Trying to Bring it All Together

The past few months have been a time of discovery for me, discovering just how badly my multiple handicaps affect my position, seat and aids when I ride horses. Between my Pegasus Butterfly saddle, the “rider's push-ups”, the Equicube getting my shoulders right, the Rainbow reins, and the old type Wellep snaffle bit, I discovered how abysmal my riding was and, more importantly, why I did not progress much through the years.

I wrote a good bit on how my Pegasus Butterfly saddle proved that my side-to-side balance is abysmal. Fixing my bad balance has been challenging, and before I added the “rider's push-ups” I was having to recenter my saddle rather frequently during my rides. I think that this saddle emphasized my imbalance that arose from my right hip joint being more “locked up” than my left hip joint. After months of doing the “rider's push-ups” my right stirrup no longer feels like it is two holes too long and the saddle stays centered on the horse's back most of the time (the exception is right after a turn on the hindquarters.) I have improved so much that now I think I can CAUTIOUSLY start experimenting with mild seat aids since my seat bones and upper thighs now carry an increasingly equal amount of weight in the saddle. Of course before I can do this effectively I will have to prove to the horses, by the steadiness of my seat in the saddle, that my seat aids actually mean something instead of just being an example me trying to recover my balance in the saddle, otherwise known as meaningless noise.

The “rider's push-ups” have been miraculous for my riding and for moving around out of the saddle. I had NO IDEA that my hips were “locked up”, much less that my right hip was more “locked up” than my left hip. To me my hips felt normal, they had been that way for most of my life. Bless the horses, they did not make me suffer for my dysfunctional hip conformation! From the start I noticed that after I did a few of the “rider's push-ups” I could sit “deeper” in the saddle and follow the horse's back better with my seat bones. Through the decades I had done several things with my legs and seat while sitting on the horse to try to get my seat “deeper” in the saddle, and I NEVER got the results I've gotten from doing the “rider's push-ups” out of the saddle, because nothing else “unlocked” my hip joints.

Another reason that the “rider's push-ups” have improved my riding is that they emphasized how horrible my front-to-back balance is when I ride a horse. Since I cannot do much for my sense of balance I had to learn how to stay stable when I touched the horse's mane with my chest. At first I felt like I was in definite danger of falling off over the horse's shoulder if the horse moved wrong. Teetering in my stirrups I felt despair of even being able to do this exercise properly. So I experimented, first by riding with my feet “home” in the stirrups as the first Forward Seat riders rode, then my consciously moving my lower legs forward and gripping the horse's girth groove with my calves (making sure to keep my heels down!) This feels unnatural to me right now since my tendency is to ride with my feet a little too far back which makes it easier for me to have my center of gravity over my feet. Then I added keeping my face as vertical as possible and moving my shoulder blades back into their proper places. My “rider's push-ups” now feel secure, but when I get back into two-point I have to use my muscles to prevent myself from falling back into the saddle. Obviously I have to figure out how to bring my center of gravity forward when I am in two-point with my lower legs resting on the girth groove of the horse. Once I figure that out my position will be together and I will be much more secure in the saddle.

When I started using the Equicube my riding teacher repeatedly told me how much it improved my back, straightening it so I no longer looked like I was slouching in the saddle even when I stopped carrying the Equicube. From the way my spine is constructed I suspect that I ALWAYS looked like I was slouching in the saddle all the decades that I've ridden horses, not a great surprise since I was never able to keep my back straight standing or sitting off horse-back. Since I am only strong enough to carry the Equicube for a minute of two a ride I worked at figuring out exactly how the Equicube straightened my back so I could replicate the effect whenever I wanted to. Finally I took my attention off my spine and concentrated what it did with my shoulder joints and shoulder blades. I realized that carrying the Equicube caused the BOTTOM of my shoulder blades to rest against my rib cage instead of jutting out behind it. I tried replicating this feeling by forcefully pulling my shoulders back, but the bottoms of my shoulder blades still jutted out from my back and my back got to hurting. Pushing out with my diaphragm helped some, but my shoulder blades still did not lie flat on my back. After a lot of experimentation I discovered that the only way I could get my shoulder blades to lie flat against my back was to first bring my shoulder joints up to my ears, then move my shoulder joints back, and then let my muscles relax totally so my shoulders dropped, which finally got my shoulder blades to lie flat against my rib cage.

