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.


  1. I'm with you on the snowed in...not quite bored, but out of the saddle. I do have one of those iGallop machines that I should be using...and it would definitely help you loosen your glutes and get more flexible...but I'm still having an occasional pang from my surgery.

    I have always been lucky enough to be rather loose...sometimes too loose in the lower part of my body. However, I am having a bit of a crooked thing to the right. Found out the other day that I have some scoliosis that tilts me that way naturally and I am conformationally lower on the right side than the left. So I am going to have to concentrate on my own musculature to get myself as straight as I can be.

    Your analysis is comprehensive and insightful. Now, the trick is to put theory into practice once you're back in the saddle.

  2. Very interesting Shannon, and really on the spot. Lately I am REALLY working on my lousy seat, infact too tense.

    What is happening?

    squashed second lumbar vertebra, accentuating my scoliosis. I tilt to the right. my left shoulder is higher than my right shoulder.

    on tight circles at the walk and trot or at the canter, I loose my balance by tilting.
    So I clenched mt glutei, and my abductors. I put myself in extreme chair seat, with upper back, rounded, and my legs flying forward. And my pelvis is blocked!

    How I get out of it?
    I have playing around, I have found that bending my knees kind of release my position. But it is not easy.

    I have found really helpful the book I quoted to you previously by the German riding instructor.
    She says for counter-balancing my scoliosis, I should stretch my body up before turns or transitions.
    She also recommands a calm state of mind for a quiet seat.

    It is quite hard to correct, but I am NOW aware when I do it on a horse. I must keep thinking of the release, which is difficult because then I forget the exercise, I loose my aids on my horse ...

    Also my problem is I have done too many sports, mainly gymnastic, swimming, cycling, running, body-building that are all on tensing and blocking body-parts.
    I have also done quite a bit of yoga, pilates and Tai chi.
    I am flexible and supple and coordinated, that is not the problem. But i must remember to do Tai Chi on a horse. When I get this frame of mind, everything flows (no pun intended!) My mare thanks me!

  3. I too like it when students ask questions. Sometimes I presume they knew something that they didn't and sometimes I find that they misunderstood one of my explanations and had they not asked I would never have known. It also gives me something to roll with- you write like I teach! I enjoy your blog!


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