Rider Biomechanics: How Do We Spot and Feel Asymmetry in the Saddle?
What if you don’t have a trainer on the ground? What are some ways you can pick up on little asymmetries or bad habits in the saddle? For part 2 of our short series on rider biomechanics, we’ll provide some cues that will come in handy for building on the observations of Part 1.
Honestly, I’ve always found it a bit difficult to ride on my own (go ahead, call me spoiled, I can take it). I think back to my teen days in the hunter ring, when it was essentially normal to have your coach watching your every move. I used to think of myself as “highly coachable”, but really what that translated into was “incapable of riding without instruction”. But the fact is: I wouldn’t always have a coach standing there monitoring my every move, so the onus fell to me to make sure I was riding correctly. But I didn’t have the luxury of having mirrors in the arena, and this was before the days of cool technology like the Pixio camera.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The key to being in tune with your asymmetries, both in and out of the saddle, is to cultivate a strong sense of self- and body-awareness, building a heightened amount of confidence and independence as a rider while you’re at it. But this is often easier said than done, especially if you often ride alone or don’t have a trainer you’re working with each week.
In the first part of this series on rider biomechanics, I talked about things we all do on a daily basis that can lead to things being a bit off-kilter in the saddle. Now let’s take the lens of observation to your riding. I’ve spent a few months now observing and learning from physiotherapist Britta Pedersen, who fills her days coaching riders from a biomechanics perspective, and it’s been really informative learning from her about how our bodies work in the saddle.
Start at the Walk
Let’s make the focus of one entire ride all about your body and position. If you can, start out at the walk and try to close your eyes for a few strides. Try to feel every footfall your horse makes and how your body responds. I’m going to call on the meditative practice of body-scanning here to help you suss out any imbalances.
To learn more about Britta and rider biomechanics, visit The Performance Refinery.
Start at the very top of your head and scan down, taking a moment to observe each body part as it moves with your horse. Do you feel any discomfort? Maybe one seat bone feels heavier or even tingly in comparison to the other. Maybe you sense a twinge of discomfort in your neck or lower back. What about your legs? Do they feel even in your stirrups, or does this extra bit of attention illuminate some unevenness?
You might be surprised at what you find with just a bit of concentrated attention. After all, don’t we all swing a leg over and get right to work, focusing immediately on our horse?
Reference Your List of Imbalances
In part one of this series, I recommended keeping track of those little everyday habits that might be showing up as imbalance in the saddle. Use that list now! If you spend a lot of time picking out stalls or doing other chores, this may manifest in the saddle as some general pain in your back or shoulders. If you tend to slouch on the couch at the end of the day, perhaps you have trouble achieving a good posture in the saddle. If your spine has picked up some curvature over the years, you might have trouble keeping your body from twisting to one side - even if it feels nearly imperceptible at first glance.
Now, I know it’s challenging now to have a mirror or a video to help you pick out these imbalances, but if you can spend just a bit of time at the beginning of your ride understanding how your body moves in the saddle, it can go a long way to identifying any weaknesses.
How Does Your Horse Respond?
The other half of this equation is your horse, of course. Horses are highly sensitive and even at their most untrained are responsive to even the smallest shifts in a rider’s balance.
A rider who unconsciously twists to one side, weighting one seat bone more than the other, may prompt her horse to tilt its head or to travel unevenly in a straight line. A rider who relies too much on the inside rein for balance may feel her horse is stiff or heavy on the bit, rather than reaching into self-carriage.
One part of Britta’s teaching is the use of proprietary “posture slings” and other resistance bands designed to increase the effectiveness of a rider’s position. One of these posture slings is looped from the rider’s shoulders down to the stirrups, encouraging the rider to stretch down (evenly!) into their stirrups while also stretching their upper body taller. If you ever have the chance to watch (or ride with) Britta, I highly encourage you do so, as the before and after differences are pretty incredible. Suddenly, horses are traveling straighter, more correctly, more through - all because their riders are now in a stronger and more balanced position.
Developing your position to be correct and strong will not only help your horse go better, it will make your body feel healthier. We’re all accustomed to the aches and pains that accompany riding, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It all starts with a bit of attention paid to our bodies. And who doesn’t want to feel their best in the saddle? I know I sure do.
In the third and final installment of this series on rider biomechanics, we’ll tap into Britta’s expertise for some exercises, both in and out of the saddle, that can help riders correct their asymmetries.
All photos courtesy of Sally Spickard.
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Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.