What is the proprioceptive system?
The Proprioceptive System (PS) is the components of tendons, joints and muscles providing subconscious awareness of the bodies position and alignment, like the bodies central GPS.
The PS, combined with the vestibular system and the fluid inner ear, help to keep the body oriented and balanced. The PS is also often referred to as the sixth sense, developed by the nervous system to keep track of and control the different parts of the body. When the PS is acting normally, the brain is aware of where the body parts are; for example, moving a finger away from the body, the brain can feel where the finger is going without using visual information and looking at the finger.
There are receptors all over the body sending information back to the brain, however, there are three areas of greater impotence due to a higher concentration of sensors and distinctive nerve circuits; these are (1) the foot (2) the spine generally (3) the upper cervical vertebra. A body’s performance can be related to the speed in which the body can recover balance, and the speed in which it reacts to change. One of the modern ways of improving an athlete’s performance is to introduce “foot levelers”, custom made spinal pelvic stabilizer orthotics to help improve balance and proprioceptive symmetry.
The brain is very quick to adapt, and it allows us to align our body by retraining the brain. This can cause us a problem as it may cause temporary misalignment to become the norm. Temporary misalignment can be caused by injury, physical compensation or bad sloppy form. Over time the brain starts to accept that this is the normal way of being. The good news is that the system can be re-tuned, but before we can start to re-tune the PS we have to find the inaccuracies.
Why is this important I hear you ask?
Proprioceptive training helps our brain to demand alignment rather than accept an uneven uncooperative body. As our horses pick up on our imbalance, this effects our bio mechanic effectiveness of delivering aids, and causes breakdown in communication between horse and rider. Over time the horse will start to compensate for our imbalance, and their brain in turn will start to accept the crooked way of going as the norm.
All coaches/instructors have experienced the moment when you video your client, and they are horrified to see themselves leaning back, or tipping forward; they always say, “My, it doesn’t feel like I tip forward.” Using mirrors and video to record rides is a great training tool, but it may mean that the P.S. of your client could do with a tune up.
Where can I get my proprioceptive system tested?
They are available at some advanced athletic training facilities or physical therapist offices, but unfortunately, not all professionals are aware of our sport and the demands on our bodies. But don’t despair, with aid of a biomechanics coach or a friend you can do this in the comfort of your own home!
- Closed eyes throughout assessment are important; riding we use our eyes to encourage movement in the horse, we can’t be checking what our feet are up to.
Wear fitted clothing so it is easy to see the body form.
If you find something not quite right, repeat it, without trying to correct the movement, this will help decide whether it is a true imbalance/misalignment, or just a mistake.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms by your side. Note the position of the joints; shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips knees and ankles. How level are the ears? The coach can take pictures or a video for reference. Note any discrepancies.
- You will need two weight scales for this. Calibrate the two scales, put one foot on each scale hip width apart. Ideally you should have the same weight on both sides.
- Same stance, but this time, arms stretched out to the side. Bring arms together in front, index fingers touching. Did they touch? Note any discrepancies.
Bending elbows, touch the same side ear.
Elbow flexed, touch the same side hip.
Place the sole of the foot on the front of the opposite knee.
Note any discrepancies, how the body moves, video from various angles.
4)Testing postural balance: Stand an arm’s length away from a wall, arms out to the side. (Still eyes closed)
Stand on one leg for 30 secs, then change legs. Try it with your arms by your side.
Which leg is stronger?
Now try it on your toes if you dare!!! Still too easy? What about your heels? You do have to stabilize yourself with a solid object.
5) You will need a 10 -20 pound weight (adjust the amount for the person’s size and strength). Average ladies need 10lb for this, men 20lbs. Hold in two hands. Stand on one leg. Center the weight over the supporting leg and then flex the knee so the seat goes towards the ground slowly; straighten up onto the toes. Repeat on the other leg. Note the difference in range of motion, strength and flexibility.
6) Flexibility-work each limb independently, stretching your neck, arms, back (upper and lower), waist, hips, legs, calves and achilles tendons. You have to do this one at a time because sometimes one limbs flexibility often compensates for another limbs stiffness.
Now that you are aware of the challenges you face when riding, you can give yourself a break, don’t be so hard on yourself! The good news is there are many easy ways to help retrain your proprioceptive system; they can be done every day at home in your daily routine…what a relief, no gym!