Seriously: Are you so relaxed on your horse your “supple” is a “flop”? According to rider biomechanics pioneer Mary Wanless in her book The New Anatomy of Rider Connection, this is a very real risk riders run when they misinterpret the terms “tense” and “relaxed.” We are convinced, over and over again, throughout our riding careers, that “tense” is bad and “relaxed” is good. Well, Wanless says we should think again—it’s not that simple.
Crucially for us and our horses, recent research has shown that fascia—the “cling-film” that wraps our muscles—is the mechanism by which tensional force is transmitted through the body (compression goes through the bones and joints). This means that fascia is fundamental to stability. Good work on rider biomechanics trains fascia so that we become more stable as a whole, while also becoming more able to respond appropriately to small (and big) changes in our horses.
This next piece of information challenges our traditional assumptions about riding skills, and it allows riders to change in profound ways that would have been impossible within traditional thinking. Imagine each myofascial chain like a guitar string, which needs sufficient tension to play a note. It must be evenly toned all along its length to play properly, and the successful rider has cultivated that even tone. The opposite of integration is isolation, and areas of high-tone and low-tone tend to make for an unbalanced rider who lacks confidence.
The horse world is hooked on the idea of relaxation, and being told to “relax” encourages people to think they should be loose and floppy. This makes their “guitar strings” even looser. The “loosely strung,” low-pressure rider cannot control or sense what is happening to her body: any feeling at all will be fuzzy and unclear; in the worst-case scenario, it is as if this rider is a puppet and the horse is pulling the strings.
Metaphorically speaking, her body cannot “find the melody.” The yoga expression “tight is light” defines one of the benefits of an appropriately strung fascial net (think of a tennis racquet), since a floppy, “noodley” body cannot support its weight well and is not resilient. Furthermore, loose tensegrity structures are easily deformed, so they can change shape fluidly, but will collapse under significant load or impact. As you tighten the strings (preferably evenly) you “prestress” the structure, which becomes increasingly resilient, and able to bear more load and greater impacts without deforming. This more resilient body can sit to the trot better.
Riders are far too scared of tension, which is considered a terrible affliction. Riders look tense (I prefer the term “brittle”) when they are not breathing well. Of course a rider’s joints should not lock up, but this is usually a protective mechanism that kicks in when the tissues are too loose. All human movement is a dance between the needs for both stability and mobility, and physical therapists increasingly understand that the body-mind has to trust in its stability before it will allow mobility. Thus it makes sense that legs and arms grab on when a floppy core cannot stabilize the rider.
The truth is that we cannot sit well without “pre-stress” in the fascial net, and beyond deep breathing and a clear head, relaxation is not a concept that serves us well. Thus I often use the colloquial terms “noodley,” floppy, empty, or “unstuffed” to describe how a rider’s body looks and feels when there is a loosely strung fascial net, with various internal compartments at low pressure. Many riders can resonate with these descriptions—sometimes for their whole body, or for various body parts.
Please realize that it does not help us to think in judgmental terms like “tense” and “relaxed.” Once we view the body as a series of locked long or locked short tissues, we can work toward that easy, toned but responsive state. This requires a rider whose body is full, firm, toned, and “stuffed” (like a brand new stuffed toy); only this enables a rider to sit so impressively still, which proves that the rider is neutral relative to the horse’s movement.
When parts of our fascial net are “noodley,” we do not create the necessary internal pressure to generate stability. When we recognize a talented rider, we are seeing a body whose internal compartments are held at strong internal pressure by a well-strung fascial net. But we attribute such a rider’s skills to relaxation, not pressure.
Think too of the dressage horse in “equipoise,” or a stallion prancing in front of a mare; again you are seeing a body at high pressure, pushing out against the incoming tension of the fascial net. This is a world away from a “soggy” horse whose rider has made his nose vertical!
When we are floppy, when we lose the balance between various fascial lines and antagonistic muscles, and/or when our fascial planes stick together, we are compromised as athletes. A high proportion of even advanced riders cannot control their lower legs in sitting trot, and when calves behave like noodles, the stabilization of various myofascial lines is also compromised in the torso and thighs, right on up to the shoulders and neck. Thus coaching that develops body awareness and core muscle strength throughout the lines will improve rider functioning more than just focusing on any single body part such as the calves. In practice the stability of the core and that of the extremities are intimately linked.
Finding a new “feel” requires finding an alternative way of organizing the lines of pull within your own riding body, and potentially within your horse’s fascia, as well.
Each little discovery that one makes during a lifetime of riding refines how these lines of pull operate. This is a process that has no end.
This excerpt from The New Anatomy of Rider Connection by Mary Wanless is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.