In the third installment of our series "Position from Head to Toe", we move onto the upper body.
Hands down the most common positional issue I see with riders is tipping forwards. Ideally, the rider should be upright with a straight line from ear to shoulder to hip. As soon as the rider tips or collapses forwards, they completely change the balance of their body, causing some serious issues for the horse.
Horses haven’t evolved to carry us (obviously generations of breeding have helped though!), so it’s hard work for them to balance themselves with us on board. The best thing we can do to help them is to sit up straight and keep our centre of balance directly above the saddle, just behind their withers. As soon as we tip forwards, we push that centre of balance forwards, over their forehand.
As a consequence, not only do we push the horse out of balance, but we also encourage them to fall onto their forehand - the exact opposite of what we’d like them to do!
There are several reasons why a rider may tip forwards:
Lack of balance due to a weak core
Poorly fitting saddle (remember a saddle should fit both the horse and rider)
Conversely, if we lean too far back, we shove our balance back too and cause the horse to drop his back. Once the back is dropped, the horse has no choice but to hollow and lose suppleness. Not a good posture for him to be in for Dressage!
Quite often leaning back is an attempt at making the trot more comfortable!
Rounding the back
When we tip forwards or backwards or collapse through our core, we end up losing the nice, natural curve of the spine in the lower back. This is super important, both for the health and wellbeing of your back as well as for your riding. As soon as you lose that slight hollow, you lose the ability to move your hips independently of your body, leading to rocking. It’ll also make it extremely difficult to ride sitting trot!
Leaning to one Side
Sitting or leaning to one side can be caused by an imbalance of strength in the hips or glute muscles. It can also be caused by an imbalance in the horse’s back or the way that the saddle sits. To tell if you’re not sitting straight, get someone to watch or film you from the back in walk, trot and canter on both reins. This is important, because if it only happens on one rein, especially in the trot, it’s likely an issue with your horse. Be sure to stay on the correct diagonal for the rein you’re on during this exercise.
Fixing the issues
Core strength is so, so important to us as riders. It’s the glue that holds everything else together. With a weak core, there’s absolutely no chance of sitting to the trot or collecting the canter. The good news is that it’s easy to get started on strengthening the core. You don’t need a gym or any fancy equipment; just gravity and your own body weight! Start with a forearm plank. You don’t need to hold it for hours. To begin with, if all you can manage is 10 seconds, that’s ok, just keep going and pushing yourself for longer and longer times until you can hold it for 2 minutes (it’ll happen much quicker than you think if you keep at it!). As well as the plank, you can do sit ups, crunches, bicycle crunches, dead bugs, russian twists, superman pose… the list goes on and on.
Riding without stirrups is a brilliant way to increase your awareness of your upper body position. It will loosen your lower back and hips, allowing more movement which will allow you to absorb the horse’s movement more, making it much, much easier to sit to the trot. Plus it’ll also help develop your core strength.
If you’ve identified that you’re leaning over to one side, check first that your saddle fits, then book both yourself and your horse in for a physio visit. It’s better to be safe than sorry! Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell who has given who the issue: did the rider’s wonkyness make the horse wonky or was it the other way around?
Targeted exercises such as single-leg squats or single-leg bridge raises will help with any one-sided weaknesses that you may have. Side plank will really help with one-sided core weakness too. In the saddle, move around until you feel both seatbones equally. Do this several times during the session to correct yourself.