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Bracing in the saddle

18 August 2011 No Comment

Bracing in the saddle
We asked horse training expert Dr. Jessica Jahiel, whose teaching goal is to develop balanced, willing, forward horses and thoughtful riders. More on Jessica

From: Andrea

My problem is I brace in the saddle. Every instructor I have tells me this and I know I am doing it but don’t know how to stop. I don’t think I do this when I am riding for fun (maybe I do to some point but not as much as in lessons) but when someone is watching me and critiquing my riding I get all tense. Help!!

Answer
Hi Andrea! The only way to stop any bad habit is to start by figuring out WHY you’re doing it, and try to eliminate the cause of the habit. Just saying “don’t brace” isn’t going to help you at all. ;-) .

Since this is something you do more when someone is watching, here are a couple of suggestions.

First, talk to your instructor, and explain that you get tense in the saddle and need to relax. Tell her that you get nervous when she is watching you, and that you would appreciate anything she can do to help you feel more at ease.

Then, ask yourself WHY you feel nervous when someone critiques you? Your instructor is there to help you, and if she tells you that your heels are too high, or that you are gripping with your knees, she doesn’t mean “You’re a bad person, Andrea!” She just means that your heels are too high or that you are gripping with your knees! ;-) She’s critiquing YOUR POSITION, not YOU — and she’s doing it to help you improve and become a better rider. It’s hard work learning to ride — you know it, and so does she. If you can relax and not take position critiques personally, you’ll learn faster and more easily.

Now you’re saying to yourself, “Right, she says I should relax, that’s not so easy to do!” You’re absolutely right, it isn’t easy — but you must do it, and here are two things for you to check. They are two of the most common causes of tension-induced bracing: your breathing and your tack.

Check your breathing!

BREATHE. You are probably holding your breath a lot of the time, without even noticing that you’re doing it. Most people who brace in the saddle tend to hold their breath while they do it — in fact, it’s very difficult to maintain enough tension TO brace unless you are holding your breath.

In addition to holding your breath, you are probably breathing too quickly and not deeply enough — again, this goes along with tension. You can’t make the tension go away so that you can breathe better, but you CAN breathe better and make the tension go away!

Practice when you’re riding on your own — do deep, slow, regular breathing. If you are taking short shallow breaths, and just using the top portion of your lungs, you are going to get nervous and tense. Breathing slowly and deeply will help. Breathe in through your nose, and FILL your lungs. Then breathe out through your mouth, slowly, and feel how your entire body relaxes as you exhale. Then practice, so that you can breathe deeply and call up that sense of relaxation all the way around the arena.

Then try to breathe that way ALL the time when you ride. It won’t just relax your body, it will oxygenate it much better than shallow breathing — and it will relax your horse. When you become tense, your horse becomes tense too, and then you get MORE tense. When you breathe deeply and relax, your horse will relax under you, and that will make it easier for you to stay relaxed.

Ask your instructor if she will help you go back a few steps in your riding. Tell her that you know you need to relax, and that you want her to help you incorporate the breathing exercises into your lessons — and that it will be much easier to do this if you spend the next few lessons working on things you already know, so that you’ll be comfortable focusing on your breathing and relaxation. If you can sing while you ride, do that — it will help you breathe better.

Spend some time every day just walking around the arena on your horse, breathing deeply and alternating between your three-point (full-seat) and your two-point (half-seat) positions. It’s a wonderful exercise to improve your balance and help you check your leg position. When you can do it easily, and you have no difficulty staying in your two-point with long legs, relaxed knees, flexible ankles, and your weight dropped (not pushed!) into your heels, you’ll be well on your way to a lifetime of NOT BRACING. ;-) If you have any doubts, just get into your two-point and hold your breath on purpose for a moment — instant stiffness, instant tension, INSTANT BRACING. Then breathe deeply and relax. You’ll feel your legs get longer and your hips and knees and ankles go back to doing their job as shock absorbers.

If bracing is a habit, you’ll do it unless you’re deliberately doing something else, like breathing and stretching. So breathe, stretch, and don’t worry if you catch yourself bracing — that’s natural. But this exercise will teach you exactly what a stiff, braced position feels like AND what a relaxed, correct position feels like, and how to get from one to the other. So when you do brace, instead of saying to yourself “Oh, no, I’m doing it again, I’m awful” just tell yourself “I’m going to breathe and relax now,” and then do it — just breathe in, then relax as you breathe out, and let your legs stretch.

Check your tack!

Ask your instructor to help you check the position of your saddle on the horse, and the position of the stirrup bars on the saddle. Sometimes riders brace because they can’t sit correctly in a particular saddle.

Saddle on the horse: when it’s in position, the lowest point should be the middle of the saddle. If the saddle is too far back, the lowest point will be the pommel, and you’ll be spending all your riding time pushing yourself back! If the saddle is too far forward, the lowest point will be the cantle, and you’ll be trying to pull yourself forward…. and you can’t relax in either position.

When the saddle is adjusted so that the lowest point is just where you will be sitting, SIT in the saddle and leave the stirrups dangling. Adjust them correctly, so that when they dangle, the stirrup tread hits you on the anklebone. Then just lift your toes. It should be easy for you to put them into the stirrups. If you are sitting correctly and the stirrups are adjusted to the right length, but they hang down in front of your legs, so that you have to put your foot forward to find your stirrup, then it’s quite likely that the stirrup bars on this saddle are positioned too far forward, and it isn’t YOUR fault if you can’t sit in a relaxed, correct position. Try taking the stirrups OFF the saddle and doing some walk-work at your lesson — if you feel much more comfortable, this can be another sign that the stirrup-bar positioning may be wrong. When your stirrups are hanging too far in front of you, you are likely to end up water-skiing — pushing your feet forward, stiffening your knees, and hanging on the reins. This won’t do you or the horse any good.

If stirrup-bar placement is a problem, try other saddles. Ask your instructor to put you in one of hers, so that you can feel the difference. Try as many different saddles as you can — the right saddle can make an enormous difference to your riding comfort, and that can make an enormous difference to your tension level.

Hope this helps — let me know!

Sincerely, Jessica

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