Getting the feel

Sharpen your proprioceptive abilities to ride better and improve your communication with your horse.
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Last month, we considered proprioception---the brain’s awareness of body location, pressure and movement. Proprioception works much the same way in Homo sapiens and Equus caballus, and it can be adjusted to similar levels of sensitivity. Of all senses, it allows riders the most direct communication with a horse.

hill work

By now, you’ve probably completed an assessment of misalignments and imbalances in your body. Don’t worry, we all have them. They’re places where your brain tells you you’re level when in fact you are not. These errors occur because our proprioceptive nerves---and the brain cells connected to them---are not tuned as precisely as they could be. But with a little work, we’ll press them into shape.

You might wonder why such small discrepancies need to be addressed. If your brain thinks your left shoulder has moved back an inch, same as your right one, but in fact it has moved back two inches, so what? The answer is that you need to match your horse’s proprioceptive sensitivities if you hope to enhance his understanding of your movements. And horses are exquisitely sensitive animals.

The average horse weighs 50 million times more than the average fly but immediately feels the pest settle on his body. A hypothetical human with that degree of sensitivity would feel the weight of five unseen dandelion seeds. Trained horses can detect from two yards away a nod of the human head that measures only 8/1,000 of an inch in displacement. That’s two-and-a-half times more sensitive to visual displacement than we are. Faced with the same nod, humans wouldn’t even know it had occurred. One more statistic: At the withers, a horse can detect .0003 ounces of pressure from one nylon filament---the weight of about three grains of sand. Push the same filament into your fingertip, and you’d have no idea it was there.

With this level of sensitivity, horses notice the difference between one inch of your shoulder movement and two. And they’re trying to figure out what it means. If you fail to sharpen your proprioception, your horse becomes confused by the mixed messages.

A secondary issue is at work here, too: We have to ride by feel, not sight. Vision often interferes with proprioception. For example, asked to walk at a normal pace and stop with both feet toeing an imaginary line, most people will look down at their feet to accomplish the task. But our brains can direct our bodies without eyesight, if we let them. Vision cheats your proprioceptive system of the chance to do its work.

So, equestrians hone proprioception not only because our mounts are supersensitive but because we can’t watch our bodies or our horses while we ride. Proprioceptive training teaches your brain to align your joints, maintain your balance, isolate muscles for independent use, and regulate their flexibility and strength in ways that promote bilateral communication between horse and rider.

Under the Hood

Specific neurons receive and interpret proprioceptive signals from each area of the body. In general, this process works just fine. But we all have a muscle here or a joint there that doesn’t always function as it should. With time, the brain cells that regulate those slackers also become lazy, which perpetuates the problem.

Proprioceptive training has two effects on brain tissue: It forces sluggish neurons back to work controlling a given body part, and it recruits new neurons to help with the task. Neural recruiting helps blind people comprehend speech almost three times faster than sighted people do. That’s because their brains take spare neurons from unused visual cortex and conscript them to auditory use. Likewise, a
rider’s goal is to commit more brain cells to body parts that are important astride a horse. The brain will recruit only under duress, as a teenager cleans her room only under threat of sanction. When we insist that our proprioceptive neurons do their job, they’re eager
to work.

Head scans of guitar players and taxi drivers show that training builds brain tissue. For instance, neural real estate committed to controlling the left fingertips is much larger in people who play the guitar compared to those who don’t. Keith Richards’ brain bulges in this area; mine sags. London taxi drivers, who memorize over 25,000 city streets twisting in every direction, have more gray matter than average in the spatial memory zones of their cortex. Training---not innate talent or inborn anatomy---causes this effect. Just as guitar players and taxi drivers form musical and spatial brains, riders can build equestrian brains.

Because proprioception is improved through physical movement, people often assume that proprioceptive training is all about strengthening muscles and building physical balance. Those results are merely side effects. Physical fitness is critical for good horsemanship, but let’s save that topic for another time.

What we are exercising today are nerves and neurons. Proprioceptive nerves include muscle spindles, joint angle receptors, and Golgi tendon organs that send impulses from a body part to the brain. Proprioceptive neurons inside the brain receive and interpret those signals. To shape these nerves and neurons, you’ll place your body in varied positions, then focus mentally and require your brain to do the heavy lifting. Ready? Let’s get to work.

To align the joints

Joint alignment exercises follow a common process: 1) align a body part mentally, 2) check it visually, 3) correct as needed and 4) repeat until your brain learns the position. It works for all planes of alignment, so you can be creative in devising different actions with various joints. Pay special attention to the areas of misalignment that you identified last month.

