Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Rider, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today. Equifitt.com offers personalized coaching through clinics and convenient online coaching available anywhere. Clinics available include fitness, yoga and fitness, and sport-psychology and fitness. You can get a free subscription to monthly rider fit tips, or download the ebooks at Equifitt.com.
Many readers would be familiar with the challenge of getting your shoulders back during dressage training. There are many reasons why riders’ shoulders round forward. Some people inherit more sloping shoulders, or more curved upper backs. Generally, the posture you adopt on the ground is fairly indicative of the riding posture you will have in the saddle, or will at least revert. Most of the time, rounded shoulders are the result of sustained poor posture. Riders with rounded shoulders have what is known as an ‘upper cross’ syndrome where the pectoral muscles are acting to pull and hold the shoulders in and down.
It is sometimes hard to say whether the posture produces the tight pectorals, or whether the muscle imbalance created the symptom of rounded shoulders, but both can happen. Typically, the back muscles on the opposite side of the shoulder joint are pulled forward into a chronic stretched position. Sometimes the rider may experience upper back tension or soreness. Whatever the case, the result is a picture of muscle strength imbalance on the front and back of the shoulder-girdle area.
Many riders try and hold a level of straightness in the saddle which does not correspond to the way they carry their bodies most of the time. As a result, it takes effort to be straight in the saddle. Effort can translate into tension. Tension locks down motion. So, the rider who is being artificially more straight in the saddle than they tend to be, will have a harder time absorbing the horse’s motion through their spine and pelvis. They may also have other side-effects such as a sore back, difficulty sitting movement, or really active looking legs such as legs that flop with every stride. They may use compensating patterns without realizing it such as leaning back, poking their neck forward, being over-flexible in the lower back or more grippy with their hands.
Compensating patterns and imbalances in the rider’s body have a direct effect on the horse. Rounded shoulders tend to cause a rider’s weight to bear forward and down, pushing the horse onto his forehand. Leaning back puts the rider behind the horse’s motion, and the rider’s hollow back is usually mirrored in the horse. Feet creeping forward puts the horse’s energy behind the rider’s leg, which is opposite to where it is needed (ahead). Grippy hands block the horse’s motion, and tend to create tension in his back. Even when the problem is very subtle, biomechanics of the horse/human unit result in a compromise to the performance you could have.
In this early photo of my client Lori, you can see the tendency for her shoulders to round forward and down. This photo was submitted well over a year ago when we began working together online. The red arrow shows the line of force/tension in her pectorals, and the directional tendency of her shoulders. The white arrow shows the muscle area on her back which becomes too stretched. The blue arrows show various compensating patterns:
- Feet are tending forward, and she has to work to bring them back, which drives the knee slightly up and her ankle to hike up for leg aids.
- The lower back become more hollow- partly because the added curve in the upper spine tends to cause a corresponding enhanced curvature of the lower spine in the opposite direction. The other reason is that with rounded shoulders she has lost her core integrity and the body leans back to compensate for lack of ability for half-halt. The result is more pressure and hollowing of the lower back.
- The shoulders are leaning back behind the hips, corresponding to the feet creeping in front of them.
Lori illustrates the relationship between rounded shoulders, leaning and pulling in this second photo. Riders with rounded shoulders end up tending to use their arms more because their back-muscles are not effectively supporting their posture or half-halts.
Over time, poor posture can become very hard to undo because the muscles are not the only tissues affected. Fascial tissue and ligaments can also become tight. A few moments of stretching is not sufficient. Longer stretches and even release therapies may be needed at first. If the tensions created from an imbalanced posture are sustained over time, they can do damage to the joints involved. In the case of a rounded upper back, or upper back strained by forward shoulders, the tissues attaching to the part of the spine in the upper back can become so tight that they lock down movement of your disks. Over time, fused disks can result. It is very important for the health of your spine and for your riding posture and ability to absorb your horse’s motion, to maintain healthy range of motion in your spine.
Another reason that compensating patterns can be difficult to undo, is that they become part of an unconscious muscle memory. It takes time to create new movement patterns in all the muscles in your body involved in fixing a problem and maintaining good posture. Addressing the problem off your horse can really accelerate the time involved, and also spare your horse.
Whichever occurred first (poor posture vs. muscle imbalance), the result is a muscle area which is tight (chest), opposite one which is overstretched and weak (back). There are many different exercises riders can use to address rounded shoulder problems, depending on how they acquired the problem, or other needs and movement patterns they have.
A common error is for riders to stretch their back even more, because it is hurting. They may be relieving the symptoms, but they are inadvertently contributing to the problem. Another common response is for the rider to shove their shoulders back. Doing so creates new tension patterns that also block the rider’s ability to respond properly to their horse’s motion. Shoulders can be carried straight in a ‘neutral’ and relaxed state only when there are no forces of tension from either side. Usually, the solutions involve various stretches for the tight area (chest) and strengthening exercises for the pulled-forward and weak back muscles. Generally, the more you can build strength in your shoulder girdle and balance that strength from front to back, the more your body will be able to maintain proper shoulder posture in a relaxed and supple state.
Trying to address the problem from the saddle does not fully work since you cannot take the affected muscles into the range of motion needed for building strength and suppleness along their length. You also cannot fully relax them for a deep stretch while you are still in the saddle since they must maintain some engagement for you to maintain your posture and control of your horse.
If you have rounded shoulders, look for exercises that will stretch the muscles across your chest, and strengthen your upper back muscles. In the photo, Lori is laying over a yoga-mat to both stretch the chest muscles, and also allow her upper spine to roll backwards. This gives the spine some relief from the pulled-forward position, and allows Lori to use gravity in her favour to slowly extend her spine as her back relaxes and allows her to bend over the yoga-mat. This exercise is best done for at least several minutes. Riders with tight spines can also gently roll the mat up and down the affected areas. It is a good idea to keep your knees bent so that your lower back does hollow instead.
If it is difficult to find the correct posture, start the exercise without weights. You are better off to do it without weights at all. The back muscles recruited for this exercise when done correctly, build strength and muscle engagement patterns needed for correct posture and back usage in the saddle. When done incorrectly, the exercise has the opposite effect. Your primary goal is not to lift a lot of weight, but to retrain your muscle patterns and teach your body to use the correct muscle areas. When you can hold the posture, add weights. Select a weight load which you can use to do 10-15 repetitions, while maintaining correct posture. You should feel as though you are fighting for the last few repetitions, but do not let your posture be compromised.
This is one of the only exercise postures which should be done with a slight feeling of sticking your bottom out. Doing so will cause the right position in your pelvis and back posture for correct muscle development for sustaining upright posture in the saddle. Normally, I insist that riders adopt a spine neutral posture with a feeling of tailbone tucked slightly under because most make the mistake of rolling their pelvis forward. However, in this posture, leaning forward causes gravity to create a pull force on your upper body, which turns your back into a lever. If you do not fight the downward pull with tone in your gluteals and lower back created from the feeling of sticking your seat out, you will default to a rounded back, disengage those primary postural muscles, and end up building strength in the wrong section of your upper back area.
In this final photo, Lori demonstrates beautiful position with shoulders, hips and heels aligned. You can see the effect of good body alignment in giving hands by the nice position of his neck and head in front of the vertical. You can also observe that she is carrying herself without tension, because his movement is relaxed with nice spring.
ALL PHOTOS ARE OF LORI ALBROUGH RIDING HER PUREBRED FJORD HORSES OF WWW.BLUEBIRDLANE.COM. PHOTOS BY STEFAN ALBROUGH