A few weeks ago I attended a Rider Biomechanics evening, as ever eager to learn a bit more about riding posture and how to help to improve my riders.
It was organised by my Pilates teacher, and it ties in very closely to Pilates, which I advocate everyone to do – even to just improve your proprioception.
Anyway, we had a short lecture at the beginning about how the skeleton and muscles work, with Harry The Skeleton to demonstrate. A lot of is it basic biology, but it’s good to revise the remind ourselves that in order to turn to the left we need to use our neck, shoulders, upper and lower back, and pelvis, and as one body part moves another will follow. Then we were shown how by sitting correctly on our seat bones we can be in balance, thus minimising the effort involved in keeping ourselves there. This was cleverly demonstrated by balancing the skeleton on a saddle that was perched on a peanut gym ball … it stayed there!
Then we discussed core muscles, as the deep muscles which are in between and around the vertebrae before getting out the gym balls. Gym balls are useful for us riders because the slight wobble of them mimicks the movement of the horse, thus meaning our core muscles learn to stabilise us better for ridden work. On the gym balls we did some balance exercises which were far harder than they looked! I won’t go into all the exercises, but if you ever get the opportunity to use one, have a go! My muscles were aching by the end.
One thing I found contradictory was where I should be looking. When we do balance exercises in Pilates we’re told to look into the middle distance, and by having a soft focus I’m usually fairly successful in the exercises. However, whilst balancing on the balls we were told not to look at one thing, but to keep our eyes moving because in real life you can’t focus on just one object. Which proved too difficult for me. But have you ever been concentrating so much on doing something you don’t see or take in your environment? I do that all the time. So perhaps I need to use my soft focus until I grasp the exercise and can do it easily, and then try roving my eyes around.
With our balance thoroughly tested on the gym balls we had a go on some wobble boards. This was good fun because we had to find our balance whilst throwing and catching a gym ball. Wobble boards look easier than they actually are. Can you remember those toys that looked like a planet and you had to balance on them? It’s like those!
Anyway, the most interesting part of the clinic for me was when we had a go on the FlexChair. Now it wasn’t quite what I was expecting: I thought it would show how level you sat, your posture and weight distribution. What it does, however, is improve your control over your body weight, increases the suppleness of your core muscles and flexibility of your back.
The premise is that the more control you have over your core muscles the easier it is to balance, and the more efficiently you’ll maintain your posture because if you have a flexibility range of 1-10 then holding your body in position 5, central, is far easier than if you had a range of 3-7.
There’s only one flexchair in the country I think, or at least there’s very few, and it’s an adjustable stool, contoured to get you sitting in the middle. You adjust it so your feet are flat on the floor and then turn your attention to the screen in front of you. The screen shows a white dot in the middle and tilting your seat and shifting your weight moved this dot around.
Firstly, we had to move the dot vertically, which involves tilting the seat and lower back forward and backward. It turns out I’m quite stiff there. I used to have a lot of problems with my lower back but I haven’t had problems for years and I think it’s because my back muscles are very strong so hold me in place. Once I’d got the hang of tilting my pelvis to aid the flexing of my lower back it did get better.
Then we had to move the dot left and right, which focuses your attention on the pressure on your seat bones. This one, I found much easier. Then of course there were exercises which developed this, such as having to move the dot around a figure of eight, or diagonal lines, or whatever configuration you can think of.
It was definitely an interesting exercise, and it was fascinating how as everyone concentrated they developed a flaw to their position, like lifting a heel or clenching a fist. Which would mean a lost stirrup or heavy rein aid when riding. After all, we all have go-to positions that we adopt when scared or highly focused.
The one thing I came away with was that I need to work harder at the shoulder bridge exercise in Pilates to improve the forward-backward flexibility of my lumbar spine. It was an interesting evening, and I think all riders would benefit from trying the exercises, increasing their proprioception and seeing any asymmetry in their ability on the FlexChair, which will have a direct impact on their horse’s way of going.