Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oh, My Aching Back!

Muriel asked an excellent question on my last post and I realized I should probably elaborate a bit more on my injury. The question was:

"I do not understand how you use your abs for supporting your back???
Because from my Pilates exercises, such the bridge, I rounded my back and lifted it up by contracting my abs, starting by the lower abs.
I have in fact super strong rectus abominis, tensing glutei and rectus abominis put me in a chair seat.

So how does your abs support your back? Tranverse and obliques help with rotating and bending. So?
Should we not reinforce our latissimus dorsi to keep us erect?"

She brings up very good points. A strong back requires strong back muscles, so where do abdominal muscles come into the picture? To answer her question, I'll have to go into more detail.

The term "back" is fairly general. My back injury occurred after a fall from a horse. The horse bolted, I knew there was no saving the situation and so I made the decision to ditch. I was always taught that when you knew you were in real trouble and there was no way to get the horse back under control, the wisest thing to do was to fall off. That way, you could choose when, where and how you were coming off and save yourself a traumatic accident. I have followed this wisdom for years, it's gotten me out of many sticky situations in one piece. This time, it didn't. I slammed into the dirt full force, right onto my left hip.

Eight x-rays, an MRI and two orthopedists later, I was told that the way I fell caused my left pelvic bone to slam into my lumbar spine, breaking both and causing all sorts of nasty damage to the nerves and ligaments of my lower back. Particularly damaged were my L-5 vertebra, lumbosacral joint and sciatic nerve. These areas are pretty much the very lowest point that can still be considered "the back". Any lower and I would have had a broken butt.

One look at the anatomy of this area, usually referred to as the "lower back" in spite of it's more butt oriented location, will show you that there really isn't a whole lot going on in the way of back muscles there. We have large, strong muscles in our upper back to facilitate lifting and standing erect, but the lower back area only has a few relatively wimpy muscles. It's certainly not enough to keep a dodgy lumbar spine in line, as anyone with chronic back pain can tell you. So, in order to get the support we need for our spines, we need to engage all the muscles of the area: The back and the abs. This is often referred to as "the core".

Taken together, the core muscles will create a sort of girdle, supporting the lower spine on all sides and keeping it nicely in line. Strengthening only the back muscles will still allow the spine to shift forward, resulting in a hollow back. Too strong of abdominals have the opposite effect, rounding the lower back. Both sets of muscles need to work together to keep the spine well supported.

For me, I don't worry too much about strengthening the muscles of the back. Farm and family life do that for me. Mucking stalls, hauling buckets, lifting a toddler, stacking hay and feed and gardening keep the muscles of my back nice and strong. But if I don't concentrate on working my abs, they tend to get flabby, then my back will get hollow and cause me pain. Having had one child and being pregnant with another doesn't help either, pregnancy stretches the abdominal muscles out and puts strain on the lower back. So, because of my injury and my tendency to hollow my back as opposed to rounding it, I concentrate on using my abdominals to support my back. That's not to say that I only use my abdominals, just that I mainly concentrate on them because that's where I tend to get out of whack.

It's a real pain in the butt. *G*

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rain, Rain

Rain, rain, stay and play,
Melt all the snow away!

It's a rainy crummy day, but I can see grass in a few places out there! Woohoo! As far as I'm concerned the rain is a welcome relief from all the snow and cold. If the rain melts enough of this snow, I might even get to do something with my horse this week. Providing, of course, that it doesn't flood.

I'm still thinking about my position. I've noticed something interesting, too: I use my butt muscles to support my back a lot! Certainly a lot more than I thought I did. I do yoga every day, usually several times a day, to help alleviate my back problems. I notice now that I tend to tense my glutes when I'm doing some of the poses. Which sort of defeats the purpose of doing the yoga. So I'm being much more conscientious of that. The odd thing is, my abs are pretty darn strong. I'm not sure how I developed this habit of using my glutes to stabilize my pelvis. Maybe it started in the very beginning, right after I was injured and before I was strong enough to support my back with my abs and has just lingered since. Maybe this stupid habit is what's been getting in my way and holding me back ever since. I've struggled with chronic pain since the injury. I'm hoping that if I can fix this, maybe I can finally get over the last hurdle and be right again. And if it isn't, oh well. I'm too stupid to let a little thing like a bad back get in my way, anyway.