To start, just stand in front of a mirror with your eyes closed. Square your shoulders so that each one feels the same distance from your ears. When your brain says they’re aligned, open your eyes and look. Are they? If you’re off by a smidge, close your eyes and readjust until both shoulders are in line. Try to memorize the aligned position. Use the same technique on your elbows, hips, knees, ankles and feet. Align, check and correct for a few minutes every day, and within a week you’ll see results. When your mental alignment is accurate at a standstill, try walking or bending into position.

Alignment techniques can be done standing, seated, lying down with bent knees, lying flat or in the saddle. They can also be performed near a wall, so that you move joints one at a time to touch the wall. Make your brain judge the distance, and practice until the shoulder, hips and knee joints on each side of your body move with equal facility and coordination. Have a friend take photos of you from various perspectives while mounted, then study them for misalignments. The position your brain says is square could be “antigogglin.”

For better balance on the ground

Balance matters on a horse---a hint of unplanned forward or backward movement in a jumper rider’s upper body can make the difference between a clean leap and a dirty stop. Have you ever catapulted off a horse after a hard refusal? It smarts. And it’s not great for your neurons, either.

Here’s a good exercise for improving your balance: 1) Stand on one foot with your arms extended to the sides. 2) Focus on an eye-level point in the distance, without using a mirror. 3) When you can stand for 30 seconds on each foot, try it with your arms at your sides, then with your eyes closed. Advance to increasingly pliable surfaces like a thick mat or a balance disc. (It looks like a puffy dinner plate with rubber nubs.) When you’ve mastered those, stand one-footed on the round side of a BOSU half-ball. Eventually, proceed to the flat side of the half-ball, then to a balance board (a small platform mounted on a hard ball). Be careful as you try new surfaces; we want to build proprioceptors, not bruises.

Leaning also tunes proprioception. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, about two feet from a wall. Keep your hands near your waist just in case you need them for support. Lean forward (toward the wall) with your eyes closed until you are just about to lose your balance, then lean back into standing position. Lean to the left and right side, to all four 45-degree angles, and straight back, moving your stance each time so the wall is available to catch you. Lean farther as your brain calls in extra neurons for backup.

For equilibrium in a riding position, sit on a large fitness ball that lifts your feet off the floor when you straddle it. Lean slightly to varied directions with your upper body, trying not to touch the floor with your feet. Instead, use your brain to readjust the balance point from moment to moment. Take it easy: Big balls look solid, but they can squirt out from under you like a racehorse from the starting gate.

To improve balance on horseback

Balance at a standstill is one thing---balance on a moving horse is quite another. Start by riding in a two-point position. Raise your seat slightly above the saddle with your shoulders in line with your knees. This works in both Western and English saddles---you and your horse are seeking mutual balance regardless of the tack between you.

Form matters here, because bodies cheat to compensate for proprioceptive deficiencies. You can experience this phenomenon for yourself. Stand at a halt in two-point position. Move your feet slightly forward, and your seat will immediately fall, swinging your weight back into the saddle. Move your feet backward, and your upper body will tilt toward your horse’s neck. Notice that only a fraction of an inch of foot movement makes a big difference in your upper-body balance, even at a halt. Tall riders have even more trouble because there’s so much length above and below the fulcrum of their hip joints.

There’s no sense training your proprioceptors to hold an unbalanced position, so invest in a lesson to learn two-point or have your buddy snap a side-view photo while you maintain it. Use the photo to compare your position to the ideal. When you feel solid in a two-point at the walk, practice it at the trot and canter. Over time, learn to hold the position during curves, gait transitions and lateral work, too.

For intermediate riders on calm steeds, bareback riding helps the brain match your center of gravity to your horse’s. It also teaches the pro-prioceptive signals our horses send to us---they’re easier to feel without a saddle in the way. Sensing the details of your horse’s body movements is the first step on the road to effective two-way communication between human and equine proprioceptive systems. Practice in a confined area like a round pen before moving to wide-open spaces that invite misbehavior.

Use a lightweight bareback pad for friction if your horse has a slippery coat, and add a saddle pad underneath if he has high withers. Start at a walk, but aim in the long run to do everything bareback that you can do in a saddle: walk, trot, canter, transition, jump, halt, spin. Focus on the mental aspects of this work---think yourself into balance and alignment, making your brain choose accurate positions while noticing the movement of your horse’s body.

Finally, for advanced riders, have a trainer longe a quiet school horse while you learn to walk, trot and canter without reins or a saddle. Eventually, you will be able to close your eyes and make those proprioceptive neurons sweat. Top equestrians develop independent seats by riding on a longe line or in a chute bareback, blindfolded and reinless. If you shoot for this level of proprioception, approach the goal slowly with an experienced trainer.

Muscle Isolation

Most muscles work together in large groups, so the brain has little need to isolate a given muscle and use it independently. Until you become an athlete, that is. Equestrians need control of specific muscles and often must flex one muscle while relaxing another within the same functional group. Our brains have to be taught to manage this, so isolation feels weak at first but rallies as the noggin recruits extra neurons to help with the task.

