Sitting Up Straight – Not Just a Spinal Affair

It seems ridiculously mundane, but I’m a little nutty about sitting up straight in the saddle.

I’ve got a thing for posture. My obsession started with taking martial arts classes at a young age and only got worse when I started riding as a teenager. Ironically, it took an injury for me to really understand this topic.

Now, there are countless riding styles out there. Whether it’s the forward seat of hunters, the deep seat of dressage or the forward galloping seat of barrel racers, a straight back is a consistent goal. Isn’t it one of the first three posture positions we’re taught when we first get on a horse (eyes up, back straight, heels down)? And through practice, most riders achieve a straight spine relatively quickly. But what if I told you that isn’t the only part of sitting up straight?

You guessed it. I’m talking about how you carry your shoulders.

How did I happen upon this important posture facet? One morning out of the blue, I woke up with debilitating pain in my right shoulder. Yup, I had been bitten by the tendinitis bug. Ongoing strain on my bicipital tendon and rotator cuff threw them into an angry state of inflammation. I couldn’t raise my arm without extreme pain, let alone lead or ride a horse (devastating to the girl who spent every waking minute at the barn). What was the key cause of my aches? Poor posture.

Let me describe the posture I’m talking about: rounded shoulders, slouched shoulders, or forward shoulders that are out of alignment with the rest of the body. Why is this so important? Well, aside from the potential of injury, attempting to artificially pull the shoulders back can cause the rider to have a hollowed back, feet creeping forward, raised knee, compromised core…you get the idea.

And all of these affect your horse, too. Horses make great mirrors. If your back is hollow, your horse will be hollow. When your shoulders are forward, it pushes your horse unnecessarily forward. And if your core is compromised, your horse doesn’t have the necessary support for a half-halt. So obviously, the bio-mechanics of properly held shoulders are important to the horse as well as the rider.

Before we dive in, let me address one thing: For better or worse, the posture you have on the ground will directly effect your posture in the saddle.

If it’s your habit to stand tall all the time, it’s much easier to sit up straight while riding. However, if you slouch on the ground, then trying to force a straight posture in the saddle will be much harder. Worse, it can create tension while riding, and we all know tension hinders movement.

 

Now, why do we ride with poor shoulder posture?

I loved the article by Heather Sansom, Fixing Rider Posture – Riders with Rounded Shoulders. She discusses issues such as poor posture habits, tension and muscular imbalances. It’s worthwhile taking an introspective look and trying to determine the source of the posture issue before trying to fix it.

My story proves those points. Flash back fifteen years: after a few months of physical therapy, ultrasound therapy, t-stem therapy and a joint injection, I had a whole new perspective on how to sit up straight with properly held shoulders. I engaged the correct muscles in my back, which opened up my chest and took the strain off my overused ligaments. Best lesson in posture I’ve learned yet.

 

Fix it before it becomes a serious issue.

Sansom indicates the effect of poor posture isn’t just on the muscles, but also on the ligaments and connective tissue. Which means the longer the issues goes uncorrected, the harder it will be to fix.

In her article, she provides several exercises to help fix shoulder issues. My best lesson was from my physical therapist. It looked like this:

Sit up straight in your chair. That’s it…now, I don’t want you to think about your shoulders but your shoulder blades. Those wing-like bony structures 70% of chicks (myself included) have a tattoo on. Think about squeezing them together toward your spine. Good, hold it and breathe. Now comes part two: that lowest tip of your shoulder blades, closest to your spine? Push them down toward your hips. That’s it…it might take you a few tries, but if you do this about 10 reps, twice a day, you’ll build up that strength quickly.

And don’t forget, how you carry yourself on the ground will effect how you carry yourself in the saddle.

Practice your riding posture constantly. Trust me, your body will thank you for taking the strain off your tendons. And you’ll look all the more poised for it.

What’s your posture pet-peeve in riding? Horse people always have them — legs, hands, eyes, what?

 

Resources:

Rider Fitness Tip of the Month: Fixing Riding Posture РRiders with Rounded Shoulders, by Heather Sansom, May 2011. https://www.equisearch.com/articles/rider-fitness-tip-of-the-month-fixing-riding-posture-riders-with-rounded-shoulders