The last of the Centered Riding® Basics is Grounding. Sally Swift calls this the glue that binds the other Basics together. The roots-of-the-tree image in the book, Centered Riding, illustrate Grounding. Grounding provides supple stability in riding while lengthening provides the power. (We will leave lengthening for later. Without Grounding you can’t lengthen.) Grounding is the shock absorber in riding. When a rider Grounds they allow their body to yield into the movement.
In case you are having a hard time grasping this concept, here are a few examples. Think of the horse that is firmly rooted in front of the trailer or the sleeping dog that won’t get off the couch. Both illustrate Grounding. I call these examples “bad” Grounding because it is counterproductive to my desires. Nonetheless, they are both firmly Grounded. To feel Grounding find a child or a small person. Have them make their body rigid and the pick them up. (Do NOT do this if you have back problems!) Then have them go limp and repeat the exercise. The limp person is Grounded. They can be nearly impossible to lift if they do it right.
The above examples are extreme cases of Grounding. Grounding can be used in different ways. In riding you do not want to go totally limp on the horse’s back. You do want to let the your legs hang down like “wet dish towels” around your horse. You also want your shoulders grounded as if your elbows had heavy weights attached to them. So you want this Grounded feeling through your arms and legs while the torso remains erect. This posture is a source of incredible strength (see Power Position article.)
To get the sense of Grounding as it relates to riding here is another exercise. Many riders curl their toes in their boots and grip the stirrups with their feet. This affects your ability to Ground. To find out what this is like, have someone push on your collarbones while your toes are crunched up in your boots. Notice that you are quite easily knocked over. (Be careful. If you are the person pushing be ready to catch the person you push.) Now spread your toes out again and have the person push on you. Notice that you will be able to absorb the force, resisting the push a lot better. Then walk around with your toes crunched up in your boots. This is similar to what happens to the horse when it is tense and ungrounded. Notice how unsteady you are and that you can’t take a very long stride. Now uncurl your toes and notice that you are a lot more stable. If you wanted to take a longer stride it would be quite easy. When you tighten up your toes you restrict the joints creating points of rotation. You wind up out of balance, falling into the movement rather than Grounding and pushing yourself forward.
A point of rotation is where the force of an action is exerted. Torque is the force that acts to produce the rotation. OK, so I have lost you in the physics again. Lets’ keep it simple. Think about the last time that you had a flat tire. There was no way you could get lug nuts off by hand so you got out your lug wrench and had it off in no time. This is because the wrench provided you with leverage producing torque. The longer the handle of the lug wrench, the more the leverage, therefore the less effort you have to put into getting the lug nuts off. Your joints have the ability to move (the loose lug nut absorbing the force) or not move (the tight lug nut resisting the force.) Your body becomes the lug wrench when the joints are stuck. The amount of leverage will depend on where the force is being applied and what joint is tight. So if you tighten your toes in your boots and someone pushes on your collarbones, your entire body becomes the lug wrench. A small torque force will be enough to knock you over because you are pivoting over your feet. If instead you soften your toes, the lever arm is reduced in length. It will require greater force to push you over. Whatever other joint is stuck will become the next point of rotation. If all your joints are free to move, you will have eliminated all points of rotation. You will absorb the force exerted against you (the pulling or unbalanced horse in the canter depart) rather than be pulled over.
Joints have to maintain the potential to move in order to be Grounded. If we are standing on the ground when someone pushes us, we lower ourselves towards the earth. Thus, we lower our center of gravity. (I had one student describe the inertial forces of this principle but that is a bit beyond the scope of this discussion.) Next, the applied force is distributed throughout the body shared between the muscles, tendons, and connective tissue. Sharing the load allows the force to be transferred through the body to ground. It is this connection to the ground that will provide power when we lengthen.
The muscle system determines how rapidly the joint will move to absorb the force. You want to match the force with appropriate effort. A rapid force will require a quick response by the joints, while a slowly applied force will require slow moving joints. As an example remember the last time a horse tried to snatch a bite of grass while you were leading it. In order to prevent the horse from dragging you around you had to respond instantly by dropping your body down toward the earth. Grounding in this way prevented the horse from the jerking you off your feet. Whereas the horse that slowly leaned towards the grass would not require such an immediate response on your part. Ultimately, by being able to Ground fast or slow, the will horse realize there is no point in pulling because he is not going to get to the grass.
So how does all of this apply to riding? We are not standing with our feet on the ground. Instead our feet are resting in the stirrups (if we are riding in a saddle) or simply hanging if riding bareback. Grounding while riding has to do with remaining supple in the joints, particularly the hip, knees, ankle and toes, while keeping the torso in alignment with gravity. Then the muscle system balances the skeletal posture to resist movement. One of the biggest problems facing the rider is to keep the joints supple. The moment we are unbalanced the tendency is to stiffen and push against the stirrups or grab with our hands. This will cause us to lose Grounding. We have to teach ourselves to override that natural reflex by letting ourselves absorb the motion in our joints while stabilizing with our postural muscles. When mounted, the body needs to have the potential to lower towards the earth (the joints are not inhibited internally.) Our body will sink into the saddle increasing the depth of our seat even though you won’t see any visible change in position. When bareback, Grounding comes primarily from the hip joint. When riding with stirrups, all the joints in the legs need to function. In either case you also want to Ground your shoulders so that the shoulder girdle rests on the ribcage providing quiet following hands.
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