Muscle Activation and Postural Control in Riders

Postural control is “the ability to control the body in space and ensure its stability and orientation” -Brodal 2008. Having better postural control means that you have an independent seat and can ride in balance; it does not mean that you activate all your muscles at once and sit in a rigid ‘granny on a Zimmer-frame’ type position. This rigidity limits movement and increases spinal compression due to the contraction of the surrounding muscles. Spinal issues are common in horse riders and so increased compression is definitely something we want to avoid. Rigidity also reduces your ability to be flexible and absorb forces, which can lead to impact injuries. It also doesn’t look very nice or is very comfortable on your horse. If you have a strong seat, which pushes into the horse and you clamp your body into a fixed position, how on earth are you going to develop lightness and highly refined aids?

Similarly, in the presence of rider lower back pain, the ability to control the spine at every segment is lost. This causes the multifidus muscle, which also acts to stabilise the spine, to atrophy. The spine then becomes even less stable and the rider is less able to control their posture. Pelvic instability is a common condition and is due to poor muscle recruitment, which in turn causes unwanted movement of the lower trunk (Reid, 1996). A stable trunk is necessary to riding and so increasing riding ability and muscular endurance is indicated in order to maintain a balanced position without discomfort. Nevison and Timmis (2013) also identified that pelvic asymmetry was present in all the riders they studied and reduced after exercises and soft tissue treatment (as shown in the image below). They concluded that gluteal and core strengthening exercises could play a significant role in enhancing horse and rider health, by reducing asymmetric loading on the horse’s back from a crooked rider.

The highly esteemed Maria Teresa Engell stated that riders need to improve their stability and control off the horse before they can hope to ride correctly and in balance. This is in line with the Strength and Conditioning theory that your sport specific skill (in this case riding) is the top of the pyramid of skills which you, as an athlete, need to develop. The 5 Phases of learning which Engell (referencing Hodges et al, 2002 – ‘Coexistence of Stability and mobility in postural control’) suggests are

1)      Skill Learning

2)      Precise Training

3)      Controlled Activity in different positions

4)      Combined segmental and superficial stability tasks

5)      Specific retraining in sport specific context

Once a rider is proficient in all these skills, their ability to rider symmetrically will improve. This in turn enables the rider to be much more effective with the aids and to reduce the risk of inducing lameness or asymmetry in their horse. Proprioception is key to riders – the ability to know where your body is in space is vital in order to control it effectively.

Realising how you as a rider influence your horse – for better or for worse – is crucial. If you missed them, have a look at my blogs on Rider Self Assessments (http://www.pb-equestrian.co.uk/blog/rider-self-assessment) to see where you are most weak, tight or unstable and have a think about whether this correlates with the movements which your horse is good or bad at too.