Of all the equestrian disciplines, dressage is the most elegant marriage of horse and rider. Well, it is if the rider has a good seat and appears at one with his horse.
How do the top riders sit so gracefully and easily in the saddle?
Up until recently, the answer was innate talent or long hours of practice, but if this were so, then many of us would have achieved a deep and fluent seat by now. Long hours of practice with tight muscles will only achieve a tight seat, which in turn tightens the horses’ back and prevents him working through.
Whilst researching for another article I came across an essay by Tom Nagel describing an observation he had made whilst teaching his wife. Whilst she sat well on her horse, he felt there was something not quite right. He asked her to push her lower spine into the back of her breeches, the result was that her pelvis came up towards her chest and she immediately felt softer in the saddle. Tom researched his patients and found that those who could flatten their spine against the table without tightening their abdominals were in fact, engaging the psoas muscle. No, do not stop reading, this will not get technical I promise!
Like all of you, I have trained with many people over the years, searching for that elusive magical trick that would make me sit like a professional. Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi, I have done them all! Yes, they do help, but I still didn’t feel as one with my horse.
Shoulders back, heels down, hands still, hands down, hands higher, head up, diaphragm up, use your tummy muscles, push your hips forward, the list is endless and the answer unavailable.
How do riders sit in such good balance? Why do their thigh muscles look so loose and roll with the horse? Why do they get those little creases just at the top of their breeches?
These are the questions I asked whilst studying some our best riders.
Now the reason they could not tell me, is not because they kept it to themselves, but because of their natural ability, they really didn’t know what they were
actually doing. I hope to be able to disclose this secret by the end of this article.
To all the therapists reading this I am intentionally going to keep this very simple. Many articles on biomechanics are too technical, and many readers turn over the page.
The psoas muscle, (pronounced soas),is a little spoken about muscle, which is attached to the ilium (part of your pelvis) via the iliacus muscle, and attaches to the lower thoracic spine and the lumbers (lower back). This muscle is one of a group, which flex the hip joint. However, on its’ own, the psoas stabilises the lower back. Are you still with me?
This muscle keeps your lower back supple and still, whilst allowing your hips and pelvis to follow the horses movement.
Through injury, poor posture, stress or sitting for long periods muscles can become tight. This has a knock on effect on neighbouring structures, namely the pelvis and the spine, which can lead to back pain, muscular stiffness, sciatica and an unbalanced seat.
How many crooked riders are there? Haven’t we all experienced the dropped shoulder and collapsed hip? The psoas can twist the spine right or left, it can pull the pelvis forward, shorten, and pull the spine to your stronger side. When the psoas pulls in a downward direction, it can cause compression of the joints of the vertebrae and pressure on the discs. When the pelvis is pulled forward, the diaphragm becomes squashed and breathing correctly is difficult. If you cannot breathe, you cannot perform.
When this muscle is tight it will not allow your hips to open and be soft, instead it makes the seat ‘close’ and pinch up which means you cannot sit deep.
In contrast, when the psoas is in the neutral position your seat can open, widen and lower. The pelvis can tilt upwards and open the diaphragm. This has a knock on effect on the hips and thighs as the rotation of the hip then allows the thighs to be soft and roll. When we see elegant, smooth and graceful riders, we are looking at the psoas working at its optimum. The abdominals muscles need to stay soft for this to work, as there is no tension in a good seat. If you keep your position in the saddle by balance and self-carriage, allowing your body to follow the motion of the horse, you will have an independent seat.
So how do we take the tension out of this muscle?
Those with longstanding problems should seek treatment from a therapist that works on manipulation of bone and muscle. Nevertheless, there are exercises that we can do on a daily basis that allows the psoas to soften and come into the neutral position.
To find the tighter side, all you have to do is raise your hands in a straight line above your head and place them together palm to palm. Now, feel which hand has the lower fingers? This is the side of the tighter psoas muscle.
The psoas muscle can be located by drawing an invisible diagonal line from your belly button to your hipbone, midway between these two points is a trigger point for the psoas. Some therapists advocate the tennis ball exercise, but as with all exercises, you should consult your therapist before undertaking new ones. Lie on your front and place a tennis ball at this site, then raise up the upper body for more pressure. Yes, it will be uncomfortable until there is release, but this does work.
Try the starter exercise below; 30 seconds each side, repeat and build up to 5 stretches per side. These should be done before riding. (If you have any injuries or back problems please seek professional advice before undertaking any exercises).
The back is rounded and the chest drops down on the inside of the bent knee. The stretch will be felt through the buttock of the bent leg.
Once you have discovered how to release this muscle, you will find that your seat is softer and that because your lower back is stabilised you can sit without tension. Your horse will suddenly feel more free and forward, taking you rather than you trying to put him in front of the leg all the time. Be warned, once your horse finds this freedom it is a whole new ball game and this is when the half halts from the seat come into action. These half halts should not be done through tightening the seat or back as this will impede the horse once again. Try breathing in to half halt whilst sitting taller, and exhaling deeply to release and go forwards.
I believe that this muscle is a major contributor to the secret of a good seat, however it still requires practice and there will be good days and bad days. Remember to visualise and focus on the psoas muscle and breathe deeply, this in its self will help you to let go and follow your horses’ movement. Although discovering the release of this muscle has been an enlightenment for me, it must not be forgotten that riding is holistic and the body as a whole must be taken into account. There are many muscles involved in our discipline, and any tightness or injury should be addressed to get the best out of you riding.
Will this knowledge make you an international rider, probably not, but it will make you a better rider with an understanding of the bigger picture. This, used with your other exercises and trainer will help towards the path of enlightenment.
For more information on exercises go to youtube.com and psoas muscle.
Anatomy & Human Movement Palastanga, Field & Soames
Zen and the horse.
Psoas muscle, the cause of low back pain.
Gloria is a list 2A judge and has trained her horse to advanced. She is available for private tuition and test riding clinics. All levels welcome.