Thursday, February 07, 2008

Donna Snyder-Smith's Mechanics of Movement: Part I - The Rider

Seminar Presentations by Donna Snyder-Smith
2008 PNER Conference January 26 2008

Article © Nancy R. Skakel 1/08

The 2008 Pacific Northwest Endurance Rides Annual Conference was held in Pasco, Washington. The TRAC Arena and convention facilities are very well suited to equestrian gatherings. The large, open convention halls are spacious and comfortable, and the huge indoor arena is inviting for any equestrian sport demonstration, exhibition, or competition. The arena bleachers are comfortable and offer excellent viewing of all the arena activities. The sound system for both the conference halls and arena provide clear amplification allowing the presentations to be easily heard by all the attendees.

I rode the train up the Columbia River and a friend met me in Pasco. We arrived at the Conference just after Donna Snyder-Smith began her morning lecture. Snyder-Smith is nationally known Level III Centered Riding instructor and the author of The Complete Book of Endurance Riding and Competition . She has had over 45 years experience as both a competitor and instructor in several equestrian disciplines, including hunters, dressage, eventing, and her favorite sport, endurance. She is an accomplished speaker, incorporating interactive demonstrations to illustrate the principles of biomechanics she is describing.

The morning two-hour lecture addressed the improvement of the rider through increased awareness of posture and knowledge of how the mechanics of the rider effect and influence the horse. The afternoon session moved to the arena with five demonstration riders and horses, and ran four hours. I believe she kept her audience engrossed throughout both sessions. I know she had me hooked!

The first demonstration she had a volunteer stand with a five-pound weight held shoulder high and at arm's length. Snyder-Smith continued talking about the importance of balance. When the volunteer's arm began to droop, she was admonished to hold the weight up. After several minutes the volunteer was allowed to relax, then asked how that felt. She replied, "It got heavier!" This shows how even a small imbalance gets harder and harder to bear over time. If we are unbalanced as riders, our horses have to work harder and harder to compensate while carrying us over distance.

I recommend that as you read this you try some of these simple exercises for the insight they offer for your own posture and for what our horses must do to carry us. Stand with feet slightly apart, arms at your sides, back relaxed. Now lock your knees, and then relax them. Repeat this several times until you are comfortable in the feel of your unlocked knees. Do not bend your knee, just tighten and relax the joints. Much of what Snyder-Smith worked on throughout the day was geared to reprogramming neuropathways. If we habitually grip our horse with a bent knee while leaning to the left with a collapsed hip joint, that posture feels "normal". Correct posture may feel unfamiliar or "wrong" at first, but through slow repetition we can re-educate what Donna calls our "mental map" so we assume a correct position. She really emphasized the importance of going through the exercises slowly to allow your body to recognize and assimilate the new alignment(s) and the corrected mechanics of efficient movement. Doing the exercises and corrections quickly will not accomplish this re-education. It is like forcing a horse into a false head carriage instead of taking the time to develop the muscles for self-carriage. Several volunteer demonstrators commented on how subtle these corrections are. You will know you have it right when it takes less effort to maintain the correct/balanced posture.

Now point to your hip joint. Most of us will point to a spot on the outside of our hips between our legs and just below our waist. Wrong. That spot is the top of the femur, the big thighbone. The actual ball and socket hip joint is found by running your fingers down the groove at the top of your thigh, down toward your groin. Your fingers will pass over a tendon and drop into a small hollow. Now point your finger almost straight back and you will be pointing at the hip joint. When your riding instructor tells you to rotate your leg from the hip down, if your mind tries to carry out the command by rotating from your "false known" thighbone location, you will require many more muscles to accomplish the desired movement. When you correct your mental map so you are aware of the true location of your hip joint, that same action can be accomplished by involving the use of significantly less muscles! The result is an increase in efficiency and a significant savings of energy. Now, doesn't that sound good when you are contemplating a 100-mile ride? This same principle applies to many more biomechanical practices. Blocking energy is inefficient.

Now, standing with feet slightly apart, knees unlocked, being aware of your hip joint, allow your torso to "float" forward until your upper body is positioned directly over your feet. This is subtle. It is not a big movement. Remember, you will know when it feels right, comfortable and effortless.

What a rider does in their body, a horse tends to mirror in his body. If a rider is aligned incorrectly using tension to maintain balance, his or her horse will carry more tension in its body throughout a ride. Try this exercise. She had a couple of volunteers get down on their hands and knees (like a horse would stand) and, allowing their tummies to sag toward the floor, she told them to move forward like a horse would do if it were walking. Very awkward. Then she had them shorten their abdominal muscles, lifting their bellies and flattening their backs. Crawling forward instantly became easier. This demonstrates how hard it is for a horse to carry us with a hollow, tight back and weak abdominal muscles.

Again, standing comfortably, knees relaxed, place the back of one hand in the small of your back. Now pull your belly button gently into your hand. Snyder-Smith says she sometimes imagines a big dragon tail weighting the tailbone, keeping it grounded. When one of the volunteers got into this balanced, correct posture, she cried out, "Slip a horse under me!" She was so excited by the feel of her own good posture. We could all see the light bulb going on over her head.

Snyder-Smith reminded us that it is a psychological fact that the known is comfortable, and that is why in the beginning it is a struggle to find and hold correct posture. We have to practice, exercise and condition our own bodies, do frequent checks and corrections until the new, better posture becomes habitual. Another psychological fact is that our body parts are interlocking, and that we often develop actions that our brain may associate even though there is no rational reason for the actions to be associated. (For example, sitting in a chair and tapping a foot; a habit, but no real reason why the foot has to tap.) Many of us, especially women, think that if our hips move backwards we have to contract our back muscles creating a hollow back. But try this - stack your spine over unlockeded knees, push your hips back but keep your lower back flat and bend your torso forward without hollowing your back. This posture as well as the stacking exercise is shown in clear detail on her DVD, "Partners, the Art of Mounted Body Language," (available on the Synergist Saddle web site or directly from Donna.) This takes some strength of abdominal and back muscles, but it is not difficult to do. If we condition ourselves properly most post-ride pain is not necessary, barring traumatic injury.

