NEW |PART 3| Sitting square and straight

To continue with our discussion regarding the crooked rider, I would like to specifically look at the rider who sits crooked when viewed from behind. That’s the rider who either drops one hip or one shoulder or both.

It is quite normal however, for a rider to lean inwards slightly when the horse is doing a tighter turn, particularly at speed. To stay in balance over (or inside of) the horses centre of gravity, the rider does need to lean inward slightly on a tight bend to counterbalance the centrifugal forces pushing the rider outwards. A well trained and balanced horse will even respond to a sideways shift in the riders balance to facilitate a turn in disciplines such as cutting, reining, show jumping, campdrafting and polocross.


But that’s not the crookedness issue that I want to discuss at the moment. The rider I am talking about drops one shoulder and/or one hip even when there are no (or negligible) centrifugal forces applicable. If the rider persists with this crooked pattern long enough the horse will either resist or adapt to the crooked pattern putting both the horse and rider at risk of creating permanent structural imbalances. I believe riding crooked is the most common accumulated cause of back pains while riding, often as significant as the acute falls and injuries most riders have at some stage or another.

Before we discuss the correction of sideways crookedness, let me say upfront, the basis of the normal movement of the rider’s pelvis is that it should mirror that of the horse’s pelvis.

Let me explain that concept by discussing the normal movements of the pelvis. There are 2 planes in which the rider moves his or her pelvis:-

Firstly, let’s look at movement in the frontal plane, as if we were to view them from behind. In this plane the rider simultaneously drops one hip and raises the other as they gently rock from side to side. This action is a bit like slow Hula dancing where alternate hips move up and down while the shoulders stay square and still.

If a novice rider was to sit on a horse at halt that was not standing square, they could start to develop a “feel” for the horse by attempting to judge which hind leg was not square without looking. The rider would notice that one hip was lower on the side of the hind leg which was left behind. As the horse moves that hind leg forward, the horse and rider’s hip will be dropped initially during the “swing” phase (where the leg is off the ground) then lifted as the foot strikes the ground and the horse bears weight on the leg (“mid-stance” phase). With repeated lifting and dropping of the horse’s pelvis, the side-to-side rocking action of the rider’s hips will develop. The more the horse engages the hind leg action and steps under himself, the higher the more the rocking action will be exaggerated.

The second plane in which the seat and pelvis move is the horizontal plane. This is where one of the rider’s hips rotates backwards when the horse’s leg is out behind them while the opposite side of the pelvis rotates forward slightly as the hind leg comes forward and underneath the horse’s body.

It is important to note here that the tension of the knees squeezing inwards is probably the single most significant feature that prevents the pelvis swinging with the movement of the horse.

This is commonly why inexperienced riders who grip with their knees to secure their balance have greatest difficulty to develop a relaxed, independent seat and a feel for the movement of their horse. A feel will ONLY develop with mental and physical relaxation.

When we walk on a horse with a big, forward stride and a relaxed back, the rider will probably notice these 2 pelvic movements most. They are bio-mechanically known as “nutation” and “counter-nutation” where either side of the pelvis is torque-ing in opposite directions to facilitate movement. Again, the movement of the rider’s pelvis should mirror that of the horse’s pelvis.

I would suggest that the rider who does not have the flexibility in their pelvis to accommodate this nutation/counter-nutation or the suppleness of their lower back to stay straight while the pelvis moves will eventually develop some or all of the following problems:-

  • Pain in their lower back
  • A crookedness in the pelvis which in turn lifts one hip socket creating an apparent short leg and spinal curvature while standing
  • Stiffness through their groin which blocks the relaxed swing of the horse’s back thus the length of stride and engagement of the hind quarters
  • A crooked or one-sided horse often resulting in resistance as they brace against the rider’s tension
  • Stiffness and pain in the horse’s back often resulting in the need to seek professional help (often with little or no consideration of the riders contribution to the cause of the problem in the first place)
  • Lack of progress in shortening and lengthening the horse’s stride and frame
  • An inability of the rider to sit deep into the saddle
  • A difficulty of the rider to “feel” their horse. “Feel” is just like learning balance on a bike or skis except between a rider and his or her horse, can develop from a physical sense of balance to an emotional sense of trust and understanding

Ultimately, a stiff and crooked rider can cause similar problems in the horse OR vice versa making any resistance seem to get worse rather than better.

I believe that ultimately the buck stops with the rider to initiate the change, not the horse to relax first.

Often I have found that riders need to work on the following exercises to relax their seat and back but so many riders spend hours schooling and relaxing their horse yet little or no time working on improving themselves. I have found that the patterns most riders get themselves into, together with the falls they all have from time to time, professional chiropractic care (or similar) is required to make alignment corrections.

Unfortunately, most riders don’t do anything about themselves until pain prevents them from riding. This seems ridiculous to me and totally out of proportion to the fortune in time and expense most riders spend on the comfort and wellbeing of their trusty steeds. I think just like getting the horse’s feet done regularly and cleaning your tack so that it is safe, riders should also get themselves checked by a chiropractor so that they can continue to ride at their best and potentially prevent creating imbalances and tension in the horse. After all, we all know an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

So, here are 2 exercises you can work on to improve the flexibility or your pelvis and lower back using a fitball (or a stool if you don’t have one):-

  • Sit on a fitball as you would on your horse and rock your hips slowly from side to side. It’s OK to roll the ball slightly sideways as you do this but be careful not to drop your shoulder. To make very sure, hold a whip or broom-stick across your shoulders and watch it to ensure it stays horizontal.
  • On the fitball again, push one hip forward at a time as you attempt to rotate the ball underneath you. It generally doesn’t move much but this is the lesser of the 2 planes of movement as we ride so it’s OK if this movement is more subtle. You may notice that the greater the forward swing, the more the knee opens and the calf closes (as if against the horse’s ribs) on the same side.

Try holding a balloon between your knees as you push one hip forward. You will notice this exercise becomes much harder to do because of the tension in your groin muscles. Relaxation of the groin is vital to relaxing the pelvis.

I wouldn’t suggest that you try to combine these movements on the fitball; it’s too artificial and easier on your horse once you develop a feel for these 2 exercises.

I believe that relaxing your back and pelvis will not only allow you to move with your horse better but can be therapeutic and rehabilitative to anyone with a low back problem as pain-relieving nerves (proprioceptors) are stimulated by these movements.

This topic concludes with Part 4.