The shoulder is one of the most complex joints in the human body and as such is vulnerable to all sorts of problems and injuries. It is a relatively shallow joint in comparison to our hip joint and is extremely dependant on muscle tone for correct alignment and joint stability. Imbalance in any of the muscles that surround the shoulder joint can easily cause postural problems not to mention shoulder pain.

As riders we tend to become aware of our shoulders when a postural fault is pointed out to us by an instructor. Common issues for riders include a) tight shoulders that are pulled up towards the ears, b) one shoulder being carried higher than the other and c) the most common problem of all, tight shoulders that are rounded forward.

Tight shoulders that are carried too high are normally the result of tension. Tight shoulders in the rider can cause pain or stiffness in their neck, back, and upper body as well as blocking the movement of the horse. The shoulders may feel tight and stiff as a result of stress, tension, fear and even overuse. Tight shoulders can be also caused by sitting for extended periods, incorrect sleeping positions, and injuries. Learning to relax the shoulders whilst off the horse and practising breathing control can both help.

Tight shoulders that are carried too high are normally the result of tension. Tight shoulders in the rider can cause pain or stiffness in their neck, back, and upper body as well as blocking the movement of the horse. The shoulders may feel tight and stiff as a result of stress, tension, fear and even overuse. Tight shoulders can be also caused by sitting for extended periods, incorrect sleeping positions, and injuries. Learning to relax the shoulders whilst off the horse and practising breathing control can both help.

Uneven shoulders or having one shoulder higher than the other is also a common problem. The discrepancy in the shoulders can be slight or significantly different. The cause can be muscular or structural (as in scoliosis) but invariably the imbalance in the shoulders is caused by the rider collapsing on one side. Becoming aware of your shoulder misalignment is the first important step, not only while you’re riding but also while you are standing or sitting. Whether the cause of your uneven shoulders is muscular or structural,  to correct the shoulder imbalance your body needs to be correctly aligned, with your shoulders the same height and facing forward. To make the changes you will need to work on stretching your “tight” side and strengthening your “long” side. Start using your non-dominant arm as much as you whilst doing yard work, join a Pilates or Yoga class and make an appointment with a massage therapist who specializes in myofascial release.

Probably the most common shoulder issue is that of rounded shoulders (also known as upper crossed syndrome) because our modern lifestyle exacerbates this condition. Rounded shoulders, along with a rounded upper back, and a chin that tends to be thrust forward become the norm, so that we are not even aware that this is how we are riding, sitting or standing! To try and correct this issue riders are frequently told that that need to take their shoulders back when they ride. Unfortunately this just doesn’t seem to work. It is not that you don’t want to do what the instructor says, it is just that your body seems to have a mind of its own and will often revert back to its default position within minutes.

Whilst rounded shoulders and a head that pokes forward causes the rider’s weight to be too far in front of the horse’s centre of mass and pushes the horse onto his forehand, being told to take their shoulders back normally results in the rider taking their whole torso behind the vertical in an attempt to comply. Unfortunately, this takes their weight too far back, causes hyperextension in their lumbar spine and causes their horse to hollow behind the saddle.

Rounded shoulders don’t just affect us when we are on our horses either. Generally, the posture we have when riding is fairly indicative of the posture we are going to have when we are on the ground or vice versa. There are many reasons why we tend to round our backs and roll our shoulders forwards, and certainly when we are riding the way we hold our reins can be one. However rounded shoulders are normally caused by tight pectoral muscles and weak muscles in the back (upper and lower trapezius, deltoids, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi to name just a few) which are created by your lifestyle. Sitting at a desk all day, using a computer, looking at a mobile phone or even sleeping curled up all cause poor posture, weak back muscles, tight pectoral muscles, tight hip flexors and a weak core.

Having rounded shoulders doesn’t just affect your riding it can present real dangers for your long-term health. The most common side effect of rounded shoulders and one you might be already experiencing is strain and pain. Rounded shoulders put a great deal of stress in the trapezoids, upper back, and neck muscles. At the very best this can result in general muscle aches, and at the other end of the scale, you might suffer from pain that needs medical intervention. Rounded shoulders can also trigger tension headaches, which can then become more severe, leading to migraine. Rounded shoulders can also lead to arthritis. What might start out as stiffness in the shoulder and neck and an occasional headache can eventually become a limited range of movement and chronic pain. As already mentioned, rounded shoulders put unnecessary strain on muscle tissue, vertebrae, and joints alike, leading to high levels of inflammation which break down the cartilage and lead to degenerative joint disease.

Having rounded shoulders can promote further postural distortions throughout the body. Remember that your body is similar to a chain-linked fence in that if something happens at the top, it’s going to be felt at the bottom too. Having rounded shoulders can increase your chances of developing conditions such as forward head posture, pelvic tilt, and knee problems!

Over time, poor posture becomes very hard to correct; in part because our proprioceptive system tells us the way we are standing or sitting is straight even when it is not and in part because our muscles, fascia and ligaments are all affected..

The only way one can really solve the issue of rounded shoulders is by working on oneself off the horse. You need to strengthen the muscles of your upper back, the rhomboids (between the shoulder blades), the rear deltoids and lower trapezius (back of shoulders, upper back) as well as opening up the muscles in your chest and strengthening the muscles that support your spine. Generally, the more you can build strength in your shoulder girdle and balance that strength from front to back, the more your body will be able to maintain proper shoulder position in a relaxed and supple state.

Whist really correcting upper crossed syndrome will take several months of regular exercise, such as Pilates or Yoga to strengthen those muscles, becoming self-aware of the issue is a great place to start. When I am working with a rider at a Posture Assessment Clinic, I try to help the student take the “first steps” to correct this issue. Normally, the starting point is to get the rider in reasonable vertical balance by using PI’s weight sensors and cameras so the rider can “see” that they are tilting their torso back. Once the rider is basically in balance we can then start to open up their shoulders by stretching their chest and drawing their shoulders backwards and downwards using a simple exercise called “Dumb Waiter”.  This can be done on PI (my electronic horse) or equally if you have a calm, quiet horse whilst mounted, whilst standing or sitting on a hard chair or Swiss Ball. To do the exercise you need to bend your arms at the elbows, bring your upper arms to your sides, and hold your lower arms in front of you, palms upwards. Have your palms as flat as possible (imagine you are holding a small tray on each hand and don’t want to spill the drink on it). On an inhale, open your lower arms to the side, keeping your upper arms by your ribs. You should feel your shoulder blades drop down your back, and your chest open. Hold for a moment and then breathing out; bring your hands back together. You can also use this moment to see if one hand is lower than the other as if it is, it will show you that your shoulder on that side is lower and you are collapsing on that side.

While this exercise frees the shoulders and allows them to be placed back more effectively, it is only a temporary solution. Just stretching is not enough. Without the required strength in the opposing muscles the shoulders will not be able to stay back without a lot of effort, which causes tension. As a rider, you need to place your shoulders correctly but without tension so you need to strengthen those muscles in your back so you can hold the correct posture without strain.

I like to recommend regular Pilates classes to help riders improve their posture and increase body awareness. Done on a weekly basis, Pilates can not only correct your shoulder issues but will help you become more stable, balanced and supple in the saddle!

Some simple exercises that can help correct rounded shoulders are given below:

Stretching Over the Ball

From a seated position on a Swiss Ball, walk your feet away from the ball until the small of your back is in contact with the ball. Allow your upper back to drop back so that you are draped over the ball, with your head hanging downwards. Take your arms slowly backwards above your head and then bring them down so that your arms are hanging out to the side, palms upwards.  Breathe deeply and relax your spine and shoulders as you allow the weight of your arms to stretch your chest muscles (when out to the side) or open up your shoulders (when overhead).

Spine Extension

Activates the muscles of your upper-back – a great way to compensate for “computer-posture”.

Sit on an exercise ball with your feet a hip’s-width apart. Lift your arms out to either side with and bend your elbows.  Now, rotate your arms so that your hands reach towards the ceiling – as though surrendering. Keeping your shoulder blades wide, lift your sternum towards the ceiling by engaging the muscles of your back between your shoulder blades. Hold this small thoracic extension for a count of 10 and then release. Repeat 10 times.

Anterior Deltoid Stretch

Lie down on a foam roller with your entire spine supported (sacrum to skull). If you don’t have a foam roller you can use a rolled blanket, towel, or yoga mat. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Bring your elbows and shoulders to 90 degrees, so the upper arms are at right angles to your upper body, and your forearms are parallel to the roller (as in “hands up”). Relax your elbows and wrists toward the floor (they may or may not reach). Try to keep your forearms parallel to the floor; the wrists will want to be further away from the floor than the elbows, but try not to let that happen. You should feel the stretch across the chest muscles and maybe even the fronts of the shoulders. Your elbows and wrists probably won’t touch the floor, but don’t worry about that. Make sure your lower ribs aren’t jutting out. Work on allowing your body to relax and letting your chest and shoulders open for at least five steady breaths.​

Trapezius Stretch and Myofascial Release

Seated or standing, relax your right ear down toward your right shoulder. Keep your shoulders level with the floor; avoid letting one shoulder lift higher than the other. Relax your left arm down, and imagine you’re reaching for something on the floor with your left hand. To amplify the stretch, bring your left hand to the left side of your head to apply gentle pressure. Experiment by slowly lowering and lifting your chin to find a better stretch. If you find a particularly tight spot, hold there and take several relaxed breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Plank with Scapular Retraction  

Assume a forearm or low plank position.  Kneel down on all fours, place your forearms on the floor keeping your elbows bent and directly under shoulders; clasp your hands. Straighten your legs, tucking your toes under and come up into a plank position. Your feet should be hip-width apart, and your elbows should be shoulder-width apart. Contract your abdominals and engage your glute muscles. You should now be in a straight line from head to heels. Hold for a count of 5 before allowing your chest to drop towards the floor and your shoulder blades (scapula) to move towards each other. Then take your chest back up, moving your scapula away from each other. Hold each movement for a count of 5 and repeat 5 times.

A correctly placed knee prevents knee injury and can be used for subtle aids when we ride. However very few people actually spend a great deal of time thinking about their knees until they start to experience knee pain when they ride, a problem that is far more common than one might think. There is also some conflicting advice as to what we are supposed to do with our knees – turn knees in vs turn knees out, and for those old enough to remember – hold a 10 shilling note! So it is hardly surprising if one gets confused as to what is correct.

One of the main problems is that our knees are designed to move in only one direction, which is basically to act like a hinge. Knees are not designed to rotate.  The knee likes to move in a bending and straightening way (flexion and extension). It doesn’t like to be kinked, twisted, or rotated. So if you turn your foot into a parallel position by rotating at your knee, your knees will eventually hurt. Over the years, this pressure causes the medial collateral ligament to tighten and the lateral ligament to weaken and stretch which puts wear and tear on the joint and causes arthritis.  Basically it is our hips or more specifically our hip flexors and gluteal muscles (the muscles in our bottom) that control the rotation of our thigh and therefore the correct placement of our knee.

So on that note, let’s look at some of the common problems I see with knees when I give lessons, as well as some of the reasons why one might get pain in the knees either during or after the ride.

1. Incorrect leg position.

When you ride your ankle should be beneath your hip, as in the old adage “ear, shoulder, hip, heel” alignment. Your thigh bone should be rotated in from the hip joint, which allows the flat of your thigh to be in close contact with the saddle, your knee to touch but not grip the saddle and your lower leg to hang down the side of the horse so that the inside of the lower leg can be applied as and when needed, with an inward (not backward) nudge. To achieve this, your pelvis needs to be in neutral alignment. Too short a stirrup is a major contributor to knee pain. In addition, too short stirrups push your bottom towards the back of the saddle, causing posterior rotation to the pelvis (chair seat) which blocks your hips and forces your lower leg forwards. Too long stirrups tend to cause lower back pain rather than knee pain as they create an anterior tilt to the pelvis (overarched back). Riding with your stirrups too long also tends to take the heels too far back, which can in turn make the knee creep upwards.

