“The shoulder blades should be straightened and tightened to make them lie flat in the musculature; not as visible butterfly wings – they should only have an inch or so between them. This lifts the rib cage up and the chest out, insuring good breathing and a straight spine. The rider must concentrate on correct body posture constantly, including when dismounted, even while driving a car. Shoulder blades flat into the back! The upper arms must hang in a relaxed fashion from shoulder joints that are back and down. Imagine that the elbows are weighted with lead. The great mistake is to stretch the arms forward, thereby rounding the shoulders and rendering the chest concave.”
Charles de Kunffy, “The Ethics and Passions of Dressage”
“You need to bring your shoulders back so that they’re almost touching.”
John Kondus, DC
“Squeeze your shoulder blades together in the back.”
Ange Bean, dressage instructor
“Now squeeze those shoulder blades together in the back, arching your spine up off the mat.”
Me, Pilates Instructor
Sometimes the world tries so hard to get you to listen. Here I am a Pilates Instructor, who rides and teaches Pilates to riders to better their riding. I tell people to squeeze their shoulder blades together. My riding instructor tells me to squeeze my shoulder blades together. My chiropractor says I’m round shouldered and to squeeze my shoulder blades together! Alright already!
I have been working on my posture for years, ever since I saw a photo of myself when I was about 30. I saw myself slouching and vowed not to do it anymore. Well, here I am, several years (okay, a couple of decades) later, and I’m still working on it. Believe me when I say that I fix my posture or stretch up a dozen times before breakfast. (However, sometimes I don’t get breakfast until 10:30.) I lift up; I drop; I lift up; I drop. Just like you.
I recently read Charles de Kunffy’s “The Ethics and Passions of Dressage,” and the above quote leapt out at me. It darned near grabbed me by the throat.
As a Pilates instructor and massage therapist, I have been telling people for some time to lift the breastbone when they attempt to straighten up. I say this for several reasons. Many people are round shouldered but are also slouched or slumped in the spine. Usually they also have a head-forward position. That is, the head is way out in front and they’re leading with their chins. Making matters worse, they’re wearing their shoulder blades as earrings! Other people have told them to bring their shoulders back. But if you only bring your shoulders back, but still have a slumped or rounded upper spine, this will not fix your overall posture. You will still have poor posture with your head forward and your shoulders are back and up. This looks quite odd!
Instead, start at the pelvis and stretch up tall, as if someone has a string attached to the very top of your head. Now put both arms behind you and clasp your hands together with straight elbows. Now reach your hands as high behind you as you can while still standing straight and tall. No bending over or ducking your head!
Feel how your shoulder blades are squeezed tightly together and your chest is sticking out the front. Be proud of what you’ve got! Now keeping your shoulder blades together, let go of your hands and drop your arms. Now let your shoulders drop down. Then, and only then, let them roll forward a little. But keep the blades squeezing and the breastbone lifting! But, not only don’t lean forward, don’t lean back either. Keep trying to touch the ceiling with the top of your head. (That’s easier at my house; the ceilings are only six-and-a-half feet tall.)
Notice that as you really lift your breastbone, your shoulders drop into place with no effort and the back of your neck extends as your chin drops. This is exactly what you want your horse to do – lift through the root of its neck, lift the withers, and arch and telescope the neck, dropping the head down. This is “on the bit,” both for you and your horse.
Use a timer if you’re sitting or standing in one place a lot. Get one of those timers that you can stop and start it again without having to reset it. Then set it for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Every time it goes off, fix your posture. Even four times an hour is better than zero.
Now, of course, there a few caveats. One is for people who already have stretched up and lifted their breastbones but are over-squeezing their shoulder blades together. These folks need to relax their shoulder blades and let them drop into place naturally without forcing them back.
If you think you are doing this, check your palms. Are they facing forward or facing your leg? Where are your thumbs pointing – straight forward or somewhere off to the side? Your palms should be facing the middle of your leg. If they’re hanging out in front of your leg, you’re leaning forward. If they’re hanging behind, you’re leaning back. Your thumbs should be facing straight forward – not somewhere off to the side nor pointing at your leg.
If your palms are facing backwards and your thumbs are pointing to your leg, then you are slumped and round-shouldered. Get picky. Even a little rotation forward needs to be corrected. Stretching tall and lifting the breastbone realigns everything.
The next thing is for everyone to pay attention to: Once you have stretched up, lifted the breastbone, and brought the shoulder blades together in the back, then you need to tuck the pelvis. For many people, especially those with too much curvature in the low spine (lordosis), the arching of the upper back will tend to increase the arch or curvature in the low spine.
If it works better for you to tuck the pelvis first, then do so. You may find that you have to tuck the pelvis, lift the breastbone, and then tuck the pelvis again.
When you tuck the pelvis, please use your abs to do this and not by tightening your butt muscles. Sensitive horses (like chestnut mares) do not like this! To use your abs to tuck the pelvis, think about bringing your hipbones closer to your ribs in front. But keep lifting that breastbone!
Now as we go down the spine trying to lift up and out with the breastbone and keeping the front of the pelvis tucked, something else shows up. You may have noticed that, if you’re one of those who lock their knees, your body isn’t quite comfortable tucking the pelvis and locking the knees at the same time. Well, quit that! Unlock those knees. See? Isn’t it a bit easier now?
Take a look at your feet? What are they doing? If you’re standing, are you standing with equal weight on both feet? Is one or both feet turned out or in? Is one slightly behind the other or are they even? Where is your weight in your feet – at the toes or the heels or in the middle? Is it on the outside edge, the inside edge, or in the middle? It should be in the middle just behind the ball of the foot between the first two toes.
If your weight is not where I just described, then shift your weight until it is without disturbing your new posture. Resist in the inclination to, uh, incline forward or backward.
Feel like a pretzel now? Good!
Your homework for the next month is to lift your breastbone and overarch your upper back. Do this everywhere you go and during everything, and I mean everything, you’re doing. Sometimes we need to over-correct something in order to find middle ground.
Boycott Bucket Seats
Did you notice de Kunffy mentioned “even while driving a car”? I’ve been doing that. The new way to hold the steering wheel is at 7 and 4, not 10 and 2 the way some of us were taught. I can reach the steering wheel at 7 and 4 while sitting up straight and with my elbows bent and tucked in.
In fact, try this yourself: With your car seat where you usually set it, place your hands on the steering wheel at 7 and 4. Now bend your elbows. Sit up straight and tall and pull yourself into position by lifting your breastbone and pulling your ribcage up and forward to meet your elbows. If the design of your seat will allow it, adjust the back to meet your back to help you stay there.
My car has bucket seats and a rather forward head rest. There’s no way I can adjust the seat and sit up straight with that head rest. So I adjust it so that I sit up straight on my own and my head just touches the head rest. But it would really help if I had a cushion behind me to take up the space between my back and the seat back.
At first, those muscles I was squeezing were complaining a little because I hadn’t been using them quite like that before. But that’s how those muscles are supposed to be used. And they’ve been trying their darnedest while I’ve been slumped over. They just can’t win in a tug o’ war with the pecs. Give them a fighting chance, however, by straightening up and stretching those pecs in front, and the back muscles can do their job quite well.
I can tell that my practice over the last couple of days has helped quite a bit. My upper back feels so much better since I’ve been focusing on lifting up. And it’s a lot easier to let the elbows hang properly when I do. Then I’ve got the most secure seat as well.
So straighten up! Just think what it can do for your riding.