Thursday, 27 October 2011

Do the Twist

An personal abbreviation and interpretation of Dr. Tim Cacciatore research approach “Increased dynamic regulation of postural tone through Alexander Technique training.”

Having a good posture is really a question of standing upright with the head above the feet with a body in between. Surely the muscles that work to keep the head on top need to have some muscle tone (tension) in order to do the job, the question is how much do they need to hold for us to be stable but not stiff?

This research report was published in Human Movement Science (2010) and I make a brief summary of the same.

The brain regulate the degree of tension muscles need to have to be able to support the body in relationship to gravity. This long-lasting muscle activity is called postural muscle tone and is especially important around the body's longitudinal axis to prevent the spine from collapsing.

It is easy to take for granted that the postural muscle tone has been studied thoroughly and that it is scientifically explained. But it's not. This is mainly due to the fact that postural muscle tone is difficult to measure. It works in a quiet manner over a long time and involves many muscles and that makes it difficult to quantify.

Balance, on the other hand (how we place our mass over our feet), is an entirely different phenomenon that is much more studied and whose function is more understood. This is due to the frequent movements back and forth that occurs when we balance ourselves are easy to measure, in contrast to the continuous forces that respond to gravity.

In order to measure the postural tonus Cacciatore used our ability to rotate around our own axis (the spine). The spiral-like movement, referred to as the Twist, is not working as a support against gravity, any resistance in the twist would reflect an individual's muscular tension in response to gravity.

The measurements were taken at the neck, torso and hip. Measurements showed how muscle activity in each region integrated instead of measuring the activity of a single muscle.

Rigid people are 3-4 times as stiff as less rigid people. The difference in postural muscle tone may be due to two things 1) the degree of muscular tension 2) how the tension can be adjusted dynamically in relation to posture or work load. An individual with low levels of tension can either have a low tonus to begin with or adapt dynamically during the turn - by "letting go" (reduced activity) in the muscles that need to be extended and "take up the slack" (increased activity) in the muscle that is shortened. The results of the study gave was that the muscle activity was fixed with rigid people while the muscle tone were more dynamic in those who were less rigid.

The study showed that AT-teachers showed significantly less resistance to rotation than the control group, the average resistance in an AT teacher was half the size at all measurement points.

It is not yet possible to distinguish the amount due to the level of tension or due to the adaptability of tension but it is possible to measure how muscle tone adapts and measurements showed that the postural muscle tone in the AT teachers were more adaptive than in the control group.

In another study of people with back pain, the same method of measurement were used before and after a series of 20 AT lessons. The study showed less stiffness around hip and torso after the period of lessons.

Being able to stay upright relative to gravity without undue tension promotes mobility. This in turn promotes suppleness to us as riders. As I see it, you can now do a "self check" of your own muscle tone. Rotate slowly around your own axis (the spine) in both directions. Do you feel strain anywhere? Does your shoulders tilt in any direction? What about the contact between feet and floor? Does it affect your breathing?

"God must be fond of dancing, otherwise he would not have ensured that most objects in space revolves around itself and around something else."

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Curb or no curb?

”My horse likes the curb” is an argument I sometimes hear for why a rider chooses to ride with a curb bit instead of a normal snaffle. I assume that the horse in question when ridden in a snaffle can choose to pull, lean on the bit or go against the rider's hand (resistance of force), but since the horse chooses not to do this when ridden in a curb, the rider feels that the contact with the horse's mouth is lighter and smoother. But is it the horse or the rider who thrives with the curb?

Maybe it's wrong of me to say that it is the rider who likes the curb. Of course it's nice that the horse doesn't hang your hand! That is not something I want no matter what bit I choose to ride with. What I mean is that the rider may lack practical knowledge of how she could train her horse not to pull or lean on the snaffle. This knowledge exists, for instance, within the tradition of French classical riding.

I would also like to point out that whatever bit you choose, it's you as a rider who has the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the contact between your hand and the horse's mouth. Horses can, unfortunately, accept far too much pressure in the mouth with either the snaffle or curb. A curb does not guarantee that the horse does not get injuries in the mouth. We as riders should not put the responsibility on the horse to let us know what contact is OK, regardless of the bit we choose. I strive to have the weight of the rein and nothing more in my hand, what do you strive for?

Whatever bit you choose, you as a rider are responsible for:
1) training your seat and balance so that you don't use the reins for support. You should be able to follow the horse in all gaits with loose reins without holding on with your hands, or if you need to hold with a hand you should do so by holding the mane or the pommel, and not use the reins
2) training your coordination and body awareness so that you do not accidentally or without being aware of it tense or move your fingers, hands or arms, especially not backwards
3) getting yourself a decent idea of what is a proper contact.

For myself I normally choose to ride with the snaffle. The double bridle or curb are tools for precise and delicate communication that I only use on the highly schooled horse. The snaffle bit, properly used, is the most effective way to supple a horse. A supple horse has a calm and gentle activity of the mouth. He swallows, plays with and lifts the bit with his tongue. A supple horse can, in halt, walk and trot bend his neck 90 degrees. In canter the bending is slightly less. A supple horse can raise the neck and above all, he can lower his neck while extending his nose forward so that it will never be behind the vertical. This is what, in the School of Légèreté, is called neck extension.

