Even though I am a big fan of off-horse training to improve riding feel (via a better i.e. more aware use of the rider’s body) and I have participated in various sports since childhood, it wasn’t until my late thirties that I actually felt it to be a necessary rather than a complimentary part of riding training.
Let me share a couple of routines from my Equestrian Pilates sessions with Natalie Monrowe that are really fun to try and play with 🙂
LYING DOWN ON A ROLLER
I found it useful for:
finding “neutral spine” which is a must for upper body control in the saddle. Many grassroots riders ride on horses with a “hollow back”. This often can give a feeling of sitting in a hammock which sends the rider’s lower leg forwards and shifts the overall weight of the rider behind the movement of the horse. This can be very slight and make consistent throughness tricky or be very obvious, like getting left behind in rising trot and ‘double bouncing’. Developing a good feel for own neutral spine can help the rider develop the same in their horses.
pelvis stability. Lifting alternate legs shows various weaknesses in the use of core muscles which can be worked on separately.
neck and head alignment. Riders often struggle with their neck alignment (head down, too much left or right, straining neck forward etc) and I find this to be a very simple way to gather proprioception for the spinal alignment throughout entire spine (base of the neck to tailbone)
awareness of own straightness. Aligning the roller with own spine gives a very distinct feel of how much of each side of ribcage, shoulders, pelvis is on each side of it. Just lying down in this position for some time increases awareness of where your centre is and that is such an important skill to have when schooling horses of any level. Ability to maintain own straightness on a crooked horse in order to help them move better is the key not only to effectiveness but also to injury prevention (in both horse and rider)
JUMPING POSITION ON A ROLLER
I found it useful for:
Balance 😉 As the roller moves a little it creates a situation in which we practice stability via mobility and that replicates the balance skills needed for riding. Standing on the floor is not quite cutting to the chase 😉
Awareness of weight distribution forward and back, left and right. One sided weaknesses have a strong voice in this exercise and provide a very good feedback to the rider
Independence of hand. Moving your arms in various directions without that movement affecting stability of the rest of the “seat” is important for jumping but also, in a miniature version of it – for all rein aids. Without suppleness in the arms it is very difficult to give supple rein influence. Many riders think they aren’t using reins for balance but it can be a real eye opener when you try to ride some movements without the reins. This allows you to check how much effectiveness there really is in the seat, how much we want to rely on the reins for corrections that ideally should be delegated to the seat aids and how switched on the horse is to the seat vs reins. Rein influence is important for overall connection but the less of it there is the more we can wake up our own seat aids. The more attentive the horse becomes to the seat, the more influence we have on small adjustments.
I do believe that the minute we sit on a horse for a purpose other than travel, we are training. No matter if it’s learning to do rising trot for the first time or polishing details of canter pirouettes. We are training our bodies so they are not a burden to the horse’s movement. A few minutes a day can transform that training 🙂
The first time you try to stand on the gym ball you might conclude it a mission impossible. Your joints might go all stiff, muscles all rigid and you might try to grasp for anything and anyone to grab hold of for balance.
If this sounds a bit like you when your horse is playful and fresh or when he takes off awkwardly over a jump or when you feel nervous in the saddle for whatever reason, you might want to try this exercise at home.
The ability to relax during an intense effort is something that is possible to learn. That “active relaxation” allows for a positive tension to keep muscles in a state of readiness without the negative tension creeping in and making you rigid and and stilted in your movements.
For the above exercise you’ll need:
a gym ball (65cm should work well unless you are very tall or very short! – go for 75cm if the former or 55cm if the latter)
a helper, someone to catch you 😉
safe area around you
we used a couple of poles to stabilise the ball a little and this worked well for Caitlin’s first go. You can slowly build up towards no outside help.
a Pilates band (black one we used gives a good amount of stretch without feeling too much like pulling on a chewing gum!)
somewhere to attach the band to (or you can have a second helper holding the band)
Benefits (if you persevere with this exercise) :
huge dose of balance effort – it’s like learning to walk again 😉 You’ll feel like an earthquake and white water rafting happened to you at the same time!
you’ll find muscles you never thought you had
you’ll make discoveries about your balance that you won’t make walking on an even pavement
you’ll learn to breathe through a state of mild panic 😉
you’ll learn that your arms can move quietly even if your body is fighting a crazy battle to remain on top of the ball (not to unlike a calm balance required during playful bucking episodes, jumping efforts, XC etc)
you’ll learn a different dimension of relaxation, one that perhaps you have not experienced before: relation inside an immense effort…It’s when you are able to let go of negative tension in your muscles but remain engaged and positively toned. The skill that takes riding to higher level.
stand on the ball (simple but not easy 😉 )
the position you are aiming for is a correct squat with your knees in line with your toes, your centre of gravity low (not up in your shoulders – feel like you drop your weight into your hips and like your shoulder blades relax down your ribs)
you want to feel supple and loose in your shoulder joint, elbow and wrists
your back needs to stay as neutral as possible (avoid hollowing your back or rounding your back). A nice little video about neutral spine below:
It’s a pleasure to help you and I hope you will find my thoughts useful. Congratulations on entering the challenge too 🙂 My reason for doing the bloggers challenge in this format is so we can all learn from each other. Analysing issues of different riders on different horses is very beneficial for instructors too so I include myself in learners department also.
Let’s have a look and try to help Helen and her lovely mare. I love Bella’s elevation in passagey trot, definitely a talent there! She looks in a great condition, very relaxed and content.
Helen entered Aspire’s monthly virtual coaching challenge on improving your riding and said: “I would be very grateful if you would take a look at some of this sitting trot, especially in the lateral movements. I know I tend to lose the independent, unilateral movement of my seat bones and block her as soon as I ask for sideways movement – too much else to think about and trying too hard! Bella and I have found a big trot together which feels wonderful! I feel if I lose some weight from my ‘top half’ I will be able to sit it better but keeping the big trot and performing lateral movements is definitely a challenge for me! Thank you very much for any help you can give poor Bella to get me up to scratch and worthy of her, and I really do mean that!” She added a video of the issue she would like to improve which you can find on her blog: http://bellaandrico.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/aspire-equestrian-virtual-training.html
PROBLEM ANALYSIS using still frames from the video
I see a few things that stop you from feeling balanced on Bella’s back in lateral work so we will look at those first and then move on to how to work on them. I suggest they are addressed first before moving onto more consistent ability to join Bella’s back motion in trot.