- Grace Owsley
The Hips Don't Lie: Are Tight Hips getting in the way of your riding?
The hips are a very important part of riding horses, but tight hips can get in the way.
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The Little Changes
Several weekends ago, I rode two horses in a clinic with international rider, Tara Stegen. I typically don't clinic with anybody until I have audited them myself, but I heard so many good things about her from local friends and professionals that I suggested to my clients that we give it a go. It went very well, so I'm glad we took the chance.
I ended up riding "Toes," the Oldenburg mare you see me on a lot, and also "DJ," the Arabian pony gelding I also work with regularly. After a successful ride on Toes on the first day, I hopped on DJ for my next ride with Tara. Once we get into the trot work, she advised me to better allow my hip flexors to move and be soft. Basically she was telling me to not be so tight in my hips and allow myself to move and follow the horse better.
"She advised me to better allow my
hip flexors to move and be soft"
DJ is a pretty sensitive ride. He's the type of horse that moves forward easily and reacts to very small changes in the rider. I have realized that in my attempt to keep my seat light on this sensitive guy, I believe that I was trying to be a bit "too light." I was not allowing my seat to melt deeply enough into the saddle, and I was ever so slightly too tight in my hips. It may not have been obvious to probably 99.9% of onlookers, but here's what happened when I made this small change...
Once I allowed my hips to swing and follow even more (not just front to back but side to side from one seat bone to the other as well), I immediately felt these three things happen:
MY SEAT FELT MORE SECURE AND DEEP. It was better STABILIZED. My seat and hips felt more COMFORTABLE, just a fraction.
My ABS ENGAGED even more. I noticed an ACTIVATION in a particular area of my ABDOMINAL MUSCLES that I wasn't using as effectively until I made the change in my hips.
MOST IMPORTANTLY - I noticed an even better SWING IN DJ's MOVEMENT. There was a bit more FREEDOM and CADENCE to his steps.
"We need to have awareness of ourselves
and make changes in how we
ride to get the best outcome
from our horse."
A very minor change in how I used my hips made immediate changes to my position and DJ's way of going. This is why rider position and biomechanics are so important! We need have awareness of ourselves and make changes in how we ride to get the best outcome from our horse. See below for a related video clip from the clinic.
Video clip from the Tara Stegen clinic while riding DJ. I wish the perspective was closer. That's why I have the robot camera ordered and on the way!
STABILITY & MOBILITY - WHAT OUR "RIDING HIPS" ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING
Let's talk a little biomechanics right now. Your seat should swing with your horse's movement, working with the movement rather than against it. It should also be controlled so your seat doesn't move around too much. Ragdoll is not a good look. Neither is being rigid. Riding is a lot about having both STABILITY & MOBILITY.
"Riding is a lot about having both
STABILITY & MOBILITY."
For riding at all gaits, the place where your spine and pelvis meet at your lower back needs to be stabilized by your abdominal muscles. At the same time, the hip joints at the bottom of your pelvis act as shock absorbers that need to be supple and mobile enough to absorb the movement.
Let's discuss sitting trot with this in mind. The sitting trot movement of your seat takes place in the hip joints. It is a controlled opening and closing of the hips, following the movement of the horse instead of working against it (assuming you are not actively half halting at that moment - a discussion for another day). Your abdominals activate to keep your upper body stable, and your spine stays neutral, meaning you would avoid hollowing or caving in your back. You don't want to "force the bounce" by pushing with your back. Use your core to stabilize a neutral upper body position while allowing your hips to open and close, being loose WITH CONTROL.
The Hips Don't Lie - What happens when Our Hips Are Tight
Tight hips make it harder for the hip joints to open and close. That would not just make sitting the trot difficult, but nearly all aspects of riding. For example, think about what your hips do at the posting trot. How about sitting the canter? What about jumping in position? Imagine if your hips wouldn't open and close properly - would you be able to do those things? When it comes to riding horses, the hips are kind of a big deal.
Tight hips can make you unstable in the saddle. It can lead to imbalances, asymmetry, pain - such as in the lower back or the places where you might end up gripping onto the horse to stay on - and more issues. If your hips are tight, you also cannot follow your horse's movement properly. If you're too tight, you're not working with the horse, you're working against them. Tight hips can cause you to bounce in the saddle more, which is not only generally irritating to the horse, but can cause them pain as well.
Pic to the right of me on "Toes." Having a great time at the clinic!
"When it comes to riding horses,
the hips are kind of a big deal."