And my riding teacher has stopped repeatedly correcting me about my back several times each ride.

This is important for my security while doing the “rider's push-ups”, for when my lower shoulder blades jut out from my back it feels like I am ready to somersault off the horse! When my the bottoms of my shoulder blades jut out from my back the spine between them “hunches”, bringing my head down and destroying my position while riding. When I get my shoulders right they feel like they are splints that straighten my upper back. Combined with keeping my face vertical, I no longer feel like I am guaranteed to become a lawn dart even when my lower legs are too far back.

Over the past few years I have become aware of how uneven my hands can get on the reins! Since I ride mostly with relaxed fingers the horses were able to adapt to my unevenness without too much physical distress and they even consented to keep contact with my hands. As my hands got worse I had to change my bit from my previous favorite bit, the JP Dr. Bristol, to the “new type” Wellep bits. Eventually I got even worse and I knew I better figure something out! I got the Rainbow Reins, with bands of colored rubber, so at least I would have a chance of having both hands on the same place on each rein. This has helped me become aware of how I was unconsciously twisting my shoulders. Since the horses had learned to expect my hands not to be perfectly aligned I now have the challenge of PROVING to the horses that I have learned to carry my hands properly, so that they will relax into my contact better. They tell me I have a long way to go to get to perfection.

My unconscious hand problems became even more obvious when I started riding in my “old style” Wellep bit, the one with 3 3/4” longer cable through the mouthpiece of the bit. Now I could HEAR the horses putting their necks and heads in a more comfortable place before they obeyed my aids. I could reflect on how I had been destroying the horses' straightness and impulse by having uneven hands as they moved better under me when I used my new bit! I also learned how sensitive the horses can be to my hand aids, as I try and avoid the cable “zinging” when I give a hand aid, my aids have become much lighter. The horses react to the smallest twitches of my finger, twitches so small that I cannot really “feel” them, and they react to these smallest twitches even when the reins are sagging. I have been experimenting with getting a turn on the hindquarters by alternating my outside thigh and lower leg, and I can get the horse to swing around somewhat, but I have yet to be able to get the horses to plant their hindquarters so it is a true turn on the hindquarters, but when I twitch my finger at the proper time they “plant” their hindquarters and I get a good turn on the hindquarters, even when my reins are sagging. (By saying “planting” their hindquarters I mean that the hind end stays in the same place as the horse keeps his hind feet moving, NOT that the horses are rotating around a hind hoof that never rises off the ground.)

Before I theoretically knew that my entire position mattered on horse-back, but I could not “translate” this knowledge to my actual riding. I had become resigned to my imperfections, thinking that I would never improve enough to be able to replicate my riding when I was younger (not that my riding was perfect when I was younger, it was just good enough.) But when I fix my shoulders, my back, my hip joints, and my hands I start to feel hopeful that my MS has not stolen all of my ability to ride horses. I never had perfect balance, I never could keep track of all the parts of my body at the same time, and I did not realize just how my physical imperfections limited my riding ability through the decades, but they did. And now, coming out of my third sever exacerbation in the past five years, I have finally become aware of my many riding faults and I am figuring out how to fix them! This means all my riding has become sort of boring, but I know when I finally fix these problems enough I will finally be stable enough in the saddle to start riding at a level beyond just walking and trotting in the ring. So I do the “rider's push-ups” every ride, carry the Equicube at least once a week, roll my shoulder blades back, work on being conscious of where my hands are all the time and I work on making my already light hand aids even lighter. My riding muscles are growing stronger, my proprioceptive sense has improved, and I can better tell when I start to lose my balance.

And I am greatly encouraged by the fact that, though my MS has become worse over the years, my riding is now improving so much that I could well end up being a better rider than I was when I was young, happily galloping and jumping my horse.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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