In order to position your pelvis and spine in the correct position and to allow your body to move with the movement of your horse, we use muscles. The final result is of course different for each rider because we are all shaped differently, but we all have the same bones and the same muscles. In order to reach the correct posture, riding instructors often use verbal instructions and/or visualizations, such as “sit on your tail”, “pull your miniskirt down”, sit on your pants pockets” and “sit deeper in the saddle”.
What we as riding instructors are looking for, is to find the instruction that helps you, the rider, to find the right feeling and experience. For me, I get the right result in my pelvis and spine when I think of a little weight hanging down on my tail bone. For some of my students however, that means nothing to them. When we try to reach the result without having the right experience or feeling behind it (imagine your instructor positioning you in the saddle in the ‘correct’ position and then telling you to keep this posture), we often end up trying to hold the posture with our ‘outside’ muscles. The results are stiff, not moving and it gets hard to breath. As soon as we stop trying, our body wants to move back to its old position.
But which muscles should we use, and which should we keep relaxed while we ride? And, when we know which muscles we want to use; how do we get our brain to signal to these specific muscles and not to others? The task at hand for riding instructors is as difficult as it is for someone to explain to another person how to wiggle your ears.
My seat-teacher Tom Nagel has helped me tremendously to understand the concept of tone versus tension, and describes in his books and clinics how riders can learn to engage their psoas muscles to stabilize their seat while keeping flexibility. When we learn to engage our psoas, we are stable in our seat without any tension in our abdominal muscles. This is true core stability and allows riders to still breathe deep into their center. Tense your stomach muscles while you read this sentence, and at the same time try to breathe deeply into your belly.
It doesn’t work, does it?
Experienced riders use their psoas to stabilize and to move on their horses, often without knowing what they are doing. With instructions such as “sit deep into the saddle”, “center yourself” and “Sit on your pants pockets” they try to describe their experience when they engage their true core. However, if their students follow these instructions without realizing what they are after, some students may use their outside muscles to create the same picture: tensing their abdominals to put their pelvis in the right position. It may look the same, but is does not feel the same and it does not give you the same stable flexibility. I agree with Tom Nagel that the understanding and awareness of the psoas is the missing link for many riders. I am happy to see that the knowledge about the psoas is spreading among the horse riding community in these days. (continue reading below..)
(picture: Tom Nagel testing a rider's stability in the saddle)
Tom honored us with a visit again last week, which included a 3-day Riders Seat clinic exploring the psoas muscles and finding a stable yet flexible seat. His 3day clinics cover the topics of posture, breathing and awareness and are a valuable addition for all riders of all disciplines and backgrounds and for riding instructors. All participants gained new experiences they can take home to work with on their own. The specialty of Tom Nagel, as he calls it himself, is to offer a translation service between what riding instructors are telling their students to do and the experience that riders should link to these instructions. It is a 'HOW TO' clinic, in the sense that riders learn how to use their inner core and their breath to ride. It is also a 'HOW TO' clinic in the sense that riding instructors learn new ways to give their students the experience in their own body and new words to describe this experience.
Want to know more? In Toms book Zen and Horsebackriding he explains the psoas and gives helpful exercises to learn how to engage your psoas. (ORDER HERE). In April 2018, Tom will be in the Netherlands again for another 3day clinic. You can contact Ylvie for pre-booking information.
I like to share my thoughts on the Art of Riding with you here. Topics related to training and keeping horses and reports of my own experiences you can find here. Enjoy!