The Isometric Rider

I am working my way through ‘Horse Brain, Human Brain’ and I keep having to put the book down. Janet Jones is great on theory, but horses are pragmatists. They really do not care how we humans rationalize our behavior.

Her ideas on ‘building an equestrian brain’ sound good until she gets to the exercises. Muscle isolation might help develop body awareness as long as you are lying on your back on a stationary flat surface. But I have to question how much of that awareness transfers to the experience of riding a living moving horse.

Like Janet Jones, I have had a traumatic brain injury. I have lived with an unreasonable amount of chronic amount pain since that injury at one year of age. Riding has helped me rewire my nervous system so I can stay on my feet and keep moving.

In my college days I impressed my non-riding friends by being the only person able to slam dance with an open beer and never spill a drop. My body awareness is so pronounced that I have actually been chastised by various pain doctors for having too much conscious control/awareness of normally autonomic functions. But I can guarantee you that I did not develop that awareness and finesse by lying on my back contemplating my teres major muscles.

Sure, the teres major helps fine-tune the connection between our upper arms and our shoulder blades (yes, I had to look up what it did too). But it is just one of many muscles working together to keep a rider’s hands quiet in relationship to their horse’s mouth when the rest of their body is in movement on horseback. What I actually learned by riding was how to coordinate and moderate many different muscles in response to rapidly changing circumstances.

In the muscle sensor study looking at the differences between novice and advanced riders, it turns out that muscle isolation is actually NOT helpful. Novice riders have chaotic muscular contractions and at least five groups of muscles reacting automatically. Advanced riders have coherent muscular contractions and only three main groups of muscles responding together.

Classical horsemanship also discusses three main aids. I find that gives credibility to the muscle sensor study. After all, a study is only as good as the questions it asks.

  • The hands are one type of aid and that aid includes the muscle groups of the arms and shoulders.
  • The legs are another type of aid that includes the muscle groups of the thighs, calves and feet.
  • The seat is the aid of aids and it includes the muscle groups of the pelvis, rib-cage, spine and head.

In classical horsemanship terms, advanced riders have better more supple seats than novice riders. The muscle sensors showed advanced riders had a higher engagement of ‘core muscles’. They also show ‘better inter-muscular coordination’ of the muscles that maintain stability in the rider’s torso.

  • Then they are always balanced and at ease on their horse.
  • AND they are always prepared for the unexpected move.

Other distinctive differences between advanced and novice riders include the ability to quickly decrease muscle activity and the ability to moderate the degree of activation. ‘Equestrian tact’ is exactly this quality of being able to do just enough, not too much and not too little, at the right time. Developing the ability to fine-tune entire groups of muscles in order to be able to communicate clearly with an unpredictable living moving sentient being that has agreed to carry you about on their back does take practice and lots of it.

Janet Jones tells her reader/riders to practice contracting their calf muscles while lying down. But I love anatomy and physiology and I find being asked to concentrate on contracting my media soleus confusing and misleading. Especially since anatomists actually argue that in humans, there is functionally only a single calf muscle with three ‘heads’ or attachments to bones.

Our human knee is basically a hinge joint. All it can do is bend and straighten. But the calf muscle has three long attachments two of which reach up past the knee to help stabilize the whole leg. The anatomist say that single calf muscle should be called the triceps surae, describing a three-headed muscle that anchors into the Achilles tendon.

“Heels Down’ and ‘ Toes Up” are executed by the same calf muscle. When lying on your back, it does not matter how many other muscles are activated by moving your calf muscles. What advanced riders actually do not only requires coordinating distinct muscle groups, it demands the ability to moderate how those muscle groups respond.

What happens when the wrong bunch of associated muscle groups in the thighs and seat react incoherently on horseback when the calf muscles contract? Well, that novice (and even the most experienced) rider is liable to pop out of the saddle and right off their horse. So we need to be very aware of just exactly how we are contracting those calf muscles.

Putting things into words slows our reaction time. However, for us humans, changing our body awareness and habits usually takes verbalizing what we are doing. But talking about leg aids does not have to be complicated and confusing once we know that:

Muscles do NOT just shorten when tensed and lengthen when relaxed! (click here).

Types of muscle contraction do include isotonic contractions that generate force by changing the length of the muscle and moving the bones of our skeleton. But isotonic contractions can be concentric contractions or eccentric contractions.

  • Concentric contraction cause muscles to shorten, thereby generating force.
  • Eccentric contractions cause muscles to elongate in response to a greater opposing force.

Last, but not least, isometric contractions generate force without changing the length of the muscle. These are of extreme importance to leg and hand aids on horseback. Isometric contractions allow riders to communicate with their horse without changing the position of their legs or hands

  • A concentric contraction of the calf muscle will bend the knee and tense up the hip joint. Then the heels will go up, the toes will go down and the foot will slip right out of the stirrup.
  • An eccentric contraction of the calf muscle will straighten the knee and open the hip, shoving shoving the heel down. (Unless the rider shoves their entire lower leg forward throwing their upper body backward and their hands up into the air.)
  • But an isometric contraction of the calf muscle ‘fixes’ the lower leg in place WITHOUT changing its position.

Since a horse can feel a fly land on its side, even a slight change in the muscle tension of our leg is enough to let them know we want them to change what they are doing. But our entire body has to be coordinated and coherent. Then the horse and the rider can agree that a change was purposeful and meaningful.

Knowing the different types of muscle contraction give us the definitions for a vocabulary that can express all the variations of muscle contractions that are possible. But when I want to practice my neuro-muscular coordination for leg aids, I keep the words simple.

Yes, an advanced rider is able to coordinate and moderate the concentric and eccentric isotonic contractions of the flexors and extensors of their trunk. In practice, I set aside those details.I do not worry about my medial soleus or my flexors and extensors.

I make sure my seat is supple and my hands are light. Then:

  • I practice ‘Fixing’ my lower leg in place (with isometric contractions)
  • I practice a Heel Flick’ (with eccentric contractions that lengthen my leg from hip to heel)
  • And quite honestly. I hate falling off. So ‘Heels Down’ reminds me to avoid concentric contractions of my knee that bend my knee, drop my toe, tense up my hip and pop me up out of the saddle.

Explaining it all takes pages. But I can boil the ideas down to a handful of words that are tied to how the action feels on horseback. That is the basis for a concise precise pragmatic vocabulary of the aids that can be applied in the saddle.

And here is the volume from my Light in the Saddle Series with all the definitions and exercises on the ground and in the saddle:

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