Do you ever find yourself wishing there was a more direct link between your brain and your body parts? You know what to do: you?ve studied it, you can see it in other riders, your coach has reminded you a hundred times. It’s just that the road between what your brain knows, and what your body actually does must be under construction or washed out because your body does not seem to be getting it. When this happens, riders often exteriorize the problem with statements about how the horse is not doing what he is told. Most of the time, close observation reveals that the horse is doing what he is told, it just isn?t what the rider thinks.
I just got back from a clinic half way across the country from where I live and normally work. With 18 riders, it was arguably the largest single clinic day I?ve ever done- and an excellent opportunity to spot some trends. Riders ranged from early teens to late middle age, and from relative beginners in their discipline, to fairly advanced. Most were dressage riders, but we had two Western riders, and a former hunter and former Event rider.
Once you are standing in the arena dust working with a horse and rider, it does not seem to matter what corner of the planet you are on: our bodies and brains work the same way. Our bodies and our horse’s bodies interact the same way, regardless of our discipline or saddle preference because of basic biomechanics.
Observing a sampling of riding abilities as broad as this, condensed into one day has a similar effect on me as my experience scribing at dressage shows. It’s like a condensed version of the training year (or several years), and a really great opportunity to spot trends and patterns in rider development. This particular clinic was, well, almost a clinical opportunity in the scientific sense because so many of the common variables affecting riders were not present. I could eliminate footing, horse quality, saddlefit and cold weather as factors. All the riders had horses with acceptable conformation for the task, had gone through saddlefitting, rode on a nice surface in a well heated arena.
An Equifitt clinic is a little different than a standard riding clinic in that instead of focusing on the horse’s training through the rider, the focus is on the way the riders? bodies are going and influencing their horses movement. As you know, the interaction between the rider and horse can be influenced negatively by poor saddle construction or fit. When analyzing a rider?s posture and body usage, poor saddle fit can throw the analysis off. In this particular clinic, I had the rare opportunity to work with riders who had all gone through saddle-fitting, which eliminated saddle fit as a factor affecting their posture and performance.
The coaches and instructors also taught from a well rounded perspective with classical riding principles. The riders also had frequent exposure to clinic opportunities with international and high performance coaches. So, what I was watching their bodies do had little to do with the instruction quality or access to knowledge. Their ears were hearing the right things, and their saddles were putting them in the right position to ride correctly. The footing was excellent, peers were supportive, horses had appropriate conformation for the work, and the arena was heated so not even cold weather, horse suitability or footing could be blamed for the various compensating patterns and biomechanic inefficiencies I was observing. There were simply gaps between will and execution.
We carry the body we have into our ride. In the September issue of Dressage Today, Charles de Kunffy said that the horse cannot go better than the rider will allow. The rider?s body can block or allow the horse- or even more hopefully, lead the horse to better movement than he would do on his own naturally. The rider detracts or helps the horse through posture, stamina and strength, tightness/joint mobility, and body usage (movement patterns).
Body usage is a simplified way to talk about kinesthetic abilities of proprioception and muscle recruitment and movement patterns. Proprioception is like perception, but related to your sense of where you are in space. You could simply call it body awareness. High level athletes typically have a very high natural proprioceptive ability, but it is something that can be improved through training.
People who practice ball sports have a high degree of proprioception which allows them to move their bodies in relation to the game object very precisely. Conditioning coaches for these sports develop exercises to improve foot or hand and eye co-ordination. Gymnastics and skate are two other sports that require a high degree of proprioception. From a rider?s perspective, proprioception means knowing not only where your body parts are (seat, limbs), but also where they are relative to the horse (a calf a hair behind the girth, a seat bone moving in the upward half of the elliptical cycle following your horse’s hind leg motion). Your degree of proprioception has a very big impact on your effectiveness as a rider.
Firing patterns, or movement and recruitment patterns, are what your body does in response to or in pro-active leadership of your horse’s movement. As you can appreciate when you try and execute a movement that is difficult for you, there is much more to achieving the result you want than the actual aids. It’s how you get your body into and out of position, and the side effects of whether you do so efficiently (soft, supple and accurate) or inefficiently (unclear to the horse, tensing other areas). An example could be the way a very talented rider seems to naturally do everything from the core, vs an amateur rider that tends to ride from seat and legs. Unless they have training in dance, martial arts or pilates, or are an advanced athlete in another sport, many riders initiate signals from legs and hands without core engagement.
