In my physiotherapy practice, I work with many people who have shoulder problems. The shoulder is a very flexible joint, which relies on the muscles around it for stability. If these muscles are not operating correctly, postural problems and shoulder pain often develop. Factor in the modern lifestyle of sitting hunched forward to type, study or text and it gets even tougher to correct your posture to achieve good form when riding.
For a rider, incorrect posture/muscling in the shoulders directly impacts riding quality:
• Being strong and stable through your shoulders is what allows you to have a soft, elastic contact with your horse’s mouth. When your shoulder is unstable, it leads to bracing and stiffness – both in you and your horse.
• Improving shoulder posture also makes it tougher to be yanked forward by your horse. Even an advanced rider can be pulled out of position by a strong or spooky horse if her posture is unstable.
Shoulder Setting – the Reverse Fly
Shoulder setting refers to activating the muscles around your shoulder blades to stabilize your shoulders and maintain good posture. If your instructor is frequently telling you to get your shoulders back or down, the reverse fly could be a good exercise for you.
The exercise is pictured above with a resistance band, but any strong elastic works as well. Side reins and rubber cross ties would also work – just make sure they can’t snap back and hit you. You can even do it with something non-stretchy, like your reins – just perform the same motion and you’ll feel it in the same muscles.
Start with your hands in front of your torso, thumbs facing up (Photo 1). Make sure you have a good grip on the elastic band or rein, with 12-18 inches of slack. Then, draw your hands apart, keeping your thumbs up and at the same level (Photo 2). Your shoulders should subtly draw backwards, like your shoulder blades are pinching together. Your shoulders should not creep up or forward as you do this motion. Be sure to keep your movements symmetrical – a mirror can be very helpful.
How Much to Do
Slowly and gently repeat the motion 10 to 20 times – less when you’re about to ride or compete, and more when you’re trying to build endurance. You might feel some mild pulling, warmth or achiness in your muscles when you do this, but you shouldn’t feel pain. I typically recommend doing this exercise twice daily when trying to improve your posture, then occasionally as a postural reminder before riding.
When to Get Help
This exercise is great for basic shoulder setting, but sometimes we need professional guidance. If you’ve had a serious shoulder injury in the past, persisting or intense pain in the shoulder or the same postural problem that never seems to go away, consider seeing a physiotherapist or your physician. A personalized exercise program to activate and release the correct muscles in your shoulder can make a major difference to your comfort and performance.