Four ways to better riding

Are there any riders among us who believe their bodies work as well as they should do? Whose lower back never hurts, whose joints always move flexibly and freely, whose body symmetry is as good as it can be? It’s unlikely – and professionals and amateurs suffer in exactly the same ways. But what can we do about it?

Sports Therapist Debbie Rolmanis has the answer – we can improve our biomechanics, which is essentially the science of the way our bodies move and function. She has published a new book, Biomechanics for the Equestrian: Move Well to Ride Well, to expand the reach of her  passion  for  improving  the way we move our bodies, and therefore ride, which in turns affects how our horses perform.

“Nearly everyone I see, whether they are a Olympic athlete or an amateur rider, suffers from the same issues.

"In my early practice, I would treat riders and their horses, and they’d be ok for a while, but then they’d come back and the niggles would still be there. It was happening no matter what level anyone was riding at, so I thought, ‘Ok, we’re missing something here.’ That’s what made me delve more into the biomechanics of the human body to understand what we are missing.”

Debbie shares her insights and recommendations on how you can improve your biomechanics to improve your riding.

Common Problems

Whether you are a professional eventer riding a dozen horses a day or an amateur with a desk job to pay for your eventing, the general movement dysfunction that shows up as a sore lower back, stuck and niggly hips, and restricted shoulders is largely the same.

Most fitness training starts with a focus on strength and conditioning, with the thought that if we have toned arms and a six-pack then we are fit and strong, but that has drastically missed the point of how our bodies have evolved to move. Loading structures that are dysfunctional because of poor biomechanics is the reason why we have bad backs and hips that don’t work, sore knees and pelvic floor issues. The human body has been designed to be moved in a way that keeps it fully functioning, we just need to be taught how to do that.

She emphasises the affect that this has on our horses:

  • We know that if you ride with a sore lower back your horse is going to have a sore lower back as well
  • If you ride trying to protect something that is in pain, or you’ve got one hip that doesn’t move, then you won’t be able to absorb the thrust of your horse’s pelvis symmetrically. 
  • In time, this lack of mobility in your seat will cause your horse to change how he moves to avoid the blockage you have created.

It can be incredibly subtle, but over time these movement habits create uneven loading in your horse’s limbs, which can manifest in a loss of performance and lameness.

The Fundamental Four

In Debbie’s book, she concentrates on four basic principles, all of which build from one to the next.

First: Alignment

The hips are the largest joint in the body and as such they are designed to take the most load. Alongside this, to prevent you from falling forwards, your weight should be on your heels, not the balls of your feet. When the body is in correct alignment, it should be stacked with the hips over the heels, the ribs over the hips and the shoulders over the ribs. In this position you load the back of your body, rather than the front.

The glutes, hamstrings and lower back should all be stronger than the front of your body, but the message has been to shorten the front (to create a six-pack). In doing so, the muscles of the back are lengthened and weakened, making it vulnerable to pain and injury.

Hips are a real problem for riders; they have to be in a position of external rotation in the saddle, which places their muscular attachments under tension. If you arrive in the saddle with hips you haven’t moved during the day, they aren’t going to be magically mobile in the saddle and this affects your ability to have a good seat. By keeping your weight over your hips and loading the heels when you are on your feet, it allows your hip joint to go into its full range of movement.

Second: After Alignment Comes “Expansion Breathing”

The mechanics of good breathing affect the whole body in a fascinating way. At the bottom of your rib cage is the diaphragm – a sheet of muscle that functions as the top of your core. Most of us breathe with shallow breaths, so our diaphragm is weak.

During expansion breathing when you lift the ribs up and out and pause at the top of your inhale, before controlling a slow out breath, you will start to strengthen the intercostals and the diaphragm.

When your rib cage is at its most expanded like that, it means your spine is at its most supported.

Third: Mobilising

Dysfunction occurs when you have removed the joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion. This can happen when you overload a joint, or if you don’t load it enough.

When your body is out of alignment, each joint will be receiving a load it is not designed for and therefore your mobility will be compromised. From a place of alignment you can begin to ask the joints to be mobile.

For example, stillness in the contact can only come from shoulder joints that are mobile, because without mobility, the tissues cannot be strong.

Fourth: Strengthening 

Problems can arise when we jump to strength and conditioning before we’ve built the foundations for these exercises to be useful. There is nothing ground-breaking in the strengthening exercises I give people, but they are done with a body that is aligned, expanded and mobile. I am always wanting to build the body, rather than add to its debris.

Debbie acknowledges that we are all short of time.

The point of the book is to show people they can do an awful lot just by changing the way they do normal things – walking, breathing, mobilising their shoulders, bending from the hips. We all do these things anyway; I just wanted to provide a better way of doing it to help move people away from pain.

Three Exercises to Improve the Way You Move

Shoulder mobility: stand with your thumbs on your hips. Slide thumbs up the side of your body keeping elbows lifted. Your thumbs should come up underneath your armpits with palms facing away from body. Elbows stay high and lifted, then take the back of the hands round to the back of your head with your arms straight up in air, and circle back down to finish. If you have a desk job, do these regularly throughout the day.

Expansion breathing: place your little finger on the top of your pelvis and your thumb underneath your bottom rib. The idea is to breathe in so you increase the distance between little finger and thumb, in and up, then hold that breath for a moment at the top.

As you breathe out, maintain that distance for as long as possible and control the outbreath – imagine you are breathing out through a small straw – to start building that strength.

Back strengthening: with your feet shoulder-width apart and your weight in your heels and soft knees, sink your back down as if you are going to sit in chair, then stretch your hands up above your head and hold it for 30 seconds, or complete three expansion breaths. Do all exercises three times.

Move Well To Ride Well by Debbie Rolmanis can be purchased from Amazon HERE.

First published in the July/August issue of British Eventing Life magazine, original words by Catherine Austen