I'm still thinking about my crookedness (sitting left), but I'm drawing a blank with figuring it out. It's not something that I do on my own, Spider helps. He's weaker to the left, and I'm not strong enough to compensate. I need to sit on him to figure out what's going wrong. Although, I suspect it has something to do with my butt muscles.

Related posts:
Four Years and Counting- details of my injury

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Plan Of Attack

The temperature's warming up, maybe all this ice and snow will melt this week. *fingers crossed*. In the meantime, I've got my Plan Of Attack in order. Well, sort of. I know what I'm doing wrong, which hopefully means I can fix it.

I suppose I should begin with a little bit of background information so that we're all on the same page. And I'll preface my background information by warning you that I'm an abysmal lecturer. I suffer from the same problem as most other academics: I know what I'm talking about and it makes perfect sense to me, but I don't have a clue as to whether or not my audience is following me. When I was teaching I always encouraged my students to ask questions when they didn't understand what I was talking about. I don't think questions are rude, they clue me in to the fact that I'm not doing a good job of explaining myself. The first few lectures were always terrible, students were absolutely terrified of asking questions. But eventually some brave soul would speak up, the rest would realize that I wasn't going to eat them if they interrupted me and we would be on a roll. They got a lot more from speaking up and asking questions than they would have gotten from just staring at me blankly and then trying to memorize my lecture notes. I think the same holds true for riding lessons, by the way: I've seen quite a few lessons where the lessonee just goes around blindly doing whatever they're told by the instructor, never asking questions and therefore never really gaining a thing from the lesson. Then they wonder why they can't ride the same way later when they're by themselves. If they had spoken up and asked some questions, they may have gotten a better understanding of what they were doing and been able to apply it later. So always question everything. As I used to tell my students: The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.

But I digress (as usual). On to the background information. What I'm trying to do here is figure out what's going wrong with my position and how to fix it. I know in a general sense what's wrong: I get too tense in my seat and can't follow the horse's motion and I tend to sit off to the left. These problems combine to make my seat very ineffective, especially when I start doing lateral work or small circles. My solution thus far has just been to readjust myself every time I get off-kilter, but that's time consuming. And I'm pretty sure my horse finds it annoying. I need to fix it at the source. As in- solve the problem before it starts.

So, I'll start by thinking about what I have to work with, my tools. My tools are my muscles and bones. In this context, my muscles and bones are acting as levers. Muscles attach to bones at certain points, by contracting certain muscles I can move the bones to apply force to the horse, thus moving the horse. If I do not want to move the horse, then I must be able to stop the action of the levers. To do this effectively, I need to understand how the whole system works. What bones am I trying to move? Where do the muscles attach to the bones? In what direction are the bones moving?

We'll start with the bones I'm trying to move. Since it's my seat that's the problem, I'm going to concern myself mostly with the pelvis. The pelvis is rather oddly shaped, but the part I'm most concerned with as a rider is the "seat" part. For the purpose of riding, the seat is a part at the bottom of the pelvis that's shaped like the rockers on a rocking chair. This is not the same as the part we sit on when we sit in a chair, that would be the very back of the rockers, as if we tipped the chair back as far as it would go and were just resting on the very back point. The pelvis itself is rigid. When we think about moving it, what we're really doing is rocking it from side to side or front to back. So what exactly do I mean by "getting tense through my pelvis"? Being "tense" is a description of how my seat feels, but it really doesn't tell me much about what's actually happening. For that I need to understand the muscles involved.

There are a lot of muscles involved with moving the pelvis, but for the sake of simplicity I think about them in four groups: The glutes (butt muscles), the abdominals, the front of the thigh and the back of the thigh. The glutes start at the top of the back of the pelvis and run down to the top of the femur. They rotate the thigh in or out. If they are tensed, they prevent the pelvis from tipping forward. The abdominals start at the ribcage and run to the bottom of the front of the pelvis. They can be used to tilt the the pelvis back or to pull up one side or the other of the pelvis. The muscles at the front of the thigh start at the top of the front of the pelvis and run to the knee. They can be used to tilt the pelvis forward or to move the lower leg. The muscles at the back of the thigh start at the bottom of the back of the pelvis and run down to the knee. They can be used to pull the pelvis straight down, to tip the pelvis back or to move the lower leg.

