“Sit up straight.” “Roll your shoulders back.” “Don’t drop or round your shoulders.” “Arch your back just a tiny bit.” “Don’t arch your back so much.” “Lengthen the front of your body from your rib cage to your hips.”
We have all heard these directions from our trainers, from friends trying to help us, and/or read about the need to start or stop doing these things. Often they are easier said than done! But what is common thread among these things, and why are they important? Is it just to look professional or “pretty” when we ride?
The answer is good posture. This blog post will explore why correct rider posture is a very important aspect of helping your horse perform to best of their ability in a safe and comfortable manner. Correct rider posture can also reduce rider back and neck pain.
Horse Movement Fundamentals
Let's take a step back and look at a few fundamentals regarding how a healthy horse moves. The horse moves from back to front. With each step taken by the hind legs, energy is transmitted up the horse’s legs, through the horse’s back and the ring of muscles, and toward the horse's front end including the neck and head.
This forward energy can be blocked by the horse themselves simply due to the lateral (side to side) motion of their ribcage or the degree to which their back is not lifted (hollow) or feet issues. Other things such as poor saddle fit can also block this energy.
But, did you know that incorrect or poor rider posture is one of the major causes of blocked forward energy? Poor posture will impede your horse's performance and can cause back, neck, ribcage, and TMJ pain and tightness in your horse.
My good friend and excellent trainer Rebekah Larimer summed it up best, "It is the rider’s responsibility to learn how to get out of their horse’s way, not block their forward energy, and be able to properly influence them and work in partnership."
What is Correct Posture?
As seen in image C of above, correct rider posture requires sitting with a neutral spine so your back is neither overarched nor completely flat but rather has a slight natural concavity. The shoulders, hips and heels are all aligned on the vertical. This means that if a vertical line was drawn between these three areas, it would intersect all 3 areas. The head, neck, shoulder and back are in a neutral position. They are not tipped back or slouched forward. The rider feels “solid from the base” and has relaxed hands, arms and fingers. Correct posture enables the horse’s natural back to front motion to be transmitted through its body in a relaxed manner.
In case you are panicking, don’t. This is easier said than done, but with practice AND the correct stretching and strengthening exercises, you can make great strides (no pun intended) toward achieving correct posture.
Three Common Postural Challenges…and Some Remedies
1) The Base: Let's Talk Pelvis
The first two common posture issues are a pelvis that is tipped too far forward (image A) or too far backward (image B) . To test your pelvis, stand up (on level ground), and place your hands on your hip bones. Tilt your hips backward so the top of your hip bones move back toward your spine. You should feel your back flatten and your hips tuck under you. Then do the opposite. Move your hips forward so the top of the hip bones move toward the front of your body and your back arches. Do this several times and then find your natural resting position. Is your back overarched or too flat?
Do the same thing next time you are sitting in your saddle getting ready to ride. Is your pelvis in neutral, tipped forward or tipped back?
Another way to assess your pelvis is to do a rudimentary test of the curvature in your spine. Stand with your back up against a wall making sure your heels and upper back are firmly touching the wall. Assess the position of your lower back. Is it flat against the wall? Is there a pronounced arch? Is your spine in a neutral position with a just a slight curvature? Can you push your shoulders against the wall without arching your lower back?
Impact to Your Horse of Overarched Back/Pelvis Tipped Forward (anterior)
If your back if overarched, this means your seat bones point backwards toward the horse’s back legs. Rider’s with overarched backs tend to appear stiff or tense and tend to have stiff or locked hip joints making it hard to follow the horse’s motion. So, guess where the horse’s energy is sent in this scenario? Yup. You got it. Toward the hind end. An overarched back makes your horse work extra hard to keep the forward energy moving forward. It is like a salmon swimming upstream. It can also cause your horse to hollow their back. As you may recall, at the very beginning of this blog post, we said that a horse with a hollow back blocks the flow of energy forward. So, this is sort of double whammy!
