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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Balance and soundness

Today is another convention post.

Funder (visit her blog on the side bar) did a great job of writing up my overall convention experience on her blog.....she thought she was writing about HER experience, but in reality it was all about me. I too ended up sitting in a booth and visiting with people more than doing any actual shopping. all wont believe this but i actually stuck to my "must buy" list and didn't buy anything that wasn't on it. Ice-tight poultice? 5 bucks at the used sale. Sunglasses? 2 bucks at the same place. Found a saddle pad that fixes the potential wither clearance issue with my saddle, and picked up a bucket of electrolytes. Lastly i swung by evelyn's tight booth and picked up a pair if incredibly beautiful, glittery tights for my upcoming ride season......and like funder I'm wasn't quite ready to publicize my 2013 schedule (although I have since posted that the plan is Tevis. :).

So, with all the blah blah past, let's get on with another seminar post!

Donna Snyder-smith (I think - correction anyone?) presented a hodgepodge collection of advice, products etc in a seminar that was designed as an opportunity for her to share some tidbits based on a long history of both riding endurance and mentoring the sport.

She read an excerpt from (as close as I could hear) Mike Beasley's (?) "A study in Balance" that supposidly looked at horse "sideness" and how it related to endurance riders changing their diagnols etc. at an endurance ride. The caveat to this is that I have not been able to find the reference with some google searching, which was dissapointing. Apparently this guy evaluated 228 endurance horses 12 miles into an endurance ride and either told (or didn't tell) endurance riders that their horse was exhibiting stiffness or "sideness" at that point, at which point the rider, if aware could be more careful about switching diagnols etc. His conclusion was that these "lesions" were temporal and adopted by the horse based on the posture of the rider. According to this seminar speaker (again, haven't been able to find the paper she was reading from) he actually isolated the muscles that are affected by the imbalance in rider posture etc.

At the 12 mile point, the "sidedness" was showing up in the forequarters, not the hindquarters, but the hindquarters was where the most stress was actually being felt by the horse - medial hamstring, internal obliques/flank, gluteals, gracilias etc. were common muscles that the horse was using in a one sided manner to compensate for the "sideness" in rider posture.

I apologize if the above isn't totally clear. Without the original paper in front of me I have a hard time verifying the details and can only share what was presented in the seminar - the bottom line was that because we as riders have a dominant side (most of us are right handed), this will show up in our riding, and it will affect our horses.

Weight changes everything about the horses balance. A large point of "good riding" and how we condition our horses is trying to mitigate the "handicap" of placing a saddle and our weight on the horse's back and asking it to go 100 miles, something that it was certaintly capable of doing before being tacked up, but may be less able to now.....

The horses' back is a bridge and the weakest part of the bridge is exactly where we place that saddle! She did a lot of visuals with the point being that the horse's body (back and legs and locomotion etc.) works together best if the back can come up, so that the hind leg can swing freely under the belly. If the stifle can come freely forward, the foot comes forward and the butt can come down.

Lifting the horses back is done by stimulating the belly muscles....or at least this is how she put it. In dressage I've heard a lot of other terms used and there's a lot of different ways to think about it and visualize it - however you can manage to wrap your head around this concept and translate it to your riding......then good for you. Think of how when you properly ride how much stress that puts on your CORE. That's also how your horse should be running along - by using it's core. And however you chose to think about "back up", the corresponding part of the equation is HEAD DOWN. You cannot get the back up if the head is up. If you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with getting your horse to work and motor along the trail with the head down and the back up, I would suggest you take a couple of lessons or attend a seminar that focusing on some dressage basics.

