Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Thinking about body movements

I had another pilates lesson last night. I've now finished the 4 week introductory course, and I really like it so I have signed up for another 10 weeks of regular lessons.

I started pilates because I had heard that it was good cross-training for riding. I would have to say I agree. It is very focused on controlled, intentional movements, and core strength. It also involves a lot of stretching which will benefit me as I am not very flexible.

A similarity I have noticed between pilates and dressage is how many times the instructor will say "think about ___" as a way to make us make subtle changes in how we are doing an exercise: "Think about stacking your spine straight up like blocks", "Think about a string pulling your head up to the ceiling", "Think about pulling your belly button to your spine", "Think about pushing your ribs out to the sides of the room", etc.

Does this sound familiar to any of you?
I'm guessing we've all had riding instructors give us some of those "Think about ____" commands. The string out of our head is a riding one too, then there are ones like: "Think about your hands pushing a shopping cart", "Think about tipping your pelvis back to sit on your pockets", "Think about draping your leg around the horse's sides", "Think about lifting the horse up with your seat in the collected trot", etc.

I have no related media, so here are a couple of deer
that I had to herd out of our fence-line at work yesterday

What about other sports?
Riding is the sport that I have spent the most years at, but I have also had coaching in several other sports over my life: swimming, taekwon-do, rugby, skiing, dragonboating, and golfing, to name a few. In my experience, many of these other sports just tell you to do something, rather than to think about doing something.

In swimming: "keep your knees straight when you kick", "lead with your pinky for the arm stroke"...
In taekwon-do: "put your thumb on the side of your fist", "spread your stance more than shoulder-width"...
In rugby: "drive with your shoulder in the tackle", "keep your back straight and level in the scrum"...
In skiing: "keep weight in your downhill ski for the turn", "bend your knees"...
In dragonboating: "look up", "lean out", "make an A frame with your arms to start the stroke"...
In golfing: "look forward", "interlock your pinkies in your grip", "stand a little farther from the ball"...

Now riding does have some of these "do" commands as well, "heels down", "eyes up", "shoulders back", etc. But there does seem to be more things in riding (and pilates) where you have to use some kind of metaphor to figure out how to change what you are doing with your body. In any sport, getting your body to actually do the correct movement can be challenging. I just feel that in riding there is sometimes an extra step to first figure out what it is we want our bodies to do, and then get it to do it. Why is this?

I have two current hypotheses:
1) The first is that the more a sport uses the body's core (by core, I mean everything from hips, pelvis, abdominals, lower back and ribcage), the more we need those kind of "think about _" metaphors. In everyday life we give a lot of commands to our arms and legs to do specific things, but our core is more often used in unconscious ways (like balance). Since our core is not as accustomed to specific directions, we need to think about what we are doing more in order to give it the correct command.
2) The second is that riding involves less obvious motion than other sports. We have to activate muscles or relax muscles without actually moving, and that requires the extra thought to figure out whether we changed the right muscles. If you ask your body to pull a handle towards you, your brain will automatically figure out what muscles need to move to make that happen, and you know you did it right if the handle moves. If instead, you want to increase pressure on a rein and not move your hand, you have to figure out by feel whether or not it worked.

It's entirely possible that both of these hypotheses are wrong, and there's another reason for the difference. Or maybe there isn't any difference between sports at all, and it's all to do with the specific coach or the level you are at.

What do you think? Do you think riding requires more thought about how you are moving your body than other sports? If so, why do you think that is? Do you know of any other sports that require the same kind of thought.


  1. I do think riding requires more thought, because you are trying to influence a very large animal and make it look like you aren't doing anything. Pretty much any team sport or running based sport (ones that I have done) are dependent on getting the job done, not how you look doing it. If you look like a spaz but can win the race or make the shot coaches aren't going to care. In riding you can't be sloppy because it changes your horse's response (horse gets tense/rail pulled). Riding is all about the subtleties where as a lot of other sports you can bulldoze your way through them. Dancing is about the only thing that comes to mind but I typically avoid dancing...

    1. That's a really good point about how riders have to look, rather than just "getting the job done", I never considered that side of it