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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

A Rider's Success Starts with the Hip Joint
by Mary D. Midkiff

Maverick Press Article - December 2000

The Barbie doll era must have started many of us thinking that our bodies bend from the waist and that our lower section and upper section are separated by the waist area. After all the belt is cinched at the waist and provides a natural visual division. We can seemingly "bend" from the waist area when we slump our torso or we can falsely achieve an erect position from the waist upward. In the military, ballet and gymnastics, to name the most obvious, people are taught to lift the rib cage, pull the shoulders back and chin up to stand at attention or salute the judge. Sound familiar from one of your riding lessons?

Since all of my research over the past 10 years is based on the needs of the female athlete; since I am a female rider and since 80% of the riders and participants in horse sports today are female; I will be speaking mainly to the female issues. However, biomechanics of the body should be familiar to all riders.

In my clinics and presentations, I ask participants what they do when they hear the command of "sit up" or "bring your shoulders back" in their lessons. The instructor may be asking for improved posture and alignment but without body awareness and biomechanical understanding, the rider will usually go into a statuesque or military position by lifting the ribs, pushing out the chest, and rolling the shoulders backward. This automatically puts women at a disadvantage in her balance, effectiveness and comfort. Men, too, will experience imbalance and tension throughout the body with this stiff position. Compression of the spine is the result of this misunderstanding.

To "sit tall and straight" without compression in the spine and tension in the neck requires bending from the hip joint first which then leads to effective movement above and below and ultimately an even flow of oxygen throughout the many systems of the body.

All movement in the saddle begins and ends with a flexible hip joint, which is the joint just under the femoral artery connecting the femur (thigh bone) to the pelvic structure. We have flexibility and movement in the waist but it moves because of the chain of vertebrae and not because it is a joint. If the spine is straight and aligned over a neutral positioned pelvis, the hip joint can remain in full range of motion to access the leg below. Subsequently, all of the hinges toes, ankle, knee, hip to spine, neck and shoulders, wrists and fingers can align and flow together with the horse's motion.

To check your spine alignment, place your hand just under your belt and press on the lower back. Bend forward and you will feel the bones of the spine protrude, now bend backwards and feel the spine disappear. Somewhere between those two extremes of flexibility there is a middle where you feel the tips of the vertebrae and the muscles in the back soften. Check your spine in and out of the saddle and become familiar with your own alignment.

To learn to sit tall without compression and stiffness try this exercise. Sit in a chair or in the saddle and collapse from your waist by rolling your chin down to your chest and continue rolling forward until your head is almost in your lap. Now slowly bring your self back up, with your chin still against your chest, without lifting your rib cage. Go slowly and focus on raising up and becoming tall, as if you had a string connected from the ceiling to the top of your head like a puppet, without bringing the ribs up and rolling the shoulders back. Do this exercise in front of a mirror looking sideways to check your upper body alignment. This may take some practice and you may need to take a deep breath in and blow it out to make sure you are not holding your breath in your mid-section.

Once you are all the way up, slowly bring your chin up to a level position and check your alignment in the mirror. Do this exercise and check your lower back every time you get in the saddle and you will begin to adopt this "straightness" without having to review yourself in the mirror.

Understanding that your power and balance begin with movement in the hip joint is crucial to an effective and long, safe and comfortable life in the saddle. The horse will feel you as light and in balance leading to heightened performance and freedom of movement.

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Mary D. Midkiff's new book, She Flies Without Wings: How Horses Touch A Woman's Soul (Random House, Delacorte Press) is now on sale at Amazon.com

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