No one sits on a horse in perfect symmetry. Everyone favours one side over the other to varying degrees, ranging from nearly imperceptible in those who are exceptional, to very obvious in those who aren’t. So everyone sits with one hip lower, further forward or drops one hip more on one side than the other to some degree or the other.
The pelvis is the foundation for our position on a horse. Both seat bones should rest firmly in the saddle so that the coccyx (tail bone) points to the centre line of the saddle. As Alois Podhajsky wrote in his book ‘The Complete Training of Horse and Rider’ “both hips, which decide the position of the upper part of the body, must be vertical to the saddle and the triangle of the seat”.
Any asymmetry is of major importance, after all as Bent Branderup says “the only aid you can’t take away is the seat.” Basically, every part of the human body is influenced, directly or indirectly, by the pelvis. So if the rider sits with one side of their pelvis more forward than the other, or with one side lower than the other, or drops one side in comparison to the other, the compensatory effects of that asymmetry will ripple outwards and have a negative effect on every action the rider performs!
So identifying and correcting any pelvic tilt could not only radically improve your riding it could very well end any lower back pain, hip and knee problems you may experience as well! The first step therefore 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.
- Tend to stand with more weight on one 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, lets look a little deeper into the problem area.
The pelvis is made up of two large bones, the right and left ilium. These two bones are connected in the front by a small joint called the symphysis pubis. At the back, between each ilium is your sacrum. On the right and left side the sacrum joins the corresponding ilium by a large joint called your sacroiliac joint. At the very end of the sacrum is the coccyx, also known as your tailbone. On the outer side of each ilium is a socket that the ball of your femur (thigh bone) head fits into. This ball and socket joint constitutes your hip although we often, mistakenly, refer to the top of our pelvis as our hips.
Ideally, the pelvis should be balanced with no abnormal forward, backward or side tilting. If a horizontal line is drawn at the top of the pelvis it should be parallel with the floor. If it isn’t. a pelvic tilt exists with one side being lower than the other. Both hip bones should also be level on a side to side axis too, i.e. one hip bone should not be forward of the other.
In rare cases a person may need medical attention to address an uneven pelvis but if the cause for the asymmetry is underdeveloped or contracted muscles it is something you can work on yourself with a regular exercise programme.
When you start working on your imbalances, you need to realize that your body will not give up without a fight. It wants to do things in the comfortable and familiar ways. Feel is an unreliable guide. Our brains are wired through years of practice so that what we feel is “right” is what feels familiar, and we feel is”wrong” is when it feels unfamiliar. This makes it very difficult to make corrections to habits that have become ingrained and therefore feels “right”. Subconsciously, despite our best intentions, our brains tell us that the correction is wrong and so our bodies slide back into familiar bad habits. Furthermore, we often expect to make these changes permanent by practising on our horse for just 1 hour a day (or a week) while reinforcing the “bad” habit for the remaining 23 hours each day, (or 167 hours per week!). To make any change “stick” we need to accept feeling “uncomfortable” and we need to practice this new feeling as often as possible. Prepare to be patient and consistent and don’t give up.
So now let’s look at some exercises that can do to help us even up our hips by working on the mobility and range of motion in the hip joint.
- All around stretch
Make sure the surface of your floor is not slippery. Stand in front of the mirror, feet parallel to each other, legs straight. Now spread your legs but only to the feeling of a very comfortable stretch in your hip joints. Mildly engage all muscles in your legs to feel really sturdy. Keep your pelvis in a neutral position. Breathe evenly and hold this stretch for 30 seconds. Now start pushing your left hip forward and your right hip back. Do this slowly. Watch yourself in the mirror. Keep your hips level and legs straight and toned. You will not be able to push a lot, so do not try to go beyond the mild stretch feeling. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Do the same in the opposite direction. Observe in which direction you have more range of motion. Repeat with a ratio of 2:1 for the stiffer side. For someone who knows Pilates, lunge poses are good exercises to stretch the hip joints.
- Hip Extensors Stretches
Hamstrings stretch (a) – You can use any table or other piece of furniture sturdy enough to put your leg on. Do not use anything too tall, otherwise you will not be able to keep your leg straight. Stand in front of it, put your leg on the top and keep it straight. Keep your standing leg taut and fold forward from the hips. Keep your back straight. When you feel a mild stretch hold it for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other leg. Repeat with a ratio of 2:1 for the stiffer side.
