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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

What's Missing is the Middle

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The Women & Horses Newsletter - August 2006

I have been working with many horses and riders from many backgrounds this Summer and one thing I constantly come across is horses and riders with weak abdominal muscles. The middle of the horse and rider are weak and underutilized, while the back end of the horse works hard, the rider’s back muscles work hard and because of these weakness cycles the front end of the horse gets jammed up. I see it over and over and it does not have to be that way.

If you are educated in the biomechanics of riding, you will ride with an aligned body, a pelvis position that is neutral, a body that can release and contract as necessary for balance, a body that is flexible and an abdominal core that is strong and supportive. If you do not ride from this perspective you are acting as a "road block" to your horse’s movement and not activating the middle of his body which ultimately means his back.

Owners and riders tell me they wonder why their horse keeps throwing its head, why they won’t go forward, why they are uncomfortable, why his or her trot is so hard to sit, why the horse can’t maintain the canter and why he won't stretch to the bit. There may be a health-related issue and you should have that looked into. For example: throwing the head or coming up off the bit often and erratically could be due to mouth problems, headaches and poll tension and these issues can be relieved through a professional equine dental exam. And these issues can and should be looked at singularly for any conformational or health related problems.

But generally I view the picture of horse and rider as a whole partnership rather than looking at each issue separately. In most cases the causes of these issues is the inability of the horse to move "completely" through his or her entire body because of a tight rider, a tight saddle, poor postural habits or fixing issues with equipment and gadgets. This approach is always based on the "people schedule" instead of the "horse schedule". In order for everything to function clearly and smoothly both bodies have to be functioning in a fully healthful way with a strong, stabilizing core. Here are some common "roadblocks" in the systems blocking the horse’s ability to be "through" his or her body and into the bit. By the way, this applies to all disciplines and all breeds.

ROAD BLOCK #1: Tight Rider

In order for the horse to carry a rider with a supple and working back, the rider must be in neutral pelvis position with an aligned body sitting and stabilizing through the abdominal core muscles. And with women, you must open your knees and think wide through the upper thighs and pelvic bowl, otherwise you are closing your hip joints and restricting motion, and clamped knees literally take you up and off the saddle making you vulnerable and unsafe. This position allows the limbs to free up and work with movement without being restrictive or limiting. The abdominal core muscles stabilize the upper body and support the back which allows the hips, lower back muscles and hamstrings to function independently without a lot of undue stress. Without a conditioned core your body feels out of balance to your horse. Your body is constantly adjusting, re-adjusting and over working postural muscles which become injured over time. No wonder you are so tired and sore! The horse does not feel you harmonizing with his movement but rather working against him like a ball and chain. He will not want to lift his back, instead he will hollow his back and you end up with a rough ride and real struggle. Your body becomes a drag on movement and you have to work extra hard to get lightness and forward impulsion. Your core is what balances, contains and re-balances the horse and allows you to function within a dynamic and changing set of circumstances in the saddle. The core muscles also stabilize the neutral pelvis which is the foundation of your weight distribution and your balancing point.

If you are double bouncing at the rising trot, sloppy in the sitting trot, unable to maintain an independent seat in any movement, unable to maintain a collected canter or wooden in your position you are weak in your abdominal muscles. The Pilates Method is the absolutely best set of exercises I have found to address all of these issues and maintain your body for riding for a lifetime. Learn all about Pilates through videos, the web, your local Pilates studios and the Dynamic Rider System at womenandhorses.com.

The solution: Stretch daily, strengthen your abdominal core muscles on a regular basis (Pilates is very helpful, see Dynamic Rider System Insert 1 and 2 on the website), learn how to ride in an aligned position and be clear in your own body awareness about where neutral pelvis is for you. Keep those knees open!

ROAD BLOCK #2: Tight Saddle

A horse and rider have to have a well fitted saddle for any of the partnership systems to operate fully. If the rider or saddle is tight the horse cannot function through his entire body. Tight riders and tight saddles shut down the middle of the horse which then shuts down the hind end and eventually the front end is compromised. Over time this will lead to a sour attitude in the horse plus injury and lameness. The horse's behavior will tell you what is going on and we usually try and fix this with equipment and shipping the horse off to another trainer. It’s a vicious cycle that you can prevent.

The solution: Do not compromise on saddle fit! You would never buy a pair of running or walking sneakers that did not fit. How do you think the horse can function with a tight or poorly fitted saddle? It is important for the saddle as it sits on the horse to be level to the ground in its lowest place in the seat, balanced front to back and side to side, conducive to the rider's comfort and movement and pelvic support, and wide enough to allow the horse's withers to lift and the shoulders to fully come through without restriction. Consult with me or a saddle fitter in your area and make sure your horse has a good fit for movement. Visit www.synergistsaddles.com for more information on proper saddle fit considerations and their Equimeasure system.

ROAD BLOCK #3: Restricted movement of head and neck

If your horse has bound up muscles from tie downs, martingales, draw and side reins and other gadgets, he already has damaged ligaments, tendons and muscles his neck and shoulders and will over time become numb in his front end. He might even develop weakness and tremors because of the shutting down of blood and energy to his front end. With restrictive equipment the shoulders cannot come through and extend the front legs, the front feet become sore because the shoulders cannot lift, the neck becomes tight and sore because the poll is immobilized and the nuchal ligament becomes injured and the horse does not want to stretch and put his head down. Don't blame the horse for not behaving or "going" the way you want when you inhibit and injure him with restrictive equipment.

