When a horse and rider move in harmony together, it is a spectacular melding of two beings becoming one. There is a balance in the connection that allows them to move effortlessly through space and gravity. The mind-body maps of horse and rider merge, and they become something more than their individual selves.
This harmony between rider and horse is as unique as it is beautiful. Other than in folklore and Hollywood movies, it doesn’t just happen; it takes keen awareness and the ability to communicate across the interspecies language divide. The application of the principles of Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) to both rider and horse make this communication and the resultant grace more likely. Even if the Rolfer works only with the rider, it can still greatly impact the connection between horse and rider, as the horse will have a more balanced partner to work with.
The challenge in riding occurs when the rider, horse, or both rider and horse are blocking movement and inhibiting transmission through the fascial web. There are many variables that can cause this disruption. Rolfing SI can identify and remove holding patterns, thus improving the relationship between horse and rider by facilitating better communication.
Structurally, the horse and rider must each be able to activate their respective prevertebral spaces, enhancing hind-end support for horse and pelvic girdle support for rider. This creates the possibility of reach and extension in the front end of the horse, and adaptability in the rider for lift through her spine.
Lauren Harmon and her horse Hawkeye.
Riders often present with holding patterns, possibly from injury or from the discipline of riding itself. What follows are some common movement principles that apply to riding. The movement work was developed by various practitioners in our Rolfing SI community, and for the purpose of this article has been adapted for riders.
Breath is the foundation. If the rider stops breathing, the horse will feel it and respond accordingly. Holding the breath decreases fluidity through the rider’s body and raises her center of gravity. This ‘pulling up’ causes her to lose her ‘seat’ (fluid response to the horse’s movements). As she loses her seat, she is likely to compensate by gripping with adductors and the medial portion of knees, and calves. As Ray McCall says, “If the tissue can’t lengthen, it will rotate.” Thus the rider’s legs will shorten and rotate laterally (instead of resting long and easy around the horse), decreasing responsiveness of her pelvic floor and creating instability through her structure. As a result, she is now putting a vice grip around the horse’s rib cage, hindering its ability to breathe and feel connection between its front and hind end. This is very commonplace for beginners and timid riders.
As a Rolfer you can begin working with this pattern by helping the rider bring awareness to her breath. Instruct her to exhale into different places in her body while alternately placing hands on her sacrum, ischial tuberosities, serratus anterior, clavicles, diaphragm, feet, and occiput. These areas represent centers from which she will cue her horse. Educate the rider that moving her breath lower and into her back space is a subtle and effective way to half-halt the horse without creating an imbalance. The half-halt is used to collect the motion of the horse, like compressing a spring. It stores the potential energy so that the horse is prepared to go into extension. Without this skill, the rider cannot effectively communicate with the horse, and the horse cannot access its full power or fluidity.
The adaptability the rider gains from movement in the breath leads to the next important lesson, which I call ‘Line awareness’ (up/down, left/right, inside/ outside, anterior/posterior). It is an adaptation of one of the standing exercises Ray McCall uses to begin class. The rider must be able to find her ‘Line’, regardless of her pattern, to keep from falling off and/ or unbalancing the horse. This is especially important in disciplines with tight turns, intricate movements, and fast speeds.
Figure 1: Working with seat and Line awareness: have the client shift her weight left and right (images A and B), and tilt her pelvis posterior and anterior (C and D), until she finds center in both planes (E).
The next two exercises take a little more sensitivity and awareness. To find up/ down balance, have her arms hang freely while she imagines her fingers reaching to the ground. Next, she imagines the energy in her fingers coming back up as far as necessary until she can feel balance between up/down. It will feel like a vibrational energy or a wave moving down the body then back up. Once she accesses this, have her explore inside/outside balance. Ask her to sense her skin from the inside and take deep slow breaths, imagining her breath is meeting her skin. If this doesn’t resonate, she may need to imagine her skin is meeting her breath at a deeper place, such as slightly muscle deep. She is searching for a place where her insides match her outsides.
Helping the rider access her Line on the ground first will make it easier once she is on the horse. Have her sit on an exercise ball, similar to how she will sit in the saddle (see Figure 1). While on the exercise ball, instruct her to shift her weight left and right until she finds a place that is neither left nor right, but center. Next, have her do an extreme anterior and posterior tilt until she finds sagittal-plane center.
Once Rolfer and rider have gone through each of these explorations, repeat all of them one more time in a more succinct way. The more she practices, the easier it will become. Once on the moving horse, the rider will constantly need to refer back to her Line.
Going through this process helps the rider to find balance in her ischial tuberosities. Differentiation and awareness herein is crucial, as she will be asking the horse to move according to how she uses her weight on the sit bones. The Rolfer can track the ischial tuberosities to increase awareness and differentiation. Seat the rider on a bench with sit bones lightly higher than knees, and with your hands cradle her ischial tuberosities (you may want to put a blanket down for padding). While connecting into her feet, the rider hinges forward slightly at the hips, and you track the ischial tuberosities evenly in a posterior direction. Then ask the rider to shift back to neutral and repeat until the hinging motion feels smooth. This is how she will move with the horse as it trots (a two-beat, contralateral gait). Encourage her to keep her psoas relaxed by having her exhale into her pelvic floor and relax the front of her sacrum and use her feet to connect with her prevertebral space during tracking.
