Ride in the Middle of Your Horse: Developing Lateral Balance

Ride in the Middle of Your Horse: Developing Lateral Balance
By Michele Morseth, MA, GCFP
See more articles at http://SitTheTrot.com

From Pacific Northwest Endurance Riders Newsletter Spring 2009
“Ask The Experts” column:

Q: When I ride, I notice I am very asymmetrical with the way I distribute my weight, which effects my horse's balance. I've tried yoga and strengthening with some success to fix the problem, but I think now I'm just unconsciously enforcing my asymmetry, and can't seem to retrain my body consciously. What can I do?

A: Asymmetry in horseback riders is very common. Whether to a large or small degree, few of us ride with equal balance in each seat bone when sitting. While posting or standing in the stirrups it is even harder. If your saddle chronically lists to one side even though you feel like you’re in the middle of your horse, you are riding off balance. And when other’s say you are in the middle and you feel, hmm, crooked, off-balance? Yep, you’re not riding straight and, you’re right, it affects your horse’s balance.
If you ride always balanced off to one side for years your horse will suffer. He will have to compensate and will get stronger to support your uneven distribution of weight. This will cause back pain, wear and tear on joints and uneven muscle development. It may eventually cause lameness. Riding unevenly affects your saddle, causing it to twist, and creating saddle fitting problems.
You are also right in that it is easy to strengthen yourself in your pattern of asymmetry. When you habitually bear more weight on one foot or one seat bone and then you do strengthening programs, you will reinforce your natural asymmetry, making it harder to find the place where you are sitting in true balance.
Like many or most people, you do not have a reliable sense of your own symmetry and balance. Your senses have adapted to being a little off balance and so it feels normal to put more weight onto one foot. Perhaps you have had an injury and it caused you to stand with more weight on one leg. Or maybe you developed the habit as a teenager of standing more on one leg, with your hip cocked. Maybe it’s that heavy bag constantly slung over one shoulder that has caused you to use one leg more strongly than the other. Whatever the reason, your whole organization has adapted to this off-kilter stance and your muscles and brain support it. Even though your saddle and your horse will tell you that you are off balance, your brain will tell you that you are not. You may even want to blame your horse or blame the centrifugal forces of riding on circles. The odd thing is, when you stand or sit on your horse evenly it will feel really weird.
Crookedness, saddle slipping, finding it hard to get your horse to take a certain lead, or bracing against your horse’s movement are all signs of lateral imbalance. They all cause tension in your horse and are counterproductive to the goals of a fast, efficiently-moving endurance horse. Yet many of us do these things each time we ride. So, if we can feel balanced when we are not, is there hope? Can we develop and improve our ability to move equally well in both directions, and to sense when we are doing this? Yes, you can improve your sense of balance and get stronger at any age!
How is this done? First recognize the long/supported/strong side will be the side you tend to sit on when riding, the side your saddle tends to list to, and the side of your stronger leg. It’s not true for everyone but that’s the tendency. Your bendy side and pulled up leg needs to be organized for strength and support, from foot to head. You will even out your side-to-side balance as you use your weaker or contracted side more. You will slowly gain strength and flexibility necessary for symmetrical organization. If you feel you need strengthening exercises they must be done with a self-organization that helps you become more functionally symmetrical.
I use the Feldenkrais Method because I’ve found it effective to even people out and increase awareness so they sense their own symmetry. Once we’ve learned to sense when we are balanced through our spine with strong, efficient support, our arms feel light and our breathing is easy. As a result, when we go to the gym or ride our horse, we can exercise in a way that strengthens this balanced posture. As we improve our awareness too, our balance, coordination, dexterity, and freedom of movement will get better. Even when we get straight, our horse may still be stiff in one direction. Over time he will adjust to your symmetrical balance and become more even, more willing to take either lead or let you post on either diagonal.
Here’s some simple starters based loosely on what I have learned as a Feldenkrais practitioner on how you can improve your riding by improving your posture, awareness, and movement:
1) Test your standing lateral balance & support. Stand on one leg and discover which leg you wobble on. Can you stand on one leg and reach to the sky with equal ease on both sides? Do your ribs expand equally on each side? Look in the mirror and check the alignment of your foot, knee, point of hip on each side. Check the length of your ribs and see if your sternum (breast bone) lies in the middle of your ribs and shoulders. Also check to see if your head tilts to one side. Once you can balance flat footed easily on each side, begin to slowly come up onto your toes & slowly lower, staying long & steady. For the ultimate test of lateral balance stand facing a wall with one foot oriented lengthwise on a smooth, hard roller—it’s best if the roller is on a smooth flat surface. When you can stand on it with just a light touch on the wall for support on and rise up onto your toes, you’ve found your balance over that leg! Please: only try this if you have worked on other balance exercises and wear a helmet!
2) Test your sitting lateral support. Find out which seat bone carries more weight. First find you seat bones by sitting on a firm flat chair or bench and placing your fingers under your bottom and finding the bones you sit on. If they are not the same shape that’s a clue you don’t sit symmetrically. Make a slight shift to weight one seat bone. Do you lean or do you bring your ribs over to get your weight over there. Try the other side, keeping your head in the middle & staying long in your torso, without lifting a shoulder or a foot. Can you shift your weight to both sides equally well? As you develop symmetry you will find it easy to equally weight each seat bone.
3) Find your bendable side. Stand facing forward, feet hip width apart and allow your right hand to glide down your right leg. How far does it go easily? And on the left side, do you easily bend farther or not as far? Try side bending in sitting. Do you turn slightly when bending? What part of your ribs bends the most? Which seat bone is more weighted? Like a horse, usually one side is more bendable and the other side is stiffer and more supportive. As you gain in lateral balance you will learn to support yourself equally through both sides of your rib cage.
4) Check your turning tendency. Do this in sitting and standing. Slowly turn one way several times and find out at what point do your eyes look. Try the other side. Is the height of your gaze the same on both sides? What happens to the weight in each foot or seat bone? Do you detect weight shifts as you turn? As you develop the ability to turn well to each side you will find your horse cornering better.
5) Find your sitting-rising-sitting habit. If we post the trot or stand in our stirrups, we may be balanced while sitting but veer off to one side when rising. If we post or stand onto our stronger leg, each time we rise our horse has to adapt to our shift in weight. Practice keeping even weight through both sides as you rise and sit. You can practice on a physio-ball, putting one hand on your pubic bone and the other on your sternum, rise and sit keeping your torso in the middle of two evenly weighted legs. You can stand on two bathroom scales to check this too.
6) Visualize, in your mind’s eye, sitting in the middle of your horse. Visualization is a powerful performance tool for any athlete. A rider’s basic position is weight evenly on both seat bones with legs draped on each side of your horse. Start watching riders that truly sit in the middle (they are not always the top riders—in jumping I’ve noticed children are often more centered). Visualize yourself centered, a line through your and your horses body with equal weight and support on each side.

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