In the US they are called ‘braces’ in the UK they are called ‘blocks’ but no matter where you are in the world braces in the horse are nearly always caused by the rider and therefore can be solved by the rider. The problem is that most riders are unaware of their part in the brace they are experiencing in their horse, they simply do not know what it is that they do and therefore do not know they have the power to undo.
At a recent clinic while working on the ground, I demonstrated how I could put a brace or block in another person’s body simply by how I pushed into them. When directly pushing using pure strength, all the symptoms of a blocked horse showed up in the person I was pushing into ie. tightening of the muscles, pushing back, holding the breath and disconnected unbalanced movement. The strongest person wins!
When I then pushed differently, aligning my body, opening in my lower back and using a very small rotation in my arm, the block and tension completely disappeared in the person I was pushing. My force flowed through her into the ground through her bones and she relaxed completely and moved away from my push in a balanced and connected way. This is demonstrated perfectly in the video above where I play around with Izzy. In this case the weaker wins, ie me. Creating this path in the rider’s body while in the saddle and using rotation in the joints of the arms and legs while giving aids is how we apply this principle while riding.
In the saddle the rider’s big three areas of blocking are:
- in the lower lumbar vertebrae (lower back)
- the thoracic vertebrae (between the shoulder blades)
- and the cervical vertebrae (base of the skull/back of the neck)
These blocks are mirrored in the horse in the exact same areas. If the rider does not release these blocks in their body, the horse can not release the blocks in its body.
The block in the lower back of the rider is a result of standing on the ground in such a way that they are blocking the flow of gravity at the lower back. Gravity is one of the two primary forces a rider has to negotiate, the second being the power of the horse. In the saddle using the legs against the stirrups or the side of the horse further tightens and blocks in the lower back. Remember we are talking ounces of pressure here not pounds (4 oz is enough to put in a block , that’s the weight of half a block of butter!). To start to release the block in the lower back we practice standing meditation on the ground and strive to always stand with the hips back and the weight in the balls of the feet. In the saddle we use the 3rd movement of the pelvis to help release the block at the lower lumbar. This movement also sends the force up the spine in a spiral as opposed to a wave.
The block at the upper back in the saddle is primarily caused by lifting the chest and over use of the arms and reins, this is true whether there is contact on the reins or not. Breathing into the back of the heart and rounding the upper back as if hugging someone will remove most of the block in the thoracic spine. A rhythmic inward rotation in both humerus bones (upper arm) allows the force to get back to the horse, completing the cycle. This movement in the arms replaces the following of the mouth or head of the horse which nearly always causes the rider’s elbows to pull back behind the rider’s seat, effectively blocking upward movement in the horse’s spine. These two fixes never feel comfortable or correct to the rider who first tries them, they usually experience a feeling of slouching forward (the opposite to what we are traditionally taught), however the changes in the horse are immediate and indisputable.
The block at the neck and head is the result of all the tension and hold necessary to keep the head still when the rest of the spine below it is blocking the flow of the horse’s force up through the rider’s spine. This block is actually the major cause of the common habit of looking down. As the first two blocks are removed, it is possible to ride without looking down all the time.
Over and over again in every clinic we see these blocks removed and horses instantly change and move freely, even after years of being riding with tension. Horses do not hold on to the tension that is the root cause of braces and blocks, they can and they do just let it go.
Written by James Shaw and Gillian Ruddy
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