To get the idea of muscle isolation, lie flat on your back. Flex, then relax, your entire thigh. Not your whole leg and not your keister---just the thigh. Good job. Now, let’s get down to proprioceptive business: Flex and relax only the inner thigh. That’s harder, but keep at it even if your brain only allows a feeble contraction and release. At this point, we just want our brains to turn on a few fibers in the inner thigh and nowhere else. Do the same for the front, the outer side, and the back of the thigh in turn, trying to get a mental “grip” on each area. Aim for a delicate touch; we’re specializing neurons here, not crushing iron.

Play with muscle isolation all over your body, just to get the feeling of how it works. Start with easy spots, like the calf. You’ll notice that muscles differ in the position that allows isolation---for example, it’s much easier to isolate the calf when your knee is bent than when it is straight. In each case, find the muscle on a diagram, experiment with various positions, will your brain to tighten that muscle just slightly, loosen and repeat. If it’s hard to find a given muscle with your mind, exercise it until it aches. Ah, there it is!

As your proprioception improves, pulse the muscle by tensing and releasing rhythmically. Progress by isolating the muscle further---the calf, for example, is actually comprised of three muscles that can be controlled separately by your brain. Instead of housing a stable full of generic “calf” neurons, you want to develop inner, outer and middle calf neurons.

When you’ve got the general idea, teach your brain to isolate muscles that are especially important for riding. Let’s double down on teres major as an example. Teres major is the fancy Latin name for a small muscle at the back of each shoulder just below the armpit. It opens and steadies your shoulders and upper back as you ride. Now, it’s true that you can also steady those areas by flexing the entire shoulder and upper back---but this is one of many global tensions that causes the beginning rider to slap up and down at the trot like a concrete mannequin, while the school horse flattens in an effort to evade pain. We want to move with our horses, not against them. And we want them to stay calm, which they can’t do if we’re tight. Isolate teres major, and you’ll be able to lift and stabilize your upper back while remaining relaxed. You can also rate your horse’s speed with teres major, slowing your spunky fireplug without pulling on his mouth.

Other key equestrian muscles include the medial soleus which, when controlled separately from the calf, can suck a horse’s abdomen upward to boost impulsion and enhance engagement. The quadratus lumborum, if isolated from the upper hips, allows us to sit deep in the saddle at the canter and swing freely with a horse’s motion. Overachievers can isolate the outer thighs from the gluteal muscles, to create an equestrian seat independent from the legs. This isolation places female seat bones on the horse’s long back muscles for the perfect weight-bearing position that softens his back and increases his power.

Gradation of Pressure

Once a muscle is isolated, teach your neurons to contract it with precise gradations of pressure. Suppose you’ve schooled your brain to flex and relax the inner thigh independently. Now, try tightening the inner thigh very gradually. Instead of turning the flex faucet full on, ease it open one drop at a time. At first, the acceleration will feel jerky and sporadic as if the water line is spitting air. But with practice, the change becomes smooth and refined. Perfect this technique on horseback, and you can almost hear your horse’s muscle spindles and Golgi organs say “ahhh.”

You can use gradation to press the horse into a new movement like silk, rather than clamping him into a tsunami of motion. Practice creating the entire range of pressure, from none to the tightest contraction possible and back again to none. Most equestrian brains need greater work in the lighter half of the range.

If a proprioceptive neuron doesn’t have to be precise, it isn’t. It will fire in response to a large range of tensions, like flipping a crude on/off switch. To foster precision, we have to expose those neurons to gentle muscle pressure. They’ll calibrate their sensitivity to match your needs, each becoming tuned to an exact range of flex and stretch. They’re specializing themselves for horseback riding and enlarging brain regions that control equestrian muscles and tendons. And---good news---with daily practice, noticeable improvement shows up in a few weeks. You can continue beyond that as far as you like because the brain’s capacity for improvement is endless.

With better proprioception, you’ll have faster reaction times, greater coordination and superior balance. You’ll begin to feel your horse’s body, noticing with the muscle spindles and joint angle receptors of your seat, for instance, the relaxation or tension in his torso. You’ll feel where his legs are and how they move under you. Feeling the action of your horse’s legs, back and sides is the precursor to controlling them, especially in complicated maneuvers.

These improvements enhance equine proprioception as well. Your horse’s brain will become more sensitive to your aids because they are now easier for him to recognize. He will respond more quickly yet remain calm as your correction and release become gradual. Best of all, the two of you will begin to communicate through the medium of your bodies, with your movements travelling straight to his brain and his to yours. Enjoy the feeling.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #450, March 2015. 

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