by Certified Centered Riding Instructor, Cathy Mahon
I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the days when in order to get all of the items on your grocery list, you had to go to at least three, if not four different stores. There was the butcher shop, where you bought your meat, a bakery for your bread and donuts, a produce stand where you would buy your fruits and vegetables and if you needed anything for your medicine cabinet, you had to go to the “drugstore.” It was time consuming, inconvenient and frustrating if you’d forget something and have to make another trip across town.
Well, now there’s a simple solution for shopping – the superstore or supermarket! And just as remarkable, is a simple straightforward way to find your POWER SEAT when you ride. By engaging the supportive, powerful CORE muscles (no, I mean the REAL core muscles) of the psoas and iliopsoas, located deep inside the body, you’ll be able to sit deep in the saddle, wrap your legs snugly around your horse’s barrel and keep your feet exactly where they need to be: grounded with equal weight in the stirrups.
You will breathe softly and maintain your balance, and your joints will flex and absorb the motion of your horse. You’ll notice your horse immediately rate underneath you when you deepen your contact with a simple exhale allowing your weight to drop back and down. You can move through the barrel pattern with simple upper body rotation, avoiding the tendency to lean into the turns. You’ll be stable no matter what you do.
I can’t believe how easy it is, not only to use it in my own riding, but to teach it to others, in MINUTES! You don’t have to constantly adjust your body as individual parts. You know, just as you fix one, you have to think through another method for adjusting the others.
The most dramatic thing for me was realizing just how much I tighten my abdominal muscles (the “bread basket”) when I ride which immediately pulls you on to the front of your pelvis or pubic bone, instead of on your seat bones. It is a natural bracing reflex that we do to protect ourselves, when we don’t feel stable or balanced. When you do this, it limits the movement of your hips, inhibits breathing, creates brace in your lower leg and removes your inner thigh contact.
You must soften the abdominals, even if you have to poke yourself with your fingers and breathe through your mouth to encourage the relaxation. It took me several attempts to really feel it and keep the softness. Once the abdominals are soft, you’ll begin to feel yourself sitting in the saddle with knees flexed and lower legs wrapped around your horse’s barrel.
Now comes the real key to it all: engaging your psoas.
This big muscle on both sides of your spine connects just below the last rib at your back and stretches deep in the pelvis or bowl in your lower body (your bladder is at the bottom of the bowl) and then connects at the top of the big leg bone, called the femur just where we feel our uppermost thighs.
It just so happens that the area between the belly button and the spine directly behind it is your CENTER, the area with amazing nerves and muscles that help maintain balance and generate energy for movement of all other parts of the body.
With your abdominal muscles less tense, and almost “mushy,” you can lengthen your spine and the stretch the psoas down easily (think of bringing your belly button back towards your spine – you’ll initially feel like your slumping – this is your pelvis rocking as you put more contact on the mid portion or seat bones).
This immediately tones the inner thigh muscles, which creates improved contact with the horse. With the psoas engaged, you are now sitting more toward your seat bones, instead of your pubic bone. And with your abdominal muscles relaxed, you are able to breathe better and move your hips easily.
Many riding instructors refer to the stomach and back muscles as being the ‘core’ muscles their students need to use to stabilize themselves on their horses. However, these are only the surface muscles of the body. Students hear things like:
- Sit deep in the saddle
- Sit on your pockets
- Heels down
- Find your balance point
- Ride from your center
Here’s a simple way to practice engaging your psoas in and out of the saddle and make everything come together at once (“one-stop shopping” – Karen Irland, Level IV Centered Riding Instructor):
1.) Sit in the saddle with knees flexed and soft, feet and ankles movable and relaxed. You should be able to move your feet at the heels and lift the toes off the ground, as well as spread your toes in your boots/shoes.
2.) Lift the pubic bone by allowing your back to lengthen and WITHOUT contracting your abdominal muscles. Your belly should be soft and “mushy”. If it is not, take a breath in and out and use soft pressure with your finger tips of both hands until you feel the relaxation of your abdominals. Once the abdominals are soft and relaxed, you will feel your rib cage drop slightly.
HINT: belly breathing will create this relaxation and can be initiated by placing your tongue on the back of your upper teeth as if holding a bubble with your tongue.
3.) Once your knees are bent and psoas is engaged you should be able to move your hips independently right, then left. Put your hands on your waist at iliac crests and feel the hip move up and down as you alternate left and right movement. Your inner thighs should be soft as your pelvis tips back on to your seat bones and not on your pubic bone, which creates tension in psoas attached to your leg/inner thigh.
4.) Check your “power seat” with a friend: make a fist with your right hand while sitting in the saddle. Have your friend push into your fist with the palm of their right hand and try to push you off balance. If you are soft in the abs and engaged in your psoas, you will remain stable and feel as if there is hardly any pressure against your hand or body.
NOTE: If your friend does not use her psoas to stabilize her body, she will feel off balance and begin using her “outside” muscles (arm and upper body) to maintain her position, with a lot more effort.
An additional benefit to allowing this to happen is that when the hips move easily, so do the feet. When you tighten and tip forward on your pubic bone, you brace in the stirrups and bring your heels too far up or too far down, depending on which direction you tend to brace and with it, you lock your hips and knees. But, with the psoas engaged and joints all moving (hips, knees and ankles) it becomes very clear that these natural shock absorbers are more efficient.
The comfort we feel is reflected in our horses movement as well. Now you can feel the left and right, up and down movement of your horse’s hips. Your lower legs, thighs toned and secure around your horse can make imperceptible movements to cue your horse and as you remain grounded in your stirrups, you can rise at the trot, allowing your knees, hips and ankles to absorb the motion.
Transitions become a simple act of inhaling to warn your horse that something is about to happen and exhaling as you engage your psoas and complete the transition.
Soften abs, lengthen the spine, feel better contact with seat bones, tone the inner thighs for better contact, feel the freedom of movement of all the joints with feet grounded.
You’ve achieved the POWER SEAT with just one simple act: engaging your psoas.
It really IS one-stop shopping!
Best of all, you’ll be able to use it at any gait as well as remain balanced as you accelerate down the alley and rate & turn at each barrel.
Do you have any questions or experiences with “the power seat?”
If so, share in the comments!
You’ll also enjoy:
- Bareback Balance for Barrel Racers
- How to Kiss Bad Barrel Racing Habits Good-bye!
- Three Steps (and Exercises) to Become a Better Barrel Racing Jockey
- The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion
Cathy Mahon is a certified Centered Riding Instructor and teaches beginner and intermediate riders in all English and Western disciplines in SW Washington state.
She has completed CHA coursework as well and has owned, trained and ridden horses for 25 years.