My take home was that during conditioning I'm going to be encouraging Farley to travel down the trail more "correctly" meaning I'm going to ask her to get her back up and not hollow her back. My philosophy used to be to work her correctly in the arena, and let her go her own way out of the trail - she travels fairly neutrally, and doesn't have any weird muscling from having a high head - but if taking the opportunity to build some of that back muscle gives us a bit of an edge for Tevis, I'm willing to do it. Notice I'm not talking about a "frame". The goal is to have her travel nice and easy with her head down, not all strung out. One thing I notice is that she can't go into that crazy extended trot that makes me feel like my teeth are going to get jarred out of my mouth if I don't let her get all strung out - she has to go into a canter if she wants to up the speed past a certain point. Farley has a longer back and a weak tie into the hip and so I feel this will be very beneficial for her, especially since we aren't doing as much dressage as in the past. Some horses that travel very naturally balanced (I'm thinking of the ride and tie horse I ride, Stashi) may not need as much work in this area as Farley.
The presentor said that a weak back can present as stifle problems, eventually hock problems --> all resulting from a tight, hollowed back. I know referred pain is huge in horses and I do feel like a lot of the "hockiness" I see in horses is due to problems in the back.

OK - so the point is that you want to have this nice moving horse underneath of you that has an elevated back and a freely moving are we as riders minimizing or maximizing this?

Every rider has a convex and a concave side. This doesn't go away until it's trained to go away. I happen to know through intensive dressage training that my left side likes to fall behind my right side. This is reinforced by many day to day activities including driving and using a mouse at the computer. Can you stand in front of a mirror and make your two shoulders completely level? The presenter claimed that 60-70% of people who try this exercise can't!

Here's the point. That sideness translates into your seat bones. One of your seat bones is diagonally in front of the other in the saddle. One seat bone will be resting on your horse's back in a more comfortable place than the other one. The side of the back that is the more comfortable will tend to stretch more and the side that is not as comfy will contract. Thus you have set up your horse to have one concave and one convex side just like you! The hind leg that is on the side where the seatbone is more "comfy" will travel forward more under the belly, setting up a "short stride, normal stride" scenerio that eventually manifests itself as stress in the horse's hindquarter muscles from compensating/reacting to the posture imbalance in the rider.

Thus it is paramount we get the seatbones straight!!!!!!! One thing that can help is to do exercises that loosen up the groin area. Nothing in "real" life opens up this area like sitting on the horse. As the presenter put it, you need to acquire groin flexibility --> you can either use your horse as a gym, or go to the gym to accomplish this.....The exercises were very pilates/yoga centered and I'm not going to try and go into them here. If you want to see them, stop me at a ride and I will gladly demonstrate!
So, maybe you were just confused by all this and want the bottom line?

bottom line: A muscle under pressure contracts. If one side of the horse's back contracts because of your riding and seat (and unless you have actively trained to get rid of your onesidedness, mostly likely you ARE doing this), you are causing the horse to travel crookedly down the trail, setting up uneven stresses on his muscles. A uncomfy back will hollow, the hind legs won't come underneath and the horse may or may not be stepping evenly underneath of himself. This affects the horse negatively over endurance distances.

Other points:

1. Dead last is a greater than Did Not Finish. Did Not Finish trumps Did Not Start.

2. Remember that endurance is a partnership. WE (the rider) are HALF the partnership. We cannot neglet our half of the deal. No matter what food we stuff down our horse, conditioning plans, tack we use etc, we cannot neglet the rider portion of the partnership. I agree. I think that dressage lessons was part of my obligation to Farley as her rider, just like not starting Tevis unless I'm as fit as she is part of the deal (no more riding 100 miles with me unable to get off and help her out on the hills!).

3. She spent a lot of time discussing grip versus balance. We should not be gripping our horses to stay on - it can be totally unconsious, especially if you have very strong thighs (I do.....), and you are greatly hindering your ability to condition your horse if your lower body has tension in it, and you are causing stiffness to occur in the horse that will definitely show up at 100 miles if it doesn't show up at 50 miles.

4. "No pain no gain" is bullshit. If you push your body (or your horse) past it's "fail safe point" than the body will protect itself by resetting that fail safe "backwards". However, if instead you honor that fail safe point and always stop shy of it, the body will respond by gradually moving that fail safe further and further along the path you want to go.

