Weight vs Weight and Asymmetry

Recently I was asked to give a clinic to a local Riding Club with the interesting theme of "Asymmetry and how it affects our riding", a subject dear to my heart. This was quite a challenge for me as, like fine wine, I don't travel much, however, it turned out to be a very interesting and enjoyable day and included both mounted and dismounted group work . I was very fortunate to have 3 very different "guinea pigs" who not only demonstrated some very typical asymmetry problems but also made some excellent changes in the short time we had together. I wrote some notes to give to the participants and have expanded on them and reproduced them here for your entertainment.

Asymmetry - one sided, crooked, twisted, collapsed, leaning etc.. etc… We are none of us as symmetrical as we would like to think we are And of course our horses have similar issues, often - surprise surprise - the same as ours. However, it is not all bad. In fact it is positively useful to work on the "easy side" then switch to the "more difficult" side in order to progress our horses and our riding. The more "concave" side will tend to be more supple or fluid but weaker while the more "convex" side will be stronger but more stiff or fixed. We can use this imbalance to make changes to both sides so while we will never be perfectly even we will have strategies which enable us to use our bodies more efficiently and thus help our horses to be more balanced.

During a riding lesson, the teacher may refer to your asymmetry in a number of ways and it is not always easy for either pupil or teacher to understand exactly what you need to do to stay "straight". The following comments may all refer to the same loss of position:
You are collapsing left
You are sitting off to the right
You are leaning left
Your left shoulder is lower than your right shoulder
You have lost your right seat bone
You have lost your left seat bone
You have lost your left pillar
You are bulging to the right
Your left leg is too far back
Your right leg is too far forward

The following instructions all refer to correcting this problem:
Put more weight on the right seat bone leg
Sit more to the left
Don't lean left
Stretch down the left leg
Step into the left stirrup
Keep the right leg back
Stretch up your left side
Push your right shoulder down
Raise your left ear
Soften your right waist

It is hardly surprising that we become confused! So I hope this will help you.

Weight to the left and weight on the left seat bone are not necessarily the same thing
1 Bulk/body weight - ie if you were a sack of potatoes which had been loaded onto the horse so that it hung off to one side, the left, one would say that the weight is off to the left. A horse will normally move under the weight in an attempt to be more balanced so in this case, the horse would drift to the left. This is something the horse does naturally.

2 Pressure on a seat bone - if the saddle had equal air bags in each side of the panels but one was filled with air and the other, the left, was filled with pebbles, there would be greater pressure on the left side of the horse's back even if the saddle was placed centrally on the horse. The horse learns to move away from the discomfort of this pressure so in this case would sink the left side of his back and drift right. This is something the horse is taught.

3 Therefore, bulk to the left and pressure on the left seat bone can be quite confusing. Does the horse drift left under the bulk weight or move right, away from pressure on the left side?

The deliberate change in weight, either through a shift in your body or an emphasis of one seat bone is part of the "orchestra of the aids" and fundamental to good riding. Unfortunately, like any aid, a horse will just as easily be dulled from the inadvertent or unconscious use of these aids and will learn to ignore or compensate for a rider's imbalance or lack of clarity.

Please Note: I deliberately haven't mentioned bend in any of the above although both "weight" changes may also cause a change or increase in bend.

Twists - You must sit crooked to sit square
As soon as you ask your horse to bend, you must sit to the inside of the horse's bend and with a slight twist to stay in balance. This is even more important for any kind of lateral work. Your shoulders must correspond to your horse's shoulders and your pelvis to your horse's pelvis so when your horse bends (or appears to bend for the pedants!), the rider's inside hip must be slightly in advance of their inside shoulder. The riders inside leg will appear deeper/longer than the outside leg and the outside leg will be further back than the inside leg. It may feel like you are twisted but you will look in perfect harmony with your horse.

Most riders will have a preference for one direction, for example, they will feel more comfortable turning right than left, or will find right leg yield easier than left leg yield. In addition, most people will naturally turn their pelvis in the same direction as their shoulders so this "contra body movement", (pelvis turned in the opposite direction to the shoulders), is something peculiar to horse riders (and those of us old enough to remember the 60's and "The Twist").

Feel is an unreliable guide
Our brains are wired through years of practice so that we feel "right" when it feels familiar and likewise it feels "wrong" when it feels unfamiliar. This makes it difficult to make corrections to any habit that has become ingrained and therefore feels "right". Subconsciously, despite our best intentions, our brains tell us that the correction is wrong and so our bodies slide back into familiar bad habits. Furthermore, we often expect to make these changes permanent by practicing on our horse for only 1 hour per day (or per week) while reinforcing the "bad" habit for the remaining 23 hours per day, ( or 167 hours per week!). To make any change "stick" you often need to feel "uncomfortable" and you need to practice this every waking hour.
It takes approx. 300 successful attempts to develop a new habit

The Crooked Horse
While most of us understand "hard" and "soft" side and "concave" and "convex" side, Erik Herbermann uses the words "preferred" and "less preferred" hind leg. This equates with us being right or left handed so while we may be quite good at writing with either hand, we usually prefer one over the other. We can become proficient with both hands but it takes time and practice. Your horse needs the same time and patience. He will normally prefer to carry more weight on one hind leg and this usually corresponds to the heavier rein and the "stiff" side which we often think is his "bad" rein. In fact the lighter rein, the less preferred, weaker hind leg is much more of a problem. This becomes much more evident as one goes up the grades, especially in piaffe and passage when the weaker hind leg cannot support the movement so the steps become unlevel - a common problem. At the lower end of the scale, the horse will not bend equally on both reins and may "fall in" on one rein and "fall out" on the other. Even without a rider, he may push the saddle off to the left or right, especially when on a circle. This can be seen very clearly on the lunge, where the saddle tends to swing more to the outside than the inside. Therefore, a rider sitting centrally on a saddle that slips off to one side will still be out of balance in relation to the horse. It is up to the rider to ensure that the saddle stays central and that he resists either his or the horse's one sided tendency.

Finally it is worth noting that research has shown that while horses may be born with an imbalance they are always made much worse as soon as you put a rider on their backs!

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