Dressage Today: April 2000 Issue
Ask The Expert

Question: "I am a middle-aged rider who has come back to riding after about 15 years. I have an 8-year-old Thoroughbred cross gelding that I work at First Level, hoping to do some showing eventually. I find I am not as flexible as I used to be and  have recently heard about "biomechanics" and how it might help me. I'm not sure what is meant by the term as it refers to riding horses. Can you explain what it is and why it is important to dressage riders like me?"

Answer:  Biomechanics can be defined as the study of biological systems (such the human spine and extremities) in terms of their physical properties, structure and function. As a rider, an understanding of biomechanics can help you to correct alignment problems in your body which affect your riding. To achieve the best possible connection with your horse, you need to be flexible in your spine and extremities as well as having a full range of motion in your joints. Correcting misalignments will improve your body awareness and your overall performance. Using your body correctly also decreases the risk of injury.

In order to develop full control of the human frame and center of gravity, your body needs to be correctly aligned. To do this, your weight must be placed over the center of your feet. As you bend or straighten your legs, your
ankle and knee caps should track over the center of the foot. Hip rotation also should coincide with the correct alignment of your knee, ankle and foot. Now, think about your shoulder alignment; hold your shoulders back and down.  Hold your head back so that your ear is aligned over your shoulder. Your abdominal strength is the key support system stabilizing your movements in the upper as well as lower extremities.

To define alignment problems, the first thing I do in my rider clinics is to assess each rider’s posture. Then, specific stretch and flexibility exercises you need can be incorporated into your riding program. The following two exercises are examples of ones used to help assess and improve how your body moves (your postural mechanics).

First, with the assistance of a partner, your shoulder alignment is compared to the ideal alignment. This is accomplished by pulling the shoulders back and down, so that the top of the upper arm (humerous bone) is pulled as far behind the end of your collar bone (clavicle) as possible. This opens the line of your upper body, which is the opposite of collapsing the shoulders forward. Then a stretch exercise is introduced, which pinpoints any restriction that keeps you from reaching the ideal alignment of your shoulders, neck and head. I recommend to riders that they use this shoulder stretch prior to riding.

In another exercise, this time for the lower body, begin by standing with your feet 2 and 1/2 feet apart with toes pointing at approximately a 30 degree angle outward. From this position, bend your knees while your partner drops a plum line (a string with a weight at the end) to the floor. As you move, you can evaluate your knee tracking mechanics. The mechanical ideal is for the kneecap to track directly over the centerline of the foot during movement. If your knees track to the inside of the foot, your partner moves your knee into the correct alignment and continues to check it against the plum line, so you are weight bearing over the centerline of your foot. While maintaining the correct alignment, continue to straighten your leg to a standing position. Use this as an exercise to increase flexibility and improve the alignment of your foot, ankle and knee. The assessment and exercises are all done on the ground so you can work on establishing correct alignment and muscle control without the additional challenges of riding your horse.

During group work, riders work on the ground with their partners. In a private consultation, I carefully analyze postural alignment and incorporate very specific work to increase spine and extremity flexibility. Then we place the
the rider on a stationary apparatus--a specially designed padded barrel, which simulates the horse’s body. This is where I fine tune the seat and legs to the correct position. I adjust and evaluate the rider’s posting, turning and halt
mechanics, until a new awareness of the way the body moves is achieved.

Once riders can successfully control their newly aligned bodies in a static environment, they are ready to apply these skills on horseback. As riders experience how it feels to use muscles correctly and understand the objective,
they demonstrate an immediate improvement in technical riding ability. Results can be immediate and surprising.

Repetition and practice will reinforce the body’s memory of this work. Of course, there are challenges for older riders, but over the years, while working with hundreds of riders, I’ve seen that each one can improve and
develop to his or her own highest potential.

A biomechanical approach can help you achieve a higher level of expertise than you could acquire after decades of dressage training alone. As one German trainer stated, "In almost 15 years of training, this is the first time I have
experienced the correct muscle control in my seat."  To learn more about biomechanics visit my Web site at www.sportballet.com.

Stephen M. Apatow, is a biomechanics specialist who works with international level athletes and dancers. He has developed an analysis, correction and retraining system that specifically enhances the technical performance of both riders and horses. He has given presentations at USDF adult camps since 1997. 

For questions or additional information, contact: 
Stephen M. Apatow
Founder, Director of Research & Development
Sports Medicine & Science Institute
BalletEquestria: Rider & Equine Development Programs
Humanitarian University Consortium Graduate Studies Center
for Medicine, Veterinary Medicine & Law
Phone: 203-668-0282
Email: s.m.apatow@balletequestria.org
Internet: www.balletequestria.org 


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