“Eyes up! Shoulders back! Chest Out!” We’ve all heard this…the question is, just how many times in one lesson?
Old habits die hard and we live in a digital age, which has caused people to spend a substantial amount of time sitting hunched over a phone or computer. This position is the opposite of what we are supposed to reinforce while in the saddle or leading our horses. So, what can we do to practice proper posture for showing when so many daily activities do the opposite?
We spoke with amateur competitors who are human chiropractors, Sydney Alcini (SEA Horse Chiropractic) and Leslie Hellman (Hellman Therapeutics) to get their recommendations for exercises we can do at home to strengthen our good-posture muscle memory.
About Our Contributors:
Dr. Sydney Alcini is a human and animal chiropractor. She owns SEA Horse Chiropractic in Ocala, Florida, which is a play on her initials: Sydney Elizabeth Alcini. She says, “It’s been a dream come true to be able to help both equestrians and equine reach optimal performance.”
Leslie Hellman has been a licensed massage therapist for over 20 years, specializing in structural-neuromuscular release, kinesiology, movement, and massage. He has worked with MLB Players, top AQHA riders, and patients with a variety of neuro-muscular issues throughout his career.
The Importance of Good Posture
Hellman explains, “Medial rotation and what happens when we hold our phone or sit at a computer. The position causes pectoral muscles to draw inward, which brings our shoulders into a hunched and closed position. Therefore, in order to counteract that process, we need to release the pectoral muscles, broaden the shoulders and allow them to settle down and back, and lift the neck upward.”
Hellman adds, “Good posture goes beyond the shoulders and neck, it also requires alignment in the pelvis. Many riders think they are sitting squarely in the saddle, but will notice that when holding the reins in the left hand, the horse will drift right. This is most likely due to unequal pressure in the seat and legs due to poor pelvic posture.”
Alcini finds that “the most common issue equestrians face when trying to maintain the proper posture in the saddle is the weakness of the core muscles and overactive hip flexor musculature – which is referred to as ‘lower cross syndrome.’ Lower cross syndrome causes your pelvis to tilt anteriorly further weakening your abdominal muscles and tightening your hip flexors. The anterior pelvic tilt puts direct pressure on the lumbar spine and pelvis which can cause low back pain.”
Alcini emphasizes, “Core strength has a huge impact on balance, coordination, and posture which are important for both the rider and the horse. Horses are able to feel the tiniest imbalances and movements from the riders, so proper posture and balance will have a direct impact on your horse’s performance as well.”
Hellman and Alcini recommend the following home exercises for improving your posture, both in your daily life and in the arena:
Start with your back against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and about 2 feet from the wall. Engage your abdominal muscles and slowly slide your back down the wall until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Adjust your feet so your knees are directly above your ankles (rather than over your toes).
Keep your back flat against the wall – to do so you will need to move your shoulders back so the points of contact with the wall are your low back and shoulders. Hold the position for 20 to 60 seconds. Rest for 30 seconds and repeat the exercise three times.
According to Hellman, this exercise will strengthen the core and quads while widening and opening the chest plate. Do this every other day to allow the leg muscles to rest.
Walking lunges function as an excellent exercise to target all the major muscle groups of your lower body while simultaneously improving your balance and core strength. Unlike stationary lunges, walking lunges present an added challenge – you have to maintain your balance while stepping forward between each lunge, shifting your weight and body position while temporarily standing on one leg.
To perform this exercise properly, begin standing with your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Check your posture before starting – your torso should be upright and tall, your core engaged, and your shoulders back and chin lifted. Look straight ahead. Take a wide step forward with your right foot – plant it roughly two feet ahead, allowing your left heel to lift naturally as you step forward. Keep your core engaged and upright. Bend both knees and lower your back knee toward the floor. Stop just before the back knee touches down. Breathe in during the lowering phase of the exercise.
Press firmly through your right heel and extend your right knee to rise to stand as you lift your left foot from the ground, swinging your left foot forward to plant it about two feet ahead of your right foot. Avoid leaning your torso forward from your hips as you take this step. Breathe out as you rise to stand. Continue stepping forward with each lunge, alternating sides as you do.
This exercise improves balance and proper forward movement of the body while maintaining proper alignment.
To properly perform this exercise, you begin lying on the floor in a prone (facedown) position, with your legs straight and your arms extended in front of you. Keep your head in a neutral position (avoid looking up), and slowly lift your arms and legs around 6 inches (15.3 cm) off the floor, or until you feel your lower back muscles contracting. Engage your glutes, your core, and the muscles between your shoulder blades simultaneously.
Aim to lift your belly button slightly off the floor to contract your abs. Hold this position for 2-3 seconds. Be sure you’re breathing the entire time. Lower your arms, legs, and belly back to the floor. Repeat this exercise for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Hellman reminds us, “If your arms curve, you need to release your chest muscles to help your arms remain straight.”
Downward Dog to a Knee Drive
Begin this exercise in a downward-facing dog. Then raise your left leg into the air behind you (down-dog split). Bend your left knee and pull it toward your forehead (driving the knee through the chest while keeping the chest broad and the belly elevated). Straighten the leg back, then bring the knee outside your left elbow. Straighten the leg again, then bring the knee toward your right elbow. Repeat three times. Switch legs and repeat.
This will work to strengthen the core, stretch the chest, and stretch the calves (due to the downward dog requiring your heels to be on the ground in the back part of the stretch).
Alcini believes yoga exercises can greatly improve your balance and posture in the saddle. “I always recommend yoga to my patients. It is one of the most beneficial full-body workouts to improve strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility. This will ultimately lead to less pain and better posture. You don’t have to be flexible or have a great balance to start practicing. You can even start in your living room with YouTube videos!”
Door Frame Stretch
Begin by positioning your elbows and hands in line with a door frame. Keep them in place while stepping through the door slowly, until you feel a stretch. Hold this end position for 15 to 20 seconds before returning to the starting position. Repeat this stretch about 3-5 times.
Core Strengthening Exercises:
bicycle crunches, leg raises, sit-ups, hip dips, and burpees.
“The more you focus on engaging your core throughout the day, the more natural it will become while showing.”
Hellman concludes, “Practicing your sport with dysfunctional muscle tissue only instills dysfunctional movement patterns in your neuromuscular system.” You need to retrain your muscle memory to reinforce proper posture and core strength in order to maintain it in life and in the pen.