The Franklin Method

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I go to Equestrian Pilates every week. Earlier this year my Pilates teacher went on an intensive course to learn about the Franklin Method, and has since applied it to our classes.

Intrigued, and curious to know more about the logic of hitting yourself with an orange ball, I decided to organise a clinic at my yard.

In Pilates, we’ve tapped any tight muscles with balls to stimulate nerves and increase our range of movement during the warm up. But other than that, the Franklin Method was a completely new concept to me.

The clinic started with an off horse session where we learnt that the Franklin Method focuses on reconditioning the body and movement to improve function. Using props and imagery it helps improve your proprioception and posture by activating unused muscles. We learnt a little bit about anatomy, with the help of a spine, then we were introduced to the props. There were a variety of sized balls, spiky and smooth, and peanut shaped balls, as well as some resistance bands. We discussed the ideal riding position and talked about how using our core, having our pelvis level, the correct lower leg position and arm position can improve our stability in the saddle. Some of this I’ve seen before, in demos, teaching books, and used it myself when teaching, but using resistance bands to help with the explanations was really useful too. Finally, I sat on a saddle and we were shown the different way we’d use the props once aboard our horses.

I really wasn’t sure how sensitive little Phoenix would cope with me riding with balls, but I’d ridden her for an hour the day before with plenty of canter work and luck was on my side as she seemed to have her brain firmly wedged between her ears as I warmed her up in the arena, and was remarkably relaxed.

After settling the horses and warming ourselves up, we walked a straight line away from the camera to assess our straightness and symmetry before getting started with the props. The first prop that we used was a squishy peanut shaped ball, and we sat on it so it was evenly sat underneath our seat bones. Then we walked round. Sitting on a wobbly seat makes you use your core muscles, which is useful if any of yours have switched off; it also makes you very aware of each seat bone, and if you are wobbling more onto one side than the other.

There was no pressure to do anything outside your comfort zone with any of the props. If you wanted to trot or canter then do so, but if not just walking was equally beneficial.

We then sat on just one round, smooth ball, putting it under first one seat bone, and then the other. This is particularly useful if you sit crookedly in the saddle. I like to think that I’ve got a good sense of where my body is in space, and am fairly symmetrical as a rider, but I didn’t find a huge difference between seat bones when I sat on just one ball. Which is good, but I could see how it would be useful for anyone unaware that they are sitting to one side.

Still focusing on our seats, we sat on a heavier, water filled peanut ball. Again, only in walk as I felt that was the limit to Phoenix’s acceptance of it, I found my hips really loosening up. The water ball exaggerated Phoenix’s movement, causing me to move my seat more. Afterwards I really felt like I was sitting inside my saddle, not sitting on top. I then worked in sitting trot, and was astounded in the improvement. I sat deeper, absorbed Phoenix’s movements more, and consequently she relaxed and stepped out more and I felt her really swinging over her back.

We moved on to working on our legs with small softly spiky balls. One was placed on the inside of the top of the thigh, so it sat between the saddle and my leg. A second ball was placed closer to the knee on the opposite leg. For me, this was particularly painful as I got cramp on the outside of my thigh, but tapping it with a ball helped dissipate it. I did some work in walk, before swapping the balls round. They had the effect of loosening my hips and helping lengthen my leg and let it wrap around Phoenix.

Finally, we moved on to the arms. I didn’t have a go with a resistance band wrapped round my shoulders, running to the hands, which is useful for encouraging riders to carry their hands more correctly, and to connect their shoulders to the reins, which improves the subtlety of their half halts and stabilises the hands. We felt this would be a step too far for Phoenix, so I used a circular resistance band round my wrists, which helps keep the hands as a pair and gives instant visual feedback if one hand goes for a little wander. I really liked this exercise, and could see how the visual cue and the pressure of the band would really help some of my clients who struggle with their outside rein, or have a wandering hand.

To encourage elbows to hang closer to our sides, we rode for a few minutes with a ball in each armpit. Upon taking the balls away, your elbows return to your torso like iron filings to a magnet. Again, useful for anyone with sticky out elbows!

The Franklin Method had an immediate effect in correcting positions, and making you as a rider aware of different, switched off, areas of your body. You could see the horses responding to the changes in position, releasing of tight knees and hips, and the reduction in crookedness. The other thing that I liked about the Franklin Method is that it complemented my teaching methods and biomechanical explanations, so I will definitely be encouraging all my clients to have a go at riding with balls.

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Rider Biomechanics Workshop 

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.