Did you know that without the collarbone your shoulder would have no bony attachments to the body? Just like a chicken wing, it would just be attached through muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The same is true for the your dog, cat, or horse. This means that the shoulder has extreme range of motion (ROM), much more than any other joint in the body.
The shoulder has six ways to move: up (elevation), down (depression), forward and around the ribcage (protraction), back and together (retraction), upward rotation, and downward rotation.
Many of us live with our shoulders as earrings – up too high! Some people have over compensated and brought them down too low. Many shoulders are too protracted and a few are too retracted.
Shoulder blades can also “wing” away from the ribcage instead of lying flat next to it. That is the border of the shoulder blade next to the spine is lifted up off the ribcage. Shoulder blades can also “tip” up, that is the bottom point of the shoulder blade lifts up off the ribcage while the top corner is pulled forward and down.
Ideally the shoulder blades, or scapulae, should lie flat against the ribcage with the top edge no lower than the second thoracic vertebra. The collar bones should appear to be sloping slightly upwards.Because the shoulder blades can have so much mobility in so many directions, it’s important that they also have stability. And what you do with your shoulder blades can have an important effect on your posture.
It’s nice to have all this mobility, but the shoulder needs stability, too. The ideal is to use the specific muscles for their respective specific tasks. Often, however, the wrong muscles are trying to do the work not being done by the right muscles. This leads to stiffness and pain.When you raise an arm high to reach something on the top shelf, is your shoulder in your ears? Maybe you need that extra reach. But what if you reach up for something not quite as high. Are you still bringing your shoulder up to your ear? Try to keep it down instead. Isolate the muscles that raise your arm from the muscles that raise your shoulder. The muscles that raise you shoulder are also involved in the stress reaction or posture. We’re in that posture enough as it is, so try to keep your shoulders down whenever you can, but not too low. Remember what the collarbones should look like – a slight upward V.How does all this relate to riding? First, you don’t want to be stressed when riding. If you’re wearing your shoulders as earrings, then you’re transmitting the stress signal to your body which then transmits it to your horse. Some of us (I’m one) really don’t want our horses to be tense and stressed out when we’re riding. Relaxed shoulders can help.Part of that stress posture also means that your shoulders are rounded forward. This causes several things. One, shoulders that are rounded up and forward cause the elbows to stick out. How many of us have heard this and are reminded to bring our elbows in? Along with those rebel shoulders and elbows come flat hands. How many of us have been scolded for having flat hands? The easiest way to fix both of those things is to roll your shoulders back and down. Don’t over do the down part, though.
The other interesting thing about those rounded forward shoulders is that it stops the horse from going forward. If you’ve noticed where your shoulders are and they’re rounded forward, do you also have a little trouble with getting your horse to go freely forward? Or do you have to continually encourage her to move out? Try rolling your shoulders back and down.
Along with the rolled forward shoulders is usually a slouched back (kyphosis or dowager’s hump). How many of us get scolded for that too? To fix all of these things with just one change is to arch the upper back by lifting the breast bone up and forward – stick the girls out! (Guys, it works for you, too.) The shoulders drop into the proper place with no effort, the elbows come in, and the hands are no longer flat. And, the head shifts into its proper position directly over your shoulders with a lowered chin instead of in that turtle-like posture of head forward.The other great result of this posture for you is that now your showing your horse by example what he needs to do with his body to be on the bit. If you lift your chest as I’ve described and your shoulders open and relax, the back of your neck rounds and your chin comes down. Now do this while on all fours and you’ll see what I mean. For the horse, it means lifting the withers, telescoping the neck, and flexing slightly at the poll to come onto the bit.