Neutral spine : the  position of an individual's spine where every joint is held in an
optimal position to allow an equal distribution of force through the  entire structure.

Anne Howard, physical therapist.

This means holding yourself in a natural upright position with your spine allowed to retain its  natural curves (see diagram). This especially applies on  horseback, because if you don't retain them your pelvis won't  be vertical and you wont be able to sit the trot or canter as if ‘glued’ to the saddle, because you won't have any mobility in the lower back / hips to absorb the movement.

 

If we don’t  take care of our posture off-horse how can we expect to become  effective, aesthetically pleasing riders. Start to think about  how you go about your daily life. Do you sit more on one seat bone that the other? Do you habitually slouch when sitting in a chair (chair seat?!). Do you always use the same hand when unlocking your car / house door? Have go at using the ‘other’ hand. We should not be surprised that our horses exhibit one-sidedness when we are hardly ambidextrous ourselves! I don’t suggest you have to go as far as being able to write legibly with either hand but you do need to even out your body’s main riding /postural musculature.

NORMALSIDEVIEW

To Find The Correct Classical Position Off Horse:

Stand sideways on to a large mirror with your feet slightly apart. Stand with your  back straight ( i.e. upper back straight, lower back curving in slightly ) with your shoulders back and chest open with a relaxed  tummy. Then bend your knees (making no other changes except lifting your forearms slightly as if holding the reins) in an on horse position. This is the self-carriage needed to ride in the  Classical seat.

A straight line  would connect the points of gravity on the ear, point of  shoulder, hip joint & ankle. These remain the same whether standing or riding, the only change being the bend in the knee and elbow.

To find the position on horse: settle yourself in the deepest part of the saddle with your back straight. Then, without stirrups, lift your legs up so that your knees are up by the withers. This takes the weight off your knees and thighs and puts it into your seat bones. Wiggle about until you feel that your weight is evenly placed over your two seat bones and your crotch (your crotch rests on the rising part of the pommel, but does not press down).

Now turn your attention to your back to see that it's neither too flat (rounded) nor too hollow (stiff), but definitely allowing for your natural curves. When it's correctly aligned with your shoulders over your hips it will feel very stable. The shoulders are level with each other and rather than, as is usually described when talking about position, holding them open and flat back, think of opening the ribcage from the front as this uses different muscles and lets the shoulder girdle remain soft and free.

Feel that neither side of your ribcage bulges out more on one side of your spine than the other (collapsing over left or right hip).

A vital but, rarely mentioned part of the body that is so important for correct riding, is that of the abdominal muscles. The area between the solar plexus (bottom of breast bone) and the pubic bone needs to be keep ‘open’ (no slumping or rounding of shoulders). Strong abdominal muscles are needed to stabilise the spine and midsection when riding. A weak midsection will doom a rider to having to use too much hand when riding whereas strong abs (and I’m not talking six-pack abs, just ‘toned’ ones) enable a rider to use the seat aids to great effect.

Erik Herbermann talks of making a capital ‘D’ shape with your torso; the spine being the upright back of the Dee and the front-line projecting forward or of a billowing sail that is being filled from behind—it is not allowed to lose the following breeze and droop! Nuno Oliveira used the term to ride with ‘an aggressive navel’.

Your head is lightly supported by your neck without craning or tilting, especially when negotiating bends and corners. Let it release upwards/forwards out of your spine. You do not have to turn your head to look where you want the horse to go. Get into the habit of using your eyes only. The same goes for glancing down at your hands, checking the horse's shoulder etc. Don't drop your head - look down your nose! The human head is a very heavy piece of kit and each unnecessary movement only distracts the horse. As does any unnecessary movement, you have to learn to sit stil relative to the horse.

Once you start to have more control over your, up till now, probably floppy middle bit you can start to give much clearer aids to your horse which he will interpret quicker because he isn’t sifting through the ‘background’ noise’ of all the extra movement that doesn't actually constitute an aid; that's if he hasn't switched off all together by ‘body armouring.’

(Body Armouring is what a horse does in self-defence against a ‘tense’ or too ‘active’ rider. He shuts down from all the confusing dialogue he's receiving and appears to become lazy and unresponsive. He will often go above the bit , hollow his back and trail the hindquarters. He mirrors his tense rider by tensing his own muscles to form a protective armour for his back and, through his neck, his mouth.)