In the end I believe it is the rider's body awareness and control, and her ideas about what is a good contact that determines which bit a horse likes.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Back part 4 stress management

Now, when I've reached the goal of my travel I'm sitting at a desk with the computer connected to a broadband with a speed that almost scares me!

If you have been doing your home work from the first posting you now have familiarised yourself with your back 30 times. You have begun to explore how movement of the limbs affects the contact your back has with the surface and you have had an opportunity to recognise the feeling of your back resting on the floor even when you're upright.

Today's theme in the supine position series is the power it has on our mind. A typical day brings with it many moments and situations that increase the level of mental tension or stress. Stress (including what we may perceive as positive stress!) is always an increased strain on the body and what you've learned by lying down on the floor can now help you to reduce the effects that stress has on you.

First and foremost, stress leads to increased muscle tone, ie our muscle costume actually shrinks slightly. That shrinking affects both joint mobility and breathing. If you feel excitement or stress take hold of you, inhibit - pause and find the "floor behind your back", just allow yourself get back to your back.

Your moments on the floor has given you a great tool for self evaluation, make use of it! Lying down has presented you with the opportunity to explore how your body feels in a neutral position. Tune in where and how your body is affected by stress. If the jaws have become more tense ease off the tension by just visit them briefly in your thoughts.

We all have a uniquely positioned "stress indicator" where tension gets to us first. My spot is situated on the right side, midway between the spine and the lower part of the scapula, if I start to feel tension there I know that I am under a high mental workload.

If I visit that point often, ease the tension, I can "get through" stress without the body goes into a stress-locked position and the nice part is, as I do it consciously, it may be a pretty tough situation and never the less I feel I still have it in my hand. I can continue to act, which is much better than simply react to the challenge and immensely much better than to capitulate to it.

What I do when I feel I am under stress is that I rest "in the feel of the floor", it helps me to keep my chest open in the front and keep the shoulder blades resting on the thoracic spine. With that direction in my body I minimise the tension around the chest and my breathing is relatively undisturbed. If the breathing works oxygen reaches the brain and the mind can actively work to find a solution or an alternative course of action.

Without a functioning breathing, stress leads to a double burden, both physical (I am suffocating!) and a psychic (I can not handle this!) and the stress increases.

Even under pressure, there are choices, the better you become at maintaining a focused calmness and relaxation, the greater your chance is to see where the situation is heading, you can see the options that pop up and choose how to proceed. You can to some extent, therefore, choose the way in which the battle is being fought, or if there is a need for a conflict at all. All that is needed is perhaps a liberating laughter before continuing with the task.

Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down.
Natalie Goldberg

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Inside or outside rein?

I remember from my time as a child at the local riding school here in Sweden that I was told to use the outside rein to get the horse back on the track by the wall. This never worked very well for me. Normally the horse would just turn his head to the outside and walk further away from the wall.

Many years later I met Craig Stevens, a master rider who turned many of my ideas about riding upside down. He told me to use a so-called indirect rein on the horse's inside to bring the horse back to the track. It worked much better!

Why does the inside rein work so much better? For my part, it was not just about which rein I used, it was also the way I used the rein. In my days as a beginner rider, I probably pulled a lot on the rein. Nor had I mastered the skill of timing my signals to the horse's balance, weight distribution and biomechanics. Now I can do that it makes a big difference. So when I once again received the instruction to use the outside rein from Bea Borelle to return the horse to the track, it worked splendidly.

The reasons I could not get it to work when I was an inexperienced rider were two fold: 1) I was pulling backwards, and 2) I could not coordinate the use of my two hands. When Craig asked me to use only the inside rein and ignore the outside rein, I had the opportunity to develop the feel of when and how I should influence my horse. Without this practice I would not have managed the task of coordinating my hands.

In addition, today I can choose to do it either way, depending on the situation and what kind of horse I'm riding. And that is not a bad thing!

The indirect rein on the inside will get the horse back on the track by the wall by shifting the horse's weight to the outside rear leg. This will unload the forehand and make it easy for the horse to move the forehand back to the track. When you use the inside indirect rein, the horse might also bend to the inside. The horse can do this since he is no longer leaning on the inside shoulder. A horse cannot bend to the inside and "lean" to the inside at the same time.

However, most horses often have one side which they don't bend so easily.

On this side it is not at all certain that the horse responds to the indirect rein with bending. The horse can still move away from the indirect rein, but it is quite possible that the horse won't bend towards the indirect rein as well.

In this case, you may need to coordinate the reins. You bend the horse by turning the inside hand and then raising it. You can then shorten the rein and lower the hand and the horse should remain bent without you having to take the hand backwards.

In short, the hand that bends the horse dose not move sideways or horizontally, only vertically. The hand that influences the balance, and thus where the horse is going, is moved horizontally (direct or indirect rein). When I have set the bend and the horse accepts the bend, that is he is not pulling on the reins, then I can choose to use a direct rein on the outside, or an indirect rein on the inside, to keep my horse on a straight line. But if my horse for some reason do not accept the bend, then I need to use the inside hand to ask for the bend by turning the wrist and maybe even raising the hand, in combination with the outside direct rein to ask the horse to remain on the track. With this division of use of the inner and outer hand, and between effects (hand sideways affects balance, hand used vertically to set the bend) it becomes easy to bend the horse either to the inside or the outside and to follow a straight or curved line.

Try it!

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.