To: Dressage Today
From: Anne Howard 408-728-5004

Dressage Today Response - updated 2/19/97

<need to put in the original question: essentially
a big asymmetry question with uneven leathers and
scoliosis as well as back and neck pain and other factors>

Your letter doesn't indicate what diagnosis your physician made in your case. I'd need several questions answered if you were my student. Does your pain and numbness increase or decrease as you ride? What physical movements cause your pain? Does your current daily program reduce your symptoms? Did you have the same riding "crookedness" prior to your "seize up"?   I'm curious as to your medical history and diagnosis in this case, but let's examine some of the general possibilities.  Let me add here that pain is a direct communication from your body that all is not well - ignoring it is not wise.
I'm encouraged that you have a program that you are willing to spend time doing each day. After some explanation, I'll suggest a few body awareness exercises to that daily routine to help address your crookedness.

 Learning to recognize asymmetries is one set of skills, learning to correct them is another.    Almost every rider has asymmetries in their body that impact how their horse interprets their aids. Part of this body "style" is how good riders produce horses with similar outlines, and how other riders seem to have the same "horse problems" on every horse they ride. Recognizing and correcting these flaws in position will give you more control over your body and your physical dialogue with the horse.

A rider's asymmetries can come from injury, habitual postures, and occasionally from true skeletal or muscular anomalies (fractures, polio, nerve damage). It sounds as though you are aware of many of the asymmetries in your body and equally aware that the compensations you've made (like shortening the stirrup) are not ultimately very helpful to you or your horse. And while its almost universal that people notice their asymmetry in their hands, rein contact, or feet, correcting the problem starts at getting the trunk and pelvis correctly aligned.

Let's start by getting some control and awareness in your pelvis and seatbones. Sitting on a hard chair, check to see if you can feel each seatbone. If you can't feel your seatbones clearly, sitting on your hands, palms down, may help. (Eventually, I hope your awareness of your seat is as sensitive as your hands but this process takes time and concentration.) Is your weight distributed 50% on each seatbone? Do they feel even under you or is the placement on a diagonal line? Does the shape and feel of each the same, or does one feel pointier and one feel rounder?  Can you shift around to get them as close to 50%-50% as possible? Try looking up to the ceiling and down to floor as well as tipping your head left and right to help shift the weight around as your explore the possibilities. People with a scoliosis (a "S" or "C" shaped lateral curve in the spine, either acquired through asymmetrical muscle use or by true bony deformity) will often need to shift the position they carry their ribcage to get to a better balance over their seatbones.
Next, lets make sure you have the essential line-up for a balanced and healthy spine:
There are many ways of stacking up your body parts over the "foundation" of your pelvis. There should be a slight forward curve to the low back, a slight backward curve through the ribcage, and a very slight forward curve to the neck. [A DIAGRAM WOULD BE HELPFUL HERE, I'LL INCLUDE IT WITH THE PHOTO] Working with a partner, these three curves can be used to achieve a straight (plumb) line through ear - shoulder - hip. This position is called neutral spine and allows the spine to withstand the compressive forces of riding while minimizing the chance of injury and stress. It evenly distributes the forces of gravity through the entire structure. In my experience, most people find this position eliminates their pain almost instantly -- then they need to strengthen their awareness as well as their muscles to be skilled at holding this position. The good news is that this is also the position of the "classical dressage seat."

While on this hard chair, try this exercise that addresses lateral asymmetry awareness. Sit to the side of the chair so that only one seatbone is supported. First, let the non-supported seatbone drop down so that the trunk elongates on that side. Your upper body will need to curve over the supported side to stay in balance. Then lift the unsupported seatbone up (higher than the level of the chair), shortening that side so that the curve of the body is to the unsupported side. Do this slowly, repeating a few times one one side before trying the same exercise with the other seatbone supported.  If you have a helper, have them watch your back to see if you get the same number of trunk "wrinkles" and quality of curve on each side. You might notice that you find it much easier to achieve a curve one way than the other.  Learning to gain control over this lateral bend in your body can give you a new riding "tool" to use in the saddle. For example,  if you have trouble "finding" one seatbone while in the saddle, lifting the opposite seatbone will help "drop" the difficult one down into saddle contact.

In your individual case, my first impression is that you need to shift your ribs quite a bit to the left, in essence to attempt to get you to "collapse" a bit through the right side. This ought to help get some weight onto your left seatbone. I'd also guess that you have a strong twist through your trunk, spiraling to the left as it comes up through the body. As you start this journey to achieve straightness, paradoxically, many of the corrections will feel very "twisted",  For starters, ask yourself the following questions during your next ride:
 - Can you shift the ribs and make the corrections to find both seatbones in the saddle
 as you did during the dismounted work?
 - Can you arrange to "point" the left seatbone towards your horse's right hind foot?
 - Does one seatbone feel closer to the horse's spine than the other? Is one closer to the tail
 than the other? Can you shift so that both are equidistant to the spine?
 - Notice where the bone of your thigh is pointed on the left versus the right? Can you
 manage to direct them toward your horse's knees? (Your right knee pointed towards
 your horse's left knee, and your left to her right: a pigeon-knee feel.) My guess is
 that the right thigh will have more of a tendency to point up and out rather
 than down and across.
 - Notice how often you have to attend to these changes as you walk your horse.
 Maintaining postural changes requires a lot of attention and focus initially, but
 will become more natural with dedicated practice.

These are just a few ideas to begin rearranging your body alignment. I'd highly recommend reading Ride With Your Mind: Masterclass by Mary Wanless, focusing on riding biomechanics and correcting rider asymmetries; she also has videos available if that is a better learning medium for you. Working with a specialist in seat and position would be a excellent addition to your normal instruction program. Many instructors, although they may ride brilliantly and excel in training, may not have a clear enough understanding of correct posting and sitting biomechanics  to teach these difficult skills. Also be aware that riders, like other athletes, benefit from periodically examining their riding form, breaking it down to better understand it and then putting it back together in a new and improved manner.

If there isn't specialist who clinics or works in your area, I'd highly recommend doing some body awareness work on your own. There are many approaches to improved body use including Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, T'ai Chi, martial arts, meditation, dance and yoga are all useful tools. I've recently assisted in making a new video, about to be released, titled: A Rider's Guide to Body Awareness, (one of the Masterclass videos produced by Mary Wanless and Barefoot Video) that presents some basic work on body awareness, spinal alignment, stretching and strengthening that should prove quite helpful.

Anne Howard, PT

Conquered own back disorder that flared up during Young Rider trials through learning balanced posture and the principles of spinal stabilization training.

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