Before we get to the article proper, a little background as to how it came about…
I began teaching a husband and wife who are both cranial osteopaths. During my long years of working with horses I’ve had my fair share of knocks, bumps and falls. One of which was a life-threatening head injury and then, some 15 years later, I came off a young Welsh Sec D and landed on a railway sleeper (railroad tie) full on the left side of my sacroiliac joint. To ease the ensuing stiffness and pain, I had been going to a chiropractor every 8 weeks or so. He would ‘crack’ my back and make me feel all right again for another few weeks. One day Liz saw that I was in some discomfort and suggested that I come to her practice and let her take a look at me.
I went from being a ‘train-wreck’ (in Liz’s words) to pain free in about a year, and now I only have to go and see Liz if I ‘jam up’. Ann after effect of the serious head trauma caused by a fall from a runaway horse means that any heavy knock—or even if I trip over something—means my body reverts back into its post-injury defensive patterns.
To understand the science of osteopathy is to understand that everything is connected. Therefore, if any part of the body is affected by an imbalance then another part of the body will have an effect as well. The body wants to heal itself and strives to stay in balance at all times. When an influence occurs resulting in the body being out of balance, the body starts to compensate in an attempt to maintain it's normal function. The osteopath believes the influences that impact the body are not as important as the body's response to them. Shana Belle Frels
Liz, her husband Clive and I got talking and we realised that with their anatomical knowledge and my equestrian experience, I was evolving the way I was teaching. One day, they suggested what evolved into a ‘Play Day’, where we rode horses and talked about the whats, hows and whys of riding from our different perspectives. I invited another dedicated student along with a passion for human and equine anatomy and motion, and a series of very informative sessions was born that changed some of the words and phrases I use in my teaching (without diluting any of the meanings or writings of the Masters—in many ways, enhancing them).
I have given a shortened version of these notes to other riders who have not had the benefit of the anatomical lecture that usually precedes the ridden work and they have understood the concepts right away, so I have decided to share them with a wider audience on the basis that anything that is of benefit to horse and rider should be available for all.
So, let’s begin with a small lecture on anatomy. Please don’t skip over this part as it contains some very important information. It was written, for the most part, by Liz Hayden with some additions and minor alterations by myself. In keeping with the rest of the site, I’ll try and keep it easy-to-understand, but will have to use some standard anatomical terms for clarity.
Centering and awareness
You first need to understand a little bit about 'midlines'.
When a sperm and egg fertilise one of the first things that happen is that a flat plate of cells is formed, along which a line appears. Then the whole body gradually forms around this line—it provides the very first midline axis.
Gradually the spinal segments emerge, and the brain appears at one end and the other end becomes the coccyx—or tailbone.
The limb buds then develop off certain segments of this midline. The upper limbs emerge from C7—the spinal segment at the base of your neck - just at the junction of your rib cage with your neck. The lower limbs emerge from L5—which is the very bottom of your spine just above the sacrum.
This midline runs down the body half way between the back and the front, so just in front of the spinal column from the centre of the head just behind the eyes, to the coccyx.
The important thing to remember is that EVERY CELL IN THE BODY RETAINS A CONNECTION WITH THIS MIDLINE AXIS THROUGHOUT LIFE. It is like a blueprint of health, and in treatment we allow the body to reorganise itself in relation to this midline axis.
Each limb retains an energy connection with its point of origin, so the upper limbs hang off C7, the lower limbs off L5. The midline in the arm runs to the middle finger and in the leg down to the middle toe. In the horse it runs to the pedal bone in each foot as this is a remnant of the horse’s middle toe.
There is also the thought that we resonate/vibrate at a certain frequency and that we have to attune ourselves to the frequency of the horse, which may explain why we click with some horses (not to mention people!) better than others. That may sound a little off-the-wall until you delve into quantum physics which states that All Matter is Energy.
Quantum physics describes the energy characteristics of the universe. We know from even the most fundamental basis of quantum physics that everything in the entire universe is pure energy (including ourselves), differing only in characteristics, such as the rate of vibration.
