Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The low-down on the upper body I

There's more to it than "sitting up straight," apparently
I've written a lot about improving my seat, and my dream is to sit inside the body of a top dressage rider and feel where they are using their muscles, where they are relaxed, and how they respond to their horse -- those imperceptible motions that make a good rider. Not all advice for improving your seat really gets at the problem. "Stretch up" is good advice, but sometimes when I try to stretch up, my horse thinks "half halt" -- or, in Riley's case, downward transition. I get advice to put my shoulders back, but that makes my arms stiff and hollows my back. And frankly, when someone says "engage your core" I have only an inkling of what they mean.

Enter Pilates: To the rescue!
I recently got my copy of the USDF Connection September issue -- I generally find this pub very useful, and this month they've outdone themselves!  Check out the helpful article  Organize Your Upper Body: Two super-effective (and easy!) Pilates-based exercises for better riding by Janice Dulak and Sarah Martin. It covers two Pilates techniques/concepts that
  I found particularly useful:
  • knitting the ribs which involves musculature that pulls the ribs together while strengthening and coordinating the lower and upper body.
  • riding off your underarms, which is a little murkier to me, but it has to do with holding your shoulder blades down (as opposed to pinching them together).
It really helps you identify the back muscles we should be engaging.


  1. Sarah Martin is awesome!! I used to live near them and got the opportunity to take lessons from her and her husband (even got to house sit a time or two!). Great couple, and I LOVE how they teach and focus on the harmony between horse and rider simply by teaching correctness and body awareness.

  2. I agree that the advice for rider position can be very confusing. I was taught to stretch up tall, but that makes me too light in the saddle and wobbly at the waist.

    I am not sure if I get the "knitting the ribs" part, but I do get riding from your underarms. My teachers talks about letting your armpits move. I am not sure if I can do that all the time, but at least I have heard something about accessing that area! Always makes me laugh.

  3. I always think of "lifting my core."

    Sally Swift's "Centered Riding," has a lot of imagery that works for some people. I am more verbal, so the images don't work well for me. But, I also learn well by doing, so when my favorite trainer Lockie Richards used to say, "Feel it? Feel it?" and I did, I would remember the feel and be able to replicate it.

    We all have different ways of understanding concepts. You need to figure out what style of learning works best for you.

  4. Pilates has dramatically improved my seat, really teaches you to stabilize your core without outside aides (such as butt clenching, which is my problem). If there is a good studio around, highly recomend working with an instructor for a couple private workouts, I've got a 30 min. one I can do at home now.

  5. You just grasped on part of what has made riding with a biomechanics instructor so helpful for me!

    The upper abs are the secret (for me) to maintaining my own self-carriage so I can relax enough to let my hips follow my horse's movement. If you don't use those muscles, your rib cage hovers just in front of your center of gravity and limits how much your hips can absorb your horse's movement to have that beautiful independent seat where you appear to not be moving. The upper abs shift the weight of your rib cage just behind center of gravity so it doesn't limit movement. This is the same effect many riders attempt by just leaning back, but it allows you to maintain self carriage and not lean on your horse's mouth.
    As a side effect, it's also the secret for those of us who have a lot of back problems and natural tightness to soften our backs and not cause tension in our horses.

  6. I used the tips in my lesson last night and it was really helpful. Not sure I totally understand how to access my armpit muscles, but just trying to get that feel really helped with keeping my shoulders back without arching my back. Also agree with net; I have a hard time controlling my upper body without getting my hips locked up. Controlling those upper abdominal muscles really frees up my hipss to go with the motion. It's amazing how the only thing you change is your body position and control and suddenly your horse is going 10x better without any different aids or corrections.

  7. It seems that you are dreaming to behave like a professional rider whenever you sit at the horse for the ride. I really admire your efforts regarding your thoughts and perception. I used to ride the horses a lot but I never find a comfortable way to adjust my seat in a great manner...


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