Have you ever found yourself in the following situation(s)?
And of course you have been told how to "fix" it:
How has all of that worked for you?
To understand why a horse will or will not bend we first have to review the biomechanics a bit.
First of all – let go of this picture
The horse does not bend evenly throughout his/her spine on the circle – it is biomechanically not possible.
There is only very little bend possible in the thoracic area – between about T9 and T14 – conveniently located between your upper thighs. There are studies that show this clearly. A quite extensive one was done by Jean Marie Denoix in 1999. Except in the thoracic area there is really no bend, just rotation.
Lateral bending is always coupled with transversal rotation.
One rotation is correct, while the other one is incorrect.
What is transversal rotation you ask?
Look at a vertebrae
What is shown as 1 is called the Spinous process, 2 are the transverse processes.
Now let’s looks at the whole back
As you can see the spinous processes are varied in height - they are highest in the wither area, much shorter towards the pelvis and tail.
When a horse bends correctly the rotation happens throughout the spine in such a way that the spinous processes rotate inwards. In other words - imagine those processes like dragon spikes. When you bend your "dragon" to the left - those spikes should fall to the left, when you bend to the right, they turn to the right.
Here is a picture from Mr. Denoix that shows the ever increasing angle of rotation as we are getting closer to the front end of the horse.
If your horse is in correct rotation - your circle and your turns feels easy, perfect, flowing. If you horse is incorrectly rotated you feel like you are sitting to the outside or higher with your inside hip, lower on the outside etc. No it is not your saddle, nor will changing your stirrup length (on one side) help - the only fix it to ride correctly.
The good, the bad ,and the ugly
The good: I have a fix for you
The bad: It will take time and patience
The ugly: If you don't fix it you risk permanent damage to your horse - kissing spine is often a result of incorrect rotation
So how do we fix it?
First of all determine if you have trouble one way or the other. Most horses have a preferential rotation one way and they will choose to rotate that way no matter which direction they go.
Have you have determined the side they do not wish to rotate towards? If it is the right side, go on a circle to the left, the easy one.
Gradually change the bend and flexion in your horse from the inside to the outside, while still on the left circle. Take your time, be careful to not have too strong a contact, keep the poll open (a whole other blog will come soon on this) and feel with your seat.
Did your horse gradually shift you from sitting on the left side to feeling much more centered possibly even slightly to the right? Great - as soon as you feel that - go on a circle to the right.
It will feel great for the first few steps and then whoops you are sitting on the outside again. No problem - go back to the left circle and start all over - take your time, please.
As soon as you feel it - go to the right again. It is possible that your horse holds it for a few steps but then he/she will likely return to preferred rotation, which in our case is left.
Just keep at it. Your horse has the preconceived notion that it can only rotate to the left and it is your job to show through gentle movement therapy that a different way of moving is possible. If you try to do this with force your horse will brace immediately against it and all is for naught.
Allowing your horse to explore a different way to move and coordinate its body takes time and patience.
Enjoy the journey :-)
Breathe in, Breathe out
Breathe in, breathe out - sounds so easy and yes, you know how to do it. If you did not, you wouldn't be alive. However there is a twist to this - and this twist is a very powerful one.
When you look at the size and the power of the horse it is clear that we cannot overpower them. They simply are bigger, stronger and faster. Plenty of riders and tack manufactures have of course tried to come up with tools that give you that extra power. Some of those gadgets are even effective. But they are normally effective in a way that is detrimental to the fundamental movement of the horse. Therefore, if used extensively they will cause injury and lameness. Many gadgets will teach the horse to move in an unnatural way and once learned, it will keep moving like this even without the gadget. The end result? A horse who's health and natural movement have been severely disturbed often to the point of crippling it.
So how can the simple act of breathing give you power?
According to James, "You borrow the power of the horse and re-direct it."
How can we do that?
By breathing out an extra step. Very simple, and yet incredibly effective.
James tells you to "Breathe in like you smell a flower, then breathe out as if blowing into a flute." Now you count steps at the walk - and find a breathing rhythm that is easy for you. For most of my clients it is 4 steps in, 5 steps out, or 5 steps in, 6 steps out. If you wish to change to a longer sequence it works best to increase on breathing out.
