“Tummy out, tummy out,” I heard in lesson after lesson when I rode in Germany at Etoile International Equestrian Academy under the direction of Stephan Kiesewetter, chief trainer. Tummy out? I’d never heard such a direction from a dressage instructor, yet when I did it, I felt my lower back fill out and hip joints relax, the mobility of my lumbar spine increased while my upper torso stabilized, and I sat deeper. I found it easier to follow each big, bouncy stride—in fact, my horse gave bigger, bouncier strides, which, when lost, were regained when I used my tummy out position. By using my natural abdominal support without holding, my thigh muscles stayed relaxed, my head was up and neck relaxed, my hands were soft and easily controlled.
"Tummy out" gave me a new sense of using my seat to support and guide my horse. It was a new way to think about controlling my pelvis and abdomen yet, as a Feldenkrais Method® teacher, it made perfect sense. I knew that to balance my spine and head over my pelvic support, and maintain a stable fluidity that can follow and influence my horse’s movement, I needed to have just the right amount of tone in my muscles and movement in my joints. Dressage instructors talk about core strength and the lower abdominal/pelvic region is the source of that strength. Instruction typically relies on an external ideal of “correct posture” rather than teaching each individual how to recognize their own posture that allows powerful, fluid movement. Besides strength we need to be supple in our hip joints and lower back and we need freely moving arms and legs so we can give precise and smooth aids. How do we create a strong pelvis that is also responsive and free? And how do we develop our own internal sense of when we've achieved a truly supple and strong core?
Sitting deeply and having independence of seat and hands is not about holding your muscles in a way that causes tension; it is about control and mobility of your base of support (the pelvic region), balancing the head over the spine, and ease of movement in the neck, arms and legs. While this is easy for some people, for most of us it is not. Either by habit or teaching we tend to suck our tummy in and up, zip-up. Many people have lost the ability to use the pelvic muscles efficiently and breathe into our lower lungs. Yet it can be learned. As Feldenkrais explained: “the right abdominal control (for the activity engaged in) frees the pelvis from unwanted muscular contractions, sets breathing at the personal unhampered rhythm, and consequently relaxes the muscles of the lower jaw, mouth, and hands” (TPS Feldenkrais 1985). Can you see horses smiling about that?
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais was a judo expert, physicist, and engineer who spent years exploring how martial artists develop the ability to use their abdominal muscles as a ball of controlled energy from which relaxed, graceful, and powerful movement can emanate through the upper torso and into the arms. To become a Master a martial artist has to be supremely nimble, powerful, and controlled—excess muscular tension inhibits the powerful, supple, quick movements needed. It is the same for ice skaters, ballroom dancers, and dressage
riders. Dr. Feldenkrais, in trying to heal after a knee injury, developed what came to be called the Feldenkrais Method. It helps those of us who are less coordinated, have had injuries, or have developed unhelpful habits, re-discover the balanced, easy movement most of us knew as children. It also helps develop a powerful core and the awareness of when we are truly using it most effectively.
To have a deep seat on the dynamic chair of the horse, the pelvis must be free to move in all its possibilities of direction, the spine must remain erect but responsive, and the ribs must be free to move to allow the movement of the spine and pelvis as the horse’s movement rotates, rolls forward and back, and lifts the sides of the pelvis. A relaxed hip joint and thigh allows the necessary movement of the pelvis while a tense hip joint inhibits the ability of the pelvis to follow the horse. Areas of tension will stop the dialog between rider and horse. Pulling the shoulders back and stiffening the chest will inhibit fluidity of the spine and hip joints. Pulling the belly in and up stiffens the chest and worse, causes lumber spine instability.
When the head is balanced over the spine and pelvis and the ribs able to move, the shoulders can be back and low, without tension; the arms can be free and the hands soft. In a body that has learned to move in balance, each muscle works in proportion to its size. The big muscles do the hard work of moving through each day while the smaller muscles do the lighter work. The large muscles attached to the pelvis provide support for effortless and independent movement of the arms and legs, upper torso, and neck. Our skeleton is formed so a minimal amount of effort is required for the well-balanced person to stand. From a balanced state in which our spine is balanced over the pelvis and muscles are tonified but not tense, we stand or sit in a position of power.
We want our horses to move as athletically as possible and we want a ride that is not jarring. We want to do this without holding or causing tension and without being too loose and throwing our horse off balance. The pelvis, at one end of the spine, absorbs the horse’s movement, while the head, at the other end, is balanced, relatively still and free to move—to achieve this we need to have an awareness or internal sense of when this is happening. Mobile and controlled, our pelvis gives our upper spine a foundation to support the head and allow the ribs and shoulders to relax. The arms and legs can then move with ease.
You can think of the controlled yet fluid pelvis as the weighted buoy the spine and head ride on. However, unlike a buoy, which is rigid from bottom to top, our spine is flexible, our buoy with its flexible spine, allows our head to remain centered while the pelvis is moving. The pelvis moves front and back, side to side, and rotationally and in combinations of these basic movements. By lightly pushing the lower abdomen out, creating the sensation of a full, rounded ball in the pelvis, it engages the lower abdominal muscles without arching the lower back or tightening the hip joints and thighs. The hips can move freely in the sockets, allowing the thighs to hang by the horse’s side. The lack of tension in the legs allows the heels to drop down. The lower back relaxes and is able to move more freely with the horse’s movement, and the front line lengthens, allowing the head to balance over the spine and the shoulders to relax. A few examples of movements (see sidebars) will give you a sense of why this is.