2. Gripping with the knees

If you grip with your knees to stay on your horse, you may not only have sore knees but you will block the movement of your horse.  Gripping with the knees is also tiring for the rider, causing general stiffness, and pushing the rider’s seat out of the saddle. Gripping with the knees can also make the knees creep upwards. Unfortunately, gripping with the knees is very common, particularly with beginners and those who feel insecure in the saddle. The classical masters all mention that the thigh needs to be turned to lie flat on the saddle to allow the knee to find the correct position, neither gripping or flapping. Getting the thigh to lie flat takes some effort initially but can be achieved by rotating the leg at the hip slightly inward by pulling the large thigh muscle with your hand, so that the muscles lies behind the thigh rather between the bone and the saddle. However to maintain this position easily you may well need to work on opening your hips, by strengthening your hip flexors, your core and stretching your psoas. The position of the thigh directly influences the position of the knee and when the thigh and knee are in the correct position, gripping doesn’t happen.

3. Knees turned out

There is a huge difference between taking your knees away from the saddle and turning your knees out. Taking your knees away from the saddle momentarily by lifting your thighs out from the hip is a great exercise. It enables you to check that you aren’t gripping with the legs and whether your pelvis is in neutral, not to mention helping to free the hips. Turning your knees away from the saddle is completely different; it blocks the hip and tenses the gluteal muscles , the biceps femoris (the big muscle at the back of your thigh) and gastrocnmius (big calf muscle). All this results in an insecure seat and encourages excessive and very often involuntary movement of the lower leg. The remedy is the same as mentioned above. Grab hold of your thigh and pull the big muscles backwards and outwards so that the flat of your thigh can rest against the saddle. If your thigh is right, your knee is also right.

4. Rotating at the knee

We have probably all been told at some time or another that our feet should be parallel to the horse’s sides. But we haven’t necessarily been told how to achieve it. If the big muscle at the back of your thigh is between your femur and the saddle, your knees will naturally be facing outwards. To counter this it is common for riders to rotate their lower leg and foot forward by twisting at the knee. Apart from the fact that this will pretty much guarantee that you will suffer from knee pain both when you ride and in later life the incorrect placement of the thigh ensures that your hips are blocked and you can’t follow the movement of the horse.

5. Knees creeping up

Mostly our knees start to creep up when we grip with them. If your stirrups are too long and you have to reach for them you will probably tense your legs when your horse starts moving or goes up a gait. As the thighs start to tighten, the knees rise and the hips lock. As our hips and knees become blocked so does the movement of the horse. His movement therefore become less smooth, which makes one tense even more, which forces the knee to rise further etc. etc. Another reason why the knees creep up can be tightness of the psoas muscle. This in itself closes our hip joint, and pulls our thighs and knees upwards. Apart from stretching our psoas off horse with pilates and yoga exercises, one can also think about trying to capture the feel of kneeling when you ride to encourage your hips to open and your knee to stay down and still.

 6. Feet too far in the stirrup

According to the International Society of Rider Biomechanics your stirrups should be positioned beneath the balls of your foot. This is great advice, as the positioning gives your foot support and allows the ankle to be supple and soft which keeps the knee soft and supple. More experienced riders may have just their toes resting in the stirrup, which also allows the ankle to be soft and supple. The Spanish Riding School traditionally taught that there should be so little weight in the stirrups that it should look like a puff of wind could blow them away. The one thing in common with all of these practices is that the positioning allows the ankle to flex with the horse’s movement which in turn allows the knee to flex. If you jam your feet into the stirrups, so that the bar of the stirrup is under your arch rather than under the ball of your foot, your ankles can no longer flex when the horse moves, which puts an enormous concussive pressure on your knees and blocks your hips which in turn will block the movement of the horse. However the problem is often not you jamming your foot into the stirrups but your foot sliding too far into the stirrup. This tends to happen when the lower leg is too far back, either because the stirrups are too long or your hamstrings are too tight. Pilates, yoga or regular stretching can help your hamstrings, whilst shortening your stirrups slightly will take care of the former.

7. Blocked ankles

Blocked ankles mean blocked knees which in turn mean blocked hips and a restricted horse. Blocked (or braced) ankles invariably come about by the rider trying to force their heels down. Our ankles should always be soft and supple so that they are able to flex with the movement of the horse. However so many of us have been taught that our heels should be the lowest point that it is very common to see a rider forcing their lower leg forward and thrusting their heel down. And whilst this might make a good defensive riding position it blocks the ankle, which as mentioned above, blocks the knee and the hip.

As already mentioned, it is is relatively easy to place your knee in the correct position by adjusting the rotation of your thigh. However it is relatively hard to maintain this position easily without working on the necessary muscles. Attending a regular Pilates, Yoga, Rider Exercise, Equi Pilates or Swiss Ball class can make a phenomenal difference to your riding. After all the correct positioning of the knee not only solves pain issues it allows us to ride with more finesse.

When I first started teaching Rider Biomechanics it was perfectly clear to me on the ground whether a rider was sitting straight in their saddle, over to one side, leaning forwards or leaning backwards. However, it soon became abundantly obvious that what I was seeing and what some students thought they were doing were poles apart.  There was a disparity between where the rider’s brain told her ‘straight’ was and the reality I was seeing. It wouldn’t matter if I told the student to raise their right shoulder a hundred times, they would for a moment in time, but either their proprioceptive system (the body’s internal GPS) would tell them that the new position was wrong and would take them back to their reality of straight or actual tightness in certain muscle groups would prevent them from being able to make the changes I wanted them to.

Unfortunately if we want to become good riders, communicate clearly with our horse and not compromise our horse physically, we need to be able to sit in balance. So being able to sit up straight is an essential skill for riders. At the halt, when viewed from the side, the rider’s ears, shoulders, hips and heels should align. When viewed from the front, the horse’s neck, withers and spine should form a straight line and the rider’s nose, chin, breastbone and belly button should be perpendicular to the horse’s spine. Viewed from the rear, the rider’s head and spine should also align with the horse’s spine. As I mentioned, being able to obtain this neutral position is essential if you wish to have clear communication with your horse. But with the student’s proprioceptive system lying to them, trying to help them find this “ideal posture” was like searching for the Holy Grail.

I soon realised that I wasn’t going to be able to make these changes happen by just telling the student to stop dropping their left shoulder. I needed the rider to see themselves as I saw them and to understand how collapsing a left shoulder could cause their horse to drift to the right.  It was whilst trying to find the solution to these problems that the idea of PI, my electronic horse was conceived. Six years down the line, PI has become an unbelievable successful teaching tool. Cameras mounted to the side and rear show the rider where her body really is in space, whilst sensors at PI’s feet show her exactly where her weight is. Faced with both her weight and a video of herself on the screen in front of her, the student’s proprioceptive system is proved the liar it is.

Self awareness of one’s postural habits and understanding how it feels to have a neutral pelvis and spine and equal weight in both seat bones is the first step towards correcting poor posture.  Only when one can find a neutral pelvis and sit in balance can one start learning how to use the pelvis and weight in nuanced ways to communicate with the horse.

Most people take their normal postural habits with them when they get in the saddle. If they normally tilt their head to one side when they are standing, then they will do the same thing when they sit on a horse. Because so many of us work in offices, a lot of people assume the classic ‘computer posture’ with chin jutting forward, shoulders rounded and the upper body behind the vertical, others overarch their lower backs and virtually everyone sits too far back in the saddle.  Some riders slouch off to the left or right placing their hips, shoulders, and head out of alignment. This puts more weight on one or the other seat bone, puts more weight in one or the other stirrup, puts the saddle off center on the horse, or creates any one of several other off balance scenarios. And when someone has ridden crookedly for years that crooked position feels correct even when they can see for themselves just how crooked they are.

Correcting the problem literally requires retraining the brain to understand what really straight and balanced feels like. It is not easy. Whilst the rider sits on PI, we use the weight displays and cameras to work out how we need to adjust her body to bring it in to alignment. Sometimes the rider is able to make the necessary adjustments herself; other times I use my hands to help the rider find straightness. All too frequently the rider is tight in her hips and lacks sufficient core, sometimes the pelvis is uneven with one side higher or lower than the other. Permanently correcting these issues cannot be done in one session, or even on board a horse but awareness and understanding is the first step. The rider needs to understand where the issue is and what causes the problem and then work on correcting herself, using Pilates, yoga or Feldenkrais type exercises.

As a Rider Biomechanics Coach, I know that the way a rider sits on her horse influences the way the horse moves. Obviously, there are lots of other reasons why a horse may not be moving properly, such as the horse’s own asymmetry or a poorly fitting saddle, but one of the most common reasons is our own position and the way we sit on our horse.

The way we sit, or to put it another way, our posture, balance and alignment matters to the horse. Being able to take your pelvis from neutral alignment, apply a subtle weight aid and then take your pelvis back to neutral alignment can make your riding appear more like dancing with your horse. Your aids become invisible; you and your horse appear to be moving as one. A rider with a good seat allows their horse to move to the very best of his ability. Fractional adjustments in your weight will help your horse find his own balance and enable him to move with rhythm and relaxation.

Whilst most of us recognise that there is room for improvement in our riding and know that we need to make sure we are sitting properly and not compromising our horse’s balance, back or movement, there are others who are prepared to pay to have their horse’s back fixed regularly, blame their saddler for not fitting the saddle properly or change their instructor as regularly as their underwear rather than look closer at their own position.  Without a good seat, even the best back-person or most superb saddler will not be enough to allow your horse to move with optimal balance and rhythm. Taking regular lessons can help improve your seat but to improve our riding we need to know what our body is really doing and work on our body’s deficiencies off the horse!

One of the reasons it is so hard to correct poor postural habits is that our body’s proprioceptive system is very good at lying to us. Part of the sensorimotor control system, which is responsible for our balance, the proprioceptive system is actually made up of whole heap of proprioceptors that are sensitive to stretch or pressure in our muscles, tendons, and joints. It is these sensors that help the brain to know just where our feet and legs are, how our head is positioned and whether our torso is erect.

Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, our proprioceptive system doesn’t always tell us where our limbs or spine really are.  Our proprioception capabilities can become impaired due to injury but we can also loose proprioceptive capabilities because of poor postural habits such as always carrying a handbag on one shoulder, sitting hunched over a computer or even just because of our age. It is because our proprioceptive system feeds our brain false information that we revert back to our “normal” position so frequently during riding lessons. If you have ever had an instructor tell you repeatedly to straighten your back, look up, square your shoulders or stop leaning back – then the chances are your proprioceptive system is telling you fibs.

To improve our own riding we need to really look at our position and posture, and work out what adjustments we need to make in our body. Self awareness of crookedness is the first step towards straightness and alignment. This is where I find the use of PI (my electronic horse) so very beneficial. Sensitive sensors under PI’s “feet” give continuous feedback of your weight distribution and whether you are sitting with equal weight on each seat bone, leaning too far forward or too far back. The cameras and video footage enables you to “see” in real time just how your shoulder/hip/heel alignment lines up and helps you learn to find what the correct position should feel like. Once you can sit easily in total balance and alignment, PI then allows you to experience how an adjustment of a hip or a tilt of a torso can affect your weight.

Just as we are able to help our horse make postural changes through gymnastic training, we can also help ourselves and retrain our proprioceptive system with the right exercises. If we want our horse to engage his core and stretch his top line, it is essential that we can engage ours! If your spine isn’t aligned and stabilized by strong core muscles and your hips are stiff, it’s going to be impossible for your horse to move correctly!

Pilates, Yoga and Swiss Ball classes are all perfect for riders as they help improve the posture as well as increasing flexibility in the hips and strengthening the core. In all these classes the alignment of the spine and a neutral pelvis are a key tenet. It is this basic postural principle that can help riders understand where and how to sit in the saddle.

Biomechanics seems to have become the buzz word in the equine industry in the last 10 or so years. Everyone these days is a biomechanics coach, but what does biomechanics really mean and is biomechanics really important to you or your horse?

Lets us look at the meaning first. If we look at Wikipedia, biomechanics is defined as “ the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms”. But what does that really mean and how does that relate to you, your horse or your riding?

In a nutshell, Biomechanics is the science of the movement of a living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement or are influenced by an outside force such as gravity, pressure or weight.

I like to break Rider Biomechanics into 3 components – the biomechanics of the human, the biomechanics of the horse and finally the biomechanics of the horse and human combination – rider biomechanics.