The solution: Do lots of ground work with a snug fitting halter and soft cotton lines or ropes in the arena, in the round pen and out in the field at all gaits. This does not mean sending your horse round and round in mindless circles for a half hour. Your horse needs thinking exercises using his body and his feet with purpose. Your horse will learn to carry themselves and stretch with connection and contact. Peggy Cummings is a genius at this work and she has several books on the subject. All the groundwork translates to the saddle and how the horse connects to the bit.

If you have been using restrictive equipment your horse may need lots of body work to release all of the bracing you have put in and give him time to recover. You can give your horse good neck and head massages, use essential oils as aromatherapy for relaxation of the head and neck, learn to lead your horse with correct posture and be supportive of them instead of dragging them around. Let him or her work free in the round pen and add some trotting and cantering poles. Through the Connected Ground Work and giving your horse a chance to always stretch and find their bodies they will achieve self-carriage and “throughness” completely. How great would that be!!

The only time I would consider using any of this type of equipment is on a young horse learning about rein contact. Using a bridle and a curcingle, attach side reins from the side rings on the curcingle to the bit and keep them long and loose and let the horse seek and find the contact. Do not tighten them over time as this will once again start the cycle of restriction and poor posture. The Connected groundwork will give him the understanding about neck and head flexion and bending with correct posture and body engagement.

**NOTE A horse can be collected and still not be "on the bit". A horse can be collected and still be "on the forehand" or "in a false frame"". Check out a fabulous website www.sustainabledressage.net where this is explained. Just because the horse is collected with a flexed neck and poll and pushing off with the hocks does not mean he is in self-carriage or "on the bit". To be in self-carriage means the horse is totally through from tail to head in his biomechanics and posture. The wither and shoulders will be even with or slightly higher than the croup, then the head and neck can telescope out from a free shoulder, lifted rib cage and back and driving hind quarter.

ROAD BLOCK #4: Weakness in hind end

The hind end of the horse is the power generator that moves the horse ahead, backward and sideways. Weakness in the hind end begins with shutting down the front end to control or contain the horse, it has a see-saw affect. In balanced, effective riding we always need to ask the hocks to connect and work with the horse’s abdominal core muscles to lift the body. You need to learn to access the hocks and the abs through your riding aids to be able to ask the horse to flex in his hindquarters. Many times we simply ask him to go forward, sometimes gently and other times with spurs and whips and then we contain the front end with equipment or force. The back end is not working in this scenario it is simply along for the ride and the middle of the horse falls out from under us. The rear end should be pushing ahead or driving forward under the horse, while the abdominals lift the rib cage which lifts the back which frees the shoulders. The withers lift up because the shoulders can function in full range of motion, weight comes up off the front end and now the neck is free to telescope out in front of the shoulders and the poll can flex and the jaw relax.

The solution: Strengthening the hind end is best accomplished with trotting and cantering poles, hill work and galloping work. Use the poles in your ground work and mounted work. The abdominal muscles should be visible and obvious when the horse is strong and using his body correctly. His top line should be even and smooth and not sunken down in the middle. Even in older horses if they are working properly they will have a lifted back with strong abdominal muscles.

ROAD BLOCK #5: Weak Mid-section

It is important in the horse that the abdominal muscles are very strong as they stabilize, lift and activate. It is only when they are strong and supportive that the rib cage lifts and the back comes up to meet our seat. Then the front end is free and lifts up off the heavy forehand. Once this happens the horse has provided us with a place to sit comfortably and securely in all of the movements we do together. I have seen horses that people say have no trot extensions, but after Connected core development work they move out beautifully. When they are ridden engaging a strong core that can support the body, the shoulders free up to move the legs outward and reaching while the hind legs push through. When there is no middle development the horse is simply out of self-carriage, his back is shut down and he is not "on the bit". These horses simply do the best they can with their front end and the back end movement and basically pack around their mid-section with the rider. When you look at these horses naked you can see they look like they are in sections instead of one long flow of muscle from head to tail.

The solution: Your horse will need to learn how to accept oppositional energy throughout his or her body (I will explain this further in my next newsletter), connect to a line from the ground or to the reins while mounted, come through from behind while engaging the abdominal core and lifting up into self-carriage and thinking and processing his or her work instead of just reacting out of fear or being drilled over and over mindlessly until he "gets it".

All of these solutions and more are available to you through trainers and instructors like myself, Peggy Cummings, Linda Tellington-Jones and their students. The best information for bringing a horse into self-carriage and positive posture is out there. Tap into it and use it for your own benefit whether you are into western pleasure, hunters, jumpers, dressage, cutting cows or strutting in parades. It is the way to keep your horse sound and comfortable and you feeling safe and effective for many, many years. The bonus is you will win lots of ribbons too!

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The Dynamic Rider System Insert 2: Fundamentals of the Functional Core will be available for purchase by September 1. It will feature a description and introduction of the core and its part in riding, 4 diagrams of the core muscles layers and a fold out exercise piece for $13.95 plus shipping and handling. Watch the website to order.

Honor, respect and enjoy your horse!!

~Mary

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