Staying straight

I am fanatical about sitting straight in the saddle, so much so that if anyone’s hacking out with me, or on foot nearby when I’m riding, I’ll always ask them to check me and tell me whether it looks how it feels, whether I am sitting exactly in the middle.

I thought everyone was like this, until a recent group lesson, one I’d joined just to get my young mare out in public for the first time in a strange arena, with other horses around, but without the pressure of competition. 
The lady I was following around the arena was small and light, on a big wide horse, and both she and the saddle were seriously hanging off to one side. I’d guess the saddle was 6”- 8” off centre, with the result that, just to stay on, she was having to cling on like a limpet. The instructor said nothing… I waited, still nothing.

Eventually, I circled over to where she was standing and mentioned, sotto voce, that the saddle was horribly crooked, hence also the rider, and perhaps she hadn’t been able to see from the centre where she was standing. 
Tactful, huh? I even impressed myself with that one, don’t know what came over me. The reply (and this from a BHSAI, who I thought should probably have known better!) was an airy: “Oh, she’s always like that!”
I left it at that, rather shocked.

A few minutes later she did mention it, and was told confidently by limpet-woman (who obviously enjoyed a good work-out… personally, I prefer to let gravity do the work of keeping me on board at walk!) “he had his back done recently” and “this saddle was specially fitted to him by a Master Saddler.” (Cue: hollow laugh – I’ve experienced this too, and, believe me, there is only ever ONE expert in the room when a saddle’s being fitted – while the saddler’s and the rider’s opinion’s obviously count, the horse’s is by far the most important opinion!)

I lost interest at that point… not my lesson, not my business, or my problem. But it did make me wonder how on earth she expected the horse to go even reasonably well if she was starting out with such terrible crookedness.

Just weighting one seatbone is usually enough to make a horse automatically try to step under it more – a great subtle aid for lateral work, and one you have to be very careful with when attempting to halt perfectly straight for judges! I rode a GP dressage horse from one of the top Europeans yards once and it took quite a few attempts to get him into canter (I just got a bigger and bigger trot, most embarrassing) before I realised that an exaggerated use of inside seat bone was the only aid he’d been trained to and was waiting for – my leg aids all just meant “more power” as far as he was concerned. Control over seatbones and weight distribution is really important, and obviously it helps hugely if you start from a neutral, even position.

A few months ago, some friends and I had a session on a mechanical horse, one which measured and analysed rider’s weight distribution – Strider Riding Simulator. It really did feel remarkably like a real horse, in all gaits, and the instructor said that the machine was developed in Germany and tested on / calibrated to their Olympic dressage riders. When Nicole Uphoff first rode on it, the developer asked her to get off because he was sure the L/R sensors weren’t working. Then he realised… her balance really was that perfect! My L/R distribution was pretty good (big relief), but unfortunately not as good as hers. Must try harder…

My quest for perfect symmetry in the saddle extends far beyond riding time. Regular McTimoney Chiropractic treatments keep me as even as possible. My pelvis is very unstable – it will twist, drop and rotate on every plane apparently, possibly the result of a crumbling, fusing vertebra I have, possibly not. Either way, if I lift something very heavy, or do various other ill-advised things, screaming sciatica is the first hint that I need to do something about it. Next, my right leg feels longer, so my stirrups feel uneven. At this point it becomes unfair to ask horses to perform well – how can a crooked rider produce a straight horse?

I avoid one-sided sports, particularly 10-pin bowling. This, after one fun evening’s bowling resulted in total agony the next day. I rang my Chiropractor, who asked what the heck I’d been doing. When I confessed, the reply was incredulous and scathing. So, asymmetric sports are out.

I never sit with crossed legs (Chiropractor’s orders again). Crossed at ankles is fine, but crossing above knees = twisting pelvis. I’m now so fanatical about this, that I have to stop myself telling other people off for it!
 My bossy Chiropractor has ordered to abandon my heavy ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ shoulder bags, because to keep them in place I was unthinkingly hitching that shoulder up and tensing that side. Miniaturising the contents and keeping to a much smaller bag means my shoulders can stay level and hang evenly. It’s a small thing, but makes a difference.

I check my saddle after every ride

I pick heavy things up carefully, bending my knees not using my back. Especially horse box ramps… I suspect that the start of my disc damage was a very heavy ramp. Should have upgraded the springs, not let my back take the strain! So, I divide loads, carrying two half-full buckets rather than 1 heavy one. Same number of trips anyway, but equally weighted. Little things that should improve my riding and extend my riding career too.

My newest saddle is a lovely Barnsby Xtreem, with a very snazzy blue seat to go with my xc colours.

I’ve never had such a scrumptious saddle, it’s fantastically comfy and secure for hacking out and SJ (I haven’t been xc in it yet but can’t wait!), and it fits my (thankfully, medium-ish) horses like a glove. I’ve discovered an unexpected benefit – I can check how centred I have been, because the blue leather scuffs slightly and shows exactly how I have been sitting (see pic).

Yes, I really am that fanatical… I check it after every ride and try to adjust my proprioception accordingly. Horse Junkie? Horse Maniac more like…