Contact, like posture, is not a fixed state, but a constant cycle of information exchange between the rider and the horse. Bodies do not hold a set posture, and they do not hold a set contact. Instead, it’s a delicate interplay, a dance.
Contact, like posture, responds to the ground it’s travelling over, the weight it’s carrying and the environment it’s a part of. In this way, it is inherently dynamic, and extends way beyond the idea of just “holding the reins”.
Aside from the deeper conversations on contact (and I do love me a deep conversation), from a physical standpoint, it’s interesting to observe how our nervous system state affects our ability to sustain a forward and fluid contact.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Your joint space decreases in fight flight. This makes your arms literally shorter. In fact, your entire structure is more compressed.
Joint space and your nervous system state directly correlate. In fight flight, joint space decreases to bring the bony surfaces together. The purpose of this is to increase surface area contact so we have more space to power off, to increase our acceleration and our force.
But as your joint space decreases, you literally lose length and height.
That’s why as someone ages and they are what I would call sympathetically dominant (living more in their fight flight system than out of it), they get “shorter” due to spinal space compression and changes in joint articulation.
Contact wise though, this means our arms are literally shorter in fight flight. And conversely, when we establish nervous system adaptability, they “grow” in length. This is something I’ve experience personally and we have many giggles in my membership about it also.
Longer arms are a thing (but then, so are longer legs).
- Each fight flight state has a structural template. The shoulder blades, for instance, pull back during fight flight activation, again, preventing the amount we are able to offer our hands forward without compromising the rest of the body.
Let’s use the ‘fight’ mode as an example. For some background info, as we move through the different modes of fight and flight, our body assumes the different postures and structural patterns specific to each state.
If I have a dominant sympathetic pattern of fight, part of the structural template of that nervous system mode is that my shoulder blades draw together towards the spine. If you sit for a moment and actively retract your shoulder blades, it’s immediately observable what happens to your arm length.
Now if this was your dominant structural pattern, you are going to find it physically impossible to have forward hands, without compromising the rest of your position somehow.
- Shoulder blade position also affects the ribs, compromising the movement of the whole shoulder girdle.
If my shoulder blades are retracted, the entire movement range of my shoulder girdle is limited due (movement of the shoulder blades themselves get blocked by the ribs in this position.
Again, this means to have hands that are able to follow my horse, I have to move my entire body forward as a block, creating a lot of force and leverage through the lower back and neck (in both the human and the horse).
It’s important to understand:
- I can’t consciously force my body to change its dominant structural pattern. This is a function and a choice of my autonomic nervous system, which is unconsciously controlled.
- I can influence that change through a variety of sensory practices. Sensory information is what the brain requires to make structural change from the inside out.
I’m super passionate about teaching biomechanics through the lens of nervous system understanding and sensory awareness. For me, it’s completely revolutionised my riding, and my capacity to be open to the feeling and nuances of my horse.
I see so many people struggle with position and balance (not to mention the consequences to how we feel and think) without having any awareness or understanding of how their nervous system influences their posture and movement, and what’s more, what to do about it.
If you really want to dive in and explore this work with me, JoyRide is the place to do it. You can learn more or check it out here.