5. Stirrups are not for standing in. What's funny is that this is what they taught us in calvary school, which was the first formal riding education I got - stirrups were to be used as a aid for mounting, nothing else. The posting motion comes from the core, the horse's movement and by unlocking the hinge points of the body. You allow the horse to toss you in the air, lift your pelvis........and during both the down and up phase of the posting trot you should be able to tap your foot in the stirrup, NOT because you are gripping and bracing with your thighs and knees, but because your ankle is relaxed and the horse's momentum and your core is controlling the movement. I know this sounds like voodoo. Let me assure you it is practical and doable. Am I perfect? Nope. It's a constant cycle of me doing it correctly, and then getting all stiff - what I love about the tapping exercise is that for me, it immediately unlocks whatever tension I had and causes me to start doing it correctly - I don't have to analyze what's going wrong and then try to force myself to relax, all I have to do is tap! The seminar speaker said that 1/3 of your weight should be in your stirrup, and 1/3 of your weight should be on the inner thigh without muscle tension, which sounds correct to me - this can change depending on what manuevers you are trying to do, but in general, just motoring along and moving normally, this sounds right.

She made the point that the length of the thigh bone dictates the movement of the up phase of the posting trot. Teh longer thigh bone will equal a longer and higher up phase......these people match well with long strided horses. People with short thigh bones riding a long strided horse need to be careful not to come down too soon and put an extra pause/hang time at the top of their posting up phase - this pause comes from your core and position, not by extra pressure in the stirrup. What happens if you come down in your posting trot too soon? That leg, which was extending forward gets pressure from your seatbones, which causes it to reflexisively shorten which cause all those things we already talked about.

Take home point/exercise that I will do within 7 days:

1. tap my feet in the stirrups during long rides - this has already made a huge difference when I'm starting to accumulate tension in my ankles and hips but don't know how to release it. Just tapping my foot in the stirrup makes everything fall into place and makes me so much more comfy in the saddle.

2. ask farley to travel with her back up during trail rides. Bonus - she's less reactive.

3. Continue to critically evaluate my everyday activities (like driving) and do as much as I can not to exacerbate my one sideness any more than it's already a problem (my left side likes to fall behind, so driving with my right arm/right leg forward and my left arm in my lap and left food back doesn't do anything to try and eliminate that sideness!).

4. Make really really sure I'm not sitting down too soon in the trot. I have a really long femur (the thigh bone) which is good because Farley has a really long stride.......but I still need to be careful that I don't let sloppy posting create tension in her back. I've been putting a bit more hang time into my post and I think she really appreciates it - she seems so much more "swingy" and "relaxed" on the trail now that she knows with certainty that my seat bones are NOT going to interfere with her stride and seems a bit more forgiving when a miscommunication results in my sitting down a bit soon or hard. Combining this with making sure I can tap my feet in the stirrups I think has already made a difference in our conditioning rides - we seem to really be working together instead of against eachother. We have a great base in dressage, but these little tricks make sure that I'm not falling into bad habits.

That's it for this one folks! There's one more seminar post to go and I've saved the best for last - Endurance 101.


  1. Ummm...Funder if you are reading this I have no idea why your blog is classified under my "horsey other" blogs instead of "endurance"....I will be fixing that!!!!!!

  2. I am SO happy you wrote this up.

    Head down-back up: Definitely am going to focus on this more this year. I have noticed in the past that whenever Q and I do workouts on the rail trail, that she moves out with a MUCH lower head carriage than any other time. It weirded me out in the beginning, but as she did it more and more frequently I realized it must be her stretching and moving more comfortably in her back. Lets hope so!

    My lopsidedness - I know for a FACT that I have one leg longer than the other (and one butt cheek larger, tehe) and this botches up a lot and causes me to sit a certain way all the time. I plan this summer to bike more and get back into a yoga routine to help fix my own issues. Between that and weekly dressage exercises with Q maybe we can get on a better page...

    Tapping exercise - Could I request a video demo?! I'm a little confused (I think) per how to accurately do this.

    Another AWESOME post. Thank you!!

  3. Wish I could have seen this presentation...or *any* presentation! I've gotta try this toe tapping thing now.


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