I am striving to ride between my shoulders.
This is a concept that my teacher has been working me towards for a long time. Like most things in riding, I am able to get closer and closer to mastering the concept in small increments. Sometimes I take a few steps back before I can improve further, but the overall progression has been very positive.
"Riding between the shoulders" is a goal for any rider, but especially the tight-shouldered rider. That's me. Or at least it used to be me. I feel that I can say that now, even if I am not perfect. Unlike the many years when I tooled around the dressage arena with insanely braced shoulders, I am confident enough to say that many of my riding minutes are spent with mobile, dropped shoulder blades. I am also able to now recognize times when my shoulders have become tense (left lead canter tends to be a habit for me) and I am able to release them. Before I had my wonderful little quarter horse, I used to ride a large Hanoverian/Thoroughbred mare. I loved her and she was, in many ways, my (unofficial) first horse, but she could be wickedly heavy. I learned to prop her up using my upper body strength and leverage, which included the dreaded hollow back. That's right, leverage. I sat back, a lot. In fact, my instructor at the time liked this about me and this mare. This mare got me to really sit back. And I learned a great many useful things from riding her and I certainly do not regret riding her (it was a gift for which I am grateful), but sitting back like that became ingrained in my muscle memory. I was not really leaning back, at least not dramatically, but I definitely had developed a brace in my shoulders. This was different than the brace I carried in my shoulders when practicing jumping, but a brace nonetheless. With the riding discipline change, I just obediently traded one type of shoulder brace for another and I was praised for this change in position, even though there was still a great deal of muscular tension present.
My most recent riding lesson was spent on the ground. One of the exercises that I practiced went something like this:
Assume the dressage rider position while standing in front of the barn aisle wall. Softly rest your fists against the wall. Be sure to keep your fists level and turn them in slightly to face each other. The rider's wrists should not be bent to the outside, which is called "broken wrists" and interrupts the straight line from the bit to the elbow. The wrists should be softed flexed in, like you are hugging a stuffed animal. This makes your wrists straight, even though I am using the word "flexed". Does this remind you of bending and the straight horse?
As you rest into the wall, only allow a slight bend in your knees and try to stand centered over your feet. For me, this required that I step my feet back from the wall a good foot and a half to two feet, while letting my upper body shift forward (i.e. I was leaning back.). Once I was straight, I pushed my belly button back and up toward my spine. This required muscular effort which was tiring with repetition. When I corrected engaged my core, the hollow was gone and my back was in a healthy, centered position. Again, this makes me think of the horse, who must also engage his abdominal muscles to correctly lift and support his back. The biomechanics of horse and rider are truly mirror images of one another.
Once I found this centered position, we added movement. I was to gently press against the wall with my fists and feel that my shoulder blades were separated and dropped. This little bit of pressure and movement helped me release tension and feel the looseness in my upper back. Then my teacher asked me to rotate my upper body slowly to the right and then to the left. The challenge was to maintain the same, steady, even pressure against the wall while I rotated my upper body. If you try this exercise, you will feel its benefits immediately. The exercise will reveal if you tend to take on the inside rein and drop the outside rein in a turn. The exercise will demonstrate how independent your aids and movements in the saddle must be, and how your upper body affects the balance and muscle groups in your lower body. When I found the coordination necessary to remain centered and connected to the wall evenly, we added a very slight raising and lowering of my knees as would be experienced when on the moving horse. To have success in this exercise is to "ride between the shoulders". I found it very interesting that I needed to send my fists forward to meet the wall in order to be centered. This is a very different feel than pulling back to create the contact on the rein, but the connection is still present and very allowing of forward movement.
Video of me trying my best to ride between my shoulders:
I have selected a short segment of our first ride following the grounded riding lesson. We are traveling right in trot and have only been trotting for a minute or two, so this is still our warm up. If you look carefully, you will see me rotate to the outside and the inside a few times on the circle. Notice that Harley continues straight and that we are sharing a nice connection even though my upper body is mobile. My lower legs are active, asking him to engage his core as I engage mine. Although I am wearing a fleece, I think that you can still see that there is no hollow in my back and my shoulders are soft. I am imagining the barn aisle wall infront of me as we move forward. I am sending my fists forward against that imaginery wall. Harley's pleasing frame, hindend engagement, and lifted back indicate that I am making myself an easy passenger. The visible looseness in his crest just in front of the saddle makes me particularly happy and has been hard won.