It helps for me to think of the muscles as the strings of a marionette, the strings pull and the puppet moves. When the muscles contract, the bones move. So, if I want to move my pelvis, what strings should I pull? Am I pulling the right strings when I ride now? Obviously not, since I'm getting all twisted and tense when I ride. The important thing to remember is that my pelvis needs to remain fairly mobile when I ride, so as to follow or affect the movement of the horse. We've already established that the pelvis is rigid, so where does the mobility come from? The ability of the pelvis to tip forward, backward or sideways is dependent on the joint between the lumbar spine and the sacrum and the joint of the hip. To keep my pelvis mobile, I need to be very careful not to block these joints. If I'm feeling tense and rigid in my pelvis, it stands to reason that I must be doing just that. And there's one muscle group that can block those joints very effectively: the glutes.

So I went and sat in my saddle (stand alone saddle racks are handy things). I took up my proper dressage position (on my seat bones, shoulders hips and heels in line) and then really focused on what I was doing. I focused on my mental image of a marionette: What strings am I pulling?

Egads!!!!!!! I was tensing my butt! I am truly ashamed of this revelation, everyone knows that you're supposed to use your abdominals when you ride, but somewhere along the way I have fallen from the right path. I suppose I could make excuses about having a bad back, damage to my lumbar and sacral vertebrae, etc........but those would just be excuses. The fact of the matter is that I've been focusing on the appearance of the position instead of the execution of the position. The common instruction of "sit on your seat bones and don't arch your back" can be accomplished two ways. The proper way to do it is to contract the abdominal muscles, which will tip the pelvis back while still allowing the hip and spine to be loose. However, tensing the glutes will also keep the pelvis from tilting forward and is a lot easier than tensing the abdominals, as the glutes are much bigger and stronger muscles. But tensing the glutes locks the the hips and back and is therefore not correct, even though it gives the appearance of being correct. My locked hips and back are then starting a cascade effect through the rest of my body, twisting everything up and rendering me a useless saddle attachment. So now I have to fix it. Easier said than done, I've been doing this for a long time without being aware of it.

So that was a long, rambling journey through my brain. I hope I didn't scare anyone off. *G*

Stay tuned for more long, rambling analyses of my position. I'm still snowed in and very, very bored.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Still Snowed In And No End In Sight

This is beginning to get ridiculous. The weatherman is calling for more snow Monday and Tuesday. By the time all this snow melts I'll be too big to fit in the saddle. For now I'm occupying my time with reading. Those who can do, those who can't theorize. *L*

I'm really enjoying the book "Anatomy of Dressage". It's slow getting through it, as I have to stop and visualize everything and allow the material time to sink in before moving on, but to me that makes for good reading. I really like that the authors describe how the muscles and joints are interacting to create the position we desire, rather than just saying "do it". I think that's a big problem among instructors, too many of them just say "do this" without ever bothering to explain (or understand) how or why. This book really bridges that gap. It also illuminates many of the problems riders encounter, like becoming too tense or getting twisted, and gives sound advice on how to fix these problems. It's given me a lot to think about if I ever manage to get into the saddle again. I think my first several rides will be spent breaking down my position and fixing some of the nasty habits I've managed to get into. I tend to get very tight through my pelvis and lower back when I ride. I'm hoping that if I focus on the muscles I should be using, rather than just repetitively thinking "relax your hips", I will have better success keeping a soft, effective seat. We'll see. Until then, I'm keeping myself busy by formulating my Plan Of Attack.

I'm a very visual thinker, meaning that I think about things as little pictures and diagrams. When I think about a horse's movement, I see a little diagram in my head of how the muscles are pulling the bones around, how the ligaments and tendons are stretching and how the whole system is interacting to produce the action I want. I need to develop the same sort of picture for my own body. My Plan Of Attack is to get a solid picture in my mind of exactly what I want my body to do while I'm riding and what muscles need to be engaged to accomplish this. I'm sure the entire thing will unravel the second I sit in the saddle and I'll have to make adjustments to The Plan accordingly.......but that's sort of the nature of plans. It wouldn't be any fun otherwise, would it?