Quantum physics also acknowledges the fact that energy is influenced by energy, (we’ll come back to this later) and that energy attracts in accordance with its unique vibration. This is the very basis of how the Law of Attraction works throughout the universe.
This truth about attraction can easily be demonstrated by means of a pair of tuning forks. If one tuning fork is placed at a distance from the first fork and the first tuning fork is then struck thereby emitting a sound at a certain pitch or frequency, which is in fact vibration, then the second tuning fork some distance away will start to vibrate in harmony, at exactly the same rate of vibration, and the vibrations are attracted to each other accordingly. This is a very simple but observable demonstration of how energy and vibration influence the universe, the life of any individual, and an is explanation of why some riders are good without appearing to do anything; the ideal of a of horse and rider in complete harmony.
After all that science and anatomy, let’s get down to how it fits together in riding.
Exercise 1 (off horse):
Sit square in a chair with your weight taken over your seat bones, knees at 90 degrees, body upright and in balance. Become aware of your own body, feel any areas of tension and just try to let them go. Be aware of your breathing filling your lungs and abdomen. Then become aware of your 'midline'—an energy line that starts in the centre of your head behind your eyes, and passes down through your spine to your coccyx (tailbone). Spend a couple of minutes just sitting thinking about your breathing, and the midline. Remind yourself to feel the connection from your seat bones down through the floor towards the centre of the earth.
Then, whilst keeping all this in mind, think of your arms hanging off this midline at C7 (junction of neck and thorax) and your legs off L5 (just above your sacrum).
Next, open up your awareness to feel the space around you. How wide can you go with your awareness whilst still keeping that feel of midline and connection to your body?
It is in this balanced state that we want to stay when we ride. Connected and balanced within our body, breathing relaxed and deep, and with awareness.
See also the Standing Meditation exercise for more help with centering and grounding.
Exercise 2 (mounted)
Now we need to think about the horse...
The horse also has a midline axis along his spine, and the legs connect to this axis - somewhere around the withers for the front legs and just in front of the sacrum for the back legs. When you are sitting on the horse, (standing still to start with) think about your own midline and the horse’s midline. Make sure your weight is right above your seat bones, not in front or behind. Allow your spine to lengthen so your head sits tall. Do this just by allowing not forcing anything. Allow your arms and legs just to hang, no tension. Think of your horse’s legs hanging from his midline. Keep breathing. Be aware of the horse’s breathing.
Now, set off in walk and stay in the same state of balanced awareness. FEEL the horse’s movement, how he swings along. Think of his belly swinging from side to side as he walks. Be aware of all four of his legs and their rhythm, how his back moves. In your awareness notice how his midline and your own midline relate to each other.
Work on staying totally calm and just breathing and feeling his movement. Allow your body to swing with him. Can you make his walk bigger—longer strides—by increasing the swing in your body and his? Don't drive him forward, just swing more. Then shorten his walk just by damping down your swing.
This last paragraph is the beginning of being truly at one with your horse! The horse’s spine is in segments; once you can keep all those segments in optimal alignment, you have control of your horse.
Spend a good long time in walk just playing with this. It will become much more refined later on. Note: it’s not about ‘relaxing’; we will be introducing tone and muscle use next.
Remember the phrase that energy is influenced by energy? This is where it comes in. And, I feel a small caveat is needed here. When thinking about your and your horse’s midlines, you are sending energy out along these pathways. This energy can be a very powerful tool. On very sensitive (or rehab) horses, introduce it very gently; the horse has to give you permission to enter its body like this and some might be a little startled—and may even become nervous—when you begin to ride this way. Conversely, others may seem to slow down as they allow you in and ’wake up’ again once they are reassured that you mean them no harm.
Introduction to the Fulcrum
A fulcrum is a point of balance. The simplest example is a see saw, at the pivot point there is no motion, whilst at the ends there is a lot of motion.
When we are riding, the rider has their own fulcrum—or point of balance—and the horse has his own fulcrum. If we can become aware of both of these when riding, and then find a common fulcrum where both horse and rider are in balance, it creates a true feeling of connection of the rider with the horse. Horse and rider become one.
