Thursday, April 21, 2016

Balance and Stability Through Grounded Feet and Strengthened Legs

I want to talk about legs, an element of the riding position that is commonly misunderstood and overlooked. There are many riders that let their feet cramp up inside their boots or let the stirrup dangle underneath their feet when they are really trying hard to get a horse forward by kicking and pushing, usually seen in sitting trot or canter. But just think for a second, if there is no weight pushing down in the stirrups, where is the rider getting their stability and balance from?

The answer would be from gripping with their knees and thighs and tensing their seat, or balancing on their hands either leaning forward and blocking the horse with their hands drawn back to their body or sitting behind the movement and "water-skiing" off the horses mouth. Nobody wants to do any of that when they ride, so I'm just going to give a few tips to help understand what it really means to "push down into your stirrups" and be truly balanced on a horse.

Let's start by simply standing up straight with feet together, or what we call "mountain pose" (tadasana) in yoga. Most people would wobble and fall with a little poking and prodding, or with a strong gust of wind, because we are more than likely keeping our balance by holding tension somewhere in the body that isn't resistant to instability.

It sounds like the easiest thing in the world but actually it is quite difficult to stay still and balanced standing with feet together! But this is why it's called the mountain pose - mountains are tall, strong, with a super strong wide base that makes them solid and resistant to anything that mother nature throws at them, except earthquakes, because that disrupts their strong base and they become unstable and collapse.

Getting the picture? So when you stand, really push all four corners of your feet down into the floor and feel yourself being grounded. Feel your body become free of tension, relax your shoulders, and just push everything down into your feet. Feels stronger right?

Now think of that old training tip where if the horse were to be removed from underneath us, we should be able to stay upright and not fall forwards or backwards. Thinking of what we had to do in mountain pose, where would this balance come from? The feet!!

Now you might be thinking "yes but I'm not standing up straight on a horse, my legs are bent and I have to move my body with it", and this is where leg muscles come in. Now, the anatomy of the hip-knee-ankle alignment is quite complicated but the main thing you need to know about is muscular balance of the inner and outer thighs for correct "knee over toe" alignment.

To feel the balls of your feet pressing into the stirrup with a correct leg position, you need to find out where your weaknesses in your legs are. This can be done by single-leg balancing poses like warrior III, half moon pose and tree pose (google it if you don't know them!!). While balancing on one leg, pull your kneecap up and activate your quad. Then you will be able to feel where you wobble or feel most pressure, whether it be your in your feet with struggling to keep a neutral arch, or in your hip which would move left and right trying to catch your balance.

If you struggle to keep stability in your feet then you need to strength your lower leg. Try holding a squat position or be in chair pose (squat with legs and feet together and arms overhead... again, google it if you don't know!) and come up onto your toes and keep your balance there. That should help you feel through your feet more and strengthen all the tiny muscles inside your ankles and feet that help create a stable base.

If your hips wobble, or your knee collapses in or splays out (this can certainly be applied to the leg position in the saddle, whether your grip in with your knees or let your knees open and flap) then you need to work on strengthening your inner and outer quad muscles. When you ride if your toes stick out and knees are a bit off the saddle, you probably have stronger outer thighs than inner thighs. You could be using your outer thigh strength and glute muscles to push the horse forward, yet that would take you back off your seat bones and result in driving into the horse's back. More rarely for dressage riders is knees gripping with weak glutes and strong inner quads, which results in perching in the saddle, restricting the horse's forward movement.

In the single leg poses you need to focus your mind on which ever muscle group is weaker for you and try and create stability by activating it with your kneecap lifted. However this must be done with correct alignment with your knee over your second toe. This can be worked on by doing poses involving a lunge like warrior II. In the lunge the front leg that is bent shouldn't collapse in or point out, your knee should be at a 90 degree angle and if you were to look in a mirror front-on the knee should be pointing in the same direction as the feet and level with the second toe. Again, to find this spot you may need to activate your inner or outer thigh as necessary.

Translating all this into being on a horse (finally!), when our knee is bent it needs to be pointing in the same direction as your feet, which should be feeling grounded into the stirrup with the ball of your foot spreading across all four corners. Forget about pushing your heels down, that happens when your hips are relaxed and the leg drops down naturally in alignment. If you force the heel down it creates tension everywhere else. DONT DO IT! For me, I naturally ride on the outside of my foot which deactivates my inner quad, so I have to focus on pressing through my big toe and the inside of the ball of my foot a bit more to make the muscles in my leg work evenly.