Your upper arms hang softly, straight down off your shoulders, with your elbows lightly brushing your sides, not stretched out in front of you half way up the horse's neck as is so often seen. The length of your lower arm determines where you hold the reins in front of you. For most people it is just in front of the pommel. The important factor is that the lower arm, from the elbow, and rein form a straight line to the bit. The hands hold the reins so that the thumbs are uppermost and it is the thumb and first finger that stops the reins slipping through the fingers.

The wrists are supported, but are allowed to round slightly so the middle knuckles of both hands turn towards each other and held about the width of the bit apart. This keeps a straight line from the elbow to the bit with no kinks or breaks. The reins need to be held at the base of the fingers and to be comfortable they don't want to be too thick or thin. I'm sure we're all familiar with the phrase holding the reins as though you are holding a small creature that you don't wish to crush. This means holding the fingers in a soft fist with the fingertips lightly touching the thumb cushion. This then lets you use the hands by vibrating the fingers on the rein, squeezing water out of a sponge for half halting, turning the base bone of th little finger towards the horse's mouth for yielding. On no account should you hold the reins as though you were rowing a boat— very common in the UK—or pushing a wheelbarrow as this tenses the forearm muscles and leads to hard hands.

Up to now you've had your knees up by the withers. Making sure that you don't disturb what you've achieved with your upper body (hold on to the front of the saddle if you feel insecure), slowly lift your knees up and away from the withers. As you lift try to rotate your hips inwards as if you wanted to stand pigeon-toed, but make sure it 's only the hips that turn. This brings the flat inside of the thigh onto the horse Please don't use the hand to pull the muscle out from front to back as it has the effect of tightening the hip and pulling the lower leg off the horse. Lower your legs back onto the saddle and let them hang softly at the horse's sides. Your heel should be directly beneath your hip. Retake your stirrups and check your heel position. If you've been used to screwing your heel up to give leg aids this next part is quite a hurdle to overcome, persevere with it and you'll find it will make a huge difference in your seat. i.e. deepening it.

The hardest part of all is gaining flexibility in the hip joint. We often talk of ‘standing around the horse’ when you sit in the saddle. If it were that simple people could align themselves easily in the saddle. There is a big difference between sitting and standing. It does not have to do so much with the position of the pelvis, but the release of muscles around the lower back and whole pelvic region.

Standing does not ask the muscles to release, so a new rider will normally be in a chair seat. How we sit everyday trains our muscles in our lower back and pelvis region to be in this position.

When we sit on a horse we have to release of all the muscles in our lower back and around our whole pelvis compared to what they do when we stand or sit normally. Those who can achieve good muscle release and proper spinal alignment are those who will come into to true balance and realise great harmony with their horse.

A Way to Release and Stack the Vertebrae Correctly When Mounted

At the halt, lie forwards on the horse’s neck with your head held supply to one side and your butt in the saddle, and give him a hug, so your hands meet under his neck. Next, very s-l-o-w-l-y bring yourself back to the upright position starting from the pelvis. Roll the pelvis backwards and straighten up one vertebra at a time—you may use your hands to help push you back, but make sure you're not lifting from your head or chest.

The heel should ideally be lower than the toe, but in the early stages it will be an achievement if it is level with the toe. I always used to think of raising the toe up and back rather than the heel down, but have come to understand that both have a jammimg/tensing effect in the leg which can cause you to ‘grip up’ which raises the knee and/or tightens the leg. I now think of there being a hinge in the middle of the foot that allows the heel to lower and at the same time raises the toes. This gives a much smoother/softer feel. Note also that you don't even give the aids with the heel—or the back of the leg; these are given with the side of the leg (think of using the shin to keep position) and having the heel lowered gives you a firm calf muscle with which to direct the horse. Finally, point your toes as far to the front as your conformation allows so you can lie as much of the inside of your leg as possible against the side of your horse. My favourite description of this is the German one of ‘like a wet dishcloth’. It doesn't cling— it's just there.

Neutral Spine

Alignment

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