Simply put, yes! There are a number of reasons why, physical and mental, and in this blog I will try to get through them all.
Horses were domesticated by humans for our own benefit – you know that of course – but how often do you think about the physical aspects of that? The horse’s spine was not designed to have the weight of a rider, but we are lucky that generally they can cope. Hopefully most – or ideally all – horse owners and riders are aware of the recent guidelines regarding rider weight; riders should not exceed 15% of the horse’s weight. This should be logical even if you don’t know much about anatomy. So then consider that the horse’s spine is often described as a ‘bow and string’ – the spine being the bow and the abdominals the string. (There are lots of good illustrations of this but unfortunately I can’t really add in here due to copyright) The abdominals act to support the spine through increased tension, and this is a key action once there is the weight of a rider on board. As the rider, it is our responsibility to make the work of the abdominals as easy as possible. This is through correct posture, good symmetry, correct mounting/dismounting practice, and possibly most important, the ability to ride within our own and our horse’s capabilities.
Posture is important when riding for 2 key reasons. Firstly, sitting in a flexed spinal posture allows the head to tip forward. The human head is rather heavy (something like 1/7th of body weight), and so tipping it forward over the horse’s shoulders doesn’t help the horse in anyway to transfer weight onto the hindquarters. Secondly, sitting in a flexed or extended spinal position will reduce mobility through the spine, which in turn reduces shock absorption, and in turn increases jarring to both horse and rider.
I’m sure the analogy of carrying a heavy backpack that moves around, or sits to one side, is a familiar one to most riders. Symmetry of the rider is essential in order to get symmetry of the horse. This doesn’t matter whether you are competing at a high level or a leisure rider, because symmetry is important for physical comfort for rider and horse. Unfortunately we – and our horses – are all born with a degree of asymmetry. Position in the womb and handedness are both influencing factors, and then as we develop our daily habits are added into the mix, horses and riders alike. Our own asymmetries can have a detrimental impact on our horse’s way of going and performance, ultimately with the potential to lead to pain and lameness.
For anyone who is a BD member, the training article by Jane Kidd on straightness in the last 2018 edition of the magazine is an excellent teaching aid for the importance of straightness. I read last year – I think it was Anna Ross in Horse and Hound – about how few dressage horses that do young horse classes (best not to get me started on young horse classes though!!) actually make it on to top level in the future. The most interesting point was that those that do make it, have the same rider all the way through. It must be a key factor here that the horses skeletons develop in line with their riders posture, symmetry and way of riding – horses skeletons not fuse in some areas until later than you might think; for example the dorsal spinous processes do not fully fuse until around the age of 10.
There is no excuse now for poor mounting techniques as there is plenty of data available (The Saddle Research Trust is a good place to start) which shows the extreme pressures that transfer to the horse when mounting from a too-low level. Of course, from time to time we all have to mount from the ground, but regardless of the height we choose, the stronger and more mobile our own bodies, the smoother the whole process will be. If as a rider we have physical problems that make mounting/dismounting tricky then we should try to find a way to counter that.
I hope I’m not being controversial in saying that an awareness of ability is important. Fundamentally it comes down to not pushing ourselves or our horses beyond what is physically (and perhaps mentally) possible. It is probably obvious that a horse that likes to jump 80cm is going to refuse when faced with a 1.20m fence. But what about a horse that isn’t built for collection being asked to do work that needs good collection, and becomes sore as a result. Or the horse that probably can jump the 1.20m, or collect beautifully, but that has a rider that hinders it due to their own weakness, position, asymmetry or lack of understanding.
This leads me on to something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. (again plenty of psychology reading out there for more in depth understanding) Essentially, this is cognitive bias inherent in all of us, where we underestimate our own incompetence. As we learn, we move from being unconsciously incompetent, through consciously incompetent, consciously competent and then unconsciously competent. Unfortunately, not only are we all affected by this, but it turns out the horse owning/riding community is rather bad at hanging around in the unconsciously incompetent zone. We are, therefore, prone to thinking we are better and more knowledgeable than we really are!! I only discovered that the other day, and the most sobering fact is that this is across the full spectrum of the equestrian industry; I’d like to think I have a good base of knowledge from all the spheres of my life, but I probably need to rethink this.
In my Veterinary Physio role, I regularly ask owners when assessing their horse, if they have any physical problems of their own. I do pick and choose because there are some clients I don’t feel would be receptive to this line of questioning though…A few people are open and willing to discuss this, but sadly many still say they don’t think they have a problem, that they sit straight, that they see a ‘therapist’ every few weeks to get sorted out but that person has never seen them ride and never given them any exercises to work on improving themselves long term, or else they admit to having asymmetries but not being willing to do anything about it. All done in the nicest and most genuine manner by the way.
This makes me so frustrated, not least through my own experience of how improving myself subsequently helped me to improve my horse. Riders have never had so much information and support available, so there is no excuse not to work on ourselves, not just for our own benefit but for our horses. I am well aware that often there is a cost factor – let’s face it, horses cost a fortune – but why spend all that money on the horse if you are the limiting factor?
Take every opportunity you can to work on yourself. If you have a break in your competition schedule, focus on yourself instead of the horse. Put yourself in your horse’s shoes and think about what he/she would like you to do differently. Be realistic about what you can do, and make a plan about what you personally want to be able to do better. Get yourself assessed on your horse, not from a riding perspective but from a posture and symmetry perspective. Be a bit brave about it. In the coming months I will be introducing a YouTube channel to support this blog, with short Pilates-based exercise programmes that should be easy to fit in to most busy schedules; posture, symmetry and core strength exercises that will address most of the areas I have covered above.
I hope this hasn’t been too much of a lecture – hopefully more of a kick up the backside which to be honest I need at the moment when it’s hailing, blowing a gale and I’m wearing far too many clothes to make posture easy!