When I first started teaching Rider Biomechanics it was perfectly clear to me, standing and watching, whether a rider was sitting straight in their saddle, or collapsing to one side, leaning forwards or leaning backwards. However, it soon became abundantly obvious, that what I was seeing and what the students thought they were doing, were poles apart. There was a disparity between what the rider’s brain told her was ‘straight’ and the reality that I was seeing. And if I told the student to take their torso forwards for example, they would for a moment in time, but their proprioceptive system (the body’s internal GPS) would tell them that the new position was wrong and would take them back to their concept of straight or alternatively, actual tightness in certain muscle groups would prevent the student from being able to make the changes.
I soon realised that I wasn’t going to be able to make these changes happen by just telling the student to stop doing something, I needed the rider to seethe situation for themselves 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. Eight years down the line, PI has become an unbelievable successful teaching tool and I now regularly operate Posture Assessment Sessions. Cameras mounted to the side and rear show the rider where their body really is, whilst sensors on PI’s feet show the rider exactly where their weight is being distributed. Faced with both the weight display and a video of themselves on the screen in front of them, the student’s proprioceptive system is proved the liar it is.
If we want to become a good rider, 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 any rider. At the halt (or in neutral), the rider’s ears, shoulders, hips and heels should align when viewed from the side. When viewed from the front, the horse’s neck, withers and spine should form a straight line, with the rider’s nose, chin, breastbone and belly button.forming a perpendicular line. 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 we wish to have clear communication with our horse. But with the student’s proprioceptive system lying to them, finding this “ideal posture” was like searching for the Holy Grail.
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 exactly the same thing when they sit on a horse. Because so many of us work in offices or lead sedentary lifestyles, a lot of people assume a slouched ‘computer posture’ with rounded shoulders and a chair seat when mounted, while others overarch their lower backs and virtually everyone sits too far back in the saddle. Other riders collapse to the left or right, with more weight on one seat bone, or sit with one hip and shoulder in front of the other.
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 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 the rider needs to adjust their body to bring it in to alignment. Sometimes the rider is able to make the necessary adjustments herself; other times I need to help them find straightness. All too frequently, the rider will be tight in their hips and lack sufficient core strength. Sometimes the pelvis is uneven with one side higher, lower or further forward 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. Once the rider understands where the issue is and what causes the problem, they can then work on correcting themselves using Pilates exercises.