding issues!
Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 26, 2009 at 9:23am
I am having trouble visualizing "lifting the little toe". Is it by putting more pressure on the inside of the stirrup or is it by making the tip of the toe go up? Whichever it is, it sounds like you got spectacular results from doing it!
And what type of offset stirrups did you use--the type for jumping (where the hole for the stirrup leather is offset to the outside), or the one that has a swiveling connection to the stirrup leather, but the hole for the stirrup leather is always at the top center of the stirrup iron?
You are so right about muscle memory. I am presently working hard at getting more correct body habits on horseback. It is so much easier just to lounge around in the saddle. I am working toward the magical day when my muscles are strong enough and the muscle memory deep enough that I won't have to think about my position EVERY minute of my ride.

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