By “skeletal balance” what is meant is that you use your skeleton primarily and your muscles secondarily to remain upright and move with ease and grace. It means that a person uses the skeleton and only a minimal of muscle exertion to remain upright and move. Children have this ability as a natural gift – they are easy, light and flexible. They usually adapt beautifully to any new environment. As we get older, this natural posture begins to desert us, and we begin to slouch mostly because of the weight of our bodies, minds and consciences, and often because of some physical illness or disability. We also lose our natural posture when we become couch potatoes, because a sedentary lifestyle wreaks havoc with our fitness. We are also subject to society’s nagging at us about correct or trendy postures.
There is only so much we can do by way of exercise and training and conscious posture maintaining. We cannot stop the advance of time, but we can limit its ravages. In the context of horse riding, however, we can train ourselves to sense when we are perfectly balanced through the skeleton.
The skeleton is naturally designed in a way that makes it dynamic and yet extremely strong and stable. It can absorb tremendous impact without suffering damage and without causing damage to adjoining muscle and sinew.
It is very essential to maintain skeletal balance for comfortable rides. This kind of balance is especially crucial for riders involved in competition: reining, jumping, dressage or any other challenging sport. As a rider, if your are balanced from the skeleton point of view, you are freeing your joints for maximum ease of movement and your muscles play only minor roles in maintaining balance. When we are properly positioned, our bodies can adapt to any movement of our horse. We stretch our spines and backs and relax our abdominal muscles. Our breath flows easy and soft, and our head is balanced and still on our neck, whatever our horse’s gait, we have no problem getting in synch with the rhythm. And most important, we are able to communicate with the softest of aids to our horse.
You should be alert to the need to keep your spine stretched, stable and elastic. You should not be crimping it. Impacts should flow into and out of our bodies without affecting any muscle, bone or joint. We should not be feeling any discomfort or pain. If our posture is such that we have to use muscles to keep ourselves balanced, we are subjecting ourselves to tension and stress. If you get some friend to study you when you are not conscious of it, he can make out if you are leaning back habitually, standing on your heels, slouching at your shoulders or standing with a cocked hip. When we sit with our weight more on one side of our pelvis, or when we sit with our heads jutting forward, we will have been using our muscles to maintain our posture.
Typically, riders on horseback create stress by slouching, leaning back or forward or slanting to one side, These postures are not conducive for smooth passage of the horse’s energies, and this means both horse and rider pay the penalty. A rider who tilts backward will be unyielding and will impact the horse’s back unnecessarily. A rider who arches his back low will definitely have to go through discomfort and pain and quite possibly some kind of more serious damage. Riders who ride with their weight more on a single seat bone will be continuously trying to centre themselves on the saddle, and this means the horse’s musculature development will be asynchronous on the two sides as he tries to constantly hold up an unbalanced rider on one side.
A rider with proper balance is absolutely flexible but easy. The horse’s energies move through him or her leaving no traces behind, A balanced rider helps his or her horse also stay symmetrically balanced. The rider’s muscle system is ready to give smooth cues and to flow with the horse’s gaits.
You rediscover the natural skeletal balance you lost sometime as you grew up by retraining your system of neural pathways out of bad habits and into dynamic, balanced habits. You can use the simple experiment described below to rediscover your innate balance and achieve perfect unity with the horse.
Take something like 20 minutes over this exercise. Go through each sequence slowly and deliberately and repeat a dozen times or more, keeping alert to the sensations in different body parts. You do not need in indulge in violent or exaggerated movements; what you do need to do is get in tune with your ability to sense yourself and move with harmony.
Take a seat on a firm backless bench. Your thighs should parallel the ground or point gently down. Keep your feet firmly planted down and your knees and feet apart to the width of your hips.
1. Round your back slightly and gently and bring your back to normal erectness. Repeat 10 times; each time, focus yourself on a different area of your body.
Get yourself comfortable and take a brief break. Lean back a bit or get down on the floor.
2. Settle yourself on the floor with your feet flat down once again. Round the back slowly again, looking down each time as your pelvis moves up and out. Repeat 8 or 10 times. Then go through the whole routine, this time with your face pointing up. Every time you look up think of conveying a different body part toward the ceiling.
Pause for a while.
3. Very softly, arch the back about 10 times with great gentleness. Try to be sensitive to the sensations at the bottom of the feet, in the chest and in the seat bones.
4. Maintaining the slowness, arch the back again a few times. Try to look upward with every arch. Repeat 6 times, taking your time, this time looking downward with each arch. Arch your back several times, once again looking up. Are things easier now?
Lean back or lie down and take another break.
5. Start alternatively arching and rounding your back. As you arch, look up and as you round, look down. Move with ease and lightness, don’t strain yourself in the slightest bit. Continue arching and rounding for several repetitions. Try to figure out if your movement has changed or if your perception has gone through a change.
Pause awhile again.
6.Start the cycle of arching and rounding again. This time, look up as you round and look down when you arch. Repeat several times.
7. Go through another cycle of arches and rounds, but go back to looking down on the round and up on the arch. Is the movement easier to perform – is it now clearer to you? Have you achieved range of movements? Sit while you are in the process of rounding and arching. Are you able to sit up with a lot more ease then when you started the exercise?
One more pause leaning back or lying down.
8. Go back to a stance where your knees and feet are apart, to the extent of your hips. Plant your feet firmly. Start the arch-round cycle once again. Look straight ahead when doing this. Make sure your movements are easy and light.
Have another break and then sit quietly in neutral. Get a feel for how it is sitting like this. Are you now more conscious of your spine?
Get to your feet and try to sense if you are now standing in a different way. Take a small walk. See if your sense of balance and your spine is now different.
It is time for you to put behind the constant grouching of your riding instructor as he tells you to sit up or put the heels down or keep the legs still. It is time for you to slip smoothly into the rhythm of your horse, at whatever gait, to get him to respond to the lightest of aids from you.
There no such thing as too old for this. You can gain fluency of movement and expertise of riding at any age.