I believe the hips are the most important area of the body for riders to work on. A level pelvis that moves with your horse is the basis for a symmetrical riding position and a deep seat. Your hip muscles act on your pelvis and can either help or hinder this process. Asymmetry in the pelvis can make you crooked anywhere from your hands to your feet. I often see riders struggling to correct these secondary problems when the root causes are in the hips. Correcting your hips first can save you from creating excessive tension anywhere in your body.
Asymmetry through the hips is both extremely common, and often pain-free. We rarely feel tension or imbalance in these big muscles, leading riders to be crooked, yet comfortable. This often one of the root causes to soreness elsewhere, like the knees or lower back.
How can you identify that your hip muscles might be causing difficulties with your riding? Here are some common indicators:
- Saddle shifts more to one side than the other
- More difficulty with movements/skills on one rein than the other
- Challenge to maintain balance without stirrups
- Struggle to establish a deep seat
- Consistently crooked posture somewhere in your body
Keep in mind that a crooked horse can cause a crooked rider, and vice versa. To properly rebalance an equestrian team, thought should be given to both the rider and the horse.
The Piriformis Stretch
The piriformis muscle is one of the deep muscles of the hip, and one of the most commonly tight muscles in the body. Stretching it is a great step towards correcting the above issues.
The simplest and safest way to stretch the piriformis muscle begins with lying on your back. Place your foot on your opposite knee, then draw both legs up towards your chest as shown in Photo 1. You should feel a stretching sensation in your bottom, on the side with the foot up.
Although lying down is the best position for this stretch, it may not be practical at the barn. Photo 2 shows the same stretch using a mounting block to help bring your leg up towards your chest. Be careful to avoid rounding your lower back when you do this – you want to stretch your hip, not your lower back. Mounting blocks are often good for this stretch, but any stable surface at about waist height will work.
It can be tricky to find the best angle for this exercise. After adopting the position as pictured, try changing the pressure on your knee, or shifting your legs slightly from side to side until you feel a good stretch.
How Much to Do
Try stretching each side for 30 to 60 seconds – slightly less if you’re about to ride. It is so common for the piriformis to be tight that I encourage every rider to integrate this stretch into their routine. Try this several times each day when rebalancing your hips, then maintain your progress by repeating it a few times per week.
When to Get Help
Issues with hips are subtle and common. Every rider would benefit from personalized stretching and strengthening routines. Physiotherapy can be a great tool for identifying root causes of problems, providing hands-on treatment for these issues and teaching safe and effective exercises to correct them. This is particularly important if you are experiencing pain. You may also be able to find suitable equestrian-related programs in other disciplines, like Kinesiology, yoga, or Pilates.