Finding these fulcra is not hard, it just takes a bit of practice.
For The Rider:
For the rider to be in best balance, their fulcrum should be down in the centre of the pelvis. Imagine a line that goes from your pubic symphysis (the bony bit at the front of your pelvis) and the sacrum at the back. Then another line that runs through your hip joints. Where these lines cross in the centre of your pelvis is approximately where your ideal fulcrum should be.
Many riders are very tense in the diaphragm, so their fulcrum is up in their diaphragm. This makes the rider unstable and more likely to topple forwards or backwards, etc. This is why it is so important to keep breathing long slow breaths, to keep the diaphragm moving.
This is best done mounted.
To connect into the pelvic fulcrum, first go through the centering and awareness exercise from lesson 1.
Then become aware of your breathing again; long slow deep breaths right down into your abdomen.
Now, think about your abdominal muscles. Here we have 2 strong muscles at the front running vertically from the rib cage to pubis (rectus abdminis), a set of oblique muscles (internal and external) that enclose the sides of the abdomen, connecting the muscles of the back to those at the front, and underneath all these are the extremely important Transverse Abdominis (TVA) that wrap around the body from the sides to front rather like a corset. We want to engage the oblique muscles. So, activate the TVA (which pulls the abdominal wall inwards, encasing the torso rather like a corset), and at the same time push the obliques out to the sides so that the walls of the cylinder of your torso become a little tense, and think about relaxing your pelvic floor a little. Allow your pelvis and hips to spread out to the sides. Feel as though your pelvis melts and broadens to allow you to sink deeper into the saddle.
Now become aware of the centre of your pelvis, that point where those 2 lines cross.
When you set off in walk on your horse, continue this feeling of keeping the diaphragm breathing, nice slow deep breaths. Feel the tone in the oblique abdominal muscles keeping the TVA engaged —and feel them move up against the wall of muscle. Allow your pelvis and hips to melt around the horse. Become aware that as your pelvis is moving to accommodate the movement of the horse, there is a still point or fulcrum in the centre of your pelvis.
For The Horse
Now, think of the body of your horse. You are sitting on the saddle right above his diaphragm (4 under belly by girth) - it extends from bottom to top, the lungs have been removed) In front of you is his rib cage containing his heart (f) and lungs. Behind you is his abdominal cavity.
The diagram (left) shows why the lungs are usually not shown on anatomical drawing of the horse as when they are fully expanded, the lungs can reach as far as the 16th rib of the horse.
Be aware of the midline of both you and the horse.
When you are happy that you have found your own fulcrum in your pelvis, think about how your legs are wrapped around the trunk of the horse. Softly hanging legs, no tension or gripping.
If you allow your awareness to sink down into his thorax, it is often possible to feel a fulcrum for the horse down in the centre of his rib cage, in the region of his diaphragm. This is somewhere around the level of your knees or even lower (depending on how long your legs are and length of stirrups).
Play with leaning forwards a tiny bit in the saddle so your centre of gravity is a little forwards, then lean backwards a tiny bit. How does it affect his fulcrum inside his chest?
Feel as though you are sinking down into his fulcrum, until it feels as though you are sitting in the middle of the horse’s body. MELT your body into his.
At the same time continue to be aware of your own midline, and that of the horse.
Find the STILL POINT around which movement is taking place.
Can you reach the point where you feel as though you are totally still inside, and the horse and your body are moving around the same still point? You have found the combined fulcrum for both you and the horse.
Then, play with increasing the swing of the walk so he takes bigger strides, and decreasing the swing so he takes smaller strides. Do not shove or push him to do this, simply think what you want and increase or decrease your swing.
Now, can you combine an awareness of your own midline, the horses midline, as well as that combined fulcrum? Don’t forget to include the whole of the space around you, in some cases as far as the horizon in your awareness—some horses dislike being the subject of too strong a focus on their body, they need SPACE.
Once you have found this still place inside you where you can watch the horses movement going on around you, but you are still inside, then you can try it in trot and canter—it is exactly the same, you remain still inside while the movement goes on around you.
