Ride in the Middle of Your Horse: Developing Symmetrical Balance

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Oct 10, 2013 (4 years and 28 days ago)

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Ride in the Middle of Your Horse: Developing Symmetrical Balance
By Michele Morseth, MA, GCFP
See more articles at http://SitTheTrot.com

From Pacific Northwest Endurance Riders Newsletter Spring 2009
“Ask The Experts” column:

Q: When I ride, I notice I am very asymmetrical with the way I distribute my
weight, which effects my horse's balance. I've tried yoga and strengthening with
some success to fix the problem, but I think now I'm just unconsciously enforcing
my asymmetry, and can't seem to retrain my body consciously. What can I do?

A: Asymmetry in horseback riders is very common. Whether to a large or
small degree, few of us ride with equal balance in each seat bone when
sitting. While posting or standing in the stirrups it is even harder. If your
saddle chronically lists to one side even though you feel like you’re in the
middle of your horse, you are riding off balance. And when other’s say you
are in the middle and you feel, hmm, crooked, off-balance? Yep, you’re not
riding straight and, you’re right, it affects your horse’s balance.
If you ride always balanced off to one side for years your horse will suffer. He
will have to compensate and will get stronger to support your uneven
distribution of weight. This will cause back pain, wear and tear on joints and
uneven muscle development. It may eventually cause lameness. Riding
unevenly affects your saddle, causing it to twist, and creating saddle fitting
problems.
You are also right in that it is easy to strengthen yourself in your pattern of
asymmetry. When you habitually bear more weight on one foot or one seat
bone and then you do strengthening programs, you will reinforce your natural
asymmetry, making it harder to find the place where you are sitting in true
balance.
Like many or most people, you do not have a reliable sense of your own
symmetry and balance. Your senses have adapted to being a little off
balance and so it feels normal to put more weight onto one foot. Perhaps you
have had an injury and it caused you to stand with more weight on one leg.
Or maybe you developed the habit as a teenager of standing more on one
leg, with your hip cocked. Maybe it’s that heavy bag constantly slung over
one shoulder that has caused you to use one leg more strongly than the
other. Whatever the reason, your whole organization has adapted to this off-
kilter stance and your muscles and brain support it. Even though your saddle
and your horse will tell you that you are off balance, your brain will tell you
that you are not. You may even want to blame your horse or blame the
centrifugal forces of riding on circles. The odd thing is, when you stand or sit
on your horse evenly it will feel really weird.
Crookedness, saddle slipping, finding it hard to get your horse to take a
certain lead, or bracing against your horse’s movement are all signs of lateral
imbalance. They all cause tension in your horse and are counterproductive to
the goals of a fast, efficiently-moving endurance horse. Yet many of us do
these things each time we ride. So, if we can feel balanced when we are not, is
there hope? Can we develop and improve our ability to move equally well in both
directions, and to sense when we are doing this? Yes, you can improve your
sense of balance and get stronger at any age!
How is this done? First recognize the long/supported/strong side will be the side
you tend to sit on when riding, the side your saddle tends to list to, and the side
of your stronger leg. It’s not true for everyone but that’s the tendency. Your bendy
side and pulled up leg needs to be organized for strength and support, from foot
to head. You will even out your side-to-side balance as you use your weaker or
contracted side more. You will slowly gain strength and flexibility necessary for
symmetrical organization. If you feel you need strengthening exercises they must
be done with a self-organization that helps you become more functionally
symmetrical.
I use the Feldenkrais Method because I’ve found it effective to even people out
and increase awareness so they sense their own symmetry. Once we’ve learned
to sense when we are balanced through our spine with strong, efficient support,
our arms feel light and our breathing is easy. As a result, when we go to the gym
or ride our horse, we can exercise in a way that strengthens this balanced
posture. As we improve our awareness too, our balance, coordination, dexterity,
and freedom of movement will get better. Even when we get straight, our horse
may still be stiff in one direction. Over time he will adjust to your symmetrical
balance and become more even, more willing to take either lead or let you post
on either diagonal.
Here’s some simple starters based loosely on what I have learned as a
Feldenkrais practitioner on how you can improve your riding by improving
your posture, awareness, and movement:
1) Test your standing lateral balance & support. Stand on one leg and
discover which leg you wobble on. Can you stand on one leg and reach to the
sky with equal ease on both sides? Do your ribs expand equally on each
side? Look in the mirror and check the alignment of your foot, knee, point of
hip on each side. Check the length of your ribs and see if your sternum
(breast bone) lies in the middle of your ribs and shoulders. Also check to see
if your head tilts to one side. Once you can balance flat footed easily on each
side, begin to slowly come up onto your toes & slowly lower, staying long &
steady. For the ultimate test of lateral balance stand facing a wall with one
foot oriented lengthwise on a smooth, hard roller—it’s best if the roller is on a
smooth flat surface. When you can stand on it with just a light touch on the
wall for support on and rise up onto your toes, you’ve found your balance
over that leg! Please: only try this if you have worked on other balance
exercises and wear a helmet!
2) Test your sitting lateral support. Find out which seat bone carries more
weight. First find you seat bones by sitting on a firm flat chair or bench and
placing your fingers under your bottom and finding the bones you sit on. If
they are not the same shape that’s a clue you don’t sit symmetrically. Make a
slight shift to weight one seat bone. Do you lean or do you bring your ribs
over to get your weight over there. Try the other side, keeping your head in
the middle & staying long in your torso, without lifting a shoulder or a foot.
Can you shift your weight to both sides equally well? As you develop
symmetry you will find it easy to equally weight each seat bone.
3) Find your bendable side. Stand facing forward, feet hip width apart and
allow your right hand to glide down your right leg. How far does it go easily?
And on the left side, do you easily bend farther or not as far? Try side
bending in sitting. Do you turn slightly when bending? What part of your ribs
bends the most? Which seat bone is more weighted? Like a horse, usually
one side is more bendable and the other side is stiffer and more supportive.
As you gain in lateral balance you will learn to support yourself equally
through both sides of your rib cage.
4) Check your turning tendency. Do this in sitting and standing. Slowly turn
one way several times and find out at what point do your eyes look. Try the
other side. Is the height of your gaze the same on both sides? What happens
to the weight in each foot or seat bone? Do you detect weight shifts as you
turn? As you develop the ability to turn well to each side you will find your
horse cornering better.
5) Find your sitting-rising-sitting habit. If we post the trot or stand in our
stirrups, we may be balanced while sitting but veer off to one side when
rising. If we post or stand onto our stronger leg, each time we rise our horse
has to adapt to our shift in weight. Practice keeping even weight through both
sides as you rise and sit. You can practice on a physio-ball, putting one hand
on your pubic bone and the other on your sternum, rise and sit keeping your
torso in the middle of two evenly weighted legs. You can stand on two
bathroom scales to check this too.
6) Visualize, in your mind’s eye, sitting in the middle of your horse.
Visualization is a powerful performance tool for any athlete. A rider’s basic
position is weight evenly on both seat bones with legs draped on each side of
your horse. Start watching riders that truly sit in the middle (they are not
always the top riders—in jumping I’ve noticed children are often more
centered). Visualize yourself centered, a line through your and your horses
body with equal weight and support on each side.