Basically all horses and all humans are born asymmetrical and as we grow older our asymmetry increases. This asymmetry places unnecessary strains and stresses on joints and ligaments, and if not dealt with can cause real physical problems for both ourselves and our horses.

The Biomechanics of the Horse

Like us, horses are born right or left handed – or more correctly in their case, left or right footed. They have a hollow and a stiff side and naturally carry more weight on their forehand.  Understanding the longitudinal (front/back) imbalance is easy, although this cannot be corrected until the lateral (side/side) imbalance has been dealt with. Understanding the lateral imbalances and indeed working out just which side is hollow and which is stiff can be far harder. 

The actual terms “hollow” and “stiff” have been used for centuries. The term hollow is used to define the side of the horse that is more contracted, whilst the term stiff is used for the side that is more stretched. In more extreme cases your horse can look a little like a banana, with the stiff side being more convex and the hollow side, more concave. This isn’t a major problem if the horse is never going to be ridden but in order to carry a rider without undue strain, the horse needs to develop a strong back, be equally strong and supple on both sides and learn to carry his weight more equally. Therefore the horse needs to be taught how to improve both his balance and straightness – his biomechanics, using gymnastic exercises.  It is only by training our horse’s muscles and straightening him that it is possible to achieve optimum movement, posture and position. A straightened horse will be physically and mentally in balance, symmetrical and supple and be able to carry his rider with ease. This training is often easier to do without the hindrance of a rider and can be achieved by working with the horse on-line, in hand or on the longe.

The Biomechanics of the Human

As I have already mentioned, all humans are asymmetrical. Most of us collapse more on one side, stand with one shoulder higher than the other, have a dominant hip or place more weight on one foot than the other. In addition to our asymmetry, all too many of us are overweight and lack muscle tone which exacerbates the asymmetry. Another big problem for so many of us, is our lack of ability to isolate certain muscles or body parts, so that we use a hand inadvertently when bringing a hip forward or we clench our gluteal muscles (bottom) when doing a half halt.

To remain healthy and certainly to become better riders we need to take responsibility for our own bodies, become aware of our posture, and work to improve our suppleness and balance. Pilates classes (either mat-based or using a Swiss ball) are absolutely perfect to create awareness, increase suppleness and core strength and teach us how to isolate specific body parts.

The Horse & Human Combination – Rider Biomechanics

Finally we come to the horse and rider combination, or rider biomechanics.  Every time we sit on a horse, we influence the way our horse moves, or he influences the way we sit. If we sit more heavily to our left our horse will move to the left. If we hollow our back, our horse will hollow his. Conversely a horse with a hollow back can cause us to hollow ours!  We need to be aware of our position and weight when we sit on our horse, we need to be able to adjust our position at any moment in time to help our horse achieve correct balance and alignment. We need to remember that our seat is the one aid we cannot take away, and do our utmost to make sure that our sitting on our horse’s back becomes as pleasurable an experience for him as riding him is for us.

When I teach, I like to use PI (my electronic horse) initially to help my student acquire “self awareness”. The weight sensors and cameras enable the student to see their own asymmetries and they have the time to learn what a neutral pelvis feels like without having to worry about the movement of the horse. The rein sensors enable them to see just how heavy handed (or not) they are and they can practice “giving and re-taking” of the reins and half halts without any detrimental effects on their horse’s mouth.

Once we become aware of our own, and our horse’s asymmetries we can use “dressage” exercises as physiotherapy for our horse. Changes of bend in motion are really good for developing the lateral suppleness of the horse as well as the suppleness of our own hips.

A good seat is an essential if we want to be a good rider. Every book and every trainer seems to agree on this. How a good seat can be achieved or what constitutes a good seat, is perhaps a little less clear.

Perhaps the first question we need to ask ourselves is why our seat is so important when we ride? The answer is because apart from being our base of support, it is our primary aid. The seat provides an important form of communication between us and our horse. It is the only aid we cannot stop using while we are sitting on a horse; we can stop using the reins, we can stop using our legs but we cannot stop using our seat! If we are crooked either laterally or vertically it WILL affect the way our horse goes. All too many of us don’t exercise nearly enough, long hours sitting at a computer affects the way we sit, add in weak core muscles and tight hips and it is not surprising that so many of our horses have back issues.

Only a supple, well balanced seat allows the possibility of subtle influence. Our ultimate goal should be to be able to reduce our aids down to just tiny changes in our weight and position, so that to anyone watching it looks as though we and our horse are moving as one being.

Unfortunately, for most of us, a good seat doesn’t come naturally. And yet without a good seat we cannot expect a consistent and light contact or deliver our aids effectively. Our hands and our legs are reliant on our seat. Our horses don’t necessarily help us either. It is far, far easier to sit correctly whilst being lunged on a beautifully balanced schoolmaster than riding our own asymmetrically horse that has his own postural issues.  However for most of us, the former isn’t always an option so we have to make the best of what we have.

So let us look first at what is meant by a good seat. Traditionally the classical “good” seat has a three-point contact, comprising the two seat bones and crotch or the two seat bones, crotch and inner thighs. But a good seat surely has to vary depending on the chosen discipline. The answer of course is yes, the seat does need to change depending on your discipline, the movement required and whether you are riding a young, green horse or Prix St George super star. Nor is the seat static, horses are living moving beings and so our seat has to be dynamic not rigid.  But no matter whether we are riding dressage, out hacking, showing jumping or even eventing we need an independent and balanced seat that is supple enough to be able to mirror the movement of the horse!

An independent and balanced seat means that the rider needs to be able to maintain their own balance (self carriage) during upward and downwards transitions and sudden lateral movements (such as turns or even shying) without the use of artificial support (reins, neck strap, saddle), or gripping with their legs! If this is the definition of a good seat, how few of us actually have it? No wonder then that the Spanish Riding School used to expect their students to do 6 months to a year on a lunge without stirrups.

At the very least, our aim should be to allow our seat to follow the horse’s movement smoothly and to keep our centre of gravity in harmony with that of the horse. Only once we have learnt to sit without tension in secure balance can we really follow the movement smoothly and be effective with our aids. An outwardly correct position with tension in the wrong muscles just causes our horse to brace.

Contact is the third building block in the classic German Scales of Training pyramid following after Rhythm and Suppleness (sometimes shown as Relaxation). However, the question of what contact is, or more to the point, just how much contact is needed and how soft or how firm the contact should be, seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with.

According to Gustav Steinbrecht (“Gymnasium of the Horse”) there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, namely, light contact, soft contact and finally firm contact.  He states that a perfect light contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, so the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance can be improved by correct contact.

Contact therefore is, in fact, ever-changing – dependent on the balance and the self-carriage of the horse. The more your horse is in self carriage the lighter the contact is. However, as we all know, there are moments during training when things don’t go to plan and our horse isn’t balanced let alone in self carriage and falls on the forehand. And when this happens, he will get heavier in the hand. The important thing here is not to try to fix the problem by pulling on the reins or shortening them even further but to try and help the horse to rebalance himself by using a downward transition or a series of half halts and double checking that you are sitting extra correctly and that you have your core engaged.

In the most basic terms, contact refers to the situation in which the reins are stretched in a straight line between the mouth of the horse and the hands of the rider. To an onlooker, correct contact should appear as an unbroken straight line from the rider’s elbow (which should be held at or above the hip) to the mouth of the horse.  For this to happen, the rider mustn’t have their hands too high or too low but at the appropriate height for the head carriage of the horse. As a rough guide the hands should be held just above and in front of the pommel of the saddle.

How the hands are held is also important to the quality of the contact. They should be held thumb uppermost with the thumbs pointing towards the horse’s opposite ear and slightly downwards as though pouring a pot of tea. Many riders ride with what I call piano hands – where the hands are turned over as if playing a piano. This position prevents riders from being able to really follow their horse’s head with their hands (so the contact is rigid rather than elastic) so they try to compensate for this by opening their fingers in the mistaken belief this makes their hands light. But instead of having a light-feeling contact, they have almost no contact or no feeling and their lower arms can’t give to the horse or be elastic. When the knuckles are almost vertical (thumbs on top) the two bones of our lower arm run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive and our contact more elastic.

It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands!  Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!

Equally one should never ride the horse from the front to the back but all too frequently this is what we do. The horse should move forward into your hands. In training for contact the horse must play an active part and the rider’s hand a waiting, passive part. In the original German version of the Scales of Training the word Anlehnung is used, which translated literally means “ leaning to” and not “pulling in”. A rider’s hand that is too active backwards or too hard leads to disruption in the horse’s balance.

Contact gives us the ability to communicate with our horse (and the horse with us). To be correct the contact should feel alive.  If you hold your hands correctly, you feel a connection with your horse. When he chews the bit, you feel a small vibration on the reins. When we have correct contact we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit and then through the reins to our hand where we feel that energy as a subtle pulse.

Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.

To have correct contact you need to sit correctly, using your core muscles to hold yourself in balance. An independent and supple seat is the cornerstone and prerequisite of soft contact. Your arms and legs are extensions of this correct position and are able to retain their position without brace. The upper arms hang straight down to your hips and support and frame your core. In this position, you won’t need to pull on your reins to stay in balance and conversely if the horse leans on the reins, you have the strength of your core to keep you from being pulled forward. Even when we ride with contact, we have to bear in mind that our reins are only a secondary aid. Our seat is the primary aid and it is the engagement of our core that helps the horse to engage his abdominals and find his balance.

The amount of actual ‘weight’ in your hands when taking contact will vary from horse to horse due to conformation differences and as already explained, the “frame” or level of schooling of our horse. The contact feels at its heaviest when the horse is stretching forward and down, becomes lighter as the horse comes into balance and even lighter when the weight starts to shift to the hind legs so that the horse now ‘carries’ himself (self carriage).

Another important factor is we have to learn to accept the contact from the horse as he moves into our hand. So many riders ‘give’ the rein as soon as they feel the horse coming to their hand. If they do this regularly, their horse will never be able to step in to the contact. You need to have a steady hand that ‘accepts’ the contact and closes the circle of aids. If you give away the connection at the same time you ask the horse to step under and carry more weight on his hindquarters the effect is like squeezing a toothpaste tube with the top open,  the energy runs out the front and the horse doesn’t achieve the rounded frame you want.

When the rein contact is loose and floppy the horse cannot feel fine finger communication. Without rein contact he cannot learn to go into the round balanced frame needed for true self carriage. However once the horse can hold a round balanced frame, the reins may be given to him for a few strides to see if he can maintain self carriage.

Too strong a contact will block forward movement and prevent the horse from feeling light communication and whilst it might force the horse’s head into position, he will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth), drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation. Too strong a contact also causes discomfort, numbs the mouth and can damage the nerves.

So what is correct contact?  As already mentioned the reins must be neither too short nor too long but form a straight line between your elbow and the horse’s mouth. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it. In fact the definition of contact given by British Dressage says it all “ the ideal contact is a light, even, elastic feel in both reins and this is achieved by aids from the legs and seat, not the hand”.

Having said all that it is really hard to know just how hard you grip the reins. If you live in the UK my electronic horse, PI, is a great tool for seeing what really happens when you take up the reins. Sensors positioned at the bit record the actual amount of rein contact that you take up and show you just how light or heavy your contact really is. If your contact is more than 1.6kgs per rein the display goes amber to show that your contact is too heavy.

It is interesting to see what really happens when you give a half halt and whether you throw the reins away when you release it. It is also fascinating to see what happens to the contact when we do a rising trot!

So far on PI I have seen as little as 250 grams of pressure per rein to over 4kgs per rein. The contact can differ between the hands too – with the maximum variation between the left and right hand recorded so far being a massive 2.5kgs!  Remember that our contact should be even – assuming we are riding on a straight line and our horse is in balance. Unfortunately, hands that are too strong are all too common. A recent study in Sweden found that their riders took an average of between 1.5kg and a massive 2.5 kg of rein contact in each hand. So much for that light, elastic contact that BD talk about!

I originally wrote this post in 2018 but  it is as relevant now as it was then.

As anyone who has followed my articles for any length of time or attended one of my clinics or classes  will know, I am pretty obsessed by asymmetry (both our own and our horses) and how being crooked can have a major effect on our health, the health of our horse and our riding. So I thought we could have another look at what we can do to help solve some of those crookedness issues!

