Transform Your Dressage Position

Improve your stability and effectiveness in the saddle through a better understanding of your muscle connections.
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Credit: Courtesy, Thomas Myers The lateral lines consist of a single continuity of myofascia—a blend of muscles and tough fascial fabric—starting from the outer arch of the foot and running up the side of the leg to a wide attachment at the iliac crest. It continues up the trunk as a series of Xs crisscrossing like shoelaces up the side of the rib cage and neck to attach to the head out by the ear.

Credit: Courtesy, Thomas Myers The lateral lines consist of a single continuity of myofascia—a blend of muscles and tough fascial fabric—starting from the outer arch of the foot and running up the side of the leg to a wide attachment at the iliac crest. It continues up the trunk as a series of Xs crisscrossing like shoelaces up the side of the rib cage and neck to attach to the head out by the ear.

Few riders realize that the muscles of the horse and rider work as linked chains, forming lines of pull along various tracks within the body from head to foot. Bringing these kinetic chains to mind and into action while riding can enhance the ease and control for both animals. These 12 myofascial meridians have been researched and written up by anatomist Thomas Myers, who has studied movement and manual therapy for more than 35 years (anatomytrains.com). Instead of focusing on the isolated function of individual muscles, his seminal work maps the functional connections within our working biological fabric—call it the neuro-myofascial web.

In my first article on this subject, we looked at the balance between the front and back of the body, which is determined by the relative tension of the superficial front line (SFL) and the superficial back line (SBL). A long front line leads to a hollow back, while a long back line leads to a round-backed rider and/or an overbent horse.

It is perhaps surprising but observably common that balance (or imbalance and subsequent compensation) among these lines in the rider is often echoed in the horse. It is sad but equally true that few riders and horses have the appropriate balance between these lines, even though this equipoise forms the baseline of good sitting, as well as good carriage in the horse. Elite riders are able to balance the tension within them, using even tone through the lines to stabilize both themselves and the horse in a posture that allows controlled yet unconstrained movement. In this article, I am going to presuppose that those front and back lines are already well-stabilized in order to turn our attention to the lateral lines (LL), which run down the sides of the body from the ear to the outer arch of the foot. 

The Lateral Lines 

Let us meet the lateral lines in their entirety. As with the SBL and SFL, we will start at the bottom and go to the top, though, in practice, tension can be passed in either direction.

The LL takes root from both the inner and outer mid-foot, but both tendons come around to support the lateral arch and the outside of the ankle. The line continues through the peroneal muscles of the outer calf, which then blend into the iliotibial tract, a very strong sheet of fascial fabric that you can feel just above your knee. This continues up the outside of each thigh and widens out to cup the thigh bone and attach to the iliac crest at the belt line. From the waist up, the LL form a series of Xs similar to shoelaces— in essence, lacing together the front and the back. This pattern continues up the rib cage, hidden under the large shoulder muscles. But the LL re-emerges in the neck with the last X as two broad muscles that work to keep the head balanced and still as the body moves underneath— an active process in riding. 

Stacking the Midlines 

The lateral lines meet the superficial front and back lines along the lines of a man’s suspenders. These form the intermediate stability system, and imbalances of these four lines affect the rider’s ability to stack her midline over that of the horse. 

My many years of experience as a rider and coach have shown me that most riders (especially women) naturally sit in a way that makes them too wide for their horses. If one thigh and seat bone sit snugly against the horse, the thigh and seat bone on the other side tend to fall away from the midline. 

Most riders have experienced the kind of intensive training session that makes such a huge improvement to the bad rein that it suddenly becomes the good rein. The rider will usually experience a few days of euphoria before it dawns on her that the formerly good rein has now become the bad rein. Rarely does she realize that the originally loose side has snugged-in against the horse whilst the originally snug side became looser.

To steer well, the rider needs to be able to arrange her backside and thigh pressure symmetrically over the horse’s long back muscles. This makes intuitive sense as it gives her a specific and symmetrical relationship to his long back muscles. Her backside, thighs and sides of her body act like the bread in a horse sandwich. They limit the “wriggle room” for his wither, helping to limit the deviations through which he falls in or out. Balance in the lateral lines helps to define this symmetrical seat. Horses often act like rivers, eroding their outer bank more than the inner. Thus, the rider with the outside sitting bone and thigh sloppily positioned can become completely unable to stop the horse from falling out. The idea of riding “inside leg to outside rein” is simply not specific enough to help most riders solve this problem. 

Almost all of us begin with the most instinctive way of turning, which is to pull on the inside rein. This is unfortunately about as effective as pulling on the inside handlebar of a bicycle! While cyclists make this mistake only once, riders make it repeatedly because the physics of their situation dictates that, when the outside of their body has “gone walkabout,” they have no other option. The pull might cause the horse’s head to turn in, but at the same time, his wither will fall out, acting like the hinge on an 18-wheeler. The key here is that the horse’s body follows his wither, so the more desperate the rider becomes and the more she pulls on the inside rein, the more the horse falls out and the more the rider cannot steer. Alternatively, the horse may pull against her on the inside rein as he continues to go straight on. Almost all of us observe these self-defeating strategies with a rueful smile of recognition.

Elite riders have equal contact with the inside of both thighs. They use this to steer the wither precisely. The common instruction to “relax the thighs” and “take the knees off the saddle” has evolved out of fears that the rider will grip, but such directions can take away the boundaries that limit the side-to-side deviations in the horse. 

Instead, imagine steering the horse’s wither and front legs along an imaginary line that has been painted on the surface of the riding arena. This simple idea can help you resist the temptation to steer the horse’s nose, thus ensuring that you will lose control of his wither. Once the lateral lines and the intermediate stability system play their part, this can evolve into really precise steering.

