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Getting Straight – Vertical Alignment

Riding - alignmentWhen I first heard the term ‘rider biomechanics’ it meant nothing to me. Basically it is about what the rider does with their body and how in turn this influences the horse(s) they ride.

In other words, the more you notice and improve what you do with your body, the better your horse will go for you.

Using the ‘Ride With Your Mind’ approach to teaching riding, developed by International coach and author Mary Wanless, this usually starts with the riders’ vertical alignment. In this article I describe ‘correct vertical alignment’ and how to attain it.

Riding - alignmentFind a side-on photograph of yourself (or anyone else) riding on the flat, hacking or schooling, look at it and ask the question ‘if you were to take the horse out of this picture, would I land on my feet and be standing, or would I topple over forward or backwards?’ Ideally you should look as if you’d land on your feet and be standing (with knees bent).

If you look at the rider from the saddle up, they may be leaning forward, backward or on vertical; they may be hollow, round-backed or with a ‘neutral’ spine. Ideally it should look like the front of them and the back of them are the same length, vertical, like a box sitting on a level shelf. For many people finding neutral spine is difficult, as they spend all their off-horse hours either round or hollow, leaning forward or back to balance. Initially when they find neutral spine lower down in their back, then their head/neck may not adjust and in turn may be out of alignment, but if they adjust that they take themselves back to their ‘normal’ pattern.

Riding - alignment

If you look at the rider from the pelvis down, the feet may be forward of the pelvis, behind the pelvis, or under the pelvis. Ideally the thigh will be at 45° to the horizontal and foot will be under the pelvis with the foot flat to the floor, or slightly heel down, but the foot angle is less important at this stage, so long as the heel is down as far as it will go with the lower leg back enough for the foot to be under the pelvis. Often people mistakenly lose their vertical alignment in their angst to have the ‘heel down’, as in their attempt to get the heel down they take their lower leg forward, then they look like they are sitting in a chair and would topple over backwards without that support.

When the rider is in ‘correct vertical alignment’ they will be vertical, in neutral spine, with the knobble of the ankle directly below the knobble of the hip. This is what is often referred to as the ‘straight line of (Ear) Shoulder, Hip, Heel’.

Sometimes people are able to adjust their upper body or their lower body, but struggle to get the two in place together. This can take time, as the body tissues need to adjust to accommodate the length in both areas.

If this is all in place, then when you are on the saddle your seat-bones will be pointing straight down. When the horse is in motion in walk the rider should appear to be quite still (inanimate), just being carried along (rather like a box or vase would be still on top of a table if you lifted the table and carried it along keeping it level).

Riding - alignment

In order to achieve this stillness, the rider must maintain a degree of body tone; they must be ‘stuffed’ like a new soft toy, not floppy like a rag doll. This is an area around which there is often much confusion, the word ‘relaxed’ is so often applied and understood to mean floppy. Tension is then understood to be a ‘bad’ thing. But like so many things in life, tension is a matter of balance. There is positive ‘good’ tension and negative ‘bad’ tension. Negative tension tends to make riders grow tall and hollow and to stop breathing, or to breathe fast or only into their upper chest, pulling the diaphragm and centre of gravity up. Positive tension will give them stability and enable them to breathe slowly and down into their lower belly, pushing the diaphragm and centre of gravity down. On the whole I’ve found nervous riders tend to be more hollow and ‘up’ with too much negative tension in their bodies, whereas more round backed riders tend to be more ‘down’ and heavy on the horse, which is a different problem altogether. However, there are also nervous round-backed riders who tend to have insufficient tension in their bodies to keep them sitting upright.

Riding - alignmentHere’s another question I like to ask myself of a rider: ‘is there more weight going down the thigh bone into the knee, or more weight going down into their seat?’ In halt, walk and trot I am definitely looking for more weight to be going down the thigh into the knee. The foot should remain light, just resting on the stirrup rather than pressing. The thighs should be toned, not floppy, snug on the saddle evenly from the pubic bone, down to the knee; this is different to gripping with the knee.

So to recap, what I’m looking for in vertical alignment is:

  • Pelvis up – body vertical and ‘box like’ in neutral spine
  • Pelvis down – thigh at 45°, foot back under pelvis, with foot as flat as possible
  • More weight in the thigh/knee than in the seat, foot light
  • Enough tension/tone to allow the body/thighs/calves to be held still as the horse moves and for the rider to breathe down into their belly.

I am aware at this stage I have not mentioned hands or arms, side-side or dealing with movement. For many, vertical alignment is a challenge in itself. Once you get there it may feel very, very weird, as it will be different to your normal position. Some horses will respond immediately, fast horses slowing down and lazy horses being more willing; for others you may need to make more changes in yourself before they will make changes in themselves.

I would emphasise that this is just a starting point; the more of this work I do the more I understand how subtle are the changes, both to see and to feel. Every rider is an individual, their starting place will be different, their goals various. Whether a total beginner, of any age, or an advanced rider in any of the equestrian fields, there are improvements that can be made, which will benefit both the horse and the rider.