The next one was a fun exercise. We all paired off, one person standing behind the other. The person in front was the "horse", the person behind the "rider". The rider placed her hands on the ribcage of the "horse", simulating the rider's legs, and we "rode" the horse around the hall for a bit, gently guiding the horse with pressure from our palms. We halted and Donna told us that our "horse" was now a green four year old that's been kept in a stall for a few days and we are going out for a ride on a brisk, breezy day. What is the natural reaction of the rider? Grip to hang on for dear life! The "horses" took off frisking around the hall while the riders gripped and got flung all around. Nobody was balanced or in control. Sigh... we just have to learn to sit that colt without gripping! The "horses" said that the soft steady palms (legs) communicated clear instructions and they felt connected and relaxed. The riders said they felt confident, comfortable, and "riding" was effortless. The gripping palms felt stiff, restricting, causing over reactions, annoying, even scary.
There may be emergency situations that require the rider to grip, but we need to learn to ride in balance and without gripping. Horses communicate with each other largely through body language. The herd signal for alarm is throwing the head up in a tense, alert stance. If the lead mare ignores or chides the head-up horse, the herd goes back to grazing. But if the herd leader responds with tension, the urge to bolt in flight overtakes the whole herd. Horses cannot think, "Humans are a different species so my equine social rules do not apply." If we communicate tension, the horse responds by being on alert. They cannot understand that the rider has just lost her balance.

Given the horse's physique, being longer than they are wide, they are easily thrown off balance laterally. Habitual unbalanced riding or training will result in unbalanced muscling. This is also influenced by conformation and saddle fit. Horses, like humans, are naturally right or left dominant (80% right dominant). They will stay on the trot diagonal that favors their stronger side, bumping the unaware rider back on to that diagonal when their attention lapses. The stronger side will have more stress resulting in increased likelihood of injury. Then the weaker side will compensate, but will become injured even more quickly because it is weaker. Sitting on your horse bareback (or stand on something to give you that view) and look down at the withers. If your horse shows evidence of one side having an over developed shoulder muscle, while the other side appears distinctly flatter and less muscled, you horse is moving in an unbalanced way. This often leads to saddle fit problems where the saddle moves and shifts to the less muscled side. This can cause pressure sores evidenced by white hairs on the withers and shearing of hair over the loins. Learning to post the trot correctly and change the posting diagonal frequently is a good way to help your horse develop its lateral balance. Remember you are on the left diagonal when you rise from the saddle as your horse's left front shoulder and leg swing forward and his right hind comes forward. If you rise with this motion you will sit as that right hind comes down to become the weight bearing foot. Posting the left diagonal will strengthen the right hind. Horses don't like to change to their weaker diagonal, so pay attention. It may take 90 days or several years, but one of your training goals should be to equalize the strength of your horse's hind legs. A question was asked about riding in a two-point position. Snyder-Smith said that unless you are exceptionally well balanced in your own body, the two-point position (standing in your stirrups) requires much more energy to maintain. At best it is neutral in its effect on the horse, but cannot make a positive contribution to balance the horse's use of the weaker, non-dominant legs.

Her next volunteers got a real work out. Snyder-Smith brought out a two-step mounting block. She had several volunteers come up and stand very close alongside the lower step, feet parallel to the step, then slowly and steadily step up and down with the foot closer to the mounting block ten times, keeping the feet flat and in line with the shoulders (not placing the foot forward or backward as you step up and down), and without hopping. It was clear that on the weaker side the hip would protrude as they stepped up. She encouraged people to work out with this step exercise to strengthen and equalize their legs. As you get fit you can increase the difficulty. Add a five to eight pound weight to the outside hand as you step up. Have a friend spot for you, to make sure that you are maintaining good alignment in your posture without leaning forward or protruding your hip. Don't lock your knees. Step lightly and in rhythm. A wobbling balance indicates weakness. Remember to keep it slow. A stairstepper machine with its quick repetition does not accomplish the same balancing and strengthening of lateral torso muscles. If your knees hurt, check your toe position - no twisting of the feet.

All exercise should be incremental. As you gain strength and consequently balance, move over to the higher side of the mounting block and step up higher. Don't bounce to lift yourself up. Next, again on the lower side, step up and hop on the foot on the step, then step down. When you are ready, work up to doing the same exercise on the higher step. When you can do the step up and hop on the higher step while carrying a weight for ten repetitions on both sides, your leg muscles will be fit enough to stand up to a 100-mile ride.

The last exercise she taught us is to stand on one foot on your strong side with a five-pound weight in the opposite hand, elbow bent, wrist straight, hand and weight close to shoulder. Raise the weighted hand above your head and then return to the starting position. In the beginning, you may have to touch your toe to the floor to keep your balance, especially when you are lifting the weight while standing on your weaker side. Eventually you will be able to do the exercise on either foot without losing your balance and without needing to touch the floor or your supporting leg with your elevated foot.

The key to these exercises is to actually do them! Set up a routine and be persistent. Remember to keep your motions slow and rhythmic, be aware of your body position and posture, and watch your riding improve. Your horse will like the changes too!

Note: Donna Snyder-Smith reviewed and approved this article. Part II is next.

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