Problems with riders can ensue as soon as we put both feet in our stirrups and pick up both reins. We all have physical imbalances and muscle memory that has been strengthened as long as we have been alive. Just as horses have a particular conformation, we as riders also have our own conformation. We have strengths and weaknesses that are reinforced over time and can be amplified or hindered every time we have an injury. Awareness of these imbalances and weaknesses is the first step to becoming a better rider. Once you are aware of the areas that require improvement, retraining of the muscle memory is possible.
In my own riding, I have struggled with my entire left side. My left shoulder has a tendency to fall inward and forward, thus causing the entire left side of my body to be compressed. Several falls also impacted my left shoulder, increasing the severity of the issue as my body tried to compensate and protect the area of injury. Years of riding and moving in this way trained the muscles to perform in this limited fashion.
The upper body guides the horse’s movement. While the lower leg creates the energy, the upper body directs the energy. When the upper body is compromised, you cannot guide the horse as effectively. In ballroom dance, the man must lead the woman on the dance floor. If the leader’s “frame” is not effective, then the follower cannot interpret what the leader is guiding her to do. This concept also applies in riding. The horse cannot clearly interpret what the rider is asking if the rider’s “frame” is compromised. Also, this imbalanced weight distribution of the rider will cause the horse to compensate for these imbalances. Then the rider is not only imbalanced, but is also creating further imbalances in the horse.
Once I became aware of my own issue with my left shoulder, I was able to focus on retraining the muscle memory. Stretching and lifting weights in front of a mirror both in front of me and beside me helped me retrain my muscles so that my body was more even. Riding with mirrors and with a groundsperson to tell me when my body was twisted and compressed gave me increasing awareness as to the difference between the old, ineffective position and the new, more effective position. Even though it sometimes felt awkward to go against what my muscles had been programmed over so many years to do, over time it became more natural as I created the new muscle memory, and I became a more balanced and effective rider.
Many times we are not aware of our imbalances because we have traveled, ridden, and strengthened our muscles in a particular way for so long. However, if we can become aware of our imbalances and correct them, then we become more effective riders, and we can then focus on helping our horses with their imbalances. Thus, we are constantly at work to create the most balanced team possible.