A correctly placed and aligned knee prevents knee injury, whether we are on or off our horse. While in the saddle, a correctly placed knee can be used for subtle aids. However, very few people actually spend any time thinking about the positioning of their knees ,until they start to experience knee pain. But what is the correct positioning for riders? Should we be turning our knees in or should we be turning our knees out) And does it matter?
Our knees are designed to act like a hinge, they are not designed to rotate. The knee likes to move in a bending and straightening way (flexion and extension). It doesn’t like to be kinked, twisted, or rotated. So if you turn your foot into a forward facing or parallel position by rotating at your knee, your knee joint will be compromised and over the years, this pressure will cause the medial collateral ligament to tighten and the lateral ligament to weaken and stretch or even rupture, which puts wear and tear on the joint, and causes arthritis. Basically to turn our feet into parallel or forward facing position we need to internally rotate our thigh bone at the hip, or more specifically use our hip flexors and gluteal muscles (the muscles in our bottom) to correctly align our knee and foot.
So, on that note, let’s look at some of the common problems I see with knees when I give lessons, as well as some of the reasons why one might get pain in the knees, either during, or after the ride.
1. Incorrect leg position.
When you ride your ankle should be beneath your hip, as in the old adage “ear, shoulder, hip, heel” alignment. Your thigh bone should be rotated in from the hip joint, which allows the flat of your thigh to be in close contact with the saddle, your knee to touch, but not grip the saddle, and your lower leg to hang down the side of the horse, so that the inside of the lower leg can be applied, as and when needed, with an inward (not backward) nudge. To achieve this, your pelvis needs to be in neutral alignment.
Too short a stirrup is a major contributor to knee pain. In addition, stirrups that are too short push your bottom towards the back of the saddle, causing posterior rotation to the pelvis (chair seat), which blocks your hips and forces your lower leg forwards. Stirrups that are too long tend to cause lower back pain rather than knee pain, as they create an anterior tilt to the pelvis (overarched back). However, riding with your stirrups too long tends to encourage the heels to be held too far back, which can cause the knee to creep upwards.
2. Gripping with the knees
Gripping with the knees is very common with riders who are insecure in the saddle, particularly beginners and those who have a weak core. If you grip with your knees to stay on your horse, you will not only have sore knees but will block the movement of your horse, cause stiffness in both your knee and hip joints, as well as push your seat out of the saddle. Gripping with the knees can also make the knees creep upwards. The classical masters all write about how the thigh needs to be turned to lie flat on the saddle, to allow the knee to find the correct position, neither gripping or flapping. Getting the thigh to lie flat takes some effort initially, but can be achieved by by pulling the large inner thigh muscle outwards and backwards with your hand, rotating the leg slightly inward at the hip, so that the muscles lies behind the thigh rather between the bone and the saddle. However to maintain this position easily you may well need to work on opening your hips and strengthening your hip flexors, your core and stretching your psoas. The position of the thigh directly influences the position of the knee and when the thigh and knee are in the correct position, gripping doesn’t happen.
3. Knees turned out
There is a huge difference between taking your knees away from the saddle and turning your knees out. Taking your knees away from the saddle momentarily by lifting your thighs out from the hip is a great exercise. It enables you to check that you aren’t gripping with the legs and whether your pelvis is in neutral,not to mention helping to free the hips. Turning your knees away from the saddle is completely different; it immediately blocks the hip and tenses the gluteal muscles , the biceps femoris (the big muscle at the back of your thigh) and gastrocnmius (big calf muscle). All this results in an insecure seat and encourages excessive and very often involuntary movement of the lower leg. The remedy is the same as mentioned above. Grab hold of your thigh and pull the big muscles backwards and outwards so that the flat of your thigh can rest against the saddle. If your thigh is right, your knee is also right.
4. Rotating at the knee
We have probably all been told at some time or another that our feet should be more or less parallel to the horse’s sides, but we haven’t necessarily been told how to achieve this. If the big muscle at the back of your thigh is between your femur (thigh bone) and the saddle, your knees will naturally be facing outwards. To counter this, it is common for riders to rotate their lower leg and foot forward by twisting or rotating at their knee. Apart from the fact that this pretty much guarantees that you will suffer from knee pain when you ride, and long term damage to the knee in later life, the incorrect placement of the thigh blocks your hips and prevents you from being able to follow the movement of the horse.
5. Knees creeping up
Another common problem for riders are knees that creep up. Normally our knees start to creep when we start to grip with them. This often occurs due to insecurity in the saddle, this can be as simple as a weak core but If your stirrups are too long and you have to reach for them, you will probably tense your legs when your horse starts moving or goes up a gait. As the thighs start to tighten, the knees rise and the hips lock. Another reason why the knees creep up can be a tightness in the psoas muscle. Apart from strengthening our core and stretching our psoas off horse, with Pilates exercises, one can also think about trying to capture the feel of kneeling when you ride to encourage your hips to open, and your knee to stay down and still.
6. Feet too far in the stirrup
According to the International Society of Rider Biomechanics your stirrups should be positioned beneath the balls of your foot. This is great advice, as the positioning gives your foot support yet still allows the ankle to be supple, and soft, which keeps the knee soft and supple. More experienced riders may have just their toes resting in the stirrup, which also allows the ankle to be soft and supple. The Spanish Riding School traditionally taught that there should be so little weight in the stirrups that it should look like a puff of wind could blow them away. The one thing in common with both of these practices, is that the positioning allows the ankle to flex with the horse’s movement, which in turn allows the knee to flex. If you jam your feet into the stirrups, so that the bar of the stirrup is under your arch, rather than under the ball of your foot, your ankles can no longer flex when the horse moves, which puts an enormous concussive pressure on your knees and blocks your hips. However, the problem is often not the rider jamming their foot into the stirrup, but the foot sliding too far into the stirrup. This tends to happen when the lower leg is too far back, either because the stirrups are too long or the hamstrings are too tight. Regular Pilates can help your hamstrings, whilst shortening your stirrups slightly, will take care of the former.
7. Blocked ankles
If the ankles are blocked, then the knees are blocked, which in turn means the hips are blocked and the horse is restricted. Blocked (or braced) ankles invariably come about by the rider trying to force their heels down. Our ankles should always be soft and supple, so that they are able to flex with the movement of the horse. However so many of us have been taught that our heels should be the lowest point, that it is very common to see a rider forcing their lower leg forward, and thrusting their heel down. And whilst this might make a good defensive riding position it blocks the ankle, which as mentioned above, blocks the knee and the hip.
As already mentioned, it is is relatively easy to place your knee in the correct position by adjusting the rotation of your thigh. However it is much harder to maintain this position easily, without working on the necessary muscles. Attending a regular Pilates class can make a phenomenal difference to your riding.