Related Posts:
Have I Mentioned How Much I Hate Winter?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Boredom Is Setting In

We're having another round of storms come through. It started out this morning as rain, which turned the two feet of snow still on the ground into a sloppy mess. I had to wade out through something the consistency of a frozen margarita to feed this morning. I prefer my margaritas on the rocks, thank you very much.

The horses are bored stiff. They ordinarily spend their days out foraging and playing, but the snow has covered all the grass and made it hard for them to run and play. They have a small area in front of the barn pounded down, but it's not really enough to play in. Their new favorite thing to do is pester me when I come out to do chores. I can't really complain too much, but it does make things more difficult. Spider and Vinny are not small and easily get in the way. Matilda is small, but that just makes her easy to trip over. It does make me feel rather grand to have an entourage for chores, though. Even though my entourage makes a game of knocking over the pitchfork and shovel into the snow for me to dig out. And being constantly in the way while I'm trying to clean their stalls. In spite of my efforts to make their stalls cozy, they are all currently standing outside in the blizzard. It's an excellent reminder that my idea of comfort and their idea of comfort are quite different.

Speaking of comfort, the snow is really picking up out there. This would be an excellent day to crack open a nice bottle of wine and watch the snow fall from the comfort of my sunroom. Unfortunately, this pesky pregnancy thing has taken wine off the menu. I'll have to settle for some hot chocolate.

I keep reminding myself that spring is coming, this is only a temporary inconvenience.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow? What Snow?

I'm trying my best to ignore all the frozen white stuff outside. It's truly a challenge, considering the sheer volume of the stuff. The weather forecast is calling for more snow to fall starting tomorrow evening. In light of this news, I decided to start some of my seeds for my spring garden. It's my little act of defiance, no amount of snow can keep spring at bay. I only did the artichokes and lavender, they need 8-10 weeks head start indoors before they can be transplanted outdoors, and the little pot of herbs I keep on the back porch since it won't be transplanted at all. In two weeks I'll start the tomatoes and peppers. By the time spring rolls around, my sunroom will be over-run with seedlings.

This morning the horses were feeling especially spunky. I wish I had their good spirits. To me, their breakfast time hi-jinks were just annoying. They all eat together, so it's a highly choreographed dance to get everyone fed without anybody getting the wrong food. Normally, they all settle down quickly and eat their respective meals, but today they decided to run around "sampling" each other's breakfasts. Not a huge problem, since they all eat the same thing (just different amounts), but annoying nonetheless. I finally got them straightened out without anyone getting too much feed. Ordinarily when they're being especially obnoxious I can separate them, but the snow has immobilized the gates.

As far as day to day maintenance goes, the snow complicates everything. I can't get the dump cart out to the stalls, so I'm stuck just picking for now. I use straw, so it's not that bad. Straw doesn't absorb the way shavings do, making for less wet bedding to haul out. As long as I am able to get out there several times a day to pick and stir it up to prevent matting it will be fine. The chickens are very helpful in this regard, they love to get in the stalls and scratch around.

The only thing that isn't complicated by the snow is getting water to the horses. I simply shovel snow into my heated buckets, in no time at all it's melted and the tubs are full. No hauling buckets or dragging out hoses for me! Those heated tubs were a fine investment.

If the snow ever melts, I suppose I might start doing that thing I used to do with my horse again. What was that called? Oh, now I remember......... riding!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snow Ponies

I'm pretty sure I was in NJ when I went to bed last night. I woke up in Canada. We've been in blizzard conditions since this morning and the snow shows no signs of stopping.

We've gotten around 3 feet so far, I think. With the wind it's hard to tell. We have two feet in some places, and four foot drifts in others. I think everything above one foot is a moot point anyway.

The horses are taking it in stride. Spider and Vinny have been kicking up their heels off and on. I'm sure Matilda would join them if the snow drifts weren't taller than her.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Still Waiting

The snow has yet to arrive. The farm is as ready as it's going to be. So now we sit and we wait.

On my way back from the mailbox this morning, I noticed that the pear trees have started to bud. They're always the first to bloom in the spring. It was a good reminder that spring is coming. No blizzard can stop the progression of the seasons, so let the weather do it's worst.

