A few weeks ago, I saw an old friend who is an extreme unicycling champion. I've watched him jump, balance, spin and drop in many different ways to the amazements of onlookers who didn't know these things were possible. It is quite a skill he has built with years of practise.
I am also lucky to have many friends in the horse-riding community, one of whom has invited me to deliver a workshop in Holland next month (click here if interested). Saddles are a recurring theme at the moment and although I don't ride unicycles or horses, I know about how helping people stay in the saddle and do so with higher levels of skill. Here's what we will explore here.
Hopefully your are sitting upright on a comfortable chair with your sitting bones firmly in contact with its surface (if you aren't, feel free to take that as a hint to). In the upright position, whether standing or sitting, one thing to notice is that your eyes are level with the horizon.
When balance is a major component in an activity you are performing, you will find that keeping your eyes on the horizon is a very helpful thing to do. Balance is achieved by taking sensory information from the inner ears, proprioceptive systems (those that inform you of your body position) and visual system and using this info to make physical adjustments to keep your orientation relative to yourself and the horizon.
We cannot voluntarily shut down some of those systems, but we can close our eyes very easily. For most, closing the eyes will make balancing much more challenging. If you would like to try giving yourself an extra balancing challenge, close your eyes and tilt your head to one side. Proprioceptively, this novel position will often add a new degree of challenge.
What has all of this got to do with the saddle?
Sitting on your seat, roll your weight so that your are sat more on one sit bone and keep your eyes on the horizon and then roll to the other side. Do this a few times. Does it feel easier to sit on one side than the other? Do you feel any restrictions as you do this? If so, where?
As you sit with more weight on one side, what do you feel in the ribs of that side? What is their length like compared to the ribs on the non-weight-bearing side? You can put your hands on your ribs to help you feel what you are doing with them if this helps.
You will feel that the ribs on the weight-bearing side have spread and the ribs on the other side have closed.
Can you feel if you change height with your shoulders relative to the horizon as you go from one side to the other? To shift your weight easiest, let the shoulder of the weight-bearing side rise at the other shoulder goes lower. This make one hip to shoulder long and the other short.
This exaggerated movement is present whenever you shift your weight to keep your balance to stay in your saddle or to steer. The freer you can do it, the easier both of those skills become.
Let's look at how that movement affects a little further up. Put your hands around your neck (not too strongly – save that for those you don't like) and perform the rolling of your weight side to side, keeping your eyes on the horizon. What happens to the length of your neck on each side as you sit to one side?
To truly keep your eyes horizontal, you will use your head to counterbalance the rest of the movement. Sitting on your right side, your right shoulder will lift due to the right ribs opening and your spine arching left. If the entire spine arched left, the head would end up tilted to the left and we would lose our orientation to the horizon so we use the top of the spine, the neck, to take our head back a little towards the higher shoulder. You may feel that the neck on the weight-bearing side is a little shorter than the other side.
To see this side to side lengthening and shortening relationship in masterful, real-time action check out the circus balancer.
Improving this ability to shift side to side while keeping your eyes on the horizon will help anybody in a saddled sport improve their ability to perform. Keep your eyes out for the next installment of this blog post when we will expand on this concept further.
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