How can you ride well when you do not have a perfect body?May 16, 2021
Most of the information about riding assumes that you have a standard body shape and no previous injuries or disabilities. Of course, the reality is usually the opposite.
Everyone has various issues with their body (even those that, at first glance, appear to have a 'perfect' body).
Not all of these issues are necessarily a problem, but being aware of your body, its strong and weak points, will help you be a better rider.
Why is it important to have good body awareness when riding?
Being aware of any issues you have is very important. You can then learn how to reduce the impact of those issues on you and your horse. Something that is not commonly taught to riders is to learn how to feel and be aware of what is happening to their body when they ride.
For example, next time you ride, concentrate on your feet and ankles; think about if your feet are weighted evenly? Do the stirrup bars make even contact with the balls of your feet, from side to side? Is there any pain in the outside of the ankles (which happens when a rider allows their ankle to collapse outwards)?
Working through your whole body this way can significantly affect how you ride.
Working through the different parts of your body, improving your position and balance and ultimately your security is at the heart of The Horse Rider's Mechanic books and Horse Rider's Mechanic online course
How many variations are there between the bodies of horse riders?
- Some people have good fine motor skills (the ability to make small controlled movements with their hands, for example), and others do not.
- Some people are very flexible. Some are not.
- Some people have short, strong muscles, some long, looser muscles.
- Some people are pigeon-toed, flat-footed, etc.; only about 30% of the population have 'normal' feet.
- Some are tall; some are short.
- Some are wide through the hips; some are wide through the shoulders and narrow through the hips.
- Some people have mild through to severe straightness issues with their bodies (this is very common).
Think about how much the human body varies.
This list could, of course, be much longer. There are also gender differences, with females tending to have particular body shapes and males tending to have quite different body shapes (more about this later).
Other factors include 'handedness'; some people are strongly right-handed, some strongly left-handed, and others are closer to ambidextrous (they can work both sides of their body more or less equally).
Add changes brought about by age, previous injuries, and disabilities. You should be starting to see how different we all are, with some people having minor disadvantages and many advantages - and others quite the opposite.
What can you do if you do not have a perfect body for riding?
So, as most people do not have an ideal body for riding, we have to make the best of what we have.
The purpose of this article is to outline the importance of making sure you acknowledge any weak areas and, if possible, protect or improve on them.
This article is concerned with your body. Fortunately, it is not the only thing that affects your ability to ride well. Despite body issues, many still ride well, often even better than less physically challenged riders. So don't despair if you do not have a 'perfect body' (no one does, by the way). Instead, learn to use what you have in the best way possible.
How does body shape affect your horse riding?
There is an ideal body shape for riding, but no one possesses it - or would want to - as you will soon see!
The 'ideal' shape is relatively very long in the leg and very short in the body (to keep the centre of gravity (CoG) low), broad in the hips (for a wide base of support on the horse's back), flat chested (because the excess weight in the chest is superfluous to a rider and raises their CoG). To top it all, this 'ideal rider' would have a tiny head (to keep the weight down).
So, disproportionately long legs, a very short body, a flat chest, and wide hips (not to mention a tiny head) are not what you would want for everyday life!
Disproportionately long legs, a very short body, a flat chest, and wide hips (not to mention a tiny head) are not what you would want for everyday life!
How does being male or female affect horse riding?
Women tend to possess some of these advantages, and men tend to have some of the others. The picture below shows the hypothetical and unrealistic unisex 'ideal rider' body shape on the left (the same one as in the previous picture); next, a close to 'ideal' female body shape. This body shape, as well as being 'ideal' for riding, is also one that many women aspire to.
Next, a heavier version of the same body shape (still a good shape for riding) and lastly, on the right, a more challenging body shape because the legs are relatively shorter and heavier, and the upper body relatively longer and heavier. This type of rider will tend to experience balance problems more often than her less 'physically challenged' sisters.
If you have this body shape, do not despair! As I said earlier, you first need to identify your challenges, and then you can work to counteract them - simple!
When we look at the male body shape, we see very different challenges in body shape, starting with the hypothetical and unrealistic unisex 'ideal rider' body shape on the left for comparison.
Next, a close to 'ideal' male shape; however, this time, the shape that many men aspire to (in everyday life) is not that ideal for riding because it is top-heavy and narrow in the hips. Even though the hips do not appear slim, it is only because there is muscling around the tops of the thighs; the actual pelvis is generally narrower in a male than a female.
