We are three-dimensional beings living in a three-dimensional world. This means there are three ways our postures can go wrong: from front to back, side-to-side, and diagonally with a twist. The spine is designed to remain in alignment from front to back and side-to-side. Looking at the spine from front to back, this integral part of our system can be too curved, too straight, too forward, or too backward and oftentimes more than one of these is occurring. A spine misaligned from side-to–side will be bent or collapsed on one side, often manifesting in one shoulder or one hip being higher than the other. Or both. And they can be same or be the opposite of each other. And then there could be some twisting going on, and not just last summer. Most people are twisted through the hips, or shoulders, or both in some combination. Your position in each of the three dimensions shows up in your posture and will affect your riding. How can we be aware of and change these chronic postural imbalances?
Start by noticing how you arrange your feet when seated and when standing. Are they lined up with each other and parallel? Or is one foot consistently in front of the other? Even them up and see how that feels. It might feel strange or unbalanced. If so, you just have to re-adjust and get used to the new way of walking.
Next check your hips. Stand facing a table or counter with your feet parallel and even. Now focus on your hips. Are they parallel to the counter? Or is one hip closer to the counter than the other? Compare to your feet – is one hip farther forward? Your thighs might be the first sign of an uneven hip – one thigh farther forward than the other.
Checking the shoulders and the rib cage is hard to do by yourself. Enlist a friend with a good “eye” and see what they think. Sometimes the twist can just by seen by another person facing you. Or you can stand sideways to them, with your feet parallel and even, and they might be able to tell if one shoulder is farther forward than the other.
You can check your entire body for side-side imbalances and twist using a plumb line. Tape a piece of string with a small weight on its end to the ceiling to create a plumb line. Now stand in front of a mirror with the plumb line between you and the mirror. Stand so that the line evenly bisects your throat where the little “V” is. Now study your face and head. Does the line evenly bisect the rest of your face? Between the nostrils? Eyebrows? Lips? Top of your head? You might find that your head is twisted, leaning, or tipping to one side, or both. Perhaps your head and neck are shifted, or offset, to one side. Follow the plumb line down and see if the line evenly bisects your chest. Does it go through your belly button or miss it entirely? Does it go between your legs evenly?
Finally, lie on the floor on your right side with your legs pulled up so that you have 90 degree angles at the hips and at the knees. Put your fingertips on your forehead with your elbow up and slowly rotate through your spine, reaching your left shoulder back towards the floor. Your right leg and knee should remain touching the floor. Keep your thighs touching, but they are allowed to slide past each other. Don’t force anything and don’t try to force your left shoulder to the floor; just twist in that direction. Now try from the left side and lower your right shoulder. Which way was easier and which was harder? This can give you clues as to which way you’re twisted most of the time.
Now that we have established a picture of our posture and possible spinal twist on the ground, let’s take some tine to observe what may be occurring in the saddle. This can be complicated as our bodies can be incorrect in all sorts of combinations. Twisting may show up as the hips twisted one direction and the shoulders another. The head may compensate by counter-twisting from the shoulders or it may align with the shoulders and twist with them. The shoulders can also twist the same direction as the hips. In complicated cases, the hips twist one way, the lower spine and/or rib cage twist the opposite way, but the shoulders twist with the hips. To top it all off, the tightness or flexibility of each our joints will also have a major impact, especially on horseback.
Let’s pretend to observe a rider who may have some of your habits. When riding, your generally more-forward hip may be more forward in the saddle. But it might not, depending upon on whether or not you have a tight hip. For example, if your hips are twisted to the left with the right hip more forward, but your left hip is tight, you might actually sit a little left in the saddle with the right hip back, but more flexed than the left. This is the case with our rider: the left leg looks “longer” or has a straighter profile in the stirrup to accommodate the tight left hip joint. And the right hip is more flexed along with the knee being more flexed and it, therefore, looks shorter.
Notice the rider’s shoulders. A person with the right hip forward when standing, but back when riding due to a stiff left hip, could also have shoulders twisted to the right. This rider can turn right all day long and fall in on right circles, but have difficulty turning left. Everything this rider’s body is doing is telling the horse to go right, regardless of the rider’s actual intentions.
Notice the arms. Is one arm forward and the other is pulling back? Maybe this particular rider feels that her horse is constantly bent to the right (it is). So on a straight line, she might lengthen her right arm and pull back with the left. The left elbow will be quite bent, but right elbow is straight. Unfortunately for both the horse and the rider, the rider’s main body parts are still telling the horse to bend right.
Now that we have developed some awareness of our posture and twist in three-dimensional space, how can we correct it? The next step after a time of self observation is to integrate this knowledge into your daily motion and routine. Remind yourself that your hips are twisted one way and your shoulders another (if that’s true). Remind yourself when you are walking, sitting, driving, carrying things, to twist your body parts the other way. Muck out your stalls holding the fork in the opposite hands and twist the other way. Do everything that you can with the other hand. If you normally take steps with the right leg first, switch to the left. Be conscious of the position of your hips and shoulders when driving a car. This is going to be very challenging! It just won’t feel right. Do it anyway until you get used to it. Spend some time in the saddle just experimenting with your body language to see what gets you the results you want but WITHOUT using the reins. Can you steer your horse without using the reins.
Or my personal favorite, get some private lessons in yoga, Pilates, or body work designed to straighten the body. Your horse will love your for it.