When your leg is in a correct alignment over your stirrups, you can feel an entire, full contact with the saddle that makes you so much more effective with your legs. There is no driving into the horse's back because you're balanced on your seat bones, a result of using your feet as a foundation that keeps you rooted in position. Your entire upper body now just has to stack straight on top of your pelvis with a loose lower back to allow movement and a strong core to keep upper body stability; feel your chest lift, shoulders relax down, and follow the horse's forward movement with hands out in front of you holding an even, consistent and elastic contact, which again stems from the balance you have in the saddle.

It's that simple ;)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Taking Responsibility for Your Training

A great skill to have in riding, yoga, and in life generally, is the ability to take responsibility for yourself and the journey you're on. Owning a horse in itself is a huge responsibility, but how much do we truly hold ourselves accountable for what happens to them, the progress of our training or our competency as riders?

Chadwick training correctly in a lesson with my trainer,
Leonie Bramall
In yoga class, they say it is not the teacher who makes your practice good or bad, it's you. Yoga practice is all about having presence and awareness of yourself, and taking on the responsibility to look after your body and explore within the poses to find what feels good, bad, easy, or challenging. The teacher is there to support you in your journey, so will answer your questions and give you advice, but ultimately the quality of your time on the mat is down to you.

Now think to when you have a dressage lesson with your instructor. How many of us walk around the arena waiting for the instructor to ask you to start trotting? Or wait for the instructor to yell out a solution to a problem you've been aware of but not attempted to fix because you haven't been told yet? Whilst we are sat on our horse, we are responsible for what happens, not our instructor. It is up to us to sit on our horse, connect with them, and train them every step of the way, with only GUIDANCE from our instructor, not them dictating every move we make in the saddle. Otherwise we take away our ability to create and follow our own training journey when we are riding alone (which for a lot of us is most of the time). Riding is something we do on an almost daily basis so it makes sense for us to choose our own path, collecting more knowledge from lessons learnt along the way to use as bricks to keep paving our way into the future.

I developed some problems with my knee that were aggravated in yoga, yet I kept pushing myself at the same intensity because I let my ego take over and I wanted to gain more flexibility, so I ignored the signs that my body was telling me for a while. The months passed and the knee pain didn't go away, sometimes it got worse, but I didn't feel any more flexible. I was forced to look into my lack of progress and the honesty of my practise, and had to take responsibility for that injury. I was responsible for pushing myself past the point that my body said no, and so now I am responsible for adjusting my hip position, activating my inner thighs to help support the knee joint, and take myself a step back to retrain the alignment of my legs. The aim to get more flexible is just as far away as when I began wanting it but because I neglected responsibility for myself initially, I learned a useful lesson that I can use as the bricks for my future path.

This is the same case with injuries in horses caused by being pushed too hard, but maybe more commonly is our performance when we go out to compete. For competition riders, when we are training at home we have the goal of taking the horse out to a competition in mind. So therefore we have a tendency to ignore (or not be aware of) the true quality of things such as the half halt, the horse's ability to carry themselves, the suppleness through the ribcage and throughness over the back. Whilst we know we need to have these things, we are also thinking of having expression, cadence, the poll being the highest point, and the legs crossing in half-passes and leg-yields. Horses have a really amazing way of humbling all of us, particularly by performing like our very own Valegro at home and in the competition warm up, yet as soon as we head down the centreline towards a judge, their ass feels like its in Hong Kong and that our seat has been dumped in the Grand Canyon with the big crater of a drop they've produced with their back.

When the time is taken to form a bond with correct training,
the horse will peform for you.
Debertina at Regionals 2015
WHY?! Sometimes we blame the horse for not co-operating, sometimes we blame our instructor for not forewarning us that this would happen, and sometimes, and hopefully most times, we blame ourselves for not getting the preparation right. For letting ourselves oversee the importance of the basics and get carried away with having legs up by the ears. For completely forgetting that the only reason the poll will be the highest point is because the horse is engaged and uphill, not because we told the horse to put their head there. For ignoring the quality of bend through the whole horse's body in a half-pass and only looking at the crossing of the legs and making sure their head was pointing in the right direction. This is extreme, I know, and will not be everyone's problems, but it is the trend that we can overlook the honesty of our training and neglect to take responsibility for every issue that arises during our training, perhaps hoping it was a "bad day" or that the problem would go away if we just ignored it and did something else instead.