As far as we, the human, are concerned, there are three major front/back crookedness patterns that we tend to suffer from. Before we look at these and how to help correct them, we need to make sure we know what the ideal is.

Good posture is basically nothing more than correct spinal alignment. This alignment is commonly called neutral spine and it defines correct posture, whether we are standing, or sitting in the saddle.

With ideal posture the body’s centre of gravity is balanced over the centre of the foot, with the weight being balanced equally on both feet. Proper alignment is observed when a plumb line falls from the mid line of the ear, through the shoulder, the greater trochanter (at the hip), slightly anterior (front) of the knee to finish just slightly anterior of the ankle. When assessing the posture from the front, the plumb line should halve the body, with the line passing through the forehead, the centre of the sternum, and the pubis. In addition the head should be level (not tilted), the shoulders should be even without any elevation or depression and the point of hips (ASIS) even.

The most common postural deviations are round backed (kyphosis), over arched back (lordosis) and swaybacked (s-shaped). In addition to these front/back crookedness types, there is also left-right crookedness which includes scoliosis. Obviously being aware of what your posture’s default is, is essential before you can start to correct it. If you don’t know then you may need to consider having a posture assessment.

Awareness of our body (proprioception) is all about our ability to stay safely upright without compromising our joints or ligaments.  The skeleton is supported and moved by the muscles of our body. If our skeleton is out of alignment, then our muscles and ligaments are either overworking or under working to compensate and these muscular imbalances leave our body vulnerable to injury.

So how do we start to correct our crookedness – well fundamentally we can alter our body’s awareness and posture through exercise. It can be Pilates, Swiss Ball, Yoga or Feldenkrais, but exercise, carefully controlled, correct exercise is the key.

Let us look more closely now at each of the 3 main postural types, and what exercises can most help each type.

Round Backed

This posture is where the shoulders are rounded, resulting in an excessive curve of the upper back. You may sometimes hear this referred to as Upper Cross Syndrome. This posture type is common with office workers, or those who spend a long time sitting at a computer, reading, driving or watching tv. Indicators of this postural style include:

  • Head/chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine hyper-extended.
  • Shoulder-blades may elevate and rotate upwards and outwards.
  • Thoracic spine has increased flexion.
  • Pectoral muscles are tight.
  • Rectus abdominis and internal obliques are tight and external obliques are weak/
  • Lower and mid trapezius and rear deltoids are lengthened with the shoulders pulled forward.

Consequences of round backed posture in the saddle:

  • Strains rider’s intervertebral discs.
  • Leads to chair seat with rider behind horse’s movement.
  • Frequently causes rider to look down and round their shoulders.
  • Makes it difficult for the horse to step underneath his point of mass.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Chin Tuck
  • Swan Dive
  • Spine Twist
  • Cobra
  • Chest opener (over ball) or Dumb Waiter
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat, The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Full walk out on ball

Over Arched Back

This posture type is common in pregnant women, dancers, gymnasts, those who carry too much weight around the belly and those who participate in sport requiring repeated lumbar hyper-extension. If your back over arches you may have some of the following:

  • Pelvis tilts forwards (hip bones are in front of pubic bone).
  • Rectus abdominis and external obliques are lengthened and are usually weak.
  • Gluteals (maximus and medius) are weak with poor tone.
  • Hamstrings are tight.
  • Lumbar spine is hyper extended.
  • Knees may be hyper-extended.
  • One hip is frequently tighter than the other.

Consequences of over arched back posture in the saddle:

  • Causes low or mid back pain.
  • Causes horse to invert and hollow his back.
  • Limits suppleness in the rider’s shoulder girdle.
  • Makes it hard to find elastic contact.
  • Makes it hard for rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Pelvic tucks
  • Cat & Horse (mat)
  • Arch & Chair (ball)
  • Hamstring stretch
  • Side Clam
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat. The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Seated walk out on ball

Sway Backed

This postural type is common in people who stand for long periods of time, particularly when they rest the majority of the body weight on one leg. This posture’s main features are:

  • Head and chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine is slightly flexed.
  • Lumbar spine is flexed.
  • Posterior tilted pelvis (pelvis is swayed forward in relation to feet).
  • Weak hip flexors (stretched).
  • Upper rectus abdominis short and tight but lower abdominis weak.
  • Knees hyper-extended.
  • Hamstrings short

Consequences of sway backed posture in the saddle:

  • Puts rider behind the motion, can cause leaning on the reins.
  • Makes it hard for the horse to step under his point of weight.
  • Restricts the movement of the rider’s pelvis.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Jack knife with ball
  • Ham string stretch
  • Bridge
  • Boat
  • Squats
  • Plank
  • Plank with side bend
  • Side Plank

Like us, our horses are probably crooked. Hollow on one side, and stiff on the other. Just as we need to recognize our postural type so we can do the right exercise for us, we need to know what our horse’s natural tendencies are.

Like ours, our horse’s proprioceptive system will lie to him. We need to help the horse have a greater awareness of his body. We need to help him find better balance because otherwise we leave his body vulnerable to injury.

So what is “straightness” in a horse?  Straightness as a term used in the training pyramid refers to the horse’s feet being aligned on the line of travel. This means that the inside pair of legs are on the inside of the line, the outside pair of legs on the outside of the line, with the spine (in theory, if not practice) forming a segment of the line.  So on a straight line the horse’s spine would be straight and on a curved line, the spine would be bent. Unfortunately one of the main problems with this is that the horse’s shoulders are narrower than his quarters and your horse will invariably try to line up one front leg with the hind leg on the same side, rather than centring his shoulders directly in front of the pelvis.

When you’re riding whole school (going large), most horses will tend to lean against the rail with their outside shoulder, so that their outside front leg is the same distance from the rail as their outside hind leg, which means that his shoulders are no longer centred in front of his pelvis and the horse is crooked. Because the inside hind leg is no longer able to step forward and under the centre of mass, the outside shoulder will have to support the share of weight that the inside hind leg should be carrying but isn’t.

Very often we become aware of our horse’s asymmetry because our saddle slips to one side. Our initial thought may be to tighten the girth and the second that we need to change our saddle.  But this is probably not the answer. Recent research in Australia has shown that over tightening a girth results in deterioration in the overall performance of race horses. And whilst we may not be racing, over tightening a girth will certainly affect our horse’s biomechanics. A better fitting saddle may be the solution, and having your saddle checked out by a Master Saddler or qualified fitter is always worthwhile to ensure that it does fit properly, but in my experience, a slipping saddle is often caused by how our horse flexes (or rather doesn’t) his hind legs and carries his body weight. So before changing your saddle or over tightening the girth try sending your horse to the gym.

Just as we are right or left handed our horses will favour their left or right side. Over time this leads to the over development of shoulder muscles and/or haunches on the side (normally the stiff) they prefer to weight. Your horse will be heavier in the hand on the stiff side, fall out or in with his shoulders on the stiff side and fall in with his haunches on the hollow side. When a horse is crooked he has difficulty in stepping underneath his body mass with his hind leg on his hollow side. This can lead to a shortened stride with the hind leg on the stiffer side and cause problems with the correct flexing of the joints. When the hind leg can’t flex properly, the hip on that side rises. This can cause the saddle and rider to slide over to the other side. Changing your saddle will therefore not alleviate the problem, only a rehab program where you work on correcting your horse’s crookedness will correct the muscle imbalance.

We can choose to work with our horse either on the ground or in the saddle, or with a combination of both. I find it easier to start on the ground, either on-line or in hand as then I can actually see how my horse is moving and teach him the movements without the interference of my weight. Other people prefer to do all the exercises under saddle. There is no right or wrong, it is whatever is easier for you and your horse but fundamentally the exercises to correct your horse’s crookedness are the same. To achieve straightness we need to teach the horse to bring his hind legs under his centre of gravity and flex the joints during the weight bearing phase of the leg, this can be done by working on curved lines, changing the bend and using lateral movements.

Basically we can choose exercises that create body awareness and coordination, supple the entire body of the horse or target individual muscle groups.  The following two exercises allow us to analyze our horse’s crookedness as well as generally supple his entire body.

Exercise One – Diagnosing Crookedness – Figure 8

Mark out 2 x 10 metre circles (volte) with cones to mark gates ways at 12, 9, 6 and 3, with the circles sharing a common gateway at 3 and 9. Ensure that both circles are perfectly round and exactly the same size.

Ride the circles at a walk and then a trot. Observe what happens. As a result of natural crookedness most horses will make the circle on the hollow side smaller and larger on the stiffer side.

Exercise Two – Spiral Volte  – Improving Crookedness

  • Ride a 10m circle (volte) in the first corner of the long side of the arena.
  • When your horse is parallel to the short side of the arena, enlarge the volte 2 strides from the inside leg, so that the shoulders and hips move out simultaneously. When enlarging the circle to the horse’s stiff side he will want to lead with his shoulders, when enlarging the circle towards the horse’s hollow side he will want to lead with his quarters. Ensure that both hips and shoulders move together, if the shoulders or hips lead there is no gymnastic benefit.
  • The moment you have enlarged the circle by 2 strides, turn the shoulders to resume the volte. This way the volte remains the same size throughout as it progresses along the long side of the school.
  • When you reach the second corner of the long side change the rein through a figure 8 to a new 10m volte and repeat the exercise on the other rein.
  • Start at a walk and when you and your horse know the pattern try it at a trot.

So far in this series we have looked at “the importance of straightness” and “the importance of the hips”. But just as you can’t build a house without a good foundation, we can’t correct the posture of either our horse or ourselves without looking at our feet. Both horses and humans will find a way to favour the leg (foot) they prefer, so working on both our own and our horse’s asymmetry needs to be a continual process. We can obviously help to address the issue by improving our awareness (of both our own and our horse tendencies) and changing our proprioception. The problem for both us and our horses is that we are set (subconsciously) in a whole pattern and it is only when we become aware of the root cause of the problem that we can start to fix it. And that cause is all too frequently our feet.

Let us look first at ourselves without the horse. Yoga teachers often use the word grounded. It can be a verb (to ground through the feet) or an adjective (a grounded feeling). Taking it literally, we can start by feeling our physical connection to the ground. Feel all the different points on your feet that are touching the ground right now. Is your heel resting on its inner edge, or its outer edge, or the middle? Is there more weight on your toes or on your heels or is the weight equal? Is the ankle tipping to one side or the other, putting weight on a certain side of the arch? Become aware of how you are standing.

Now, through this connection to the floor, let the rest of your body relax towards the ground. Imagine the heaviness of your shins and calves flowing through your ankle to the ground.  Picture the weight of your knee and thigh bones flowing downwards, then imagine the weight of your pelvis sinking towards the floor. Let the weight of the spine and the head flow down towards this stable base. Now you might start to feel “grounded.”

Grounding is not always a feeling of heaviness, it is also energising. With both feet on the floor, notice how the ground holds firm and doesn’t sink. Imagine your feet resting on a pillow, and then feel the comparative hardness of the actual floor. It quite literally supports you. It even pushes back. The “ground reaction force” is studied by athletes and it is this “ground reaction force” we need to use as riders to help our horse obtain true impulsion. In other words “ground reaction force” is the rebound of your action against the ground, or when we are riding the rebound action of our horse’s hoof against the ground when it is placed correctly.

The idea of grounding is a mental shift; we might not feel or think about it when we are practicing yoga or Pilates but all the standing and balancing poses should focus on lifting off and pushing away from the floor. Sports and good posture do the same. We have to welcome the floor, with our feet, and lift off from there. Then our posture will have a stable foundation.

Just like your horse, your foot position is a critical factor with every step you take. Most of us are either “pigeon toed” or “duck footed” and this affects both our knees and our hips. It is only when we walk with our feet pointing forward that the muscles and ligaments that surround our hips and knees are able to work properly.

The simplest way to check whether your feet are in alignment is to use the straight edge of an exercise mat. Line up

the outside edge of your foot so that it runs parallel to the edge of the mat. Now your foot is straight and your pelvis can work correctly – however the chances are this positioning will feel abnormal.

