We all know how hard it is to ride a horse that is stiff, unbalanced, crooked or weak, but have you ever thought how difficult it is for the horse to be ridden by someone who is stiff, unbalanced, crooked or weak?
“My horse is stiff on the left side.” “My pony won’t pick up the correct canter lead.” How many times have you heard riders complaining that they are having problems with their horse’s behaviour while they are riding. I recently met a lady whose horse had been very stiff on the left rein. She had spent a small fortune visiting vets, chiropractors, farriers, saddlers and even an acupuncturist, none of whom had been able to solve the problem. By chance she had met a trainer who videotaped her clients as they rode in order to analyse their position – and after just half an hour had discovered what was causing the problem. HER! When she watched the video tape with the trainer it was obvious that she twisted her hip to the left, collapsed the entire right hand side of her body and placed way more weight on her left seatbone.
This lady is not alone. Many riders have no comprehension of how their own bodies are behaving whilst they are riding, so many of us collapse a hip, or sit with more weight on one seat bone, thus making life so much harder for our horses. Try giving a piggy back ride to a small child. Feel how uncomfortable it is and how difficult to balance when the child wriggles around, or leans to one side. It is impossible for your horse to be balanced and symmetrical if the rider is not.
Learn to be body aware
To ride effectively the rider needs to be supple and relaxed. Many riders are not even aware of the tensions that they are setting up within their bodies because they forget to breathe! Or breathe in an ineffective way. This sets up a tension that is mirrored in the way the horse goes. “Recently I rode a young, difficult horse and felt extremely insecure in the saddle. The horse, I quickly concluded, had a ‘funny’ wither and a tense back and I couldn’t make any contact with his sides. He really wasn’t the kind of horse that I was going to get on with,” recalls Cindy Gardiner, “However after a while I became aware of what my body was doing. Every muscle was tensed, so I was literally perched on top of the saddle, unable to move properly. When I made the conscious decision to relax I moulded myself into the saddle, my legs made contact with the horse’s sides and I discovered that he was actually a delight to ride.” It is a useful exercise for everyone who rides to focus on your own body and be aware of where your weight is in relation to the horse.
You are said to be symmetrical if you can place an equal amount of weight in each cheek bone and foot and give equally effective leg and rein aids with either leg or hand. Also in order to by truly symmetrical you should have an equal amount of strength, flexibility and coordination on both sides of your body. However, we were all born with a dominant side, which is stronger and which we use more frequently for every day tasks, such as carrying loads, opening containers etc. This, combined with injuries, muscular stiffness and behavioural patterns, ie cradling the telephone under our neck, all make our bodies uncoordinated and asymmetrical.
Signs of rider asymmetry
You may be riding in an asymmetrical way if:-
Your saddle, or saddle pad constantly slips to one side
One stirrup leather is stretched more than the other
You have rub marks on one side of the saddle, or riding boots
You carry one shoulder, or hand higher than the other
When you fall you always fall off on the same side
Most asymmetrical imbalances begin in the hip area. If the hips are not in line the torso will collapse to compensate, placing more weight in one seat bone and leg, because of this the arm and shoulder are put out of line and the opposite side will try to compensate in order to rebalance itself.
The effects of rider asymmetry
“I went on a hiking holiday,” says dressage rider Janet Skehard, “everyone carried big rucksacks full of the equipment that we needed. I prided myself on my packing skills, but without realising I had packed all of the heavy gear on one side of the rucksack and the lighter things on the other side. It was fine when we set off, but soon I began to trip and stumble, one side of my body became very sore and stiff and pretty soon I was bad tempered, distracted and frustrated. The hiking trip became a nightmare.” It is hard to imagine that something so simple could have such a profound effect on your frame of mind and body. Carrying an unbalanced rider must have a similar effect on the horse. If he has to carry an unbalanced rider the horse has to contract the muscles of his body in order to counter the extra weight. Because of this he will find it hard to balance and bend on that side and will even find it difficult to walk in a straight line without drifting off to one side. He could also become lame because the hindleg that is supporting the less weight will shift across his body to support the side with the heavier weight. Not surprisingly the horse may become angry, frustrated and confused, because of the conflicting messages coming from your body. Imagine now if the rider, through sheer frustration that the horse is not cantering on the correct lead, gives him a wallop of a riding whip.
Of course horses too are asymmetrical. We accentuate this by doing the majority of the handling and leading on the horse’s left side. Watch your horse, if he always extends the same foreleg when he eats then he is asymmetrical.
Until you are certain that you are symmetrical you cannot be sure that it is not your body that is causing your horse to be unbalanced or crooked. Work hard on becoming symmetrical so that you will have the balance, strength and coordination to help your horse overcome his problems. Be aware of your body movements all of the time, not just when you are riding. You will be surprised, how when you are aware of your body, how much easier riding becomes.
by Jacqui Broderick of http://lavenderandwhite.co.uk/