Breath is also a very effective way to balance the ischial tuberosities. Riders tend to sit heavier into one sit bone than the other. The horse will compensate for the rider’s weight imbalance; it may adopt patterns of rotation or side preference which, over time, can result in unequal muscle development To help the rider distribute weight evenly through both ischial tuberosities while in the saddle, ask her to identify which is raised, and have her exhale into it. This should help anchor/settle that side. When the ischial tuberosities are balanced and receptive, the pelvic floor can help the transmission of support upward.
Once the rider has a sense of her seat and Line, help her find lift, and connection from her arms to the lumbodorsal hinge (LDH), the serratus anterior, and her back space. It is very important for a rider to have:
The rider needs clear transmission through her arms to keep connection with the horse through the bit. She allows for a bend in the elbows and keeps them close (but not tight) to the torso, as discussed previously when connecting to the serratus anterior. From the elbow to the bit there should be a straight, fluid line as the horse and rider move together. This allows for clear, undisrupted communication between the horse and rider and gives the horse a place to move into as it lengthens through its topline. For the rider to be able to accomplish this, it is necessary to have open and adaptable interosseous membranes and an understanding of the ulna/radius. In order to keep the interosseous membrane open, the rider learns to keep her hands closed around the reins with her thumbs up and slightly bent, bringing the bones in the forearm into parallel relationship (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Working with arm and hand position. Image A shows a neutral, correct hand position with the bones of the forearm in parallel relationship to allow for transmission through the interosseous membrane. Images B-E show common ways in which the rider interrupts the connection through the interosseous membrane due to rotation or compression.
Restrictions in the interosseous membranes reduce the rider’s ability to connect to the horse through her shoulder girdle, while adaptability in the forearm and interosseous membranes fosters fluidity between elbow and bit so the rider can cue the horse effectively. Differentiating the ulna and radius gives the rider better access to this connection. This is a great opportunity to do some movement work with the ulna and radius to demonstrate to the rider how each bone relates to different lines of connection through her body. (This movement piece was presented to me by Suzanne Picard and has been adapted to the needs of the rider.) The ulna line relates to the rider’s back space, while the radius relates to her serratus anterior and anterior line into her neck. This means that as the rider holds the reins, the ulna stays in relationship to them, giving the rider that connection into her back space. The radius ‘belongs’ to the horse, creating a bridge through the rider’s front line, between herself and the horse’s topline.
To increase connection to her back space through the ulna, have the rider lie supine, arms by her sides and palms down. Places one of your hands under her scapula and the other along her ipsilateral ulna. Have her imagine the ulna and fifth phalanx growing longer from the scapula. Try this as well with radius/ulna in parallel relationship. Once she has a sense of how to find length, play with ‘lengthening’ the bones and then relaxing back to neutral. Do the same exercise with the radius alone, asking for intrinsic length through the thumb (pollex) from the radius. Have her imagine the bones are growing long. If she is unable to access the sensation of lengthening from a stabilized scapula, try the exercise starting from her elbow downward.
Another way to explore the ulna and the radius in parallel relationship is with the rider in a seated position, her elbows bent as if holding reins. Place your hands on her scapulae and have her feel ‘lengthening’ through the ulna and back into the scapulae. Do the same for the radius. When working with the radius, remind the rider that this is her connection to the bit.
The final piece is to bring awareness to the importance of the rider’s eyes and how micromovements there create movement in the spine. This is incredibly important: even the smallest shift in the rider ’s eyes can change her weight distribution, which cues and/or throws the horse off balance. This connection of eyes to spinal movements can work for or against the rider. It is important to check if her eye movements are part of a bigger pattern and, if so, facilitate differentiating the eye movements to allow for better awareness of spinal micromovements.
To help the rider access these smaller movements, work with her in a supported, seated position while her eyes slowly move up and down, as well as left and right. Have her notice what happens in her body first. If she cannot sense movement in her spine or a shift in her ischial tuberosities as she moves her eyes, you will need to help her feel it. Place your hands on either side of her thoracic spine while she looks up and down. Next, with your hands under her ischial tubersities, have her eyes move left and right. In both cases, there will be a slight weight shift.
Holding her sit bones while she looks up and down is also effective to show her the importance of keeping her eyes on the horizon: when she looks down, her spine flexes and her weight shifts to her posterior tuberosities, thus losing her seat. As a cue to avoid looking down, invite her to imagine her favorite smell, so as long as it is not food. A food smell will draw her in and down, bringing her further into flexion, while a non-food smell will help her find lift through her eyes.
In summarizing this section on work on the rider, know that, without ever touching the horse, if you work with the rider, you help the horse.
Unlike the basic Ten Series we use with human clients, the Equine Natural Movement School, where I studied, teaches a five-session series. (Various other SI practitioners have come up with different models.) However, just as with human clients, we can also do non-formulistic work, applying the Principles of Rolfing SI: holism, support, adaptability, palintonicity, and closure.