To test out how much our feet can influence the freedom of movement of our pelvis try this exercise. Sit up straight, towards the front of a hard chair, with equal weight in each seat bone.  Your knees should be at approximately 90° and your feet pointing straight ahead with the weight equally distributed across your foot. Now, without raising your heel, try and lift your right hip, taking the weight from your right seat bone and closing the gap between your rib cage and hip bone, without moving your torso.  Do this a few times and then try your left hip. Once you feel that you have the movement try transferring your weight into the outside of your foot and try again. Then turn your feet out and try.

Now let us look at the horse. We know that if we want our horse to use his body correctly, he has to be in balance. The fact that he can have 60 per cent of his weight on his forehand whilst he is grazing isn’t a problem – providing there is no one sitting on his back. However the moment we sit on his back things change. If his hind legs are behind or to the side of his central mass then physics dictate that the combined weight of both the horse and the rider is on his forehand. That in itself can cause long term damage to the fore limbs and shoulders but if the rider tries to change the head set by just using the reins that damage can manifest itself with problems in the poll and neck,  kissing spine or damage in the lumbar sacral area.

As you will know yourself, if you lose balance you will tense your body to avoid falling over, perhaps even taking a step or two forward or backwards that you hadn’t intended. That also happens to our horse. If he doesn’t feel secure

on his feet then the horse will brace and in more extreme cases, rush or refuse to move! How many people have horses on which they use stronger and stronger bits because their horse “leans” on it, perhaps the horse is only leaning on the bit to help with his balance?

Although it may seem impossible, lots of horses don’t seem to know they have four feet. Like us, our horse will have a dominant side – perhaps his left, perhaps his right and most of his weight will be carried on the front leg of that side (that’s the shoulder that falls out or in on a circle). Some horses struggle so much with the concept of transferring weight on to the other 3 legs they refuse to lift that particular hoof when being trimmed, shod or having their feet picked out. Our response is frequently, that our horse is naughty or stupid – but it may well not be that – it could easily be that our horse is frightened of falling over.

As always one of the best ways to see if there is a problem, and to start to teach the horse how to use all 4 legs, is on the ground. Start (assuming it is safe to do so) with standing in front or a little to one side of your horse. Observe if the forelegs are vertical or if the horse is leaning over them so they are a little behind the vertical. Is the weight more on one front leg than the other? If he is leaning over his front legs ask him to shift his weight back, does he take a step backwards or does he just shift his weight? Once he is standing with a little more weight on his hind legs ask if he can transfer his weight from one foreleg to the other, can he just shift his weight or does he need to move his feet? Once you can influence the front feet take a look at the hind feet. Is one hind leg a little to the side and is one leg further back? Ideally we want all 4 feet standing squarely underneath.  Try asking for the leg that is trailing behind to step forward a little. With time and patience you can start to influence the way your horse stands. However it does take time, patience and appropriate exercises – remember your own problems with your own proprioceptive system.

This is where working on a circle and asking your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg and lateral exercises in hand can really help. It teaches the horse to have awareness of his feet and how to engage the correct muscles without the added burden of the rider’s weight.

Once we’re in the saddle we need to take a further look at ourselves before we turn attention to the horse. Weighting the inside more than the outside of our foot can shorten the space between our hip and shoulder on that side. Whilst turning one foot out more than the other can increase the weight in the seat bone on the opposite side. Turning both feet out blocks our hips, as does carrying the weight on the outside of the foot. Rolling the weight to the outside of the foot also raises the heel and strains both the ankle and knee. In order to have both feet pointing forward with the weight equally distributed between the inside and outside of the foot we need to rotate our thigh bone (femur) at the hip. This can be done by standing in the stirrups and grabbing the inside of your thigh by taking your hand around th

e back of your thigh and pulling your inside thigh outwards and back. Do this and then carefully sit down allowing your knee to drop downwards. Initially the position won’t last – that damned proprioceptive system will ensure you go back to what is the norm for you. But by being aware of your own tendencies and making the correction on a frequent basis will eventually pay off.

Once we have sorted ourselves out, we can start to think of helping our horse become more aware of his feet. We all know the benefits of doing lots of transitions but you can take this a step further by stopping into individual hooves.

Obviously in order to do this exercise, you need to know how to feel the footfall of your horse and ideally how to stirrup step as well. Assuming you know both of these basics, ride at a walk on a 20m circle.  Think of your circle as a clock, to make this easier it is a good idea to place markers at 12 ‘o’ clock, 3 ‘o’ clock, 6 ‘o’ clock, and 9 ‘o’ clock.  The idea is that you are going to stop at each marker by transitioning to a halt over 3 strides of each individual leg. Start with the outside fore and half halt into this foot when that foot is on the ground. The half halt needs to be applied between the moments the foot touches down and before it passes the vertical. You can do a half halt either by using a stirrup step on the same side as the foot you are targeting, by using a slight drop in the pelvis on that side, or by the rein on that side (or any combination of the former). Apply the half halt twice (i.e. for two strides of the outside fore) and then on the third stride stop into the outside fore. Check if your horse has stopped square. If he hasn’t ask him to move the relevant leg or ask him to take a step backwards if your rein back is good.  Walk on again and this time, target the outside hind.  Check your halt and then walk on again. Now target the inside fore and finally the inside hind. Repeat the exercise a few times and then try it on the other rein. Do all the half halts and stops go through equally? Or is one foot much harder to communicate with? If your horse is weighting the opposite shoulder to the foreleg you are targeting, or not stepping through properly with his hind legs they won’t. This exercise can be used as both a diagnostic and as a corrective exercise and the half halts and stops should become more permeable with repetition.

Many people believe that a supposed weakness or bad habit must be overcome through some forceful routine. That is not true, awareness is the key and then we can target the issue with appropriate exercises. This way, our (or our horse’s) flexibility, balance and alignment will increase automatically.

Our hips have a major influence on the way we ride and the way our horse goes. Tight hips are a major cause of us bouncing in the saddle at a sitting trot, excessive movement of our lower leg, head nod (in the human) not to mention restricting forward movement in our horse. Problems in the hips aren’t just related to tightness either.  Our hips can be tight and weak at the same time not to mention be unbalanced either on the side to side or back to front planes. If our pelvis isn’t level and one hip is higher than the other, then our horse will fill the gap and lift his hip on that side, so that the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of our pelvis is inadvertently further forward than the other, then our horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position most of the time. If we consistently have too much weight in one seat bone, then our horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as fall in or out on a circle in that direction. If our pelvis is always tipped forward then our horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back, whilst if our pelvis is always tilted backwards so that we sit in a chair seat, then our horse’s back will sag and his hind legs will trail out behind. Conversely we can use our hips to create the correct bend in our horse, lengthen the stride, half halt and ask for lateral movements

As riders we need our hips to be able to move from a neutral position, with our seat bones pointing down, to the desired position we require to give our horse an aid, and then back to neutral again. Therefore to become good riders we need to not only to have an awareness of what our pelvis is doing, i.e. whether our hips are level or unbalanced, we also need to have mobile hips so we can adjust our pelvis to do what we want it to do, when we want to do it. Tight hips can lead to all sorts of problems in our own body too. They are a major cause of common issues such as lower back pain, hip pain, and so much more. Therefore correcting our hips is not just about our riding it is about our own health too. So identifying and correcting any  pelvic tilt could not only radically improve your riding it could very well end any lower back pain, hip and knee problems you may experience as well!

The first step therefore is to diagnose if you have uneven hips? The chances are that your hips are uneven if you:

Carry one shoulder higher than the other.

Carry one shoulder more forward than the other.

You tend to stand with more weight on leg.

One side of your torso appears longer than the other.

One leg appears longer than the other.

Your horse drifts to the outside on a circle on one rein.

Your horse drifts to the inside on a circle on one rein.

You struggle to ride a straight centre line without using your reins to correct.

Your horse turns more easily one way

You struggle for canter leads on one rein.

It is common to develop muscle imbalances around the hip. Sitting for long periods of time, driving, sleeping on our side, slouching to one side and standing with more weight on one leg than the other can all exacerbate uneven hips. Hip exercises can be used to address the problem but before we look into what we can do let’s look a little deeper into the problem area.

There are several muscles around our hip area that need to be strengthened and/or stretched to allow our hips to move correctly,  but probably the most important of these muscles is the iliopsoas, which comprises of the iliacus and the psoas, which lie deep in the back of the abdomen. Other important hip flexor muscles include the periformis, the tensor fasciae latae (TFL), the rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscles) as well as the gluteus maximus (which is on the back of your hip or buttocks) and the gluteus medius, which is the primary muscle on the side of your hip.

Beneficial exercises include Warrior One, the Bridge, and the Boat.

Warrior One

Stand with your feet a hip’s width apart. Exhale as you step your feet wide, about 4 to 5 feet.

Turn your right foot out 90 degrees, so your toes are pointing to the top of your exercise mat.

Pivot your left foot inwards at a 45-degree angle.

Align your front heel with the arch of your back foot. Bring your left hip bone towards the front of your ma, to align your hips as much as you can.

Press your weight through your left heel. Then, exhale as you bend your right knee over your right ankle. Your shin should be perpendicular to the floor

Reach up with your arms. Broaden across your belly, lengthen the sides of your waist, and lift through your chest.

You can keep your arms parallel, or press your palms together.

Gently tilt your head back and gaze up at your thumbs. Keep your shoulders dropped away from your ears. Feel your shoulder blades pressing firmly inward.

Press down through the outer edge of your back foot, keeping your back leg straight.

Hold for up to one minute.

To release the pose, press your weight through your back heel and straighten your front leg. Lower your arms. Turn to the left, reversing the position of your feet, and repeat for the same length of time on the opposite side.

Bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor – toes pointing forwards, a hips width apart. Your knees should be pointing straight upwards. Ensure that your feet, knees and hips are aligned.

Check that your head isn’t tilted and that shoulders are level.

Place your arms by your side, palms downwards. Feel your spine on the ground. Your spine should be in neutral with the natural arch in place. Breathe slowly and fluidly.

On an inhalation, engage your psoas, tuck your pelvis forward so that the small of your back touches the ground  and start to lift your spine, one vertebra at a time, off the floor. Leave your shoulders grounded and keep your pelvis tucked forward, as you press your belly upwards. Hold and feel the stretch for a count of 20.

On your next out breath – reverse the movement, one vertebra at a time. Keep your pelvis tilted and your psoas and abdominals engaged. When the small of your back touches the ground relax your pelvis into the starting position. Relax for one breath cycle and on the next inhalation, repeat.

The Boat

Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat, toes pointing forward, about a hips width apart. Ensure knees are aligned with hips.

Grasp the back of your thighs, just below the knee, or the front of your calves just below the knee. Breathe into your centre. Extend upwards through your spine.

Gently rock backwards onto your seat bones. Engage your psoas and lift your feet off the ground.

Keep your shoulders relaxed. And slowly raise your legs until your lower legs are horizontal to the ground.

Stretch your arms forward, palms facing inwards. Hold for a count of 20.

Return your lower legs to the floor.

All horses and all humans are asymmetrical to a greater or lesser extent. The muscles on one side of the body are stronger than the other, one side may be more flexible than the other and we (and our horses) are more coordinated with one hand or hoof than the other. So if we are all asymmetrical, why should care if we or our horses are straight?  Fundamentally the asymmetries of the horse and rider have a profound influence on each other which is why straightness or symmetry should be important to us as riders.

If you compete in dressage the chances are you will know that Straightness is the 5th element in the Dressage Training Scale, following after Rhythm, Suppleness (& Relaxation), Connection and Impulsion. As dressage riders we realise the importance of straightness or the lack of it, fairly early on, as we struggle to ride a straight centre line or stop falling in on a circle. Conversely many leisure riders don’t ever think about straightness and just assume that the way their horse moves is the norm or that they need to tighten their girth just a little bit more to stop their saddle slipping to the right.

However, the negative consequences of us not correcting both our own and our horse’s asymmetries can have a serious adverse effect on our horse’s soundness and well being not to mention our own health.

Let us look first at our horse and why crookedness should have such a negative effect on our horse’s performance, ride-ability, and health. I read a simile recently that compared our horse’s crookedness to a car whose chassis is bent after an accident or where the wheels are not aligned. If the misalignment is severe enough, the car will not steer well, it will veer in one direction, it will not hold its line of travel when you have to brake and the tires will wear very unevenly. The same principals can be said to apply to our horse.