Those little buds are exactly the lift I needed on a dreary, gray February day.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chores, Chores And More Chores

I'm so sick of snow. And the weather forecast is calling for more, so I'm battening down the hatches. I've got water stockpiled for the horses, just in case we lose power again. Although, with the forecast calling for around two feet of snow, water is probably the least of my concerns. The horses will eat snow if they need to. The boys actually like to eat snow. I suppose it's a novelty for them, they spent most of their lives as pampered "barn horses". Now they're roughing it out in the country. They have access to their stalls, but are never locked in them. I prefer to let them make the choice of whether they want to be in or out. Most of the time they choose out. So much for the people who say show horses can't live outside!

In other news, my book on long-lining came today. The bio in the cover says the author, Jennie Loriston-Clarke, is a British Olympic Dressage Rider. I've never heard of her, but seeing as how I'm largely out of touch with the happenings of the dressage scene, that doesn't mean much. The book itself seems promising. There's lots of pictures, I like pictures. All the horse in the pictures are going in a relaxed, more natural frame, even those doing upper level work. I like that, too. She details everything from introducing the horse to lungeing and working on long reins to advanced stuff. There's a picture of a horse doing tempis on the the long-lines. I think Spider and I will try that tomorrow.

Ha! Spider and I still haven't gotten past a walk on the long-reins, tempis are a long way away. I think I'll begin by reading the chapter entitled "Long-Reining The Young Horse". It seems like a good place to start.

That's Vinny, my 24 year old retired FEI schoolmaster, in the picture. He's looking very cute because he knows there are treats in my coat pocket.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Have I Mentioned How Much I Hate Winter?

It snowed again here Saturday night. We got around 6 inches, although most of it has melted. And the temperatures have been all over the place, into the single digits at night then up to the low 40s during the day. Since it's so cold at night, I took pity on poor Matilda, all by herself with the chickens. Horses in a herd can huddle together for warmth, but poor Matilda has no one. So I put her back in with the boys, in spite of the fact that the fence isn't completely pony-proof yet.

I was awakened this morning by neighing. My horses rarely neigh, when they do I know something is wrong. Sure enough, Matilda was loose, eating grass in the backyard and Spider the Tattletale was running the fence and crying. That's what I get for being tender hearted! Luckily, she never leaves the yard on her little walkabouts and she followed me right back into the pasture as soon as she saw that I had breakfast. I was able to follow her tracks in the snow and find out where and how she's getting through. She's jumping through the strands, not pushing under. Today I'll finish running a line between the bottom two lines, hopefully that will hold her. In the meantime, she won't leave the pasture as long as there's hay, which there is all day. The only time they run out is over night, since I'm not willing to get up in the middle of the night to re-hay them.

Since I'm not currently doing much of anything as far as training goes, I'm taking the time to brush up on theory. I'm reading Heinrich and Volker Schusdziarra's "Anatomy of Dressage". It details the biomechanical workings of the human body as they pertain to riding......very interesting stuff. I spent quite a bit of time learning the anatomy and biomechanics of quadrupeds, but my knowledge of humans is somewhat lacking. I never planned on a career in medicine, so I largely ignored the human stuff. All mammals are essentially analogous in their anatomy, but the tiny little differences in the position of the limbs and bodies makes for great variety in biomechanics. Since humans are bipeds, we have a considerable difference in the way our pelvis works compared to four-legged creatures. It certainly makes for an interesting and enlightening read.

Sometime this week I'll be receiving Jennie Loriston-Clarke's "Lungeing and Long-Reining". I don't know anything about the author or her training, but I'm hoping to get a few ideas for new exercises to try and maybe some theory to work with. I love theory. Maybe it's just the brainwashing I received as a science student, but I really believe that if you understand the theory of something you can do anything. Theoretical knowledge is the why and the how of things, applied or practical knowledge is more what to do in a certain situation. It's all well and good to have practical knowledge, but practical knowledge can fail you if you can't adapt it to your current problem. I believe that a theoretical learner can adapt more easily. Which is important, because true intelligence is not the sum of the things you know, true intelligence is the ability to solve a problem.

Related Posts:
Why Is That Pony In The Chicken Coop?


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