When working with horses, it is very important to relate to your Line and be grounded. You can use the same centering exercise, ‘Line awareness’, elucidated above, but do it standing. Horses are prey animals and herd animals, so staying grounded and being aware of your back space will help them feel safe and relax. In the herd, some horses act as lookouts while the others rest or eat. When you work with them, you become the lookout, creating a safe place. Moreover, gaining rapport is important for when you get to areas in their bodies that are more guarded. The horse must learn to trust you and your touch. When you start your session or do your initial palpation, keep these concepts in mind. This is particularly important when you work with horses that are higher energy, nervous, or have a history of abuse/ neglect. One way to gain rapport is to make your initial contact in an area that isn’t of concern to the horse, so that he may learn how to feel safe receiving a Rolfing session.
Horses are exquisitely sensitive animals. Their skin and superficial layers are so sophisticated that they can sense a fly landing and twitch the skin in that isolated area. Keep this level of sensitivity in mind when starting work with the horse. When working with different spectrums of touch, err on the side of inherent motion or cranial touch. The tissue will invite you in as the deeper layers become available. Less is more. Working with the superficial layer from the very beginning not only prepares the fascial system for change at the deeper layers but is part of gaining rapport. Most horses haven’t received this type of work, so it is important to take the time to acclimate them to your touch. You can start your session through palpation or take time to watch the horse move. At the walk (a four-beat gait) and trot (a two-beat gait), their movement, like ours, is contralateral. (The exception to this is in Pacers – the Pacer trot is a deliberate ipsilateral pattern in which front and back legs on one side move forward while both legs on the opposite side move back.) As with people, contralateral movement through the spine is a sign of myofascial health.
While there are as many different patterns in horses as there are in people, two main patterns consistently present themselves. A note on language: when talking about horses, dorsal is synonymous with posterior line and ventral with anterior line.
Anterior Tilt/Extension Pattern: In this pattern, where the horse lacks connection to its hind end or hasn’t been asked to collect its movement, the horse tends to go into anterior pelvic tilt. Its body is slightly held in extension. The quadriceps are short and tight, the hamstrings long and tight. You may see the lumbar spine in a slight lordosis as the pelvic floor isn’t supporting the spine. The psoas major and minor are held long and tight. The horse’s spine looks short through the dorsal line and long through the ventral line. The rib cage can feel braced as if stuck in exhalation. The angle created by the scapula and the humerus (scapulohumeral joint) is closer together than a neutral scapula position; this shortens the triceps, and the biceps are long. The dorsal side of the neck is shortened, creating a constricted nuchal ligament. The horse also tends to be restricted on the dorsal side of the atlanto- occipital joint, which can lead to strain in the temporomandibular joint.
Posterior Tilt/Flexion Pattern: These horses look like they need more space in their bodies, as if they are wearing too small of a blanket. The spine is held slightly in flexion. The pelvic bones are in a posterior tilt, which creates long-and-tight quadriceps and short-and-constricted hamstrings. Lengthening the hamstrings will help the quadriceps return to a more settled place. The ischial tuberosities are drawn closer together, creating lateral rotation in the femurs and bringing the hocks (metatarsals) closer together. The horse is short and tight through psoas major and minor. The rib cage is compressed up and forward. (Working the last rib in a horse is just as important as our twelfth-rib work with human clients.) The angle created by the scapula and the humerus (scapulohumeral joint) is farther apart than a neutral scapula position allowing for a steeper angle in the scapula. When the shoulder is steep it shortens the horse’s stride through the shoulder. This condenses the biceps and keeps the triceps in a long-and-limited position. The ventral side of the neck is held short and rigid. The nuchal ligament is held long and tight. There is hypertonicity in the throat, and a need for space around the hyoid bone.
Other important factors to take into consideration when assisting with the connection between horse and rider are dentistry [a horse’s teeth erupt (grow) its entire life, so must be maintained], saddle fit, nutrition, foot care, etc.
Applying Rolfing SI to horses is a specialty within our field and must be studied and practiced for refinement and skill. SI for horses does not require more strength than work for people, because horses are so sensitive. It is critical, however, that the Rolfer stays on her Line in order to access this sensitivity. In service of rapport, the Rolfer must invest in learning the horse’s language. While beyond the scope of this article, the horse will let you know in a number of ways whether your touch is welcome or not. If you wish to learn more about this work, one option is to check out the Equine Natural Movement School (http://equinenaturalmovement.com); the founder, a Hellerwork® SI practitioner, developed a five-session series of SI for horses. (I will be one of their teachers starting in 2016.)
Lauren Harmon is a Certified Advanced Rolfer™ who specializes in working with riders and horses. Before studying Rolfing SI, she received a BS in equine science from Colorado State University (CSU). Her time at CSU, along with her twenty-plus years in the equine industry, have given her the background to help horses and riders through Rolfing SI. In addition, this work has personally helped her recover from a back injury so that she could literally get ‘back in the saddle’!