Apologies for the rather long break in posts….
Let’s just say the winter was incredibly productive, I have plenty of subject matter for discussion, and a resounding welcome back to Blogland!
Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ride with Coach Daniel Stewart in his Video Analysis clinic. The gist of the clinic is all riders are videoed in various gaits and positions and then Coach Stewart analyses the results. He highlights position issues, body alignment, and anything physical that we as riders are doing as we ride. He then dissects ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ frame by frame, highlights areas that need work, and provides guidance on the ground before getting back in the tack to put changes into practice.
Watching oneself in minute, frame by frame detail, backwards, forwards, over again is awkward to say the least. Yet it’s also quite enlightening. In a few minutes it helped me to see what I cannot always feel, and then link the two together to create positive change in my riding.
The second half of the clinic was ridden again. After the video analysis, I had an inkling of what to work on in the tack. Coach Stewart took it much further and zoomed straight into the crux of the matter.
For me, it was the struggle of muscle memory pulling my upper body forward. And now, it is finding the correct upper body position and reprogramming the muscle memory.
Reprogramming the what?
So, what exactly is muscle memory?
According to Wikipedia:
Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, typing in a PIN, playing a melody or phrase on a musical instrument, playing video games, or performing different algorithms for a Rubik’s Cube.
So what does that have to do with riding? Everything! Do you remember when you first learned to ride how much you had to keep reminding yourself to ‘sit up tall’, ‘keep your heels down’, or ‘thumbs on top of the reins’. Eventually you adopted the muscle memory to do these things naturally and you stopped thinking about it. Your body could remember where to be and you could start focussing on more advanced riding skill.
Muscle memory is a powerful force within you, and unfortunately it doesn’t always take you to the best possible position in riding. Muscle memory does take you to a place that is comfortable, and if you are lucky enough to never have picked up any bad posture habits, or never had a debilitating injury, you may be just fine.
But most of us, me included, have had many physical injuries or accidents (uh, hello dirt surfing!) Our bodies cope well and most likely have expertly adapted the muscle memory needed to keep us comfortable, albeit not necessarily in postural balance.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am plagued with imbalance in my body. A serious back injury years ago left me overcompensating to the right and protective of the injury site. I’ve had to accept that I may never be completely symmetrical, and that I probably never was to start with. In my riding, my muscle memory helps me to hunch over from my shoulders and appear to be in a ‘constant crunch’ as Coach Stewart put it. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I certainly didn’t feel like I was anything other than straight.
Hard to accept, all was not yet lost. The beauty of muscle memory is that it can change. It can be reprogrammed to create a correct riding position, and it can be done in only 3 weeks! However, it is NOT easy and it requires concentration, diligence and constant vigilance to make the change.
The decision to make the change was easy. I am always pursuing to ride to the top of my potential. Making the actual change was tough. No, let’s face it:
Week 1 = agony!
Week 2 = barely tolerable.
Week 3 = my body’s gradual and reluctant acceptance of the change.
Entering Week 4… I think I’ve cracked it.
How did I do it? I just started constantly analysing my shoulders and upper back. If I slumped, I sat back up. When I rode I kept the mantra Coach Stewart gave me in my head every stride: “Lift up, burn back, lift up, belly down”. If I lapsed I corrected. I carried on this way for three weeks; in the tack, in the car, during workouts, at work, at home, everywhere, all the time, no matter how awful it felt. The way I looked at is was that if I installed this new muscle memory in all aspects of my physical existence, it would have a better chance of taking root.
And it did. It’s easy to look back in retrospect and say, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t so hard’. But I’d be lying to myself. I was constantly exhausted and just wanted to quit. A lot of the time my shoulders ached in agony and screamed at me for a break. Half way through Week 2, when I felt like giving up, I thought about how far I’d come and asked how badly I really wanted to change. Turns out I wanted it more than anything and I kept it up. Eventually I got it, and can happily report that so much has changed as a result.
My riding is different, more balanced, more confident. I feel physically stronger. The horses I ride feel softer, more engaged and responsive. Gage, Mr Lazy himself, has become more willing. And I am loving every stride like I never have before.
The moral of this story? If you want something badly enough, you will find the courage and will to persevere. When it’s all over, you will look back and amaze yourself.
A big thank you to Coach Stewart!
Here is a taste of the final ride at the clinic. Hope you enjoy it!