As humans, we walk upright. Many of us, however, don’t really walk upright. Why is that? Do you walk upright? If you answered “yes”, how do you know?
Did you know that your head is a bowling ball? It weighs between 12 and 15 pounds! The neck muscles are designed to move your head around – side to side, up and down, forward and back. But they’re not designed to hold your head up on top of the neck. All those gazillion little muscles in your neck are just that – little! Each one is no thicker than my thumb and my husband can tell you I’ve got rather little thumbs. You need to balance the bowling ball up there on your own by standing up straight.
If you have neck or shoulder pain or tightness and tension, part of the problem could be that you’re trying to hold your head out in front of your body. This is called a head-forward position or posture. What would happen if you tried to hold a 12-pound bowling ball out at the end of your arm? You’d drop it pretty soon. What if you tried to hold it up with just one finger? Ouch! Your finger would quickly give up and let go. You might try all sorts of contortions to keep it up there on your finger, but you’d eventually have to drop the ball.
Do you have a habit of walking around looking at your feet? When we look down at our feet we are placing that heavy bowling ball out of proper alignment. Why are we looking at our feet? Perhaps we are worried that we’re going to trip on something or maybe we are looking for lost treasures. I know I’ve found lots of pennies this way, but it’s not really worth it. Pennies don’t make up for the fallout of bad posture. The eyes look down and the head follows. Your 12-pound head is pulling you down and forward. It’s rounding your back. It’s making the shoulders are come up and roll forward. It just can’t be helped. Imagine that you’re a slinky with one heavy end, your head. What happens when you set a slinky on the stairs? It just tips over and flows downhill. That’s fine for the slinky; not so fine for you or your riding.
Hunter riders are always being reminded to look up past the jump – to the next fence or some other object rather than looking down at their horse or right at the fence. Flat riders tend to look at the horse’s neck or shoulders. That’s something else I do. That’s when the instructors are telling us to feel our horses’ shoulders and legs, feel the bend or the lean, but don’t look down. Look up and look where you’re going. Your poor posture puts your weight forward and down and your horse can feel it. It pushes him down, stops his forward motion and can put him on his forehand. A horse of any discipline from jumping to dressage to reining to saddle-seat will have his work made more difficult with your weight on his shoulders. Every single style of riding calls for your head to be up, for your shoulders to be up, for you to get off your horse’s shoulders so he can do his job better.
Do you remember playing with blocks as a kid and trying to see how high you could stack them? Did you notice that if you got too far out of vertical alignment your tower fell over? Well, your spine, and your neck in particular, are like that stack of blocks. Each vertebra needs to sit in alignment with the ones above and below. If they get too far out of alignment, things go wrong. Sometimes they go painfully wrong.
Once you lift your breastbone and the shoulders fall into place, your head and neck return to being directly over the shoulders. The chin should drop a little. But really focus on bringing the head back over the shoulders. This is going to feel a little odd at first because you’re not used to it. You do have to be careful not to overdo it (or anything else) such that you bend your neck backwards. Remember to tuck the chin slightly and reach the back of the head up and back to bring your head back over your shoulders. Keep practicing every minute of every day until you do get used to it. Your body will be much happier and less fatigued when you get used to this new posture. Notice also that as soon as you get this new posture, you’ll lose it as soon as you’re not paying attention. A new habit can take awhile to develop and build, especially when replacing a posture habit built over a lifetime.
I have to remind myself everyday to keep my eyes looking up and all those other parts connected to my eyes in alignment. You don’t need to look at your feet to keep from tripping. Just like a horse, I can look ahead and know where my feet are going to land next. Once everything is stacked up in correct alignment, no one part or muscle has to hold the 12-pound bowling ball in place. It’s just balanced there with no actual work involved. With no work involved, it’s easy and it’s painless. Isn’t that great? I personally like being pain free! Everything is connected to everything else. Learning to balance your own head will lead to improved quality of life for you and performance for your horse.