NEW |PART 4| Sitting square and straight

I am sure that Sir Isaac Newton must have been mistaken when he discovered the gravity was 10.8 Newtons. Either that or someone has increased the force of gravity because it never ceases to amaze me how many riders sit on their horse collapsed in their abdomen, dropping their head forward as if the force of gravity had increased. 

What we know about a forward head posture is that it:

  • Internalises your focus (try driving your car looking at the pedals) making it harder to focus on the big picture
  • Reduces the strength of the respiratory muscles by up to 30%
  • Reduces clarity of thinking and function of metabolism and immunity
  • For every 1cm forward shift in the head carriage the degenerative forces on the neck double.

So let’s have a look at the sitting posture in the remaining “sagittal” plane as if we were to look at you from the side.

Ultimately if we were to take you off the horse and put you on the ground at any given moment, we would hope that you could stand and remain balanced.

This would indicate that your balance is independent of the horse thus, allowing the horse to move as freely as he is capable and not have to stiffen up to compensate for your inadequate balance.

Mechanically, the wider the base of support, the more difficult it is to shift an object off its balance. Conversely, the narrower the base of support and the higher the object, the easier it is to shift off its balance. The horse has a narrow lateral base of support (ie. from side to side its front feet are relatively close together) and a wide longitudinal base of support (ie. the front legs are relatively further away from the back legs).

So, if we shift our weight to one side or lean to facilitate a turn at speed, the horse has to quickly compensate for the loss of balance because of the narrow lateral base of support. On the other hand, if we lose our balance in a forward direction or sit back in the saddle like it was our favourite armchair, the horse doesn’t lose his balance as easily because of the wider (or longer) base of support but has to compensate for this shift probably by tighten up.

The most balanced position for the rider to be in is for their centre of gravity to be directly above the horse’s centre of gravity (CoG). The faster we go, the further ahead of the horse’s CoG we should be and the faster we turn, the more the rider should sit to the inside of the horse’s CoG. The more we are out of balance with the horse, the harder he has to work to compensate for our weaknesses.

Coming back to sitting straight on the sagittal plane!

Essentially we should be able to draw a line down through our ear, shoulder, point of the hip and into the ball of the foot.

Our centre of gravity is in the middle of the body just below the level of the navel. The faster we travel, the more our vertical line tilts forward to keep or centre of gravity (CoG) slightly ahead of the horses.

When we slump in the saddle, we may remain balanced over the horse’s CoG. Commonly the novice rider will lean forward, look down, pull on the reins (thus tilting themselves further forward), squeeze with the knee and lift/grip inwards with the heels to prevent themselves being pulled forward. Is it any wonder the horse can become tense or immune to the novice rider?

The other position riders can assume is that of lying backwards using the cantle of the saddle as a type of armrest. If the riders weight is sitting backwards, the horse can get a sore back (not to mention the rider) and has to tighten up to compensate for their loss of balance. When the rider sits backwards they generally lift their weight off the front seat bone (often off the 2 ischial bones as well) and sit more on the meaty part of the buttocks (gluteal muscles) where there may be more padding but less effectiveness as a primary aid to influence the horse.

So let’s look at some exercises to improve the seat in this sagittal plane:

  • As we did earlier, imagine a string pulling up, out through the top of your cap. This will align the ear, shoulder, hip and foot in most cases
  • With the eyes now level (and not looking down to the horse), bring the chin back to the Adam’s Apple in the throat bringing the head further in line with the shoulders. This is far more effective than pulling the shoulders back. Hold this position for 5 seconds while the muscles tighten in the back of your neck then ½ release the pull so as not to hold tension but not let the head drop forward either.
  • Tilt your pelvis slightly forward bringing the navel forward and hollowing the back slightly, the tilt the pelvis backward sinking in at the naval and lifting the front pubic bone off the pommel. Being able to freely rock your pelvis backwards and forwards is a great way to take tension out of your lower back and is a primary component of the “half-halt” (more on that later).

Remember, these exercises will not only give you better awareness when you are on your horse but also help take out some tension that may be stopping you from really sitting into and connecting better with your horse.

The more you practice the exercises, the more you will develop the appropriate muscles to be able to hold your position better without tension. As we discussed earlier, if you need regular reminders to improve you position, you will probably be holding tension, so work on achieving it off the horse for longer periods first.