We all get quite hooked on symmetry when it comes to riding, both for ourselves and horses. Rightly so, as it is obvious even if you have never experienced major asymmetry – or possibly if you are in denial which let’s face it most of us are to a degree – that symmetry makes life a lot easier. Joints move correctly, and muscles can work to their optimum, our (heavy) head sits squarely over the spine.
In more extreme situations, asymmetry will inevitably lead to pain form the abnormal loading on just about all skeletal (and actually internally too) structures and the poor biomechanics that result. Joints and soft tissues are designed to move in certain patterns, and if loaded in a way that means they cannot follow those patterns, over time pain and eventually degeneration can set in.
Asymmetry of muscle activity causes the short/tight vs long/weak patterns that I discussed last time. That means some parts are working too hard, and others not well enough (think of your ‘strong’ hand, or the leg that has a mind of it’s own). Non dominant sides may also have slower reactions, and be less co-ordinated.
Abnormal loading can also cause weakness; think of muscle-tendon units like pulleys and then you can see how moving out of the intended line will make that pulley system less efficient. This manifests as weakness, and actually in turn can cause more asymmetry, pain, weakness etc etc. You get the idea, it’s a vicious circle.
As a rider asymmetry is important for several reasons:
- Asymmetry in itself means we cannot sit evenly on the horse. It means we are not applying the aids equally and probably confusing the poor creature. We therefore do not ride to our full potential.
- We are more likely to be in pain somewhere, which will impact on strength, balance and flexibility as we try to protect that area. Pain itself can lead directly to weakness through a phenomenon called pain inhibition, but that is probably a bit of a lengthy topic for today! Pain will also affect our seat because the protective mechanisms we deploy will almost definitely cause stiffness, or ‘blocking’ of certain movements.
- If we are weak, we are out of balance, and in certain situations more likely to fall off – eg if the horse spooks or trips.
- It makes it harder to deal with the physicality of looking after our horses; mucking out, carrying feed/hay and so on. This in turn puts the individual at greater risk of injury as the body is not able to work optimally to manage the loads it carries.
- Any of these will impact on the mechanics of the horse and at best reduce it’s performance, and at worst create physical problems there too.
Of course, it is very common for a horse to have it’s own asymmetries that impact the rider. Saddle slip, inconsistent contact, persistent ‘bend’ to one side, to name but a few, are all situations whereby the rider finds themselves in an asymmetric position due to the horse. If the rider also has asymmetries then the 2 together have the potential to become a recipe for disaster. As a physio treating horses and riders, there are times when trying to work out who is affecting who is a challenge!
Credit again to Centaur Biomechanics for the above picture – lots more useful images available there too.
I could write for hours about asymmetry, but it is such an individual issue that to specifically address it, you really need to be assessed both on and off the horse. However, there are some simple steps that you can take on a regular basis that will reduce certain aspects of asymmetry. We all have lots of habits – some due to our handedness, some due to work or other reasons, that make us asymmetric. Spending some time challenging those patterns can work wonders, and be quite surprisingly difficult. Here then, are my symmetry challenges for you to try:
- Brush your teeth/hair/pick out your horse’s feet with your non-dominant hand for fine control
- Pour the kettle/grooming your horse with your non-dominant hand for strength and control
- Hold your phone to the ‘wrong’ ear and in your non-dominant hand for control and head positioning
- Sweep/rake the ‘wrong’ way for whole body muscle pattern training
- Carry water buckets in both hands, or 1 bucket in the non-dominant hand for rebalancing
- Carry your tack the opposite way round for strength and balance training.
I’ll add to this list over time, but the important thing is to spend enough time on these challenges to make small improvements in both strength and co-ordination. If you know you have habits specific to you, then make them into individual challenges. You aren’t looking to be ambidextrous, just more balanced and symmetrical.