Hamstrings stretch (b) – Sit on the floor with your back and legs straight, legs together. If your hamstrings are short you will not be able to keep your back straight. In this case, choose another, more comfortable, stretch for the time being. Engage the front of your thighs to keep your knees straight and fold forward from the hips. Do not try to reach your toes with your hands, really concentrate on folding from the hips. Hold for 30 seconds, while breathing into your stomach. Notice that with each exhale you can go down a little bit more.
Buttocks stretch – Lay on your back, bring your knees toward your chest and pull them down with your hands as much as you can. Keep your pelvis on the floor, otherwise it will move up with the legs and cause you to lose the stretch.
- Hip Flexors Stretches
Bridge – Lay on your back with your feet a hips width apart. Bend your knees and engage your core. Tilt your pelvis upwards so the back of your lower spine touches the ground. Raise your hips in the air by squeezing your buttocks and engaging back muscles. Lift as far as comfortable but no higher than forming a straight line from your chest to your knees. Squeeze as much as you can with your buttocks and try and stretch your thighs forward over your knees. Ensure your knees do not drop outwards. Hold this position as long as you can, building up to 30 seconds.
Cobra – Lay on your stomach, legs slightly apart, hands by your shoulders. Engage all of your leg muscles, especially buttocks. Pull your belly button towards your spine and push your pubic bone into the mat to keep your back long. Inhale and slowly raise your head and shoulders using your back muscles at first, then arms. Do not hang your upper body between your arms. Instead, engage the muscles around your shoulders to keep the shoulders down and the body up and tall. Hold for several breaths. Slowly lower yourself down controlling the movement with your back muscles.
Keep the abdominals and the buttocks engaged all the time. Otherwise, your lower back will arch more than it should and may sustain injury.
- Adductor (inner thigh muscles) Stretches
Adductor stretch (a) – Sit on the floor with your back straight. Bend your knees, open them and let your feet meet sole to sole. Put your elbows on your thighs (not knees!) and push down. At the same time, try to engage your buttocks as much as possible to aid with the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds.
Adductor stretch (b) – Sit on the floor with your back straight. Put your legs apart and keep them straight. This exercise can be challenging for someone with short hamstrings (back of your thigh). In this case, use the previous exercises until you lengthen your hamstrings. Keeping your back straight, fold forward from the hips. Watch out for the possibility of bending in the middle of your back. If you do you will lose the purpose of the exercise. When you start feeling a mild stretch hold it for 30 seconds.
- Hip Rotator Stretches
Twist – Sit with your back and legs straight. Bend your right leg and place your right foot just above the knee on the outside of the left leg. Rotate to the right, placing your left arm against your right thigh to gently push your knee to the left. You will immediately feel the stretch in your hip. Hold for 30 seconds, repeat on the other side. Repeat with a ratio of 2:1 for the stiffer side.
Medial Rotators stretch – Sit on the hard chair – back straight, feet on the ground, legs bent 90 degrees at the knees. Put your right ankle on your left thigh, just above your left knee. Start leaning slowly forward from the hips, keeping your back straight. When you feel a moderate stretch, hold it for 30 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat with a ratio of 2:1 for the stiffer side.
- Hip Extensors (buttocks)
Lay on your stomach, arms by your sides and legs slightly apart. Lift your right leg by squeezing your right buttock. You will be able to lift it only a little bit, but this is sufficient. If you try to lift higher you will start lifting your pelvis off the floor and engaging the back muscles. Hold your leg up in the air for a moment and bring it back slowly. Alternate right and left legs. Repeat 10 times on each leg and do 2-3 series resting in between.
Lift both legs and keep them lifted as long as you can, building up to 30 seconds. Breathe evenly. Lower your legs and relax. Repeat a few times. This exercise is a pure buttocks workout.
Ideally stretches should be held in a tolerable discomfort position for 30 seconds or more. This allows the muscles to slowly elongate through a reflex reaction called inhibition. It is also important to remember that in addition to stretching the muscles you also have to strengthen them.
Regular Pilates is a great way to mobilise the hips and improve body awareness.