  • He will make his turns smaller than intended towards his stiffer (convex) side and larger than intended towards his hollow (concave) side.
  • He will tend to veer away from the line of travel towards the stiffer side.
  • He will tend to stop with his haunches turned in or with the hind leg of the stiffer side out behind.
  • He will be difficult to bend towards the stiffer side.
  • He may have trouble cantering on the stiffer side. He will find it difficult to sidestep with the hind leg on the hollow side.
  • He will lean onto the rein of the stiffer side, while staying behind the rein of the hollow side.
  • He will overload the legs of the stiffer side, making them susceptible to repetitive stress injuries such as spavin, ring bone, and tendon injuries.

These are just some of the symptoms of crookedness that are caused by a misalignment of the horse’s feet. These problems originate because the hind leg on the hollow side does not step under the centre of gravity, but steps out to the side of the body, which results in that leg neither carrying nor pushing the body mass effectively. This then causes a chain reaction throughout the horse’s entire body.

One of the most serious consequences of the leg not stepping under sufficiently on the hollow side is that this overloads the diagonal shoulder, causing a loss of balance, which in turn leads to the horse leaning on the rein of the stiffer side and curving his spine towards the hollow side. In other words, the horse carries too much weight on his forehand and on the stiffer side of his body, which creates excessive wear and tear on the legs that have to carry more than their fair share of the weight.

This imbalance can also lead to muscle blockages as the horse will tense muscles to prevent himself from falling over. True relaxation and suppleness is therefore only possible when the horse is balanced, and balance is only possible when the horse is not crooked.

When the horse braces his muscles to prevent himself from falling over, his gaits are uncomfortable to sit. When the hind legs don’t flex and open at the joints sufficiently the back of the horse becomes tight, which prevents the back from swinging properly which in turn causes a roughness in the gait.

When a horse is stiff on one side and hollow on the other the rein contact can never be light, steady and even. The rein will always be heavier or harder on the stiff side. When our horse’s hips and shoulders are not aligned properly he won’t be able to bend correctly, which in turn has negative repercussions on his rhythm, suppleness, rein contact, impulsion, and collection.

When only one hind leg steps underneath the center of gravity (point of mass), the haunches are unable to direct all their energy towards the center of gravity, which means that the horse can’t develop his full impulsion. Other issues caused by crookedness (or not stepping under) in our horse can include “sucking back” or being behind the aids, which in turn can lead to shying and even more dangerous behaviors such as bucking and rearing.

Crookedness or asymmetries in the horse can have an adverse affect on the rider’s position too. When a horse is unable to flex his hind leg, his hip on that side is pushed up. This means that the rider will be sitting on an incline and her hip on the other side will slide down into the “void” and cause the rider to collapse at their waist.

The tendency of the horse to brace on the rein on the stiff side encourages the rider to brace her hand as well. This bracing on the stiff side can also make it hard for the rider to maintain rein length. Her arm on the stiff side will tend to creep forward taking her elbow further and further from her hip, whilst on the hollow side the rider may well take her hand further and further back in an effort to find contact. And if the horse has a tendency to carry his hips towards his hollow side he will probably place his rider in the same position.

But it is not just the horse’s asymmetries that cause crookedness. A crooked or asymmetrical rider can cause crookedness in their horse.

If the rider’s pelvis is unlevel, so that one hip is higher than the other the horse will fill the void and lift his hip on that side and then the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of the rider’s pelvis is further forward than the other, the horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position at all times. If the rider consistently has too much weight in one seat bone, then the horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as falling in or out on a circle in that direction. If the rider’s pelvis is always tipped forward and she sits with a hollow back the horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back. Whilst if the rider sits in a chair seat the horse’s back will sag and his hind legs trail out behind.

The asymmetries of horse and rider influence each other. Sometimes the rider’s crookedness can cancel out the crookedness in the horse but they are far more likely to exacerbate each other. In fact, in most cases the rider’s and horse’s crookedness become so intertwined it becomes hard to know whose crookedness is whose. The first step in straightening either ourselves or our horse is awareness. Just as our proprioceptive system lies to us, so does the horse’s proprioceptive system lie to him. His body will seek to take the easiest route which isn’t necessarily the gymnastically beneficial solution.

This is when it really pays to work with your horse on the ground first. Whether you chose to work on-line, in-hand, on the lunge or with long reins, the advantage of working off your horse’s back are manifold. You know immediately if your horse falls out or in that the asymmetry is his and not because of your seat. You can see how the horse moves his body and be in a better position to influence him and you can help show him a better way of moving without accidentally interfering with his balance.

Just as we need to work on our horse’s asymmetries we also need to work on ourselves too. Whilst a posture assessment on PI will help you become more aware as to whether you are a chair seat or hollow backed rider, sit more heavily on one seat bone or another and which of your hands tends to brace more, we need to make an effort to correct ourselves and teach our body a new and better way of moving. There are any number of ways you can help yourself, including taking up Rider Exercise, Swiss Ball, yoga or Pilates classes.

In extreme cases exercise classes or ground work may not be sufficient for either you or the horse. If one of you has a pelvis that is seriously “out” for example, it may well be worthwhile consulting a Physiotherapist, or getting a Bowen or Emmett treatment.

Once we have worked on our horse and ourselves separately we can start to use arena patterns as diagnostic tools/improvement exercises when we ride.  The arena patterns and movements that we ride can change the horse’s balance and posture, which means we can use certain patterns to analyse and then target specific muscle groups. Every movement or exercise requires the use of different muscle groups in the horse’s body. For instance, corners, turns on the haunches and voltes mobilise the shoulders.

So as you can see, Straightness, for both the horse and the human, is the one of the most basic requirements there is for riding our horse in harmony. Perhaps it should no longer be placed at the end of the Training Scale but at the beginning with Rhythm. After all it is the combination of Straightness and Rhythm together that enables our horse to find his lateral and longitudinal balance, which then allows the horse to relax, become “through” in his back, find a light, steady and even rein contact, bend correctly, and to develop impulsion and collection.

I hope that I have provided a pretty convincing argument for the importance of straightness. It is certainly something I work towards everyday because the price we and our horses pay for crookedness is high, and the rewards of straightness are more than worth the time and effort.

More and more middle-aged and older people ride now. In fact there are more of us than ever before. And although some of them will have had horses their entire lives, many of them are only just coming back to horses now their children have grown up whilst others are achieving a lifelong dream and getting their first horse now they have retired and have some time!

However, as we grow older it becomes harder and harder to maintain our fitness and suppleness and whilst we all know riding is good for us, it just isn’t enough by itself to develop the core strength and flexibility we need to become the riders we want to be. Even taking into account the amount of general exercise we do just looking after our horse, it still isn’t enough when we are in our 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond. Those years of working at a desk, sitting at a computer or behind a wheel have taken their toll.

Whether your interests lie in dressage, jumping, fun rides, endurance rides or just hacking around the lanes doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t be a burden for our horse. Horses just aren’t designed to carry humans and unless we ride in positive balance and help our horse to use his muscles correctly our riding is detrimental to our horse.

The most frequent “problem” areas I see when doing posture assessments with PI (my posture & alignment electronic horse) are tight hip flexors and lack of core muscles. Tight hip flexors in the rider will restrict the movement of your horse’s back, not to mention limit his lateral flexibility whilst a weak core in the rider will be reflected by a weak core in the horse. Both issues can cause pain and suffering to both the horse and the human.

As riders, most of us have to juggle time spent riding and looking after our horse(s) with all the other aspects of our daily lives, but investing a little time in an exercise regime for your body will be beneficial for both yourself and your horse.

Start using a Swiss Ball to sit on whilst you watch TV  – you need to use your core just to stay balanced. Targeted exercise can really help improve the more mature rider’s core, suppleness, flexibility and alignment. Now the nights are starting to draw in, think about joining an exercise class. Pilates and yoga classes are excellent to help the rider become more aware of their body and to teach them how to isolate and use specific muscle groups although classes aimed specifically for riders, be they on the mat or Swiss Ball are even better. Once you start your classes it is important to remember that going regularly is important. As we grow older improving our fitness and suppleness takes time but loosing condition and fitness seems to happen virtually overnight.

One of the most common problems I see with riders when I am doing Posture Assessments and Awareness Clinics on PI are tight hips. This can manifest itself as an inability for the rider to turn their upper leg at the hip, toes turned out, problems with adjusting their pelvis to implement weight aids or just down right pain or discomfort in their hips or lower back. 

Weak and tight hips are not limited to riders either. Modern lifestyle, such as sitting for long periods of time at an office desk, driving a car or just sitting down to watch  TV can cause our gluteus muscles to weaken and our hip flexors to shorten  and become tight.

As riders, our hips are a part of the body that we really need to keep in shape. However many of us pay them little attention until they start to hurt. Tight hip flexors not only lead to problems with our riding but potentially can cause problems to our posture as a whole, such as an anterior pelvic tilt which can lead to lower back and knee pain.  Hip problems also tend to develop as we age, so if we want to continue to ride and get the most out of our horse, we need to start looking after our hip flexors.

Several muscles cross the front of the hip and create hip flexion, but one of the most important of these muscles is the iliopsoas, comprising of the iliacus and the psoas, which lie deep in the back of the abdomen. Other important hip flexor muscles include the periformis, the tensor fasciae latae (TFL), the rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscles) as well as the gluteus maximus (which is on the back of your hip or buttocks) and the gluteus medius, which is the primary muscle on the side of your hip.

While each muscle functions slightly differently, their overall combination allow them to flex the hip joint, anteriorly rotate the pelvis, and extend the lumbar spine. Due to its’ attachment on the vertebral bodies of the lumbar spine, the psoas also plays an important role in lumbar spine stabilization. 

While the hip joint’s main role is stabilization, it’s essential for riders to maintain a healthy range of motion, too. We need to strike a balance between strength and flexibility that is appropriate for our chosen sport and that allows for safe and efficient movement.

If you need to strengthen your psoas muscles, the Boat Pose is especially good as the muscle isometrically contracts to hold up the weight of the legs and torso.

However most problems with the hip flexors are lack of flexibility.

Simple stretching has the potential to increase flexibility, correct the alignment of your back and maybe even relieve pain.  Daily stretching will not only improve your day-to-day mobility, but also your exercise performance and ultimately help your riding.

Here are two stretches that are simple to do:

Piriformis Stretch

Lie on the floor with both legs straight. Bend one leg and place the foot just above the opposite knee.

Use your hand to increase the stretch by pulling the crossed knee toward your opposite shoulder, stretching the piriformis muscle.

Remember to go gently into and out of the stretch, and use a little pressure from your hand to resist against the muscles you want to stretch.

Frog Stretch

Get on your hands and knees, so that you are four square (tabletop position). Slowly widen your knees out as far as they can go and bring your feet in line with your knees, so that your lower leg forms a right angle or 90° bend at your knee. Your shins should be parallel with one another.

Flex your feet so your toes are also at right angles and your heels are pointing towards each other and ease yourself forward onto your forearms. Hold for a count of 30.

During the stretch try slowly moving your hips forward and backward to bring the stretch to different parts of your hips.

It doesn’t take much to get your hips working. If you don’t like exercises by yourself join a Rider Exercise class, start Swiss Ball or take up Pilates or Yoga. But just a little time put into you could really allow your riding career to last that little bit longer and prevent a hip replacement operation.

Many riders suffer from lower back pain that spreads downward to their legs and sometimes even their feet. This sort of pain is frequently referred to as sciatica but it is sometimes caused by tightness in the periformis muscle.

The piriformis is actually a small muscle that is located behind the gluteus maximus, deep in the buttock. It connects our spine to the top of the thigh bone (femur) and is partially responsible for the lateral rotation of the hip. The piriformis is not only important for hip and leg movement but it also plays a major role in of our overall balance while upright. One end of the piriformis is attached to the front part of the sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of the spine. It’s the only pelvic muscle that attaches to the front of the sacrum, providing balance between the pelvis and legs. Its counteraction with the psoas muscle at the front of the pelvis and the gluteus maximus at the back maintains stability.