The Body Cavities
In this lesson we are going to think about the body cavities of both you and the horse, and see how they relate to each other. In general, the horse will mirror your own body, and you will find that you can influence the way he moves just by thinking about different parts of your (and his) body.
Your trunk is made up of your thoracic cavity containing your heart and lungs, and your abdominal cavity containing your guts. These are separated by your diaphragm, a broad domed muscle under the bottom of your ribs.
The top of the dome of the diaphragm is at around nipple level, it then attaches around the inside of the lower ribs, and at the back the diaphragm has very strong muscular attachments down to the level of the waist.
As you breathe in, your lower ribs should spread outwards to increase the volume of the lungs, and as you breathe out the ribs drop in again.
Below the diaphragm, the abdomen contains the liver and intestines. The intestines are contained within a bag called the peritoneum, which is suspended from the front of the spine at around the level of the waist.
The horse has equivalent structures—the diaphragm which attaches to the spine just under the back of the saddle, the peritoneum containing the intestines which is suspended from the spine just behind the saddle. So everything in front of the girth is the thoracic cavity, and behind the girth is the abdominal cavity.
First go through the centering and awareness exercise from lesson 1.
Think about your abdominal cavity, the area below your diaphragm that contains your guts. Become aware of the weight of the guts hanging from the spine, and filling your abdomen.
Now, think about the horse’s abdominal cavity, behind the saddle, think of the guts suspended from the front of the spine in the peritoneal sac.
As you move, and as the horse moves, the guts will also be in motion. In walk the horse’s belly swings from side to side. We can enhance their walk simply by increasing the swing. Now, while your horse is walking, can you not only think of his belly swinging from side to side, but also think of the guts inside swinging.
At the same time, think about your belly and the guts inside. Can you also feel your guts swing from side to side as you go with his movement?
Can you harmonise the swing in your belly with that of the horse’s belly? When you do this, what effect does it have on the movement of the horse’s legs? You might find that he takes bigger steps with his hind legs.
The Thoracic Cavity
Consider your heart and lungs inside your rib cage above your diaphragm. They sit on top of the diaphragm above the level of the nipple. Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, and be aware of the lightness inside your thorax as it does so.
Think about the horse’s heart and lungs sitting in front of his diaphragm, pretty much in front of the girth. Try to feel his breathing, and visualise his lungs filling with air and expanding as he breathes in. Feel the lightning of his thoracic cavity as he breathes in. As you become aware of this, does his walk change in any way?
Compare the feel of his walk steps as you switch between being aware of gut swing in the abdominal cavity behind the saddle (and your own gut swing), with that of his walk steps as you think of his thoracic cavity and lungs in front of the saddle (and your own lungs.)
Try to maintain awareness of your midline, the horse’s midline, and that common fulcrum or still point as you do this exercise. At the same time, also try to be aware of being grounded into the centre of the earth, and opening up your peripheral awareness to include the space around you, right out to the horizon, if necessary. It may seem a lot of things to think about at the same time, and to begin with you will need to constantly run through a checklist in your own mind to make sure something is not being forgotten. But with practise it gradually it becomes easier until it becomes second nature to be in that still, quiet place. From here you are in the best place to really feel your horse and be able to work with him in harmony.
Now that you’ve made it to the end of the article, you might feel that seems an awful lot of to take on board. However, these exercises are not prescriptive, but designed to enable you to play with the feel of your horse as you become aware of different parts of your own and his anatomy. There is no right and wrong in any of this, just BE there and connect with the feel of the inside of your horse to help you work with him, rather than direct him from the outside.
It can be fun to do it the way we did things in the beginning; get a few (or even just one) friends together and a couple of trusted horses and take turns riding and watching. You might be very surprised at how much you learn just by observing from the ground, and offering suggestions to those riding.
The word breathing is linked wherever it appears in the text above. This topic is so important it has its own dedicated page. If you think all of this sounds like too much to bother with, please, at least, take a look at the breathing page. Combining this with the Standing Meditation exercise will have a profound impact for the good on your riding.
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Classical Dressage Notebook