Effective riding in any discipline is built on the foundation of having a proper position. When you are balanced on the horse, it stabilizes your body and allows you to communicate concisely through your aids. The only way to develop an independent seat, balanced position, and confidence to ride through any situation is a lot of practice and repetition. Eventually, you will develop a better position but in order to do that you must persist, continue to learn, make changes, and develop your skill set.
The art of riding is a lifelong endeavor in which we never stop learning and improving. Studying under a competent instructor is the ideal way to ensure that you are developing your skills with accuracy and precision but you can also use additional techniques to propel your learning forward. Visualization and body awareness are two tools that can be used to improve your position.
Visualization is a powerful technique that is used by many athletes. You can actually practice your position while sitting on the couch. Through concentration and careful visualization in which you see yourself riding perfect movements you can start to make connections in your neurons. Science has shown that your nerves will fire in your muscles while you are picturing an activity just as though you were performing the activity. This greatly increases the amount of time that you can practice your riding skills. It also gives you a chance to practice things perfectly without mistakes because you can picture yourself as a world class rider.
Body awareness while riding is critical so that you know where you are in space, how your body relates to itself, and how your movements affect your horse. You can use techniques such as ridden meditation to greatly improve your awareness of your position. To learn how to perform a ridden meditation, check out this free series of guided meditations for equestrians.
The pitfall of repetitious practice and visualization is that if you practice or visualize the wrong thing you will develop the muscle memory of a bad habit which is hard to change in the future. When you set this memory as “correct” or “normal” in your body, your mind will actually trick you so that the power of body awareness is diminished. For example, I grew up riding in the hunter/jumper world and spent hundreds of hours in a hunt seat. Riding in a hunt seat is not inherently wrong but is not conducive to riding dressage. So when I started to learn dressage it was very hard for me to sit up on my seat bones and stretch tall. I would feel as though I was, most certainly, sitting up straight even when I, in reality, was still slightly tipped forward.
When my instructor would tell me that I was in the correct position for dressage, my biofeedback would tell me that I was leaning backward, that I might tip off the back of the horse, or that I was getting left behind. I had, through repetition and practice, trained my body and set my position to that of a hunter/jumper. Furthermore, I had taught my brain to think that I was sitting tall and balanced even when I wasn’t Due to that belief and muscle memory, body awareness alone would not be able to help me feel that I was sitting too far forward for dressage. I actually had to mark the degree to which I felt I was leaning backward to form a new body awareness of what sitting upright actually felt like. I had to reset my equilibrium and retrain my muscles.
It is common for riders to be unbalanced, lean to the side, twist your body, cock your head, flatten your hands, lock your elbows, push off your toes while you post, sit in a chair seat, or any number of other little habits that become stuck in your body. This is all part of the learning process but the more you practice these behaviors the more ingrained they become and the harder they are to change. In this way, practice does not make perfect unless you are practicing perfectly. So how do you break those patterns?
Let’s say you have the habit of holding tension in your shoulders, as though you are shrugging, when you ride. In your visualizations you see yourself with perfect shoulders. As you ride and bring awareness to your shoulders, the body tells you that they are in the correct place because you have been practicing with your shoulders drawn up and tight for the past five years so they feel normal to you. You think that you are doing everything just right and continue to practice it. Perhaps your instructor tells you to relax your shoulders, you let go of some of the tension, and feel certain that your shoulders are perfect. Your mental picture and muscle memory are telling you that nothing is wrong which leads to frustration if you keep getting feedback from others to relax your shoulders even more. This is when you need another approach to understand, or see, that you are still holding tension.
One of the most effect methods is to utilize a visual aid to improve your body awareness. Use photos and videos every chance you get in your riding. Seeing is believing. If you tend to lean off to the left side of your horse and you are instructed to sit straight you will say that you already are. If your instructor then moves your body to a straight position, your brain will likely protest and emphatically tell you that you are now about to fall off the right side of your horse and there is no way that this is straight. However, if your instructor stands behind you and takes photos of those two positions you can see that the feeling in your body needs to be re-calibrated.
Visual feedback will ensure that you are practicing a correct position to the best of your ability. It gives you a better reference point. It is important to take photos from both sides, the front, and the back so that you can see the full range of your position. I recommend still photos while your horse is standing still and videos while your horse is in motion. You cannot capture tension, rigidity, or resistance in a photo. Analyzing yourself riding all of the gaits, in different saddles, and on different horses can also help you understand the way that your position is affected by various stimuli.
With all this information you can go back to your visualization and body awareness techniques to effectively make positive changes in your position. For example, if you only took still photos you may think that your position is great because it is at the halt. However, your leg may start to slip in front of you causing your body to shift off balance when you transition into the trot. Having seen this you can begin to visualize maintaining your position through trot transitions. You can also utilize body awareness to feel the moment that you start to slip off balance which will help you pinpoint the cause so that you know what you need to change.
As we correct one thing in our position it often has a ripple effect that causes, or reveals, another issue to work on. If you realize that you are holding tension in your right hip and work to release that and correct your position then you may suddenly start holding tension in your right shoulder. It is important to be aware of that so that you don’t start practicing a position in which your hips are relaxed but your shoulders are tense. You want to immediately catch that shift in your body so that it does not become a pattern or habit.
With the help of an instructor, photos, and videos you can begin to see clearly the faults or weaknesses in your position. Then through visualization and body awareness you can begin to make positive changes. Continue to practice and repeat the new patterns until they become muscle memory and start to feel “right”. Use video throughout the process to see your changes, catch anything you may need to tweak, and to see the effect that your new position has on your horse and your riding ability. Without a solid foundation and position your riding can only go so far. Don’t spend your entire riding career practicing an unbalanced or ineffectual position.
Ask for a friend to take some photos and videos of you riding. You can do the same for them. Get together to watch the footage and coach one another on improvements that you can make. Create a visualization practice that will help you improve your specific issues.