The sciatic nerve passes just underneath the periformis, so if the piriformis muscle becomes tight and/or constricted, it can irritates the sciatic nerve which can cause pain (either in the lower back or thigh), and even numbness and tingling along the back of the leg and into the foot.

An impeded piriformis can not only cause pain, but limit both mobility and balance. However it is all too easy for the periformis muscle to become damaged or tight, especially if you are riding a large, wide horse. To avoid damaging the muscle and to increase your hip flexibility the periformis can be targeted with specific exercises.

Here are a few simple exercises that can be used to target your hip flexors and your periformis. Make sure that you warm up your muscles before you stretch, otherwise you may do more harm than good. To warm up, you can simply walk around or march in place for a few minutes.

Supine Piriformis Stretch

A side stretch that opens up the lower back, relieving tension along the sciatic nerve. If you are experiencing sciatica, it’s important to stretch gently so that you don’t injure or inflame the area around the nerve.

  • Lie on your back with your legs flat.
  • Pull your left leg toward the chest, holding the knee with your left hand and grabbing your ankle with the right hand.
  • Gently raise your knee towards your shoulder and cross the calf across your body towards the opposite shoulder.
  • Hold for 20 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position. As you get used to the stretch you can increase the holding time to 60 seconds.
  • Repeat with other leg.

Long Adductor (Groin) Stretch

  • Sit on the floor and stretch your legs straight out, as far apart as you can.
  • Tilt your upper body slightly forward at the hips and place your hands next to each other on the floor.
  • Lean forward and drop your elbows to the floor (or as far down as you can). You will feel a stretch in the pelvis.
  • Hold for 20 seconds, and release. Pause and repeat.

Clam Exercise

  • Lay on your left side.
  • Bend your knees and position them forward so that your feet are in line with your spine.
  • Make sure your top hip is directly on top of the other and your back is straight.
  • Keeping your ankles together, raise the top knee away from the bottom one. Do not move your back or tilt your pelvis while doing so, otherwise the movement is not coming from your hip.
  • Slowly return the knee to the starting position. Repeat 15 times.
  • Repeat on other side.

Hip Extension Exercise

  • Position yourself on the floor on all fours with your shoulders directly over your hands. Shift your weight a little off the leg to be worked.
  • Keeping the knee bent, raise the knee off the floor so that the sole of the foot moves towards the ceiling.
  • Slowly lower the leg, almost back to the starting position and repeat 15 times initially and gradually build this up to 2 sets of 20.

Seated Stretch

This is an effective lower-body piriformis stretch that will engage all muscles in your pelvis and lower back. It’s a good sciatica stretch too.

  • Sit on a chair and cross your right leg over your left knee, so that your right ankle is lying on your left thigh.
  •  Bend slightly forward, making sure to keep your back straight.
  •  Hold for 20 seconds (increasing to 60 seconds) and then repeat on the other side.

Posture is the position in which we hold our body upright against gravity while standing, sitting on a horse, driving a car or sitting in a chair.

Good posture requires our spine and pelvic girdle to be in alignment or neutral. When our spine is in correct alignment we place virtually no stress on our muscles, joints or ligaments. In fact, Joseph Pilates stated that “The age of your body is in direct relation to the age of your spine.”

Good or ideal posture not only offers aesthetic benefits but also optimal musculoskeletal function. Due to the specific and often limited movement patterns employed by us as a result of modern living, postural faults develop over time. Once developed these can all too frequently lead to pain and discomfort, not only for ourselves but for our horses too!

So practicing good posture involves training the mind and body to stand, sit, and perform everyday life activities such as walking, riding and exercising in positions where the least amount of strain and stress is placed on supporting structures, muscles and ligaments.

Poor posture is where our bones are not aligned properly and our muscles, joints and ligaments take more stress and strain than nature intended. Poor posture frequently results in aches and pains, particularly in our back, hips, knees and shoulders. As far as riding goes, our posture affects our horse too. Sitting out of alignment causes postural problems for him as well and can lead to poor performance as well as physical issues!

Problems with neck and shoulder posture are frequently seen together. People who work at computer screens or spend a lot of time sitting will tend to acquire a forward head posture, compressing the back of the neck, and the shoulders will begin to round forwards. This is called upper crossed syndrome and causes tightness in the front of the chest and back of the neck, and weakness in the upper back and front of the neck. So pain in our upper back frequently stems from this tendency to slump in the spine and round the shoulders.

Slouching, forward head carriage and rounding the shoulders also adds weight to our horse’s forehand, which in the long term can causes lameness issues from your horse’s front legs, shoulders and withers.

Achieving poor posture is all too easy, we acquire bad postural habits over the years without thinking about them. However correcting our postural faults is not so easy. The number one problem is that our body lies to us. Poor proprioception will tell us, for example, that we are sitting straight when we are leaning back, so alignment is something we have to work on. We normally need help initially to identify our asymmetry and then it just takes time and effort.

Some facts about posture?

  • Proper posture can help prevent many aches and pains including chronic back pain.
  • Wearing high heels regularly can lead to bad posture habits and back pain.
  • Riding with your stirrups too long can lead to lordosis and back pain.
  • Riding with your stirrups too short can encourage you to round your shoulders and slump, leading to upper back pain.
  • Being overweight can exacerbate bad posture.
  • Stretching regularly can help you stand up straighter.
  • We do a lot of heavy lifting around stable yards. Make sure you use your legs and not your back to lift heavy objects. Keeping a straight back and engaging your abdominal muscles can reduce the risk of injury.
  • Good posture goes hand in hand with better balance. Both on and off the horse.
  • Doing exercises that strengthen your core and back muscles can help you improve your posture and increase your bone density.

A well designed Rider Exercise programme can play an important part in helping to address your postural faults. However in group exercise classes one tends to work with generic exercises that are not designed specifically for you. At a Posture & Alignment Awareness Clinic you will receive a full detailed individual posture assessment, both on the ground and then mounted (on PI) after which you will be shown specific exercises and stretches tailored for you in a private one-on-one session.

After the clinic you will receive a detailed report on your posture and alignment, and a written explanation on how to do the exercises that you have been shown.

Finally to ensure that you are doing the exercises correctly you will be able to upload short videos of you doing the exercises to the special Facebook group page which will only be available to those attending the clinic. I will then be able to access whether you are performing the exercises correctly and offer you further support.

Our position has an enormous impact on the way our horse moves underneath us, and our spinal alignment influences every aspect of our riding. One of the common problems that I see is the rider inadvertently stacking their weight more over one side of the horse than the other. As a general rule your horse will follow your weight, which makes weight aids  the most powerful of all aids but we need to make sure we are using our weight correctly, otherwise our inadvertent usage can not only be confusing to our horse it can actually be detrimental to the horse’s physical well being!

Of course this imbalance is frequently caused by the positioning of the pelvic girdle but the spine and rib cage can also be responsible. Your spine can have curves in the wrong place and your rib cage can turn, shift laterally and tilt laterally out of alignment!

Postural scoliosis – or non-structural scoliosis – is caused by muscular imbalances, and as such can benefit tremendously from exercise. Of course, first of all you need to be aware that you are crooked, and when your crookedness is your norm, your body may well lie to you and tell you that you are straight even when you are not.

One of the best exercises for helping align the spine is the Mermaid Stretch.  This stretch is particularly effective at targeting lateral curves in the upper region of the back. Depending on how far you feel comfortable side bending, it can also be very useful at targeting lateral curves in the Lumbar (lower) region.  With time, the muscular imbalances begin to correct themselves through doing more opening exercises on your closed (collapsed) side – amongst other corrective exercises – and any compressed inter-vertebral discs will begin to decompress and strengthen.

Obviously for the exercise to work you have to do it properly and in alignment, so it far better if you can go to a rider exercise class or a pilates class but if you haven’t a class near you, this is how it is done.

  1. Sit with your legs in a 90/90 position.
  2. Inhale to prepare, think of lengthening your spine towards the ceiling
  3. As you exhale raise the arm on the side of the front leg overhead and reach over as far as you can in a side bend:
  4. The hand closest to your back knee can pull on this knee to increase the stretch in your Quadratus Lomborum.
  5. Try to keep both hips firmly planted on the mat.
  6. Keep the spine long to avoid excessive disc compression. It might help to imagine reaching towards the point that the wall meets the ceiling.
  7. Hold the stretch and breathe in.
  8. Exhale to return to the starting position
  9. Repeat on both sides approximately 3-5 times, then change leg position and repeat on the other side.

If you are not sure if you collapse to one side or if you would like some help with the Mermaid Stretch and other exercises why not book a place at the Posture & Alignment Awareness Clinic at Pengraig on 26 February or come and join us for a whole weekend at the Bodywork & Posture Clinic at Brandy House Farm on 17 to 19 March.

Neutral pelvis and neutral spine  – what are they and why should we care? As riders, I suppose the main reason we should care is because we need to find our neutral pelvis and spine to become effective riders. However there is a far more fundamental reason to worry about finding our neutral spine and our neutral pelvis and that is our long term health! Stated another way, if you are not in neutral spine and pelvic alignment , your body has to compensate somehow for the less than ideal posture, this causes unnecessary and potential harmful tension in your shoulders, back and/or legs!

A neutral pelvis is exactly the same thing in every human body. It is the alignment of the ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) or the bony protuberances at the front of your pelvic girdle (that are often called your hips bones) and the pubic bone on the Sagittal Plane ( or in other words the front/back  or anterior and posterior plane.)

You can create this alignment when lying down, sitting on a chair, kneeling, standing or riding a horse.

Conversely a neutral spine is different in everybody although it has the same elements, which are the natural and balanced curves of the spine which occur when the pelvis is neutral. This is important because it is only when we have the natural curvature of the spine that we get the maximum amount of space between each of our vertebra. Each vertebra is shaped with slightly angled tops and bottoms so that they fit against each other (with the discs in between) to create these curves. When they have the natural curves and the maximum spaces in between, the nerves can flow out of your spinal cord without impingement or resistance. If the spaces are compromised you can get trapped nerves leading to severe back pain and sciatica.

We need as much space between adjacent vertebrae as possible.  Obviously our spinal discs are there to do just this but over time those discs degenerate and we need to use our muscles to support and separate our vertebra.

So, when you either remain in or pass through neutral pelvis, there is the opportunity to be in neutral spine and have lots of space between your vertebra aided by the sheer alignment of your bones in their natural curves with their angled tops and bottoms working for you!

Now, as I mentioned, whilst a neutral pelvis is exactly the same in every person, the neutral spine is different for each individual.  The curves of the spine curve with a greater or lesser degree from one person to another.  We should not try to set a neutral spine because it is the height of each individual’s vertebrae and discs as well as his/her particular angles of the tops and bottoms of those vertebrae that determine the curves.  However when we achieve a neutral pelvis we should get a neutral spine – we don’t set the curves, they exist and we work, by exercising and balancing the muscles to open those curves on all sides.

Of course, life and age seems to do the utmost to ruin the correct curvature of our spine.  With all the imbalances of life that we develop over time we end up tipping our pelvis one way or the other or tipping our shoulder girdle forward or back, and eliminating the natural and correct curvature in our spine.

As a Rider Biomechanics coach one of the common problems I see is the hollow backed rider  – or more correctly someone suffering from anterior tilt. This is when your hip bones (or your ASIS) are tipped forward of the pubic bone in the Sagittal Plane (front/back) which creates a hyper-lordosis  (of small or large degree) that ultimately eliminates the curves of the spine into one straight line with the sacrum and coccyx tipped strongly. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:

  • Insecurity in the saddle,
  • Limited suppleness of the shoulder girdle and hips,
  • A difficulty in obtaining an elastic contact,
  • Encourages the rider to ride from their shoulders and hands and not from their core,
  • Perches the rider on top of the horse,
  • Causes low or mid-back pain,
  • Places strain on facet joints of the spine

The opposite of the hollow backed rider is the C-shaped rider or those with a posterior tilt. In the more extreme cases this would be a chair seated rider. This is when the hip bones (or more correctly the ASIS) is tipped backward of the pubic bone in the Sagittal Plane (tucked pelvis). This is frequently accompanied by a rounding of the spine and a tendency to look down. This postural problem is not uncommon with those who spend a long time sitting in front of a computer or at a desk. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:

  • Stains riders interbertebral discs
  • Causes the rider to be left behind the movement
  • Often comes with rounded shoulders
  • Causes the rider to look down, or if not down to jut their chin
  • Invites (or is caused by) overuse of the gluteal (bottom) muscles
  • Risks riders using the reins for balance

In life, we move through both Anterior and Posterior Tilt, our pelvis and spine are supposed to be able to pass through all sorts of different tilts and curves.  However we need to be able to find and stabilize our position in neutral pelvis on command. Now, it’s Dynamic Stability we’re looking for not a rigid, forced stability.  That is a position that is created not by one set of muscles, but a multitude of muscles that are in balance with each other to keep up this dynamic stability.

