One of the things that makes us lean forward and round our shoulders is fear. When we are nervous or scared, often our first response is to lean forward, grip with our knees and grab the neck. If you watch people riding for the very first time, no matter what age they are, they will spend a lot of time crouched forward, and you need to convince them to relax and sit up straight.
Only a few weeks ago I was giving a lesson to a new student, and the horses in the paddock next door decided to have a big gallop around. It was a very windy day, and the girl's horse started to put it's tail up, go into a lovely piaff but with his nose in the air and generally pay no attention to the rider whatsoever! Her first reaction was to lean forward, grab on to his neck, grip with her knees (heels come up), and look scared (it was also her first ride on this particular horse, although she is a fairly experienced rider, she had no knowledge of how this horse would react).
I tried to explain the "emergency stop" fast, but of course, as soon as we are scared, it is very hard to change your bodies automatic reactions, and also to actually listen to instructions. Your brain goes into "reptilian brain" which is instinctive and reactive, rather than logical.
The problem with this is, that if you try your emergency stop and you are leaning forward, looking down, and your heels are up, YOU WILL FALL OFF! It is VERY important that you look up, push your heels down and even a little forward and lean back slightly. Test it! get someone to try and pull you off your horse, try it with your heels up vs down, shoulders slumped vs chest up.
So how do you change your fear response? Changing an instinctive response is not an easy thing to do. It takes awareness, time, and practice practice practice. Please read "thoughts on unconscious incompetence" for more information as to how to bring things into your awareness.
Have I gone way off track? What were we talking about again? that's right! Shoulders back :) ok, so the reason I brought all that up, is because I want you to start thinking about how that response feels to the horse. The horse is a prey animal, we are a predator. Often times this fear reaction happens when the horse is scared too, then we clamp on to his neck and throw our weight forward, do you think this makes the horse feel more or less scared? I think it is the Parelli people who talk about this in further detail, and it is fascinating to understand further the behavioural principles behind why we ride the way we do, and why certain movements will elicit the correct response from the horse even though they have never been "taught" it.
Refining this response, when your horse starts to get a little bit faster than you want in your trot circle, are you tilting forward? When your canter starts to be a little bigger than you want, do you lean back or forward? When you go into a jump that is a little bigger than you are comfortable with, do you wait for the horse to jump? or do you find yourself in front of the movement? Does your horse stop at jumps regularly?
Even the slightest tilt forward will affect your horses ability to engage the hind end (put more weight on the hind end). There has been an example given where someone has used four bathroom scales, and a saddle stand to see what affect it has, and has shown that as soon as you round your shoulders, you put a whole lot of extra weight over the front feet. Armed with this knowledge, we can now use this as an aid as well! lean back a touch when you want to slow down or stop, BEFORE you use the reins. If you do that every time, pretty soon your horse will be stopping without reins at all!
Round shoulders will also affect the way your elbow and arm moves, and will make it more difficult to have that lovely "elastic elbows" feeling of connection between your horses mouth and your hand. You will find it harder to find the rhythmical forward and back movement we talked about in the "hands still or moving" article.
Make it your first response to look up, sit back, and lean back a touch!
Exercises to improve your shoulders
Sometimes the easiest way to fix a problem is to exaggerate it first. REALLY round your shoulders, then bring them back, feel the difference?
The problem with bringing your shoulders back is it can make your shoulders tense and block the nice flow of energy down your arm to the reins. So, another way to do it, is to think of something else instead.
I often use the thought of bringing my shoulder blades closer together, and lifting my breastbone. This also has the double benefit of engaging the small muscles that hold your spine, which will give you better posture in the rest of your life as well.
I also use a fantastic visualisation that is amazing. This one picture in my mind has made a huge difference to me personally, she talks about the Spanish Riding School. I was in Vienna about 18
months ago, so this particularly hits home. If you have seen pictures of these amazing Lipizzaners and their riders, you may remember the gorgeous jackets they wear. They have a double line of gold buttons down the front. Think of the proud way they hold themselves, and think about those gold buttons, do they point down to the ground as the rider slouches? NO! Of course not! so, when you are riding, imagine you are riding in the Spanish Riding School to an audience of hundreds of European Royalty, and make sure they can see the gleam on all those golden buttons!
Good Luck, please let me know how you go with this, and feel free to request what you would like to see next!