Question:Recently I began to ride again, and at age 45 I'm experiencing aches and pains. Particularly, my hips are very stiff. Are there any exercises/stretches that would help stretch or loosen the hip joints and inner thigh muscles?
Answer: You have asked a great question, and I wish there were a simple answer to give you. Riders need to consider themselves as athletes. Riding places great demands on the hip joints, and limitations will significantly impair your ability to sit or post well.
If you were in my office or riding arena, the real question to ask would be, "Why are your hips this stiff?" A loss of mobility can come from many anatomical causes, including ligament, muscle and joint changes as they protect other local structures, such as connective tissue, nerves, vasculature and viscera. Problems also come from the way your brain communicates with your hips. Getting to the right "why" makes a corrective effort much more focused.
Don't start therapeutic exercises if you've had surgery, a fall from your horse or another accident. These incidents require specific evaluation and therapy to correct, and you should see your doctor and/or physical therapist, who'll evaluate your situation and plan an exercise program specifically for your needs. You may have to do this anyway if simple stretches and exercises don't produce the results that you want.
More and more riders are working with physical therapists to improve their body's performance. One of the most common issues is an acquired muscle imbalance. You mention that your inner thigh muscles are tight. One of the real truisms of the muscular body is that for every short, tight muscle, its opposing muscle group is going to be long and weak. For the inner thigh muscles--the adductors--the opposing group is the abductors, which start from the outer aspect of your pelvis and attach onto the top of the thigh.
The well-known leg lift, done while lying on your side, is the easiest starting exercise and one that is great for all riders. Lie on the floor on your right side. Use a pillow or your arm to comfortably support your head. Place your other hand on your pelvis by your waist. This hand will be monitoring that your leg is moving and not your waist--a common form problem. Slightly bend the leg that's next to the floor to increase stability. The leg that you'll be lifting should be straight and facing forward. Don't let your toes turn toward the ceiling. I like to flex my ankle to work my "toes up" riding muscles at the same time, but it isn't necessary for your hip. Now, slowly raise your leg, hold it in the air for a moment and slowly lower it back down. Repeat until you feel a warmth or early fatigue in those muscles. Repeat the exercise on your other side. When doing 30 repetitions isn't fatiguing, continue your strengthening by strapping a small, two-pound weight around your ankle.
A fun variation of the leg-lift exercise is one I call the "gunfighter." Take a stretchy polo wrap or length of exercise tubing and tie it into a loop. Place the loop around your ankles and stand up. Move your feet apart until you have a good stretch on the loop. Now walk, keeping your feet apart even while in the air. By using those abductor muscles to push on the loop while walking, you exercise both sides at the same time and provide serious comic relief to any one watching. To really work the muscles that keep your legs correctly aligned while riding, try walking with your toes and knees turned inward or "pigeon-toed."
Now that you've warmed up and activated the opposing muscle group, some easy stretches will be more effective. The hip is a complex joint with many ways to stretch, so I strongly suggest you read Stretching by Bob Anderson--an inexpensive bible of stretching. It comes in a spiral-bound version, has excellent illustrations and has several easy-to-follow routines. Give yourself six to eight weeks of exercises five days a week to see results. It took a while to develop this limitation and it will take time to reverse the pattern. If the exercise route doesn't work, there are other programs to explore, such as Feldenkrais exercises-low-impact, movement-awareness work-and manual physical therapy that includes hands-on techniques to release the cause of the muscle tightness and reduce pain while improving body symmetry.
Anne Howard, MPT, has a master's degree in biokinesiology and physical therapy. She has created a fitness/sports-training program for riders at her Valley Physical Therapy in Boulder Creek, Calif. She is a longtime dressage rider and has trained and shown through the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) levels.
Reprinted from the September 2000 issue of Dressage Today.