Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dissecting the Seat – Part 4: Biomechanics of “Bearing Down” and plugging your seat in with the horse’s movement

Expanding from this post, a more in-depth explanation about the biomechanics of the seat and how it affects the horse’s energy an “thoroughness” in an excerpt from Mary Wanless's Article 42.


…When a rider is having this problem, I like to say "Imagine that we could perform a surgical operation, and insert a fishing rod just beneath the horse’s mane. If it had a small fish on the end of it, it would make a slight curve throughout its length. The whole length of his neck should ideally feel as if it really were hung from a fishing rod. But you may find that the rod has soggy bits, or even that it’s missing completely. What do you sense is happening here?".

People can normally answer this question very easily, and you can probably imagine from looking at the photo that the fishing rod ends two thirds of the way up the horse’s neck. What is much less obvious is that the fishing rod will also be soggy at the base of the horse’s neck. This is the part which the rider must repair first - and amazingly, just thinking like this is often enough to fix the problem! Having reorganized the base of the neck the rider can then successfully think about the top of it …

Horses find it very difficult to make the correct connection from the hind leg, over the croup, under the panels of the saddle, and up the crest of the neck. Think of this as an energy connection, or as water flowing through a hose. When complete the circuit continues through the rein to the rider’s arm and back, so that the energy received into her body rejoins the original conduit. This connection gives the rider a very correct influence, and enables the horse to seek a light contact with the rider’s hand, and, potentially, to "sit himself down". How wonderful horses look when they achieve this! But it requires very skilful, correct riding, and the lengthening of the horse’s spine mirrors the "use" which people aspire to when they have lessons in the Alexander Technique.

This horse breaks the circuit both at the base and at the top of the neck. He also is not "sitting himself down" – if anything I think he is raising his croup to evade this demand. Instead of maintaining the correct connection whilst shortening his whole frame as he would in collection, he has scrunched his neck backwards whilst lifting his croup. So things have gone rather awry - and as always, the rider is unknowingly playing a part in allowing this to happen.

She too has lost the ideal connection in her own spine, this time by stretching it too much and in the wrong way. From her waist she has separated both halves of her body, drawing her ribs up and stretching her legs down. If we could see the shape of her back, I am sure we would find that it is hollow. However, we all hear so much about "growing up tall and stretching your legs down" that our rider will almost certainly believe that she is sitting correctly! But I like to think of riding as a martial art, and this is not the stance used by good martial artists, who understand that this kind of stretching renders you much less stable and effective.

If you stand in a martial arts position and then exaggeratedly grow tall and lift your chest, you will find yourself all but holding your breath. You will also feel very tense and unstable. Then drop your ribs down towards your hips, so that you remove the hollow from your back. (Doing this sideways on to a long mirror will give you the clearest feedback.) For added strength, you can then engage your abdominal muscles in the way I call "bearing down". Cough, giggle, or clear your throat, and then maintain that muscle use. Your major difficulty might then become breathing, for to bear down continuously you must use diaphragmatic breathing, which only seems to come easily to people who run, sing, or who have learnt to play a wind instrument.

Many people who "grow up tall" are shocked by my insistence that they need to drop their rib cage. By comparison, they often feel slouched or round shouldered – so they are convinced that this new idea must be wrong. Some have heard the idea from the Alexander Technique that they should think of themselves "being pulled up by a string attached to the top of the head". These words, however, are intended to describe a much more subtle expansiveness through the whole back and neck, which is not the same as this hollow backed version of growing tall.

The version of "stretching your leg down" which accompanies the wrong way of "growing up tall" becomes an attempt to get your knee beneath your hip to and make your whole leg vertical. This usually generates a strong pressure into the stirrup, which pushes the heel down and forward. If you are sitting in a chair as you read this, push one foot hard down into the floor, and realise how doing so tends to lift that side of your pelvis. Your body is obeying Newton’s third law of motion, which states that "every action has an equal and opposite reaction" ie. every push down will create an equal and opposite push up. This is one of the main reasons why people usually sit to the trot better without their stirrups – for they cannot then push down on them, and do not experience the straightening of their joints which then sends their backside up out of the saddle.

This bodily use opens the angle between the leg and the body too much, and it plays into the horse’s evasive pattern. (It would take me too long to explain to you exactly how this happens.) So to change her horse, this rider needs to change herself, completing her part of the circuit before she can complete his. I would like to see her bring her lower leg back underneath her and lighten her pressure into the stirrup. Creating a vertical shoulder/hip/heel line will make her feel as if her heel is back and up, and the change will probably horrify her! She also needs to spread the weight which does go into the stirrup over the entire width of her foot, and not roll her ankles over to weight the outside of the foot. The next step is to think of the thigh and calf making an arrowhead shape, in which the knee is the point of the arrow. This means that she will no longer be "stretching her leg down" in the way she is now.

Simultaneously, she needs to drop her ribs down towards her hips, and to take the hollow out of her back. This too may horrify her. It is as if she needs to shrink both ends of her body towards the middle – and into a martial arts stance. Then she is in a position for make the "fishing rod" idea work for her.

How to feel the “bearing down”: excerpt from Article 37

With your seat bones pointing down and your feet flat on the floor, put one hand under your sternum, and put the thumb and first finger of the other hand each side of your spine at waistband level. Then clear your throat. You should feel your muscles push out against your hands. Put your hands on your sides and repeat the experiment. Then place the fingers of one hand half way between your belly button and your pubic bone, and clear your throat again.

Sam is riding as if she is doing this permanently. I first called this use of your abdominal muscles ‘bearing down’, although I now think that ‘bear out’ might have been a better term, since it does not make you sit heavier. Wherever you have soft tissue, i.e. in the entire band around your waist between your ribs and your hips, and all down your abdominal muscles from your sternum to your pubic bone, your guts push against your skin. Think of pulling your stomach in, making the muscles into a wall, and then pushing against that wall. It is as if your torso were a jam jar or a baked bean tin, and the contents of the tin are under pressure, pushing against the edges, but without deforming the shape of the container.

The next difficulty arises with the need to breathe and bear down both at the same time. This requires diaphragmatic breathing, which will be familiar to you if you have learnt to sing or play a wind instrument. In this, the ribs expand outwards but do not lift up: think of the air being drawn down into your abdomen, as if pair of bellows down there was sucking the air in.

Bearing down whilst breathing well is a big deal for most riders – I suggest that people practice whilst driving their car, for this has to become a way of life…


I’m delving more into the biomechanics of riding, because I believe that a lot of what I am reading here I have either experienced in person while playing around with my seat connection on Copper, or it is something that I need to experience because it’s a missing connection.

The subtle feedback of a horse’s energy into your body as you position your skeleton in different ways – releasing some muscles, holding others – is a endless book to learn from. But I am trying to read this book all by myself and if there is insight to be found, I am more than happy to learn elsewhere!

More pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.

One thing I do know more and more for certain from this journey I’ve been on: THE RIDERS WHOLE BODY INFLUENCES THE HORSES WHOLE BODY

… How I breathe, how I tilt my head, hold my neck, bend or straighten my wrist, shift my left seat bone, etc… It’s a matter of learning where to place each individual part of me so that it is most effective in influencing Copper’s energy and movement. 

The riding masters know that, I wish that more teachers would teach that instead of focusing so much on the horse. Get the rider right and 90% of the work is already done.…

See ya,


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