Many riders struggle with poor shoulder posture; often this is from both habit and from muscle weaknesses/amnesia in the upper back. If you find that you tend to use movements at the elbow to pull back or have trouble balancing during transitions (and as a result tend to pull on the horse’s mouth instead) instead of using steady resistance (as discussed in Aspire Equestrian’s article here) and slight hand/finger motion to accomplish a smoother (in look and feel) transition– you are likely not activating the lats the way you should. Similarily, if you experience trouble maintaining a strong shoulder and upper back posture, and/or experience pain in between the shoulders, neck, and upper back.. you likely have forgotten how to use the rhomboids, traps, and lats properly.
Don’t fret! It’s a common problem with a simple fix for anyone willing to work at it!
The latissimus dorsi runs from the front of the shoulder, down to the pelvis. It’s textbook function is to help with shoulder movement with their composite action being a pull-up, or a front crawl type movement at the shoulder. They also stabilise through the back. For the purposes of the riding athlete, the lats are stabilizer of both the shoulder and the back. We don’t require big movements at our shoulder or arms, but what we do require is a stable shoulder girdle and spine to create resistance and allow movement of our elbows, hands, hips, and ankles.
Another important part for the riders upper body is the stabilisers between the shoulder blades. The rhomboids run between the interior border of the scapula or shoulder blade to the spine and function to pull the shoulder blades back towards one another and stabilize the upper back. The trapezius is a diamond shaped muscle running through the neck, shoulder, and upper back and has many movements on the shoulder blades and spine- but again, for us it aids in keeping us stable and upright in the tack. As riders we want everything from the top of our rib cage (this starts at the base of the neck) down to our pelvis to be one stable unit, while our hip joints and elbows allow for fluidity and functionality at the hands and lower legs. To do this we both need a stable core and a stable upper back/shoulder area.
The first step is teaching you how to properly establish a connection and feeling for these muscles on the ground. If you need a reminder for how your shoulders should be sitting in a proper posture, simply have your hands at your side and rotate so your thumbs are facing outwards. Feel how that immediately puts you into a more open, tall posture at the shoulder?
Now, let’s start with those rhomboids and traps between the shoulder blades. Standing, or sitting in a good, tall posture bring your arms up straight in front of you until the shoulder is at about 90degrees. Here, keeping the arms straight, you are going to retract the shoulders (or bring the shoulder blades closer together). Remember to keep the arms straight. Hold here for about 5seconds, and then relax forward. Repeat this at least 10 times, and do it as much throughout the day as you want. This is a very small, simple movement.. but some of you may find that it takes more concentration then you’d think it would. This is a rebuilding exercise to get your brain reconnected to controlling those muscles, from there we can begin to build stability in the shoulder.
My next favourite exercise to teach riders about postural stabilisation through movement in the lats and arms is called a Wall Angel. For this, you need a wall. Start in a half squat position with you back against the wall and feet slightly in front of you. Now, flatten out everything from the pelvis up to the neck/head against the wall. This may be the most challenging part for some. Many riders like to hinge from their mid back, and this can often be a source of pain or instability within the spine. Getting into this “flattened against a wall” posture brings us back into a neutral posture and allows us to begin rebuilding stabilisation (using the lats and other shoulder stabilisers) through the torso and upper body. Now that you’re in that half squat against the wall with every part of your spine against the wall, or as close as you can get, bring your arms up as you see them in picture A. This is the second challenge. You may find your back now wants to pop off the wall, or that your shoulders are too tight to bring back to the wall. If the latter is the case, some pectoralis major stretches may be in order for you. If you can’t get the arms so they are pressing flat (or close to) the wall, instead bring them in front to a similar position to the retraction exercise we discussed earlier. Now, back pressed flat, neck straight and head against the wall with arms up and also against the wall, you are going to slowly slide them up as far as you can keep them flat, and then back down to the start position.
Repeat this between 5-10 times, a few times a day. I like to have riders do this before they get on their first horse, in between horses, and after their ride to encourage that tall, strong posture. This also helps to teach activation of the lats, strengthen all the postural muscles in the upper back, and build postural awareness.
Fitting these into your daily routine is a great way to begin rebuilding your ride in the saddle. I also like to have my riding clients ride with their inside hand behind their head, pushing their elbow back. This creates a tall posture, and encourages activation of the lats to stabilise in the back, and the shoulder stabilisers in the upper back through movement on the horse. Try it out next time you’re on and see what it does to your position!