The crooked rider

A physical therapist explains why crookedness in the saddle is a natural result of human physiology and shares one simple method to reposition yourself for a great ride.

Editor’s Note: It’s a rare rider who hasn’t been told she sits “crooked” in the saddle. At some point in your riding career, an instructor, clinician or even a well-meaning friend has likely pointed out that you collapse to one side, hold one shoulder higher or carry one hip ahead of the other. These observations aren’t just nitpicking. A horse must compensate for the asymmetries of his rider to maintain his own balance.

A dressage horse trotting down the center line of an arena.
A rider who sits “crooked” will make it difficult for a horse to maintain his own straightness.

This means, of course, that most riders are motivated to correct postural faults for the sake of their horses. But that’s often easier said than done. After riding crooked for so long, straight feels odd, and attempting to maintain the correct position for long periods of time while still riding smoothly and effectively can be exhausting and frustrating. Eventually, you may begin to think you’ll always be crooked and it will forever limit what you can achieve in the saddle.

But what if sitting crooked wasn’t your fault? What if it was the natural and direct result of how you—how all humans—are built? And what if this asymmetry wasn’t something you had to “fix” in order to be an effective rider but merely something to be aware of? According to Nebraska physical therapist John Macy, these ideas aren’t just hypotheticals—they are all true. What’s more, he says, a small, but significant, adjustment can help most riders straighten out.

Macy’s work with riders over the past five years has produced new insights into the source of asymmetry in the saddle. He has also developed some easy-to-implement methods for keeping crookedness from interfering with your ride. If you’ve struggled for years to correct a crooked seat, his ideas may seem almost too simple to be effective, but so much about good horsemanship is ultimately, elegantly, simple.—Christine Barakat

An “at rest” observation

My personal experience in the saddle is limited. I used to ride horses with friends out in Washington State, where we headed up and down mountains on the trails. It was wonderful, but from a professional standpoint, my interest in riders, more than horses, is what led me to start thinking about asymmetry in the saddle.

In my work as a physical therapist, I focus on movement symmetry. For many of my clients, asymmetric movement causes problems in daily life, as well as athletic activity, and I help them become more symmetrical. I have a client who is a very active show jumper in upper-level competition. One day, she asked me to come out to look at her horse, who seemed to be having a problem staying straight.

On my visit to her barn, I took video of my client and six other riders working in the arena and over jumps. But early on—before I even looked at the videos—I noticed something interesting. When the riders were sitting in the saddle simply speaking to me, a pattern emerged: When relaxed and “at rest,” many riders sat in the same asymmetric way, with the left stirrup slightly shorter, more weight on the right buttock, and the knees pressing inward toward the saddle on the left and outwards on the right.

In reviewing the action footage later, I discovered another pattern, one suggesting that a lot of equine asymmetry was caused by rider asymmetry. Many of the riders shifted to the right as their horses lifted up over the jump, which forced the horses to compensate. Usually they were successful, but not always. In every case on those films where a rail was hit, the rider had shifted to the right as she came up in the stirrups for the jump. The straight riders were more efficient and effective.

This phenomenon is not unique to riding. Optimal performance in any sport or discipline requires a position of athletic readiness—a balanced and symmetrical posture. The most efficient athletes make adjustments to accommodate terrain or other variables but repeatedly return to a balanced, symmetrical position. Across virtually all sports, training helps establish the habit of returning to a position of athletic readiness.

All of which made me appreciate how much of the work that I do as a physical therapist can benefit riders. The same principles of postural restoration that help my patients alleviate pain, grow stronger and achieve better mobility can help riders improve their balance and control in the saddle. And this, in turn, will help their horses perform better.

Sitting crooked

When most people hear the term “muscles,” they think of the voluntary musculo-skeletal system that generates the movement of our bodies. This system has a symmetrical arrangement of two arms and two legs with the single bones (vertebrae, sternum, sacrum, etc.) in the center. All the muscles in this system are paired; what is on one side of your body is also on the other.

From a purely engineering standpoint such a structure would make a healthy person sit with equal weight on each buttock, with balance along the midline from tailbone to head. The shoulders and hips would be on the same plane, which would be facing forward; movement to either side requires the same amount of effort. This is a position of readiness for activity. But why don’t people do that inherently if that is how we are designed?

The answer is that we have another muscular system also pulling on our frame. This is the viscera, a collection of the organs, including the heart, arteries, lungs and intestines. This system is highly muscular and always active. Consider the beating of your heart—60 to 100 strong muscular contractions a minute. The visceral system, unlike the musculoskeletal system, sits asymmetrically in the body. This arrangement is efficient: Having two stomachs, two spleens and two livers would require a tremendous amount of energy. Even our paired organs like lungs and kidneys are not symmetrical. The left lung gives up a lobe to make space for the heart, and the right kidney is smaller and sits closer to the spine than the left.

This asymmetric arrangement and muscular pull by the viscera are so significant that they affect the body’s position when at rest. Specifically, this system pulls on the body so that the left hip is slightly forward, the weight is shifted to the right, the spine curves to the left in the low back and to the right in the upper, and the plane of the hips turns slightly to the right while the plane of the shoulders goes to the left. This is the natural, and normal, resting position for humans, whether we are sitting on the couch, the car or in the saddle.

See for yourself as you sit and read this: Note where you have the weight on your buttocks, how your knees and hips are aligned and how your shoulders and head align. Next, sit in your best “equitation” form—upright, shoulders square, hips both aimed forward, equal weight on your buttocks, and nice and supple in the low back. Do you see how you shifted?