So if you want to go from 4 in - 5 out to 5 in - 6 out you would breathe 4 in, 6 out and then 5 in on the next cycle. Voila you are at 5 in - 6 out.
Breathing this way connects you to your body and makes you much more interesting to your horse. If you are sitting on a nervous horse (aka powder keg) - increase the cycle and you will find that the horse will start to relax, listen to your body and your breath. I experienced that first hand at my clinic with James and it worked extremely well.
It is also important to let your breath sink deep into your body. As you are riding, focus on how deep your breath reaches: Just to the middle of your rib cage, the bottom of your rib cage, your belly button, into your pelvis?
Most of us don't breathe very deep and if asked to breathe deeper we try to push the breath down with our diaphragm. Guess what - that does not work well and your breath will become shallow quickly again.
Instead on your last step of breathing out, pull in your belly button and then let it go as you begin to inhale. You just created a mini vacuum in your belly and it let's your breath sink deeper into your body. You can also increase the cycle length. I sometime can go to 7 in and 8 out on Matcho.
After playing for a while with this kind of breathing it became clear that there is a connection in your body between breathing and overall tension. James solved the puzzle for me: Biomechanically, when your body gets tense because you are nervous or scared when riding, your fascia tightens. Your fascia is connective tissue that covers your whole body. There are different kinds of fascia. Imagine the superficial one like a sheet that is directly under your skin. Below is a picture that illustrates the superficial fascia. This one shows a running man. The fascia can feel and react, it is one of our largest sensory organs. But the fascia does not talk to your brain. So in other words you can't tell it to relax. But your fascia will talk to your diaphragm and guess what - deep breathing with your extra breath out will relax your fascia. So next time your horse is overly excited focus on your breath, focus on your body and invite the horse to become relaxed with you.
The breathing that I described above works also at the trot and the canter. I tend to just count in the trot and canter at the same speed that I used in the walk, rather than trying to count my horse's steps. I also found that as we go faster I often have a shorter cycle, in other words I will go to 4 in - 5 out, whereas I am often at 6 in and 7 out at the walk.
I hope you will get a chance to try this the next time you ride your horse. Prepare to be amazed.
A new way of posting the trot
I had the pleasure to meet James Shaw for the first time at the Horse Expo in Denver this spring. Watching him work with riders and horses it struck me how quickly the horses would change once a change happened in the rider.
I decided that I really wanted to learn more and invited James to conduct a three day clinic at my home barn in Black Forest. We had a great group of six riders and four auditors and came away with many new insights.
My plan is to share some of those in the next few weeks as they are still fresh in my mind.
How about a different and better way to post?
Most of us have learned to rise by rolling our thighs and femur inward and get a rather solid connection knee through upper thigh in that phase. As we come back in the saddle we reverse that rotation. "Piece of cake", you say and "Yes, once I have learned that, I always did it like that." Well guess what, the opposite works better.
So that means you try to rotate your femur and upper thigh outward on the rise, and inward on the sit. Why?
With the outward rotation you begin to lift your pelvis - makes a lot of sense since you are trying to rise out of the saddle. But more importantly with the inward rotation in the downward phase you can control your seat as you get back into the saddle. Since the horse has some lift during the trot the saddle moves towards you as you are sitting down but still most people (me included) really cannot control the last 5 to 10% of that phase if the femur rolls out. Now try to opposite - roll out for up and roll in for down - and yes, you can control the very last phase of getting back into the saddle.
Why is that important? If you cannot control it, you literally fall into your horses back every time you sit down - and that is just not comfortable for your horse. Through this lack of control you also rock the saddle forward and backward - even a well fitting saddle.
Another advantage of the new way of posting: You will rise and sit much straighter. Many riders (especially women) tend to stick their behind out in the sit phase. My students know what I call it - the "duck butt". This tends to shift your center of gravity quite a bit forward and backward which makes it difficult for your horse to give you a regular and balanced trot.
So give the new way a try. It will feel awkward at first but once you get used to it, you and your horse will enjoy the posting trot much more.
Finding new and better ways to ride and teach.