The following body shape is probably the best (male) scenario for riding because it is not as top-heavy due to being less muscled, but males tend to have 'skinnier' legs if they do not have muscling in that area. In contrast, the fat women tend to have in their thighs is an advantage (to some extent - because it helps keep their CoG low).
Lastly, on the right, the most challenging body shape for a male, very top-heavy, as well as relatively long in the upper body and short (and skinny) in the leg. People with this body shape tend to experience the most balance problems when riding.
Of course, this is just a snapshot to give you an idea; there are many more scenarios than this in real life.
How can you learn more about rider biomechanics?
How do your body shape, posture and other issues affect your horse riding balance?
So, now that you may be more aware of why you might be experiencing balance problems when riding, what can you do about it?
Your balance is delicate, so body issues, poor position and shape will affect your balance. But that is where good instruction in managing your problems and improving your balance comes in.
You need to improve your balance as much as possible. You do this by maximising the 'anchoring' ability of your lower legs in particular. This involves learning to get your body weight as low as possible and keep it there.
To improve your balance, you need to maximise the 'anchoring' ability of your lower legs in particular.
You can do various exercises to achieve this, which are covered in detail in the book Horse Rider's Mechanic Workbook 2: Your Balance. These exercises particularly teach you how to move with your horse while keeping your weight low on your horse's back. As well as vastly improving your balance, this vastly improves your security and, therefore, safety as a rider.
How do flexibility issues affect how you ride a horse?
It is often assumed that the more flexible you are for riding, the better, but the joints should be strong and firm, not too loose or stiff.
Very loose joints tend to be inherently weak and require constant strengthening exercises (plus external support in many cases), whereas stiff joints tend to be naturally strong.
As with most things in life, a happy medium is generally best because you may then experience the best of both worlds, flexibility and strength.
Stiff jointed individuals need to keep working on their flexibility with a certain amount of stretching on and off their horse. Riding (well) will in itself help to keep a rider flexible.
If you do not already know how to do so, you must learn how to engage your lower legs because the stiffness in your ankles will tend to prevent you from doing this naturally (picture a - below).
An engaged lower leg keeps you on your horse and, at the same time, is much more efficiently placed for giving the leg aids (picture b - below).
If you do not know how to do so, you must learn how to engage your lower legs.
If you have problems with over-flexible joints, you may need to support them because once a joint is loose, it is challenging (if not impossible) to properly 'firm' that joint up again. Ankles are a prime example of this; many people strain or sprain their ankle/s at some point (unless they have stiff joints to start with), leading to more ankle injuries as the ankle/s become weaker.
You can buy ankle supports (picture a - below) from a pharmacy. This will help in the case of a loose ankle joint.
Before you go to the trouble of buying one, try wrapping an equine tail or leg bandage around the outside of your boot/s and see what a difference it makes to a loose ankle joint (picture b - below).
Please don't underestimate how powerful this is. You will be amazed at the different feelings you get when your ankles are supported if you have loose ankles.
How do straightness issues affect how you ride a horse?
You may have straightness issues with your body. This scenario is far more common than you would think. No one is straight; everyone is within a range, and that range goes from almost straight to nowhere near straight. It would help if you aimed to ride as straight as possible for your own body and its peculiarities. This will help your horse to move as freely as possible.
Minor straightness issues can usually be sorted out by having someone watch you as you ride. It is not too difficult to train someone to be able to see when you are not straight and how to correct you. The ease of use of modern technology helps enormously in this respect, as someone can take photos and/or film you while you ride.
More serious straightness issues need addressing with more serious exercises that will help you to learn how to straighten your body. For example, you may have previous injuries that have healed but have left your body much stronger on one side than the other. In this case, you must re-learn how to use your body correctly.
Riders with more serious straightness issues may also need expert help from a human bodyworker.
Once you have improved your straightness, you need to ensure that your horse is strong and fit enough to carry you and keep working in a way that further enhances your straightness.
A goal we all should have is to be the best rider we can be (for the sake of our horse and ourselves).
Learning about how to keep your lower legs 'engaged' underneath you, improving the stability of your lower legs, and improving your position and balance are at the heart of The Horse Rider's Mechanic books and Horse Rider's Mechanic online course
How can you learn more about rider biomechanics?