Tight hips and gripping legs/knees are commonly seen together. Gripping with your knees pops you out of the saddle, puts you out of balance, makes your legs less stable and less effective, and is quite exhausting and sometimes painful for the rider. For the horse, you are putting undue pressure in the wrong places, your aids will be confusing, and you will translate your tension from your body to theirs. You are also likely to put them more on the forehand and when your seat and legs are not stable, you're more likely to hang onto the reins, which opens the floodgate to all sorts of problems. Gripping or holding also interferes with the freedom of the horse and sometimes the regularity of their gaits! If your hips are tight, you also can't keep your seat deep and secure in the saddle. If your seat is moving around, you can't give clear, effective aids. You just can't.
It's difficult to explain and describe feel, but I know when I'm following the horse correctly, I can feel a clear difference in the freedom and expression of their gaits. There is more swing and balance. My body is working for it, but it's not overly exhausting and it's not painful. There is a feeling of unity with the horse that is hard to put in words.
Helping the Hips - Some Suggestions, Exercises and Stretches
I've been talking so much about the bad news about tight hips, but the good news is that you can improve the mobility of your hips and be even more effective in the saddle!
Personally I get pretty tight in the hips. I've been told I have a good seat, but I know if I let those hips get tight they get in the way of the best results. Hip flexors are a constant annoyance for me. They are the inner hip muscles that function to bring your legs and trunk together, and they are a common area where not only riders get tight, but the average person as well, especially those that sit for long periods. I don't sit very long during the day (my kids and crazy life keep me on my feet basically sunup to sundown), but I can tell the difference in my riding, exercising and other activities when my hips are tight vs not.
SOME THINGS TO TRY:
Before Mounting: Do some LEG SWINGS. One leg at a time, keep your upper body straight and allow one leg to swing forward up to a bent knee and backward behind you in a fluid motion several times without stopping in between swings. Do all this while holding onto something to keep you balanced and your upper body straight. Switch legs and do the same on the other side. (Scroll down a bit for a video clip)
On the Horse: Try putting a hand on your stomach during any gait. Notice whether you are keeping your stomach flat or caving in. This helps remind me to keep my upper body straight. Then try doing the same thing with one hand on your lower back. I do this with my hand facing outward. You can do these things while somebody lunges your horse, or while you SAFELY ride one-handed on your own.
Lunge Lessons: Even advanced professionals take a turn on the lunge line. This is a great way to check in with your riding position and improve. Make sure you have a horse and trainer suited for this.
Leg Swings as mentioned above.
A couple Exercise Ball Ideas:
If you have an exercise ball that is big enough, you can try these two suggestions:
Seated Circles: Sit on the exercise ball with a neutral spine. Engage your core and keep your upper body stable while you roll the ball in a circle using your hips. Don't go too quickly, take your time and get a full and complete circle. Do it the other direction as well. Try to do this exercise several times and evenly on both sides and feel where you get especially tight.
Bouncing from one seat bone to the other: Just as above, keep a neutral spine, stable upper body and engaged core. Bounce your seat from one seat bone to the other using your hips, without dropping either of your shoulders or leaning from side to side. Don't shove with your lower back, just let it gently happen from one bounce to the other.
Three Stretches To Try:
There are a lot of hip stretches out there, but here are three favorites for you to try, especially if your hip flexors bother you like they bother me:
Low Lunge - This is like a regular lunge, but you place your two hands on the ground to the inside of your leg. For example, if you had your left leg forward, both arms would be out to the right with your hands on the ground instead of on either side of your leg. To make the stretch deeper, you can come down to your elbows, but this may be too difficult at first. I love this stretch because it stretches out my problem hip flexors and I also feel it in my inner thighs a bit. This one is also a good transition from downward dog if you like yoga.
External Rotation from Low Lunge - Turn the low lunge into an external rotation by keeping the same positioning, but then push outward against your leg with either your elbow or your hand. If your left leg was forward for example, you would push your leg out left with your left elbow or hand so your knee goes outward. This gives me a deep stretch in the hip flexor and the inner thigh.
Pigeon Pose/Stretch - If you do yoga you might know this one well. It's also commonly done incorrectly. I start on my hands and knees, then I bring one leg in front of me but behind my arms so it makes a sort of 45 degree angle from my knee with my foot closer to my other hip (highly suggest you youtube this one from a reputable source). The way you do it is to rotate your hip like the external rotation described above, but your leg is on the ground and rotated just in front of you. Your other leg is straight and goes back behind you. You can keep your hands on the ground holding your upper torso stable while you keep your hips straight and sink them deep down to the floor, or you can sink down to your elbows or allow your upper body to lay flat. Either way you do it, don't just stack your body on top, make sure your hips are rotated. I feel this very deep in my hip flexors and outer thighs.
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Me on DJ riding with Tara Stegen at the clinic.
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