H&C’s equine physio looks at how your riding position affects your horse

Image of equine physio doing pilates
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In a previous post by equine physio Hermione Gayton, we discussed the mechanics of the horses spine. This week Hermione is looking at what you can do to keep his back working well. One crucial element in keeping our horses sound and comfortable is our riding position.

If we want our horses to move symmetrically and without tension through their back, we have to sit symmetrically and absorb the movement of their spine. In order to achieve this we need to have core stability.

What is your core?

Your core is comprised of two muscle systems: the local muscle system and the superficial – or global – muscle system.

Local muscle system

The local muscle system (your deep stability muscles) is comprised of your:

  • Diaphragm
  • Pelvic floor
  • Transverus abdominus – a corset-like deep abdominal muscle
  • Multifidus –  tiny muscles connecting each vertebrae to its neighbour

These muscles play a vital role in a process called ‘proprioception’, which is where information is fed back to your brain about the position of your spine. They work continuously, through all activity, to control the movement of one vertebrae on another.

Superficial muscle system

The superficial, or global, muscle system consists of larger muscles that act across multiple joints and produce movement. When riding they keep you in an upright, balanced position.

Examples of these muscles include:

  • Rectus abdominus – the ones you get in a six-pack
  • Gluteals – bottom muscles
  • Obliques – those that run along the sides of your core

Riding position

Imagine having a spring connecting the base of your sternum to your pubic bone. This spring represents the anterior muscles of your trunk. A second spring at the back (from your bottom rib to your pelvis) represents the posterior muscles. These images below show what happens when one spring is shorter than the other.

image of rider 1

Figure 1

In figure 1, my front spring has lengthened and back spring has shortened causing my back to arch. In this riding position my spine is rigid and it’s pretty much impossible for me to absorb the movement of the horse beneath me. Instead, I bounce up and down.

image or rider slouching

Figure 2: Slouching

In figure 2, my back spring has lengthened and my front spring has shortened. Again, this makes it difficult to absorb the horse’s movement, and makes me heavy in the saddle, so that the horse cannot lift through its back, and causes me back pain.

image of rider in good position

Figure 3: Neutral

In figure 3, my back and front springs are of equal length and I have found my neutral spine position (although my shoulder stability is very poor, but we will save that for next time!). In this riding position my local stability muscles are automatically activated – they have to be to keep me there – and can feed back proprioceptive information to my central nervous system. Plus my back stays comfortable.

The other great thing about neutral spine is that in this position I can use my diaphragm to breathe down into the sides of my lower ribs. Evidence has shown that when we don’t breathe properly, our core muscles are inhibited. Think about that next time you are hyperventilating before you go in the ring!

Core Stability

When the local and global muscles systems work together, you appear still in the saddle. As riders we have to maintain that neutral spinal position when we apply the aids. This is referred to as an ‘independent seat’, and is only possible with good core stability.

In my next post, I will give you some examples of exercises that you can try at home. For now, have a go at seeing if you ride with a neutral spinal position, with your front and back springs the same length. Get someone to take photos if you are struggling to tell.