Proprioception and firing patterns are often at the basis of a disconnect between will and execution. An example could be the rider who is sitting a trot to the right, and the horse is having difficulty bending. The rider is not conscious of the fact that their pelvis is actually pointing off the circle to the left. This is a proprioceptive issue. What the rider does to correct a problem could show an inefficient movement pattern. For example, a rider with a twist in the hip will likely have oblique muscles which are weaker on one side than the other. The rider feels straight. When they go to adjust, they may have difficult simply adjusting the hips because the connection to the weak muscle area is weak. The muscle does not turn on the way it should. So the rider will frequently try to achieve the desired result through a compensating pattern such as adjustment of the shoulders instead.
When this rider goes to influence a right bend, they may lean or tilt their shoulders to try and correct what they feel is incorrect about their horse’s bend to the right. Or, they may try to ride the right bend through their hands and pull the horse’s head inward. When he does not respond with his ribcage, they may develop the habit of using a spur on the inside to try and push him out. Usually such compensating patterns become more pronounced the faster the gate because the rider?s body is operating ?automatically?.
If you ask them to speed up or exaggerate by making an even smaller circle to the right, the compensating pattern will become even more pronounced. They are demonstrating an ineffective firing pattern: a chain reaction of muscle recruitment their body uses to respond to the circumstances. Another simpler firing pattern which is quite common is the rider who grips with their hands in a down transition or even while riding so that they are riding
their horse from front to back, even when they know that half halts should start from the seat and that they should be riding from back to front. Such a rider has the equivalent of a neuromuscular highway to their gripping muscles, and relatively feeble pathway to the other areas their body could be recruiting automatically instead. Many riders have a feeble connection to core and seat which is particularly noticeable in half halt.
One rider not only had a firing pattern problem, but the problem was so ingrained that the rider was not even aware of it. When instructed to push her hand forward instead, she had difficulty over-riding what her brain was telling her body to do. When the rider?s brain has trouble finding the on switch to certain areas (or the off switch in some cases), or difficulty creating a more constructive pattern of movement, it’s definitely time for some off-horse work to help establish the neuromuscular connection to the relevant areas, and program in a new ?default? response.
In the clinic, we slowed the rider to a walk and had her practice pushing her hand forward, so that the motion would be familiar to her brain when we picked up the trot again. At first, when her brain said ?push hand forward?, all her hand seemed to hear was ?hand?, and it gripped more. It was as if the neuromuscular conversation did not have ?push? in it’s vocabulary. In the unmounted workshop part of the clinic, I assigned her tasks that would teach her body to respond to lack of balance or to pressure by creating a new response in which she would lower her centre of gravity and engage the core first, and then push forward instead of pull. In the heat of the moment while riding, you will only be able to call on actions your body already knows. Unless you create new ones, it will use the old ones.
Attempting to over-ride a strong automatic recruitment pattern creates tension. Your body is fighting itself. Tension of course, really blocks your ability to hear your horse and move with him, and also creates tension in the horse. Creating new patterns on the ground includes stopping the old pattern, and then building the new one slowly in a relaxed state so that you can teach your body the new pattern without tension.
Not surprisingly, this rider?s horse responded to the rider?s hollow back, disengaged core and heavy hand, with a hollow back, tension and high head. It was no further surprise to me that a rider who?s brain provided a hand solution to her problems, also convinced her that draw-reins (more hand) would help. We lengthened the draw reins until they were insignificant while keeping the pair on a small circle where the size of the circle would limit her horse’s speed. As rider and horse relaxed, and the rider began to find her core and was more successful blocking the almost automatic physical grip reaction. She eventually agreed to removal of the draw reins which allowed the horse to lengthen his back muscles and find a nice swingy trot.
What was especially interesting about this particular rider was the fact that she actually has quite an active off-horse training program. She works out several times a week at a gym and does fitness classes and weights. It seemed to me that her tendency to grip the reins out of a hard-wired grip reflex was probably encouraged by the types of exercises she did. She had been training her strength, but she had relatively low body awareness or proprioception. I suggest she take slower classes that would allow her time to learn new movement patterns and be more aware of her body and core engagement.
I also suggested that she take an entire month off of any exercise that would require her to grip anything with her fully closed hand, and to do a series of exercises to build her core, back and shoulders without bicep engagement. If she holds anything like a dumbbell, she is to hold it with her index finger and thumb, while keeping the other fingers free and wiggling lightly- like an exaggerated spoof of holding a fancy teacup.
As she rides, if she gives herself permission to stop when she catches herself falling into her old gripping pattern, she will be able to deliberately choose a different action. She will also stop the buildup of tension between herself and the horse, and establish a muscle memory that includes lack of tension. Over time, she will need to stop herself less, and the new patterns will become more automatic. Fortunately, her coach attended the clinic and is fully supportive of the process she needs to break old patterns in order to free her body to choose more effective patterns that allow her to progress in her riding goals.
If you are a rider who tends to grip and ride with your hands, you can break the pattern by teaching your body to recognize when you are gripping, stop, and recruit different muscles in response to the situation.
Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Rider, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today.