So which muscles do you need to work with to obtain a healthy spine and improve your riding?  Well I suppose the answer is any that connect to your pelvis as well as the spinal extensors!  That is all of your abdominals, your psaos, illiacus, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, all of your glutes, adductors, etc.etc.

Probably the most important exercise you can do to begin is one that creates an awareness of just where your hips and pelvis are, one that allows you to feel the full range of movement of your pelvis and spine, that passes from anterior tilt, through neutral pelvis to posterior tilt (and back again).

On the Mat

  • First find neutral spine. Lie on a mat, knees bent, feet flat on floor, hip width apart. Rest your arms by your side.
  • Release the muscles of your back and let the weight of your body sink onto the floor. Note where you feel the weight of your body touching the floor. When the spine is in neutral alignment your weight should connect with the floor in 3 places at the back of your pelvis (sacrum), around your shoulder s and shoulder blades (shoulder girdle) and at the back of your head.
  • Now take an inhale breath and on the exhale scoop in your abdominal muscles and lift your lower back to move the top of your pelvis towards the floor(posterior tilt) flattening your lower back.
  • On the next inhale move the top of your pelvis away from the floor (anterior pelvic tile), arching your lower back away from the floor.
  • Slowly alternate between flattening and arching your back, inhaling as you arch your spine and exhaling as you flatten your spine to the floor.
  • Gradually decrease your range of movement, until like a pendulum moving more and more slowly your lower back comes to rest. This position is very likely close to your neutral spine.
  • When your spine is in neutral alignment, the Sagittal Plane (front/back) defined by 3 points – your pubic bone and the ASIS (left and right hip bones) will be parallel to the floor.

On a Swiss Ball

  • Sit upright (in neutral spine) on an exercise ball with your feet flat on the floor hip width apart.
  • Take an inhale breath and as you exhale scoop your abdominal muscles inwards and lift your lower back to rock your pelvis into a tuck, Allow your shoulders to follow the movement but try not to lean back.
  • Inhale and use your deep back muscles to rock your pelvis back so there is a slight arch in your spine and your seat bones are pointing towards the back of the ball.
  • Exhale and tuck your pelvis under again and inhale to point your seat bones behind you.
  • Rock backwards and forwards between the two extremes, gradually settling in the middle of the movement in neutral pelvis/spine alignment.

Although we know we need to ride in alignment and know the importance of good posture, most of us don’t automatically think about our ribs when it comes to riding. We are aware of the importance of our pelvic girdle being level (anyone who has read Sally Swift will be know of her analogy about visualising your pelvis as a bowl of water – when you are sitting with a neutral spine the water doesn’t spill out), but very few of us consider our rib cage. But our rib cage is important! Basically if we imagine our body as a set of building blocks, each block should be stacked one over the other. And the rib cage block should be aligned over our pelvic girdle block.  In addition to the front/back plane of leaning or collapsing forward or leaning behind the vertical (my own weakness) we also need to consider the side/side plane. Our rib cage can all too easily slant to the side, collapse on one side or have one side in front of the other.  All of which will have an affect on our horse.

Having actually thought about our rib cage and considered where it actually is in relationship to our hips, the next question is can you line it up with your pelvis? If you have a front/back discrepancy this may involve you bringing your rib cage over the top of your hips so that are in a straight line. For some this requires a shortening of the front of the body while lengthening the back and for others visa versa. A session on PI (my Posture and Alignment indicator) can be really helpful as she will tell you if your weight is too far forwards, backwards, left or right.

If you have a side/side discrepancy you will need to adjust your ribs appropriately. As I mentioned above your ribs may tilt sideways and rotate, and possibly even shift all at the same time. The variables in the stacking pattern of our building blocks are virtually unlimited. So how can you tell what your rib cage is doing and more to the point, how can you deal with it. The answer here is easy – your elbows. If your elbows are the same height as each other (try rubbing the inside of your elbow on your belt) and neither one nor the other is in front of the other then your rib cage is stacked correctly on a side/side plane.

Our rib cage is actually very mobile and it moves much more than we think. If we wish to keep it correctly stacked and be able absorb the motion of our horse we need to be able to activate the appropriate muscles.  Try rib cage slides, lifts and circles to increase your awareness and tone, along with Bow and Headlight Dazzle, Side Plank and Oblique Strengthener.

Another great tip is to practice lining up your blocks (ribs and pelvis) when you are sitting at your desk and driving your car. The more you practice this, the easier it will become when you are on the horse.

Biomechanics is the study of the functioning of the body in movement using mechanical principles. It is highly relevant to riding because in riding the human’s body and the horse’s body, each with their own normal way of functioning, come together to influence each other.

In order to bring about the right biomechanical dynamic of the two systems working together, we need not only to understand the biomechanics of the horse, but that of the rider as well, for it is the rider who can change the dynamics from something unbalanced to a harmonious partnership.

Many riding instructors and trainers choose to ignore the role of the rider’s gymnastic use of their body, preferring to focus entirely on the horse. The problem is that correct horse biomechanics can only be brought about by correct rider biomechanics and for the rider to achieve this requires her to work on her own body equally as much as she works on her horse’s training.

Basically for us to sit correctly we need to sort out our foundation (feet & seat) first. If our feet are not correct then the rest of our body can not find the correct biomechanical position and if we can’t find ours the horse can’t find his. Now, I can hear you say – but I thought the foundation was the seat, and yes it is – but we cannot correct our pelvis when we are on the horse unless our feet are correct and we can’t correct our feet unless we have enough movement in our hip joints. So basically we sort our hips out with exercises on the mat and our feet out whilst mounted.

The horse’s natural way of moving and balancing (which is on the forehand) is not conducive to carrying a rider in balance. And if the rider doesn’t sit correctly she compounds the problem. The rider must therefore train their own body to be able to meet these unbalanced forces generated by the horse’s movement and channel them into something different.

Just as horses don’t naturally possess the postural strength, straightness and suppleness in their joints to be able to carry a rider in consistent engagement, the human body is not naturally set up to perform the skills required by good rider biomechanics, the skills that bring about the unique transformation to the horse that allows it to engage its haunches and have self carriage.

If you have spent any time reading books or watching DVDs about dressage or good riding, you will probably have noticed that although the ideal way of how the horse should go is usually fairly consistent when it comes to how the rider should achieve this there are a great number of different and conflicting opinions. So why is there so much conflicting advice about the rider’s position? In part this is down to trainers using different analogies or words to mean the same thing but a great deal of this is down to confusing the finished article with the means of getting there. So many trainers are brilliant riders and they just cannot understand that for most of us becoming a good rider is a process that takes time and effort.

When we look at a footballer, gymnast or a ballet dancer perform we just see what looks like an effortless performance, we don’t see the endless hours of hard work and sweat it has taken to build up the muscle strength, suppleness and muscle memory. So it is with rider biomechanics, if we want to sit correctly and be able to ride our horse to the maximum of its potential, we have to put in hours of effort and training into our own body.  So if you aren’t already, start attending Rider Exercise classes, join a Pilates or Yoga group or start working out on a Swiss Ball.

However this is a fun exercise that will help improve your riding that can be done on your horse. Although the exercise is very simple, it can be seriously hard to do. It is therefore a good idea to have a helper to hold or lead your horse initially to ensure your safety.

Basically we need to stand up in our stirrups, ensure that our fleshy part of our inner thigh is pulled outwards and backwards and stand up as tall and erect as we can. That means you will need to bring your pubic bone over the pommel of the saddle and take your torso upright. There are 2 other things you have to ensure:

  1. that your stirrups are of the correct length and
  2. that you keep your knees bent.

Once you can do this exercise at a halt, progress to walk and finally a trot. The most important thing however is not to get disheartened if you fall back into the saddle (make sure your reins are long enough to not jab your horse in his mouth). It’s feedback, feed back that your lower leg is too far forward, feedback that your lower leg is too far back, feedback that your heels have crept up or feedback that one or both your toes have turned out. Once you have mastered the basics introduce your arms – take one arm up straight to the sky so it is by your ear, palm facing forward. Hold it out in front of you – your middle finger should point to your horse’s ear on that side or take it to the side, palm down – your middle finger should be in line with your ankle knobble!

Anyone who has attended one of my clinics will have heard me talk about vision as one of the key elements for improving our riding. However just how important our vision is, was really brought home to me last month when I attended the International Society of Rider Biomechanics 2015 Symposium in Lexington, Kentucky.

One of the key speakers at the Symposium was Dr Todd R Davis, a developmental optometrist. He spoke at length about how our vision and posture are intricately linked. The eyes are extensions of the brain and therefore a part of our central nervous system. For example:- when light strikes the retina at the back of our eye, signals and messages travel through the optic nerve to the visual cortex in the back of our brain. Our brain then processes and interprets this information and then sends it down the spinal cord and onward to the rest of our body. If our posture is poor, these lightning-fast connections can be severed or skewed. Over a prolonged period of time, improper posture can gradually lead to shallow breathing, decreased circulation, stagnated lymph flow, not to mention physical fatigue and blurred vision!

Once our vision is affected by poor posture and begins to blur, our posture often deteriorates even faster through straining to see either a close or distant object by reaching the neck forward or cranking it back. Vision and posture are intertwined and can either work together to spiral downward toward imbalance or spiral upward toward optimal functioning.

Dr Davis went on to talk about peripheral and channelled vision and how these affected our balance and posture. Although the terms used were different, this is what in the horse world is frequently referred to as soft or hard eyes..

When we use soft eyes, our body and breathing stays relaxed and we are able to take in information from our entire field of vision, our balance and posture is better automatically. When we use hard eyes, our body tenses, our breathing becomes shallower, our balance and posture deteriorates.

So let’s experiment with your eyes. Firstly, whilst sitting quietly, focus very intently on one thing. Look intently at the object – you can probably feel your chin start to jut forward and a tension in your shoulders. Now, relax your eyes, although still looking towards your chosen object, be aware of everything else around you – not just to the left and right but above and below. Feel how your shoulders relax and your breathing becomes smoother.

One of Dr Davis’ tips was to try to see from your spine. Instead of reaching your eyes outward and straining or squinting to see something in the distance, try relaxing and imagine you are seeing with the visual cortex in the very back of your brain. This practice encourages relaxed use of the eyes and takes the pressure off the need to see. It also allows for deep, rhythmic breathing and a gentle tuck of the chin to elongate the spine.

And vision isn’t just about seeing either. Vision also encompasses visualisation. Many elite athletes routinely use visualisation techniques as part of training and competition. There are many stories of athletes who’ve used these techniques to cultivate not only a competitive edge, but also to create renewed mental awareness, a heightened sense of well-being and confidence. All of these factors have been shown to contribute to their success.

Top horseman also talk about the importance of visualisation. Dominique Barbier discusses it in depth in his book “The Alchemy of Lightness”, Mark Rashid, Tom Nagel and Marijke de Jong stress how visualisation can improve your riding.

If you struggle with visualization, then I have some comforting news for you, lots of us do!  Certainly there are some people who have the ability to close their eyes and instantly bring up crystal clear images, but for many of us this is a skill that needs to be developed over time. With practice however, everyone has the ability to visualize.

There are two keys principles to keep in mind when practicing visualisation. The first is, your practice needs to be consistent. Five minutes a day every day, will always beat an intense hour long session once a week. It helps to make a commitment to practice your visualisation the same time every day. The second key principle is you need to stay positive. Even if you can’t summon crystal clear images yet, you will still gain huge benefits from your visualisation practice. It still works. So, imagine yourself riding the perfect centre line, that fabulous half pass, or even just getting on your horse – and keep mentally practicing it!