Of course it will take a lot longer to train completely honestly, addressing every issue. But the issues are there for a reason and they will only raise their ugly heads when you least want them to - when doing a test. If I set out to practice my half-passes one day but then have to spend half an hour only doing walk and trot transitions because I don't feel like the horse is really understanding how to do the transition whilst staying through over the back, then so be it. Within that half an hour of simple transition work, I know I would have achieved more than I would have than by doing half-passes, and I would be saved from that guilty conscience in the back of my head that I couldn't actually do a transition to trot that day without the slight hop and drop of the back.  If I had to compete the day after that day of walk and trot transitions, I would set a new goal to ride all my transitions "through" during the test, because that would be where I'm at in my journey with my horse and I would feel a lot better about addressing that issue head-on rather than fooling myself that everything would magically be ok.

Be responsible for the honesty of your training. It makes the
journey so much more enjoyable!
This, is taking responsibility for my training, following my own path and staying true to what I want to feel when I ride my horse. Ignoring what my horse is telling me (even through the smallest blips) just because I need to live up to a judge's expectation of what I should look like is soul-destroying for me, and not what I believe dressage to be. Stay true to you and your horse's training journey and be responsible for every step you take towards your goals. This is the key to long-term success and a fulfilling partnership with your horse.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Beginning the New Chapter and the Importance of Managing the Ego

Finally I've gotten round to writing about my new chapter - incorporating yoga with dressage training. It has taken a few months to develop this because as I went deeper into my yoga practise, a whole new world opened to me. I have spent some time on the fundamental basics of body movement and alignment, explored that within my own dressage training and now am starting to teach with these ideas at the forefront of my mind. So now, I can put all my ideas to paper (or keyboard!) and share the little tips and ideas I get on an almost daily basis when I combine my yoga practise with my dressage training.

I've had huge eye-openers into things like my spinal alignment (I had been holding my spine in the shape I thought it "should" be rather than working with my natural curve), shoulder rotation and the way I hold my arms and hands when I ride, weight distribution in my feet and thinking about how they feel in the stirrups, the importance of the psoas muscles in my torso and their relation to my hip flexors, and how my quads and hamstrings work in relation to my pelvis and knees. One of the biggest things I have learnt, however, is not physical. Yoga has taught me concentration, the feeling of being present, and to how focus on intention rather than effort. For me, these aspects are game changers.

I'll move through the snippets and realisations individually so as not to overload anyone, so will start with today. I recently came back from a little holiday to see my sister in France, so the horses are only just starting to come back into their work routine, as am I with my exercise routine (desperately needed to work off all that delicious french food and wine!). I was super eager to get back to what I was working on before I went away, so I put on one of my favourite Yogi's videos on youtube, which was at a level I would normally be fine at, but I couldn't even get through the first 5 minutes. Weak was an understatement. It felt like all the shoulder and core strength I had developed over the past 6 months was just gone.

In yoga, we are always told to "listen to our body",  despite what the ego is shouting at us. So, I did, and I put on a gentler vinyasa flow video with plenty of stretches to start getting the blood flow going again and just unwind my body after being so sedentary from travelling. It worked a treat and I felt lovely and loose afterwards, ready to get back to the proper work in my first yoga class the next evening.

I applied the same thought process to the horses. I popped one of them on the lunge before I got on and she looked almost lame she was so stiff. So I kept her walking for ages on the lunge and did a gentle trot both ways, then I hopped on and just walked her for a few circuits around our property which involves a couple of small hills. I did the same with the others, with the view that all of the walking under saddle with weight on their back would be just enough for their first day, warming their muscles up after being so sedentary for the last few days, like I was. The hills added a bit of flexion and extension into their joints, and warmed up the back even more.

I was just as keen to get the horses working again as we really need to get out competing and I have goals I want to achieve with them, but just getting on and starting work as normal would have only been counterproductive and stressful for them, the same way as the first yoga video felt for me. Having this understanding and empathy for the horse is of utmost importance. Many people would say they would do the same thing, which is great, but how many people stop and think about why a horse is finding a particular movement hard, or think about what they might be feeling in their body? Instead of taking steps back and re-evaluating, we just put more effort in and more pressure on, only for everyone to end up in a sweaty mess with not much else achieved other than a tired horse and a frustrated rider.

If I am doing my practice and find a particular pose difficult, I don't keep pushing it until it gets better, I back off and think "not today" or "its too much for where I am right now in my journey". Otherwise injuries can happen, or because I used my ego, I feel defeated. It's the same with the horses. The advanced movements shouldn't be hard if the foundations and basics are there and correct. As long as we stay true to that, and listen to what the horse's body is telling us and addressing it empathetically and systematically, all the rest will come when the time is right for them and the correct strength and suppleness is there. They have no ego, it is only us that creates such expectations of them to please ourselves.