Dressage Life: Straightness and Balance in the Horse

A tenacious back injury opens a dressage rider's eyes to the real meaning of developing straightness and balance in her horse.
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A tenacious back injury opens a dressage rider's eyes to the real meaning of developing straightness and balance in her horse.

My understanding of the Training Pyramid was that each level represents an important step in the horse's physical and mental training. The horse progresses up this Training Pyramid (or Scale) as he develops more balance and the ability to carry more weight on his hindquarters and achieve "collection" and "straightness."

We were discussing the development of "straightness" in the horse's body, one of the top steps of the Training Pyramid. I had always thought that a horse was "straight" if his two hind hoofs stepped into the tracks of the two front hoofs during the walk or trot.

"No, it's more than that," my instructor said. "Developing straightness in a horse is like asking a human to become ambidextrous."

"Oh, wow" was my highly intelligent response. I had started riding at age 35 and had been riding for 12 years. I had heard and read about the "Training Pyramid" many times but I really didn't understand what "straightness" meant, or how difficult it is to achieve, until then.

This discussion started me thinking about the "Training Pyramid" in terms of the rider's physical development, as well. Did the rider also need to progress physically from one step to the next, building on the previous steps? I was focused on the rider's body because, at that time, I was in the process of recovering from an injury that had kept me from riding my 12-year-old Swedish Warmblood, Bountiful, for 6 months. Before I was injured, I was trying to move up from Training Level to First Level but having a difficult time, as he is very strong and heavy on the forehand. The symptoms of my injury included persistent pain in my left hamstring, seat bone and sometimes in my lower back. When the pain first began, I rested and didn't ride or do any other exercise, for about 8 weeks. I expected that the rest would alleviate the pain, but it persisted. I finally went to my doctor and had an MRI. The test showed that the pain was not from a herniated disc impinging on a nerve as I had feared. I was diagnosed with "back strain with referred pain" and was sent for 10 weeks of physical therapy and was placed on oral anti-inflammatory medication.

My physical therapist was very knowledgeable, and she helped me a great deal. I learned that I had significant muscular and flexibility imbalances in my legs and gluteal muscles. I had likely injured myself, in part, because many of the muscles on the right side of my body were much stronger than those on the left side of my body. As I attempted to sit deeper and open my seat, I over stressed the muscles on the weaker side of my body and injured them. I also had less flexibility in my hamstrings and hip flexors on my weaker side and this contributed to the problem as did weak abdominal muscles. I was also overweight, and this put further strain on my body.

I guess I had to become injured before I would admit to myself that I was just not fit enough to ride my horse well. In terms of the training scale, I was not balanced in the saddle or "straight" in my body. Boy, did I have a lot of work to do! I shared what I had learned with my instructor. I told her I was working on stretching and strengthening the tight, weak side of my body. She pointed out that is this is exactly the same things we work on with the horse in order to develop "straightness." The parallel between my body and the horse's body was really eye-opening to me.

My physical therapy routine consisted of daily flexibility and strengthening exercises designed to stretch the "tight" muscles and strengthen the weaker muscles. I also used a balance or Pilate's ball to help strengthen my core muscles, so I could balance myself better in the saddle. I began an overall conditioning program, which included walking, swimming and some stair climbing and also used an indoor ski machine. I was also working on losing weight. I was not riding at all, but the pain in my left seat bone persisted. I did not understand why I was not getting better, and I was very frustrated.

One day, my husband gave me an article he had seen in a health newsletter. It discussed a condition called "ischial bursitis," common in bicyclists. The ischium is the medical term for "seat-bone." The bursa is a pad that sits under the seat bone, and its function is to cushion the bone. Its location is also the site where the hamstring attaches to the pelvis. The article discussed how the bursa can become inflamed due to trauma or repeated stress. This made sense to me, as the rider's seat-bones can take a pounding.

With this new information I went back to my orthopedist. I asked him if he thought I had ischial bursitis. He said that it sounded possible. I asked him if a cortisone injection into the bursa might help. He said it was certainly worth a try and so he gave me one.

I have started riding again after 10 months off. It was very difficult for me to go such a long time without riding. At my bad moments, I wondered if I would ever be able to ride well again. My physical therapist cautioned me to return to my riding slowly, to "listen to my body" and to not push myself too much or the injuries may reoccur.

I am thrilled to be riding again, and I have found that I am much more aware of my body when I am in the saddle. The strengthening exercises have also helped to make me stronger and more balanced, and the stretching has increased my flexibility. My fitness level is improving too.

I guess I was a little crooked and unbalanced going up my own "training scale." I needed to take a step down, catch my balance and "straighten" myself up. I know this time, as I go forward, I will be a stronger rider, physically and mentally, because of the lessons I have learned.