by Katja Porenta

 

 

In this month’s installment of Research Revealed we will be focusing more on the rider than the horse. Specifically, we will be focusing on the rider’s pelvis and its connection to the rider’s skill. 

A very interesting study by M. Uldahl, J.W. Christensen and H.M. Clayton came out recently that looked at the ability of riders to control pelvic movements and the ability to balance. We have talked about the importance of sound biomechanics of the horse, but since horse and rider are a team, it is vital for the rider to have sound biomechanics too, if the team is to be successful, healthy and enjoying the journey.

The Almighty Seat

The rider’s seat (as in, his ability to follow the horse’s movements with his own body in a harmonious way) has been put on a pedestal over the centuries. And rightly so! The seat is the rider’s most important aid, it is the most important source of information and his most valuable tool for communication. 

A good seat is much more than just the ability to stay on the horse comfortably in all three gaits. It is much more than the skill of not falling off when the horse jumps, bucks or suddenly changes direction. A good rider is able to do three really important things through his seat. 

First of all, he can feel the quality of the horse’s movement. He knows which leg is in the air at what time, he feels when the horse falls on the inside shoulder and when he starts to use his hind legs to collect. 

Second, the rider is able to make subtle changes in his posture in order to convey information to the horse. He can initiate a turn, go up or down a gear and encourage a horse to find balance. 

The third thing is often overlooked. The rider must have the ability to not get in the horse’s way. Now this might seem like an odd ability, but this one is really key to developing a good seat. The rider must be able to use his seat in such a way, that the horse can move freely and harmoniously under the rider. If the horse has to compensate for the rider’s lack of balance, or for his crookedness then the space for communication is limited. If the rider keeps getting in the horse’s way by having an unbalanced seat, the horse will have a much harder time hearing the information that the rider is trying to convey. 

An unbalanced seat is noisy and loud and it doesn’t carry much valuable information. If this is the case, the horse soon learns to ignore the input coming from the rider’s seat and the rider loses his most valuable tool of communication. To make a long story short, the rider’s seat is incredibly important.

The Study

The human pelvis is a pretty nifty thing. The hip joints, where the legs attach to the pelvis, which in turn attaches to the spine, are very mobile. The ball and socket type of joint which can be found in the hips enables us to use our legs in many different ways. 

Unfortunately, the modern human tends to be very unimaginative when it comes to the use of our hip joints. We sit a lot, which flexes our hips, we walk some, which flexes and extends our hips, but we rarely squat, rarely sit with our legs apart, rarely circle our legs one at a time from our hips. We forgot just how mobile we are supposed to be. And of course, with joint motion, you either use it or lose it. 

Most of us have a very limited range of motion in our hips. And then we sit on a horse and expect our hip joints and our pelvis to be like a fine tuned machine, able to give and receive the subtlest of cues. That’s kind of optimistic, isn’t it? 

But enough about the almighty seat, let’s get into the study itself. The researchers from Denmark and the US first looked at riders on an exercise ball doing three different types of exercises. They then looked at those same riders on their horses.

The question was, can the ability to perform certain exercises on an exercise ball predict the rider’s level of skill on a horse?

Twenty female riders with at least five years of riding experience, who regularly train and compete their own horses were asked to do three different exercises on the ball. 

In the first one, they had to roll the plevis left and right by raising the hip towards the ribcage on the same side, without lifting the feet or bending the upper body downward. 

In the second exercise they were asked to make circles with their pelvis in both directions while keeping the rest of the body as still as possible. 

The third exercise required the riders to sit upright on the ball, with their arms extended horizontally and their feet on the ground, and then lift their feet and balance for 30 seconds.

As we can see, the first two exercises required a mobile pelvis and the ability of control over the movements of the pelvis while the third exercise required a good sense of balance. The rider’s ability to perform these exercises was scored on a scale from 1 to 3 for each exercise separately. Each rider then had to ride a standardized dressage test which was recorded and later evaluated for quality and harmony and the occurrence of conflict behaviours in the horse. After the test, the horse’s heart rate and cortisol level were recorded. 

The riders who scored better in the first two exercises on the ball, also scored higher in quality and harmony in the dressage test. The ability to balance on the ball was negatively correlated to the riding quality and harmony. In addition, the horses ridden by riders who did well in the first two exercises on the ball, showed fewer conflict behaviours than the horses of riders who did well on the balance test. 

This indicates that in riding, the ability to move and control the movement of the pelvis is more important than the ability to statically balance in a certain position. This is exciting new information! It gives us valuable clues into what we can do to improve our riding skill and where we might be lacking as riders.

How Can We Use This Information In Practice?

 

In recent years, core strength has been all the rage. A strong core is vital for a healthy back, for developing good posture, for becoming a better rider, healthier runner, even becoming better looking. 

In the pursuit of core strength, many people have started obsessively doing endless reps of crunches. While this does tone your rectus abdominis (sixpack), it is not enough to build core strength, let alone develop good motor control over your core. It’s not just about having the muscles, it’s knowing how and when to use them. 

This study shows this beautifully. In order to develop a good seat, we must once again remember just how mobile our hips should be and we need to fine tune that mobility. And doing endless crunches and squats simply won’t do that. I’m not saying you need to stop going to the gym. I am saying that perhaps it would be a good idea to spend some time focusing on mobility as well as strength. Try implementing yoga in your exercise routine. Try sitting on the floor, squatting in your everyday life, get a Feldenkrais lesson (or ten). And while you’re at it, get an exercise ball and practice, practice, practice. The subtlety of good motor control is so underappreciated and yet so incredibly important. You will be doing yourself and your horse a favour if you re-discover just how amazing your pelvis is.

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