So how are you stacking up?
Head, Shoulders, (Pelvis), Knees and Toes
Watch someone walking and it will give you a pretty accurate preview as to how they will ride. Next time you are at a horse show, take a moment to watch the way people move around. It will soon become quite clear that everyone has a slightly personalized way of travelling; are they leaning forward with their upper body? is their bottom sticking out the back? where do their toes point? how long is their stride? It is not impossible to imagine that these movement habits have an effect on the way someone sits in the saddle.
Habitual patterns of movement and misalignments (however small they may seem) set up a cycle of restriction, an imbalance of load across joints causing weakness and instability. This manifests as pain and an inability to handle the forces caused by general movement, let alone those created when the body is in the saddle.
We seem to get away for a long time with a lot of these habits, but there will come a time where falling over becomes a real worry, pain becomes debilitating and the loss of mobility restricts our quality of life.
What is brilliant about being a rider is that if we pay close enough attention, the positional faults you may display in the saddle are a tap on the shoulder, a messaging service to alert you to how your body is currently operating. Because let’s face it, no-one will instruct you on how to walk better, but there’s plenty of people ready to tell you how your body parts should be looking when you are riding. The message here is to use this information to guide you in how to move your body off-horse, because if you wait to be corrected only when you are in the saddle, the odds of any correction becoming more than just a temporary contortion are very slim.
From the Ground Up
To build a tower, you need to stack blocks squarely on top of each other for maintenance of form, stability and integrity over time. By applying the same principles to the human body, which is a tower in its own right, we set the scene for a strong, stable structure with maximum mobility.
The Biomechanics of the human body are complex, but it is possible to learn some alignment principles that when implemented regularly, will start to reshape any sticky spots.
Any animal or machine that relies on forward movement benefits enormously from having all structures pointing the same way, ie in the direction of travel.
This starts with the feet; they should be pointing straight ahead.
If yours tend to tell the time, sitting in a ‘ten to two’ position, or maybe they look inwards at each other, they are displaying a symptom of how the bones of the leg are positioned. To correct the feet, we must first correct the leg.
Focus on the Knees
A less than ideal foot positioning will mean that your patella (kneecap) is being pulled off centre and away from it’s comfortable home. It is designed to sit in a polished groove to allow it to glide effortlessly and to not wear away any bone. However, by rotating the thigh bone (seen as toes pointing in or out) means that the patella is pulled out of this groove and is rubbing bone on bone; making it uncomfortable to walk, kneel and ride.
The first thing to do is stand with your feet pelvic width apart and place your feet so they are both pointing straight forward.
Once you have straightened your feet, you will need to adjust the position of your thigh.
Wear shorts or roll your trousers up over your knees and use a mirror to help you. You are looking at your ‘knee crease’ which is the area at the back of the knee. Ideally this crease is central, but if you do have a foot (or two) that like to look sideways, when you straighten your feet, this crease will have migrated across your leg. Your job now is to rotate the thigh until the crease comes back to centre. This will put your entire leg back into alignment.
It might be difficult to try and walk like this initially, so try adjusting the thigh whenever you are standing still and get the feeling of them being in a new place. Remember that any tiny adjustment to positioning and therefore loads will make an improvement!
Picture 1 (top left) shows feet that point outwards and knees that fall in towards each other. This misalignment will effect the entire leg; from the feet and ankle to the pelvis. The second picture (top right) shows what happens to the knee joint when only the feet are straightened; the knee creases migrate to the outside of the leg, meaning that the knee is under a degree of torsion/rotation. This confirms that simply straightening the feet does not mean that you are aligned!
The picture below shows what happens to the alignment when the feet are straightened and the femurs are rotated to the outside. The knee creases return to centre and the entire leg has been stacked correctly.
Release the Kneecaps
Standing and walking with your bottom stuck out behind you or thrusting your pelvis forward and leaning forward with the weight over your toes, is likely to mean that your quad muscles at the front of your thigh are too strong and tight. This leads them to grab onto the patella (kneecap) and hold it in an upward fixed position. When these muscles are so tight, it also means that the hamstrings are weak and stretched; adding to potential lower back problems.
Contracted and shortened quad muscles transpires to an upward travelling knee and thigh in the saddle; closing the hip joint and popping you out of the saddle, or away from the centre of gravity.
In order to correct this positioning, we need to know how to release the kneecaps on the ground;
Standing with your hips over your heels can you drop your kneecaps downwards? If not, lean your hips against a wall to take all pressure off the quad muscles and allow the kneecap to drop. Try to maintain this feeling when you move away from the wall. It may feel like you will topple backwards and this highlights the weakness in the posterior chain of muscles (hamstrings and glutes). If this is you, aim to keep releasing the kneecaps at any opportunity and things will improve!
Drop the Ribs
All too often when we try to stand up straight all that happens is we push the front of the ribcage up and outwards. This may create the illusion that your posture has improved, but mechanically all you have done is created a new direction of force on your spine.
When standing and walking, the front lowest bony part of your ribcage should be directly above the front of your pelvis. This might (and should) feel like you are doing less ‘work’ to maintain your posture, but it allows the ribs to expand more when breathing and keeps a correct curve in your thoracic spine. From here, the all important postural stabilizing muscles will be thankful that they can begin to do their job correctly. You are getting back on track to alignment.