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Rider Biomechanics – It Takes Two to Tango!

Horses in the competitive world of Dressage, have changed significantly, especially over the past 40 years. Selective breeding has produced superior athletes that are tailored to meet the demands of the show ring. Riders, on the other hand, still come from every background and in every shape, size, body proportions and athletic ability. We also come with an off body stance, with various defects that affect the way we ride, much the same as our horses have a weak and strong side. As with the horses, there are naturally talented riders, who have the mental and physical aptitude to excel. While you can buy the t-shirt stating “Born to Ride”, less than 5 % of all riders are considered the cream on top. These lucky (and also hard working) individuals make dressage riding look easy and have turned dressage into an art form and ‘dance with their horses’. The remaining 95% of us strive for the same level of excellence and it is an on going quest!!

So, putting natural ability aside, it is possible for the main stream rider to learn additional skills and tools, to develop more feel and become more effective by learning about their biomechanics.

Correct rider biomechanics is not a different style of riding. It is how your body actually functions, based on physics and science. Don’t panic… Its not rocket science! It is however, a different way of learning. Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion basically says ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. So biomechanics is not just about position and aids, but goes deeper into ‘cause and effect’ – how your body actually works and interacts with the horse and how the rider sits has a negative or positive influence on the horse. Once you start to feel what is actually going on in your body, rather than what you think is happening, you can make significant improvements as a rider and so positively influence your horse. It is important to understand that everyone comes to riding from a different starting point and therefore generic corrections such as sit up, lift your chest, heels down can have very negative effects on each individual, where as the biomechanics approach peels through the layers of the onion to get to the real root of the problem.

Every rider, regardless of level has to go back to the A B C’s of biomechanics. This means examining the seat bones, pelvis and thighs (which together forms the rider’s base of support); establishing neutral spine (eliminating any excessive curves); correcting the stirrup length if necessary; and putting the rider into a true shoulder hip, heel alignment.

While sitting in the saddle (and someone holds your horse), keep your feet in the stirrups and draw your knees up over the saddle flaps. This makes the seat bones more defined. Are they pointing forward, back or down?  Change your pelvic tilt to go from hollow backed to rounded and feel where your seat bones go. It helps to move from one extreme to the other after all you can only find warm if you first know hot and cold. Your seat bones should point straight down, (with an equal amount of weight on each) and this should help you be closer to neutral spine. Your stirrups should be at a length that helps position your thigh at approximately 42%- 45% angle, which is shorter than many people ride. With your thighs at this angle and snuggly connected to the saddle you create a more solid base of support for the rest of your body and later can use your thighs, pelvic floor connection and muscle tone to draw the horses back up under you, and correctly put the horse on the bit, instead of riding badly by wiggling and fiddling with the reins to put the horses head down! The final correction at the halt, at this stage, is placing your lower leg back to form a straight line from shoulder, hip, to heel with the riders foot lightly placed in the stirrup.  ‘Generally speaking, I might add that in case of doubt it is better to have the stirrups one hole too short than one hole too long…. If they are too long, you are making a sacrifice for the sake of alleged good form that must be paid for dearly, for every inch of excessive stirrup length loosens the seat and deprives the rider of control.’ (Excerpt from ‘A Complete Book on Training the Horse and Its Rider’, by Waldemar  Seunig 1956).  

The horse is a mirror image of the rider/ and the rider an image of the horse.  One example of this is a crooked horse causing a rider to become crooked or to sit poorly and vice versa. It is however, the responsibility of the rider to first correct their own position, to then enable the horse to change, and not to expect the horse to go correctly when the rider is so crooked. A more experienced rider thinks ‘what should I change in me to correct my horse’ and an even more gifted rider makes body corrections before the horse has a chance to evade, and probably without consciously thinking about it. Obviously, some horses are easier to change than others, with horses that are mentally tough being more difficult to ride.

The old adage of a rider having shoulder, hip, heel alignment is more important than most riders realize. A phrase from Pony Club! When you keep correct alignment, the horse could be magically removed from under you and you would land on your feet, because you were in a balanced position. If your legs are too far forward and or your shoulders behind the vertical, you would land on your bottom or legs too far back, on your face. Leaning back behind the vertical has become a bit of a fad. Some riders say it’s their driving seat, but it is possible to establish power from the rider’s core and lower back without leaning back, and the rider then doesn’t risk getting too far behind the movement (the seat itself should not actually “push or drive”). Some riders constantly lean back and are very successful riders (and could be better still with some tweeking). But they usually have a really strong core and base of support to compensate for the fault, while most main stream riders do not.

Your mind will play tricks on you.  Your changes may feel bigger than they are and weird. So you need to think of weird as wonderful! Have someone video or take a photo to prove you are now not standing on your head with your feet above your ears!!

 I have just touched on a few basic points, but I hope it will encourage you to reflect on your riding from a different perspective. Mary Wanless is considered the pioneer of rider biomechanics and published her first book in 1987 (Ride with Your Mind books & DVD’s). Mary’s extensive scientific research is not a “new theory” but a new way of approaching your riding. It is interesting that some of her own research is backed up in writings of Waldemar Seunig, considered an “Old Master of Classical Horsemanship”. 

First published in the PVDA magazine.


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