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.
With uneven shoulders the discrepancy 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 can whilst doing yard work, join a live Pilates class or try an on-demand Pilates classes on-line and if you can, make an appointment with a massage therapist who specializes in myofascial release.
Probably the most common shoulder issue of all, 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 juts forward becomes 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 by their instructor, that that need to take their shoulders back. Unfortunately this just doesn’t work, other than momentarily. 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 revert back to its default position within minutes.Whilst rounded shoulders and a head that pokes forward can take the horse onto his forehand, just being told to take the shoulders back, normally results in the rider moving their whole torso behind the vertical in an attempt to comply. Unfortunately, this takes their weight too far back, causing hyperextension in the rider’s lumbar spine and 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 can present real dangers for your long-term health too. 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 on 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.Rounded shoulders can also 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!
Correcting rounded shoulders can be very hard; 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 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 Session or 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 rounding their shoulders and jutting their head forward or 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, or whilst standing or sitting on a 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, or even better several times a week, 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).
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 to shoulder height, 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.