Intermediate Stability System

The LL in human beings is an adjustable stability system of the outside of our body, activated on the supporting side with each step and hopefully activated in the rider with every step of the horse. Adjustability and a ready ability to tone these lines are as necessary to a dodging soccer player as they are to the responsive but stable rider. The eyelet lines of our shoelace image define the meeting between the inner edges of the LL and the outer edges of both the SFL and SBL. These four lines are composed of some of the strongest strapping in the body— think of them like duct tape, which has reinforcing fibers that make it stronger than parcel tape. They form the body’s intermediate stability system. If these four lines do not have equal tension, the rider will collapse a hip on one rein. Her inner thighs will also be pulled out of the ideal symmetrical V shape that should encase the horse’s midline—and she will suffer all of the associated steering difficulties. To add more stabilizing strength to the system, imagine the eyelet line at the front being joined to the eyelet line on the back on each side. These connections form two planes that are parallel to the horse’s spine. I think of them like two “boards” joining the rider’s front to her back. When these boards are stacked up over the inner edges of the horse’s back muscles we share a muscle-chain-to-muscle-chain connection that is immensely powerful.

The Muscle-Chain Connection 

Achieving this connection is not difficult but a bit tricky and can be helped along by the following isometric exercise. Remember that the eyelet lines follow the line of a man’s suspenders from your shoulder strap over your bosom and down the edge of the abdominal muscles all the way to the corner of the pubic bone. On the back, they follow those suspenders past the waist, down the line of the sacroiliac joint and under the backside to the seat bone. The board that joins the back and front on each suspender line divides your torso into thirds—right, middle and left sections. 

1. Prepare. Sit in a firm chair, seat bones pointing down, feet flat on the floor and legs slightly apart. Note the symmetrical V shape between your inner thighs with the point of the V toward the back of your seat.

2. Put one board on. Lay the edges of your hands along one of the suspender line boards. Make this line (and the outside third of your body) come closer to your midline by very slightly rotating your body to advance that board; firm it up and move it over. 

3. Return to a neutral position.

4. Repeat the movement and notice how it changes the V. The thigh on the side which is advanced and clarified becomes longer and stronger, while the other becomes shorter and fuzzier.

5. Do the exercise whilst riding in walk. Repeat on each rein, making sure that as you bring one board closer to the horse’s midline, you let the other one deliberately come away from it. Your horse may respond with some interesting steering, but let that be. 

Most people who do this exercise realize that they do indeed ride with one side on and one off. Thus, one of these positions will feel like an exaggerated version of home while its mirror image is hard to get into. If one side is indeed stronger than the other, you may find that it is as difficult to get the stronger side to let go as it is to get the weaker to come on; but it is important to work on this or your strong side will hijack any attempt to strengthen your weaker side

6. Put both boards on. Once you have improved your awareness of each board, it is time for the punch line. Whether you are on a chair or a on a horse, put on the board of the weaker side and keep it in place. Now, put on the other board, too. Putting both boards on is reminiscent of two people fighting to sit on the same bar stool, but neither one can quite push the other one off. Your middle third has been squashed from both sides and made narrower, and it must become extremely narrow if we are to fulfill our aim of lining up each board over the inside edge of the horse’s long back muscle. Becoming narrow in the middle third allows you to do this, and also makes you feel wider in the outer thirds, which are now encased between the boards and the shoelaces. 

Sit and breathe in this position. Having this much tone in your torso is a completely unnatural way to sit in a chair, and you can work up quite a sweat doing it. You might be shocked at the firmness in your torso and thigh (especially if you thought you should relax), but it takes at least this much stabilization if you are to truly ride both sides of your horse. Very few of us naturally have both boards on when riding. Sitting this way makes the V between your thighs symmetrical; both thighs become longer and stronger. If one side stays loose and soggy when riding, the bottom of the board on that side has slid away from the midline, taking your seat bone with it. You can fix this by pressing your opposite fist on the side of the pommel, making a counter-pressure that helps you access the muscles on the inside of that thigh and keep your seat bone in place. 

The horse also has boards that lie on the inner edges of his back muscles, continuing forward on each side of his crest and back on each side of his spine and croup to each hind leg. His boards define the inner edges of the muscles of his SBL. He too may have distortions, with a soggy side and an over-stretched side. While these contribute to the issues involved in steering, the rider’s asymmetry is usually the dominant influence. So the rider’s task is to stabilize her boards and stack them over her horse’s boards in order to stabilize his. Learn to notice where they most easily detach from each other. Can you discover which of you is the first to become soggy? As your skill increases, this enables you to ride turns and circles with the horse’s withers remaining precisely on the imaginary line. Once your boards are stacked over the inner edges of the horse’s long back muscles, it becomes easier to stack the outer edges of your torso over the outer edges of those muscles with the proper stabilizing tonus in the outer stability system of the lateral lines. Sitting with this much influence is a fabulous feeling.

Mary Wanless earned a BSc in physics and British Horse Society Instructor certification. Over the last 30 years, she taught herself anatomy and delved into many approaches that shed light on the workings of the body/mind connection and discovered what it is that talented riders do that they do not know they do. Author of six books and eight DVDs, she has coached U.S. team rider Heather Blitz for 17 years. Her websites: mary-wanless.com and ridewithyourmindUSA.com.

Credit: Peter Dove

Credit: Peter Dove

Thomas Myers is the author of Anatomy Trains, Fascial Release for Structural Balance and numerous articles. He studied directly with Drs. Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Buckminster Fuller and other teachers of movement, osteopathy and the martial arts. He directs Kinesis, which offers professional development seminars worldwide for manual therapists and movement educators. He lives with his partner, Quan (a horsewoman), in Maine (anatomytrains.com).

Credit: Courtesy, Thomas Myers

Credit: Courtesy, Thomas Myers

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