Now relax again. Did you maintain the body orientation you had before or did you go into asymmetry with the weight shifting to one side on your buttocks, your hips and shoulders turning from the front slightly and your back losing suppleness? For most people it’s the latter.

Better posture for crooked riders

The solution to this postural problem is simple enough: When making the transition from a neutral “resting” position to an athletic effort, simply take a second to shift your alignment from the asymmetrical to the symmetrical. Perform this shift often enough and it will become habitual, seamlessly integrated into your movements.

For most healthy adults, this shift isn’t particularly difficult, although it may feel awkward at first. That’s because over time most people develop habits that diminish flexibility in these areas. Try this exercise to determine how much your resting asymmetries may be ingrained: Sitting relaxed in a chair, look at your knees. Is one out in front of the other slightly? Can you pull that one back and put the other one forward the same amount? Most people will have an easy time retracting the right knee and thrusting out the left, but will struggle to do the reverse.

Luckily, the ability to get into a readiness position can often be restored by performing movements that address the specific mechanical activities needed to make the transition. I’ll outline a few here, but before you begin keep in mind a few key points:

• Limited ranges of movement due to past injuries and habitual use patterns may result in tight areas of the body and restrict how much an individual can do, and no two people will have the same difficulties due to the variations in how bodies are used in a lifetime.

• Your goal is not to see how far you can move in any one direction, but how easily you can move within the range available. If you can gently stay at the end range to counter the pull of the visceral system long enough you can begin to stimulate change in the tight tissues and retrain your brain to accept moving in that direction. This is how you cause positive change over time and increase your range.

• You do not need to be able to hold the positions in these exercises for long periods; in fact, that’s counterproductive for riders because it can lead to stiffness in the saddle as you try to “hold” your body in a particular alignment. Remember: This is not about position; it’s about movement. You want to develop the ability to do these aligning movements whenever you need to, rather than to hold yourself stiffly in any position.

• Breathing is critical during these exercises, not just because we require oxygen but because the act of breathing controls a key link between your visceral and musculoskeletal systems. The two systems are connected in several places but the strongest one is the diaphragm, the muscle (two actually) that operates involuntarily to keep air moving in and out of your lungs.

This muscle applies pressure to all the viscera by changing the shape of the chest cavity to draw air in and by depressing the abdominal viscera down to make room as you inhale. It also has mechanical attachments to the ribs and spine so it can alter the pulls the viscera have on the frame. The end result is that we are designed to more easily twist slightly in one direction over the other with every breath we draw in.

But the great thing about the diaphragm is you have some control over it, unlike the heart or intestines. The pressures it applies can be reversed by inhaling or exhaling, allowing you to stretch the connective tissue of the viscera while breathing.

With those goals mind, you can start training your body and your brain to “reset” your alignment from resting to active with a few simple exercises.

Sitting straight in the saddle

Start by sitting in a relaxed posture in a chair, with your feet on the floor, and note where you rest your weight and how your feet, knees, hips, buttocks and shoulders are aligned relative to each other and relative to the seat. Then sit up in your best saddle posture and see what you have to shift to get there. Repeat several times to see if you generally relax into the same position.

Next, see if you can easily shift your weight to the left side. When seated in a chair can you pull your left hip back? Sit up with your feet on the floor and your knees at the same level as your hips. Without moving your shoulder or foot back, pull your left knee back from the hip. Then try this with your right hip. Ideally there should be no difference from side to side in the difficulty of doing this.

Now stand up (facing a full-length mirror may help). Do you have equal weight on your feet? Shift your weight onto your right leg slightly and see how that feels. Next, shift an equal amount of weight onto your left leg. Many people will feel they are putting much more weight on the left side even though they have only gone as far over as they did to the right. It’s not that they are putting more on the left but their brains are not used to having that much pressure on the left side and interpret the sensation as being heavy.

During the course of your day, shift your weight to the left whenever you think of it. Do it for 10 or 15 seconds—remembering to breathe as you do—and then get on with what you are doing. Remember, resting position puts us heavy on the right and you want to start getting your brain used to shifting weight to the left easily.

Once you’re comfortable shifting your alignment on the ground, head to the barn and give it a try while riding. In the saddle, practice retracting your left knee—as you did while you were sitting in a chair—while turning your sternum slightly to the right (no more than 5 degrees) and keep your nose pointed straight ahead. Stay that way for five breaths. Do it four or five times if your horse will stand patiently because it is often in the third or fourth set the tissue will really relax and you feel the movement from an off-center relaxed alignment to a centered position of athletic readiness.

Your horse’s reaction

What’s remarkable is how some horses will respond to this realignment of their riders. Have a friend watch, or even better, take a video of your horse as you do this exercise. You’ll likely see your horse visibly relax and stand square to match your symmetry. We haven’t told the horses what we are doing, but they are responding to the balanced forces above them by becoming balanced themselves.

Once you’ve aligned yourself in the saddle, close your leg and start your ride. Don’t worry about crookedness or asymmetry. Just ride. Remember this isn’t about holding a position; it’s about initiating activity from a balanced, aligned posture. This approach does not negate what you have learned to do once you are in a position of readiness, but you now can look at whether you are even in a position of readiness to do them in the first place.

Like any good athletic adjustment, the real test is to try these techniques for a few weeks and see if it changes your ability to perform and how your horse reacts. As you become more able to quickly and consistently adjust your alignment to balance on your horse and not require the horse to accommodate your imbalances, both of you will be happier.

EQUUS thanks the folks at Far Hills Farm in Omaha, Nebraska, for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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