Why am I compensating?

Compensatory movement is extremely common in all age groups. It’s often a consequence of pain, injury, or beliefs or suppressed emotions. In order to rewrite the patterns our body has established in movement and riding, we first need to build an awareness of why we’ve patterned our movement and reactions in that specific way.


Even compensations and imbalances have a time and place- just like crutches have a place after breaking a leg. Though often when compensations begin to cause issues like pain, performance barriers and tension they’ve reached the end of their purpose.


Our body’s job is to keep us functioning and stable (aka safe) in an upright position: this means resisting gravity is a daily exercise. How we do that is dependent on our ingrained movement patterns. When this process is threatened, compensations arise to create a sense of safety.


Development of compensations or imbalances can stem from various roots: Traumatic, Developmental, and Emotional. Often these three categories intermingle. Remember, someone’s movement pattern is deeply related to their life stories. Our nervous system builds patterns around familiarity and expectation, so how we’ve learned to react and respond to our environments early in life sets the stage for how we respond as we go through life.

Trauma: Whether it be physical or emotional trauma, it can change how we move both short and long term. When we have a trauma our nervous system learns to protect the area impacted and reroute our behaviors to keep us “safe” in the aftermath. What this looks like in each individual will be based on their unique histories and upbringings. We usually learn how to react to traumas based on familial and cultural “norms”, and many people have long repressed traumas in their bodies that can impact how they move for the long term.


Developmental: How we’ve learned, from an early age, to manage gravitational forces and react to our physical world. Similar to our reactions to trauma or stress, how we move is heavily influenced by those we spent the most time with as we were developing our movement capabilities. Very few orthopedic conditions are truly “genetic”, rather they are inherited patterns based on what we observed and mirrored as developing humans in our early years.

Emotional: Because our nervous system controls and reacts to both our physical and emotional states, how we feel will subtly influence our physical posture and movement. This is relatively easy for us to intuitively observe, as over 80% of our communication as humans is non-verbal. Often how our emotions influence our body language, postures, and movements is subconscious and not something we actively control or are even aware of- however learning to read body language is an important skill for riders and those who work with riders (and horses) to develop as it is a quick way to understand why a certain movement pattern happens.


The way we move is usually based off well established patterns. With our nervous system being our main control centre for movement, we have to recognize that our nervous system operates off ensuring our survival. Our conscious selves are only the tip of the iceberg, with 80-90% of how we operate being unconscious patterning. Analyzing movement is limited unless we factor in this concept. How a rider rides is a story of their entire life history. It can tell you about their emotional patterning, past injuries and traumas, and their perception of life itself.


When we approach compensations from a place of understanding the value they've held at some point in relation to our survival, they begin to make a lot of sense. From this awareness the solution begins to become clear. What's a more efficient way to ensure security and survival, and therefore enhance performance, decrease pain/tension and improve confidence? Within awareness lies the beginnings of our solution!


What is a compensation you're aware of currently? Where do you think it may have stemmed from?