Lesson and PT Session With DCS Physical Therapy

Or, Wherein I Finally Get Bodywork On Myself. 

I'll get to July's show recap soon enough, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this very interesting session while it was still fresh in my mind! 

A friend of mine had been working very successfully with Danielle Shugard of DCS Physical Therapy for a few months, and invited me to bring Dino to her barn to ride with her the next time she was in town teaching lessons. I jumped at the opportunity - Danielle is a Physical Therapist who works with equestrians, which is a specialty I'd never heard of but was very interested in! Being a rider herself, she understands the unique needs and hazards of our sport, and helps riders find a more comfortable, effective position in the saddle while helping ease pain and increase range of motion. 

I figured it was about time to get myself some physical therapy after having it done on Dino for years! 

The main issue I wanted help with was the unevenness in my seat. I have sat heavier on my left side for YEARS. Every pair of breeches and saddle I own is more worn on the left side. I only have saddle stains on the left side of my pants, and Dino is consistently less muscled on the left side of his back. 

I don't think that this is a coincidence. 

Danielle had me walk and trot around the arena to make her initial assessment of my position and the way my body worked while riding. She didn't notice anything glaringly awful, but wanted to start by stretching the muscles around my hips, so she placed two partially-deflated Franklin balls under my seatbones. 

You may remember my first encounter with Franklin balls about two years ago. I found them to be a fun and helpful tool then, and they assisted me in finding my dressage seat when I was first learning to really sit, but I hadn't touched them since. With two years of education and a new saddle, the balls were LIFE-CHANGING this time around! (I now have a pair on their way to me as we speak via Amazon.)

The main purpose of the balls was to stretch my hip muscles and allow my leg to hang down longer and drape around the horse. Now that my seat is more educated, the balls were incredibly effective! For the first time ever in my life, my leg hung FLAT against the saddle in a true neutral position. My toes pointed forward with no effort, and I felt my legs "draping" down in that ideal, relaxed dressage position for the first time. My leg felt at once soft and stable, neutral but ready to give Dino input at any moment. Before this lesson, my leg has pretty much always either been actively ON or not really touching the horse. I had never felt this true neutral position before, and it was eye-opening! 

They also caused lots of muscles in my core to fire in order to keep me stable, and again facilitated the soft-but-engaged feeling I had in my legs. Finally I understood - THIS is the ideal, effective dressage position! 

I was able to maintain the soft/strong/balanced/neutral position through a little bit of sitting trot with the balls, and it was a fascinating feeling. More muscles were firing in my core than usual in the trot, but I didn't feel like I was gripping or tense or holding myself on at all. After a few minutes of riding with the balls, we took them out, and I was more or less able to find the plugged-in, engaged, neutral position I had with them. It was very, very cool! 

Danielle did have me ride a little bit with the balls alternately under my knees and under my thighs to help reduce my tendency to pivot off my knees when posting, but I found these techniques disruptive to my lower leg position, so we abandoned them pretty quickly. 

The last piece of equipment we used were big rubber resistance bands that ran from my shoulders, across my body, and anchored at my opposite heel. The idea, as I understood it, was to give me something to push into now that we had established a deeper seat and stretched hips with the Franklin balls. I loved what the bands did for stabilizing my upper body and sort of "squishing" my torso down into the saddle, but I'm still not sure I liked what they did to my legs. They pushed my lower legs back so they were constantly resting in the "go button" area, and I didn't love how they pulled my heels up - I nearly lost a stirrup several times. 

But they did help in making me more aware of keeping my body even side-to-side and plugged into the saddle - if I shifted my balance I'd feel the bands pulling at me, and could get back to center. As we worked in the canter, Danielle told me to put my "inside shoulder into [your] outside back pocket."

WOW. This mental image totally did it for me! It changed the way I was engaging my lats, traps, and the fascia of my lower back, and suddenly Dino SAT DOWN in canter and lifted his front end! It was wild how much making a minor change to the engagement of my muscles altered how he was going! 

The last thing we did in the session was some unmounted stretches on the massage table. Danielle used this time to really explore the range of motion in my hips, and give me some exercises to do daily to help improve it. It turns out that the reason why I sit heavier on my left side isn't some sort of skeletal imbalance (I do have mild scoliosis, which I thought was the culprit), but the fact that all of the muscles surrounding my left hip have a VERY limited range of motion, effectively constantly hiking up that leg and making it shorter. So, in response, I sit pulled to the left. When those muscles are stretched and soft, my body can shift back over to the right and sit centered in the saddle. Once Danielle finished stretching out my hips, I felt several inches taller! It was wild. 

My session with Danielle was so helpful and honestly eye-opening when it comes to the way my body works when riding. While it didn't really feel like we were "doing" much during the riding portion of the session, the more I think about what I learned, the more there is to dig into! I'm excited to apply some of the techniques we used, and have been trying my best to do my stretches daily. If you are in the PA/NJ area and are interested in this type of learning opportunity, I highly recommend getting in touch with Danielle! She is incredibly knowledgable, kind, and fun to work with, and made a big difference in my seat with very small adjustments. It's time for us riders to give ourselves the in-depth therapy we give our horses! 

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