As part of our Focus on Fitness, we spoke with accomplished riders and teachers, Christina Savitsky and Jec Aristotle Ballou.
When not running a ranch and raising a family, Christina Savitsky is busy with Buckaroo Balance clients.
Buckaroo Balance combines good riding with therapy, mindfulness, and body awareness. Savitsky has a background in centered riding and therapeutic riding and spoke to us about rider fitness and core strength from her home in Watrous, New Mexico.
Fitness is a choice that I make for me and my horses. We have a partnership. If I need to fix fence or if it’s a blizzard and a cow has just calved in the back pasture, I need to get out there… Riding with my core allows me to ride all day. Core strength is definitely an endurance thing. It has to be almost a lifestyle. You have to be mindful about it all the time.
With clients, core strength is huge for me. In their competitions, it presents a prettier picture and allows them to be more in tune with their horse. Finding relaxation and balance in the pelvis is my first step with students.
An effective use of core allows us to keep our pelvis in a neutral position so we have better feel and timing, and are able to use our extremities more effectively.
Savitsky described an exercise she often guides riders through, of tipping the pelvis forward and back to find a neutral posture. “Women often sit too forward of their seat bones. With lengthening of the lower back and zip up of front, we can engage the core and let that pelvis rock back to neutral,” said Savitsky.
Jec Aristotle Ballou teaches classical dressage from her California home base. She’s also an endurance competitor and author of 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider. She writes:
An equine bodywork practitioner once explained to me just how dynamic the horse’s musculoskeletal system is. We riders tend to think of it as a firm structure like beams and trusses and immovable components. In reality, the horse’s muscles and bones and connective tissues are always shifting, moving.
They’re always adapting and changing, for better or worse. This practitioner used the analogy of a water balloon:
When a filled water balloon is kept in balance and left alone, it holds its shape. However, when we push on it from one side, a place on the opposite side is going to bulge out. It is a careful game to keep all the pressures and forces equal so that the balloon does NOT bulge out anywhere.
Think about this when we sit our big bodies on top of a horse, upon his back which was not designed to bear weight:
The larger we are, the more pressure and force we will create with even small movements of our weight or limbs. Every wiggle will affect the horse’s tissue under us as he tries to balance out the load.
The lighter we are, the fewer ripples of disturbance we send down in to his body; and he can therefore carry us easier!
As part of our Focus on Fitness, we spoke with accomplished physical therapist, Beth Austin, of Santa Cruz, California. A runner and dancer, Austin rode often as a girl and has an excellent sense of the horse-rider partnership. The therapist and seminar leader works with a wide range of athletes and patients and says, “I have a passion for helping others learn to move in ways that will keep them active and enjoying their bodies.”
BestHorsePractices asked Austin why fitness and core strength is so important to riders:
Beth Austin: It has to do with agility, being able to control your movement and communicate through the sit bones so the horse is able to respond.
Our center of gravity is usually about two inches below the navel. That’s the center of communication between you and your horse.
The pelvis must be in a good neutral position. Not slouching and not arching. When you’re using good core strength, you’ll get that beautiful riding posture.
The people I’ve worked with who are serious about riding say their backs feel better afterwards. That’s exciting because we know the deep transversus abdominis muscles are firing and the spine being well supported. Riding can be very therapeutic and it’s a fun way to get those spinal stabilizers turned on.
One of the first things I think of regarding core strength and riding is compression: when a force moves through our body, the core’s role is to support the spine, support neutral alignment, and create stability in space for our axis. All our mechanics – from our feet in the stirrups to our hands on the reins – will fall into place after we have strength of core. Think of the core as the hub of a bicycle wheel. And, of course, all that movement is being communicated to the horse.
When we are working to improve our core strength and posture, it can be like untangling a ball of yarn. It’s hard to undo bad habits and bad form. If bad habits are like super highways in the brain. New, good habits can be like jungle paths.
It’s mindful work.
Another reason why we have trouble is that we 21st century humans have very limited, habitual postures and activities. We sit a lot. That creates imbalances. Our hip flexibility gets compromised. We lose our range and multi-directional intelligence of the hip joint and pelvis from all of our fixed posturing.
Exercises that open up and strengthen posture – like the plank or heel slide – will help create balance. It’s important to work toward neutral alignment. When you walk uphill or up a set of stairs, focus on having a really stable core.
Sit-ups are really bad news. They have us grossly overusing the hip flexors. That leads to compression. None of us need more compression.
Check out more articles in Focus on Fitness.