As we all know, your horse must be relaxed for him to perform to his highest potential and to have less stress on his body. This is also the case with us riders. We must be relaxed and confident in order to be out of the horse’s way and to allow him to move freely. Relaxation is very important all the way around. Maybe it's time to "vet yourself"! If we are sure our horses are relaxed and are sure we are relaxed, we may want to look more deeply into any issue we may be having with our performance on the trail or in the ring. What may be “wrong” with our horse or our training if the horse’s shoulder drops, if he canters crooked, or travels in any other incorrect or uncomfortable manner? Head tossing could mean there is something wrong with the horse’s teeth or mouth. Maybe your saddle does not fit or your horse’s feet are not balanced. Some horses will have conformation issues that cannot be corrected, but that can create performance limitations. Be aware of those and don’t ask them for things they are not physically capable of doing. Physical and equipment problems with your horse should always be ruled out if you are having a specific issue in their development.
However, if your horse’s physical condition and health are fine, your equipment and techniques are good, and you are not pushing him beyond his limitations, you can look even deeper. Maybe you need to “vet yourself”!
You may have a physical issue you are not even aware of that is causing some sort of imbalance or discomfort for your horse. Maybe you think your “center” is something different than your real center. Have someone else watch you or video yourself. Are you behind or in front of the vertical and feel like you are centered? If so, you will need to practice being truly centered in your daily life as you walk around or sit. It is amazing how we can get into a certain habit and not even realize it.
Do your knees turn in when you stand? Maybe your hips are actually closed and you need exercises to open them so you can flow with your horse. Practice standing with your knees rotated straight ahead or even out a little like you are slightly duck-footed. Feel how this opens your hips (women especially!) You would have to make this change to your body gradually so you don’t create soreness.
Is your abdomen “zipped” up so you are strong in your core, but loose in your rear, hips, legs, and shoulders? You want to have a strong core to keep your balance over rugged terrain if you are trail riding. A strong core also allows you to hover correctly over your horse’s back so he can lift into the created space for dressage. Try drawing in your belly button and pulling your ribs together in the front (which engages your back.) Stand that way and see if your friend can push you off balance. You should be strong like an old Oak. A Pilates instructor can help you learn this technique. Pilates and Yoga are great exercise classes for riders.
If you stand with one foot on one scale and the other on a second scale beside it, does it show the same amount of weight on each scale? If not, you put more weight on one leg than you do on the other, even when standing still. You may never have noticed this, but it can cause quite a bit of back pain (for you and your horse) and imbalance in your horse (which may be getting in the way of lead changes or another maneuver).
Most of this article is based on Jenny’s personal experience. Fortunately, Jenny met a Pilates Instructor / Physical Therapist / Dressage Rider recently who not only helped her learn to zip up her abs correctly, but who pointed out that her knocked knees were closing her hips and that she could work on gradually turning them out to open her hips and improve her riding! She also pointed out that Jenny’s center is behind the vertical. And last but not least, when Jenny asked her if she could figure out why she has pain and a super tight muscle on the left side of her spine, the instructor discovered that Jenny has a habit of placing about 60% of her weight on her left leg while standing. Jenny then realized she does this also while sitting/riding (seat bone) and even while sleeping (back!) Talk about new body awareness! You have to be aware of something before you can address it. With this newly found awareness, Jenny is able to slowly improve her body position and alleviate the pain! Thanks to her favorite equine liniment, the all-natural Sore No More by Equilite, Jenny can also manage her horse’s pain (and even her own) through the transition!
A physical therapist, chiropractor, friend who is knowledgeable in body biomechanics, or someone with a good eye, may be able to “Vet You.” It’s worth exploring. Standing tall, engaging your core, and improving your overall body alignment and balance can reduce pain you may feel or problems your body may be creating in your horse, and help you both stay healthier throughout your life.
As we like to do, we hope we motivate and inspire you to ask questions, look for solutions and try a new, gentler approach. As always, boot up, be safe, and have fun!
Written by Professional Trainers Jenny Lance (AQHA Professional Horseman) and Angie Ferrell (Josh Lyons Accredited Trainer) of www.LiveToRideHorses.com