This full lower abdomen is not a static position. The ability to engage the large muscles at our center efficiently and use them to support the use of smaller muscles in our arms and legs and neck, allows us to use our muscles with a minimum of effort and a great amount of ease and grace. When we provide support to the rest of our body by using our pelvic muscles efficiently, our joints move with ease. By having an internal sense of the support of a pelvis that has only the necessary muscle tone to accomplish the desired movement, rather than getting stiff or off balance on our horse, we can quickly find our foundation again and again while astride our ever moving horse.
Sidebar 1: Becoming Aware of Pelvis, Hip Joints and Spine
Sit on a stool or a hard flat chair and imagine sitting on a clock. Twelve is under your tailbone, 6:00 is under your pubic arch, 3:00 is under your left seat bone, and 9:00 is under your right seat bone. Start by slowly moving back and forth from 12 to 6—arching and then rounding your lower back in a small movement. Do this slowly and as smoothly as possible and stay within an easy range of movement. Then begin to go from 3 to 9, from one seat bone to the other—bring you attention to what happens in your ribs, in your upper spine, with your head and neck.
After you are familiar with the four numbers begin to move from 12 o’clock to 1:00 and then to 2:00 and 3:00. Do this slowly see if you can make it smooth and round, with no flat or jerky areas. Explore going from number to number until you are rolling your pelvis in a circle around the face of the clock. As you do this your weight will shift from the front of your seat bones, to one side, to the back, and to the other side. As you shift your weight around the clock face, make it as smooth of a circle as you can, going from minute to minute around the clock. You can do this in several ways. You can stiffen the upper body and allow the shoulders and head to move around, much like the top of a buoy. You can circle and allow your head to go in opposition of your pelvis so that when you arch your back your head goes back, when you sit on your left seat bone your head goes right, and when you bow your low back your head goes forward. You can also keep your head and neck in the middle as your pelvis and lower spine slowly circle. As you do these movements can you feel the difference of what is required in the ribcage and spine? The hip joints? The neck?
Now that you have a sense of moving your pelvis and allowing the ribs and spine to flex and extend with the movement, try circling with the abdomen held tight and flat, and the shoulders pulled back. What happens to the movement? What happens in your low back, can you feel the restriction in your sacrum? What happens in your hip joints? Can you feel added tension in your chest, neck, or jaw? Bring your attention to your breath; does the air easily go in and out?
Try sagging in the middle, allowing your waist to go back and your head to go forward, now circle and discover what happens in your ability to move around the clock. What happens in your hip joints? What happens with your breathing? How do you hold your head?
Now, sit up again, feet flat on the floor and think of your pelvis as an inflated, heavy, round ball. Push your lower abdomen out a little so that you feel your spine get longer from tail to neck and your shoulder blades relax back and down. Sit for a few moments and sense if your chin drops toward your chest as the back of your neck lengthens. Slowly circle around the clock again making it a round clock face with 12 distinct numbers. What happens? Do you remain more relaxed in the hip joints and upper chest?
Sidebar 2: Finding Power in the Pelvis
Do this exploration after you are familiar with rolling your pelvis around the face of the imaginary clock, and after you know where your areas of difficulty or tension are.
Pretend that you are going to split a piece of wood with an axe. You are breathing freely and your arms are relaxed, both hands holding the axe, your legs hip width apart. The round of wood is standing directly in front of you. As your hands come up, your knees bend and your pelvis moves forward. When the axe reaches the height of the swing, you then reverse the motion and your pelvis begins to go back as you lower your arms. Do this movement several times until you clearly see the wood in front of you and know that you could cleave it. Now, bring your attention to the instant the hands change direction. It is at this point that your lower abdomen is full and rounded, tonically contracted, and your pelvis is aligned to give you power and support without tension. Do this movement several times, stopping with arms overhead and observing the sensation in your lower abdomen. When you are familiar with that sensation, slowly lower your arms, maintaining this way of being supported by your pelvis. With your legs bent this position is much like sitting on a horse, tummy out.
Now, stand facing a sturdy chair or bench, put your hand on the back of it or on the wall and your opposite foot on the chair seat. Put one foot on the chair and slowly stand on the chair. How much effort does this require? What happens with your breathing? Try stepping up on the chair in different ways. Draw your abdomen in, put one foot on the chair and slowly stand on the chair. Try stepping onto the chair while looking up, and then while looking down. Each time notice how easy or hard it is. Notice what happens to your breathing and if there is tension in different parts of your body.
Try stepping onto the chair again, this time putting your lower abdomen in the state that you discovered when you used the axe. Is it easier to stand on the chair when you use your round full abdomen? Does your breathing remain relaxed? Is there less effort involved? Explore stepping up in a way that your breathing is relaxed and the move seems effortless. As long as the ankle, knee, and hip joints are free to act as hinges, your pelvis can provide support to allow your whole body to move forward and up, with no strain on your back or neck and no change in your breathing. This is the position of “Tummy Out!”
This was published in Horses Inc. magazine in 2006.