Our hips have a huge influence on our ability to ride well and the way our horse goes. Tight hips are a major cause of all sorts of problems, such as; bouncing in the saddle at a sitting trot, not being able to follow the movement of the horse, restricting the movement of the horse, excessive movement of our lower leg, as well as head nod (in the human). Problems in the hips aren’t just related to tightness either. Our hips can be tight and weak at the same time as well as unbalanced on the side to side or back to front planes. If our pelvis isn’t level and one hip is higher than the other, then our horse will fill the gap and lift his hip on that side, so that the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of our pelvis is inadvertently further forward than the other, then our horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position most of the time. If we consistently have too much weight in one seat bone, then our horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as fall in or out on a circle in that direction. If our pelvis is always tipped forward then our horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back, whilst if our pelvis is always tilted backwards so that we sit in a chair seat, then our horse’s back will sag and his hind legs will trail out behind. Conversely we can use our hips to create the correct bend in our horse, lengthen the stride, half halt and ask for lateral movements.
As riders we need our hips to be able to move from a neutral position, with our seat bones pointing down, to the desired position we require to give our horse an aid, and then back to neutral again. Therefore to become good riders we need to not only to have an awareness of what our pelvis is doing, i.e. whether our hips are level or unbalanced, we also need to have mobile hips, so we can adjust our pelvis to do what we want it to do, when we want to do it. Tight hips can lead to all sorts of problems in our own body too. They are a major cause of common issues such as lower back pain, hip pain, not to mention, knee, shoulder and neck problems. Therefore correcting our hips is not just about our riding, it is about our own health too. So identifying and correcting any pelvic tilt could not only radically improve your riding, it could very well end any lower back, hip and knee pain you may experience as well!
The first step is to diagnose if you have uneven hips? The chances are that your hips are uneven if you:
Carry one shoulder higher than the other.
Carry one shoulder more forward than the other.
You tend to stand with more weight on leg.
One side of your torso appears longer than the other.
One leg appears longer than the other.
Your horse drifts to the outside on a circle on one rein.
Your horse drifts to the inside on a circle on one rein.
You struggle to ride a straight centre line without using your reins to correct.
Your horse turns more easily one way
You struggle for canter leads on one rein.
It is common to develop muscle imbalances around the hip. Sitting for long periods of time, driving, sleeping on our side, slouching to one side and standing with more weight on one leg than the other can all exacerbate uneven hips. Hip exercises can be used to address the problem but before we look into what we can do let’s look a little deeper into the problem area.
There are several muscles around our hip area that need to be strengthened and/or stretched to allow our hips to move correctly, but probably the most important of these muscles is the iliopsoas, which comprises of the iliacus and the psoas, which lie deep in the back of the abdomen. Other important hip flexor muscles include the periformis, the tensor fasciae latae (TFL), the rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscles) as well as the gluteus maximus (which is on the back of your hip or buttocks) and the gluteus medius, which is the primary muscle on the side of your hip.
Beneficial exercises include Warrior One, the Bridge, and the Boat.
Stand with your feet a hip’s width apart. Exhale as you step your feet wide, about 4 to 5 feet.
Turn your right foot out 90 degrees, so your toes are pointing to the top of your exercise mat.
Pivot your left foot inwards at a 45-degree angle.
Align your front heel with the arch of your back foot. Bring your left hip bone towards the front of your ma, to align your hips as much as you can.
Press your weight through your left heel. Then, exhale as you bend your right knee over your right ankle. Your shin should be perpendicular to the floor
Reach up with your arms. Broaden across your belly, lengthen the sides of your waist, and lift through your chest.
You can keep your arms parallel, or press your palms together.
Gently tilt your head back and gaze up at your thumbs. Keep your shoulders dropped away from your ears. Feel your shoulder blades pressing firmly inward.
Press down through the outer edge of your back foot, keeping your back leg straight.
Hold for up to one minute.
To release the pose, press your weight through your back heel and straighten your front leg. Lower your arms. Turn to the left, reversing the position of your feet, and repeat for the same length of time on the opposite side.
Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor – toes pointing forwards, a hips width apart. Your knees should be pointing straight upwards. Ensure that your feet, knees and hips are aligned.
Check that your head isn’t tilted and that shoulders are level.
Place your arms by your side, palms downwards. Feel your spine on the ground. Your spine should be in neutral with the natural arch in place. Breathe slowly and fluidly.
On an inhalation, engage your psoas, tuck your pelvis forward so that the small of your back touches the ground and start to lift your spine, one vertebra at a time, off the floor. Leave your shoulders grounded and keep your pelvis tucked forward, as you press your belly upwards. Hold and feel the stretch for a count of 20.
On your next out breath – reverse the movement, one vertebra at a time. Keep your pelvis tilted and your psoas and abdominals engaged. When the small of your back touches the ground relax your pelvis into the starting position. Relax for one breath cycle and on the next inhalation, repeat.
Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat, toes pointing forward, about a hips width apart. Ensure knees are aligned with hips.
Grasp the back of your thighs, just below the knee, or the front of your calves just below the knee. Breathe into your centre. Extend upwards through your spine.
Gently rock backwards onto your seat bones. Engage your psoas and lift your feet off the ground.
Keep your shoulders relaxed. And slowly raise your legs until your lower legs are horizontal to the ground.
Stretch your arms forward, palms facing inwards. Hold for a count of 20.
Return your lower legs to the floor.
Regular Pilates classes can really help improve the mobility of your hips.