I will discuss the impact of the backward (posterior) tipped pelvis in the next section since that is often accompanied by rounded shoulders.
2) Rounded Shoulders/Jutting Chin
This is the third common postural challenge many rider’s struggle with.
Many of us work at computers all day. Some of us like myself work on horses. Both of these activities can cause posture problems. Specifically, it can cause your shoulders to round forward, your neck to curve excessively when looking up and your head to be forward with a jutting chin. This is often accompanied by a pelvis that is tipped backward (posterior.)
Impact to Your Horse of Round Shoulders/ Jutting Chin/ Pelvis Tipped Back
Rounded shoulders are often accompanied by pelvis tipped toward the back of the body. This causes the rider’s weight to be distributed unevenly. The top of the rider’s body is usually slightly forward, the upper back is back behind the vertical, and the bottom of the rider’s body pushes down on the last third of the horse’s thoracic spine. The leg usually also moves forward. This causes the rider to be behind the motion, and imbalance in the horse. It pushes the horse onto the forehand and blocks the forward energy.
The other interesting thing that often happens to the round shouldered/ backward (posterior) tipped pelvis rider is that when rider tries to move their leg back into the correct position, it can cause the knee and ankle to hike up. This can cause loss of the stirrup (my own personal nemesis) and/or result in less effective leg aids.
In order to select the correct remedy for your posture problem, it is important to get an accurate evaluation of all of the aspects of your posture including your feet, legs, hips, pelvis, back, shoulders, ribs, chest, neck and head position. I suggest you see a physical therapist or chiropractor who is specifically skilled in postural assessment and treatment. Familiarity with riding is a big plus! Be sure they do not just treat you, but also teach you how to do the specific exercises to address your posture challenge.
That said, there are many do-it-yourselfers out there.
So, here are a few stretches and exercises that can potentially be beneficial. (Here comes the legal disclaimer.) These exercises are being provided for informational purposes only. This should not be construed as any type of medical advice. These exercises may or may not be appropriate for your individual situation and could cause harm if done incorrectly or if contraindicated. This is why I suggest seeking professional medical assistance as a first step.
For those who are round-shouldered like myself because I work on horses and at computer so I am in terrible ergonomic positions most of the day every day, lying over a roll with your arms in “stick ‘em up” is a great stretch for the pecs, upper back and neck muscles and the spine.
This stretch stretches the pectoral muscles in the front of your body which have become shortened due to being constricted and helps relieve the tension in the muscles in your upper back that have become overstretched.
I prefer to keep my legs straight when doing this stretch. However, then you must be careful that your back does not 'hollow out. " Start out with a rolled up towel under your back horizontally and gradually increase the size of the roll.
Here is a link that has great illustrations of the muscles the stick ‘em up stretch targets as well as more detailed instructions such as making sure you keep your chin slightly tucked so you are not arching your neck.
If your back is overarched, that means the muscles in front of your hips, aka the hip flexors, are probably tight. The hip flexors can also become tight from doing a lot of sitting in front of a computer all day. Tight hip flexors and an overarched back can also cause lower back pain.
This article provides a detailed explanation of the relationship between an overarched back and tight hip flexors as well as some stretching exercises to release the tension. Also, here is a link to a “brutal stretch” for the hip flexors.
There are pluses and minuses to doing “brutal stretches” versus more gentle, gradual stretches. I leave that choice to you and your health care professional.
The Bottom Line….
There is a direct correlation between your posture and your horse’s movement and performance. Correcting your posture challenges is not easy and takes dedication. However, if you commit to an improvement program, both you and your horse will enjoy even greater success and a more relaxed ride no matter what your riding discipline.
What is your posture challenge? What are you doing to correct it? Share your story here or on our Facebook page.
Ilene Nessenson, JD, Certified Equine Bodyworker, is the creator of the Stretch Your Horse App. She has been an equine bodyworker, saddle fitter, and saddle reflocker for over 11 years.
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