Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Riders, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today. Equifitt.com offers personalized coaching through clinics and convenient online coaching available anywhere. Clinics available include fitness, yoga and fitness, and sport-psychology and fitness. You can get a free subscription to monthly rider fit tips, or download the ebooks at Equifitt.com.
In last month's piece we discussed the importance of flexibility. If I could pick the No. 1 tight area most riders want to address, it would be the hips. Lack of flexibility and stability in the hips is especially common in riders over 30, because hip mobility often diminishes with age. Whereas someone in the general population might not be inconvenienced by their gradually diminishing hip mobility, a rider is. Unlike other sports, your primary contact with "ground" as a rider is your seat and thighs. In other sports, it is your feet, and all motion is relative to the body's ability to transfer force from the ground, through the body. In riding, you are balancing on your seat, using your thighs for further balance and to communicate aids, and your feet must remain "soft" to allow for the stirrup irons to rise up and down with the horse's stride.
When you are running or playing other sports, your source of power comes from the equal and opposite reaction of force created when your feet strike off or push into the ground. In riding, you are not trying to push down onto your horse to gain momentum either from your seat or your stirrups. Even in motions which may appear to a non-rider to be related to foot-force, such as rising trot or lifting out of the saddle over a fence, your weight is actually distributed along the length of your thigh, and you are engaged in using the horse's forward momentum, not just pushing up from the stirrups. In fact, pushing on the stirrups will drive him onto the forehand, which is rarely desirable in any discipline, but especially not in dressage.
I would be so interested to know if someone placed little scales in stirrups, what percentage of your body-weight is actually in the stirrup at each movement. No research data currently exists. (If you want to do this research with me, let me know!) However, we know from saddle fitting technologies such as impression saddle-pads that your body-weight is not entirely in the stirrup, because saddle fitting measures pressure of your seat and thigh.
Sitting in the saddle, your seat bones need to be able to move in all four planes so that you can follow your horse's motion: up and down, side to side, forward and back, and even cross-wise somewhat as in lateral movements. There is an excellent YouTube video that illustrates your seat bone movement nicely.
We not only need to be able to "ride" the horse's movement, but also able to 'read' it and direct it with the seat. When your hips are stiff, you are compromised in all three of those activities.
Riders have a tendency to orient their response to the motion of the front legs (as in knowing which diagonal to be on in rising trot). Feedback about the phases of movement of the horse's hind legs comes up through his back to your seat bones. Even if you are slightly out of the saddle because you are hacking in two point or doing other exercises than flatwork, you still need to feel his back indirectly to your seat-bones, through your thighs.
If you have stiff hips, you are less able to feel the movement, and the timing of your aids may be off as a result. When we give mal-timed aids to the horse, we can create confusion, tension or just an awkward production of a movement that could be smoother. We impede impulsion and responsiveness because we are blocking the way he needs to move to place his next step.
In addition to passively resisting your horse's movement, tight hips will also cause your seat and legs to signal things to your horse, which you may not realize are being communicated. It's important to appreciate that in your physical 'language' with your horse, your seat and thighs are much louder to him than your hands and lower legs.
For example, I have seen many riders kicking their horse with their heel because he seems lazy, when in fact their knees are pinching in on him for balance and effectively telling him to slow down at the same time. I have also seen a rider applying spur or stick to their horse who is drifting in or out, when in fact their seat pressure was unevenly pitched in the direction of the drift, and their seat was telling the horse to move in that direction. Frequently when a horse will not pick up a canter lead, I have noticed that the rider does not have the same mobility on that side of their hip, as on the side where the horse picks up the lead easily. I am not talking about abusive situations--just situations where a rider was sending conflicting signals without being aware.