Tight hip flexors?
Many riders I work with come to me suffering from hip flexor tightness & pain. Your range of motion at the hip joint hugely affects your position & seat in the saddle as well as your horse's way of going. If your hip mobility is restricted then in turn your stability when riding will be affected as you suffer from this stiffness & tightness.
So first of all when we're talking about tight hip flexors exactly what part of your body or muscles are we referring to?
The hip joint is a ball & socket joint that allows us to move up & down the stairs, lift our leg such as to put our foot in the stirrup to get on. The hips major movement functions are;
Flexion-lifting your leg up; as in when you walk up the stairs or lift your leg to get on
Extension- taking your leg backward; as in moving your heel back to ask for a transition or kicking a ball
Adduction-moving your leg inwards towards your other leg
Abduction-taking your leg outwards away from you
Medial Rotation- turning the leg in from the hip
Lateral Rotation- turning the leg out from the hip
There are various different muscles that assist with all these movements at the hip. The quadriceps, which are the big muscles on the front of your thigh & run up into your hip, can often be shortened & tight in riders alongside your other hip flexor muscles. The main hip flexor muscles are the tensor fascia latae (TFL), the sartorius muscle which runs from the hip down the inside of the leg to below the knee, the iliopsoas muscles which is made up of the psoas minor & major attaching on the lumbar spine down to your hip, the iliacus muscle sitting just on the front of the pelvis & your rectus femoris which is one of your quadriceps/thigh muscles. So you can probably start to understand how hip mobility affects movement in other muscles & areas as the hip muscles attach the pelvis to the lower back, lower & upper body so there is a lot of movement going on! It's key to remember your pelvis is the powerhouse of your movement!
Often the muscles on the posterior of a rider's body are lengthened and weak in particular the glutes & hamstrings. The shorter & stronger muscles then have more control so in this case the hip flexor & leg muscles on the front will overwork which in time causes the hip angle to become more closed & the leg ends up drawing closer to the body causing more tightness!
The chair seat is often referred to in riders & this is when the rider is not sitting balanced over their seat bones; their seat is further back than it should be & the leg comes further forward than the ideal position. This happens because the pelvis is in a compromised position which then affects your seat & how you sit in the saddle!
One of the major causes of hip flexor tightness is our lifestyle. Many of us spend a lot of time sitting whether that be at a desk, in a car or lorry, or on a horse. Overtime spending too much time in this seated position further shortens the hip flexor & thigh muscles leading to them becoming tight. You might notice that one side of your lower body is more dominant or effective when giving aids than the other & this is down to the way you use your hips daily. Your lifestyle & daily movement habits overtime can cause imbalances in the hip & lower limbs which will lead to further movement restrictions & potentially soreness or injuries. If you spend a lot of time in heels or carrying a child or heavy items on one side this can also lead to hip imbalances.
Stretching pre-riding & at the end of the day in time can help to loosen this tightness & get your hips spending more time in a non-shortened position. If you spend alot of time in a static position such as in the car or sitting down then this will cause stiffness & tightness so the best thing is to try to move regularly to combat this as much as you can. Like any muscle in the body if the hip muscles don't get used regularly or as they are intended to be used they will become dormant & you might find they struggle to function as they should do or work properly.
How your saddle fits & your horse's shape are also important factors to consider when looking at a riders hip position & mobility as these can hugely impact your position. Making sure your saddle fits your horse & you properly is key else you will never be sitting balanced. If your horse is a wider width then you will sit differently to a narrower horse & your hips will be in a different position so it is important to remember how these factors may be affecting your hip tightness & position as well.
So the best way to combat & help lessen this issue would be to start working on your hip mobility & strength off the saddle. Your balance & strength completely changes the way your horse moves & his ability to move so you should ALWAYS consider how your restrictions are impacting his movement first.
First of all, you want to work on getting your hip muscles moving a bit more than they currently do & focusing on lengthening them as they are spending too much time in this seated, flexed position. To begin with, holding static stretches for 30-40 seconds such as the warrior pose will start to help to get the hip & thigh muscles to relax, release tension & improve the range of motion & flexibility at the hip. Start by doing these once a day for 2-3 times on each side & over time increase to doing them twice daily.
Then you can start to add in some dynamic movement taking the hip joint through its active range of movement. You must work with your mobility & range of movement- never force it!
Knee circles, dynamic lunges & lower back crossovers are all brilliant dynamic movements for your hip mobility. If you find that one side is particularly tighter or restricted in its movement then focus on doing a little more on this side & over time you should find the imbalance lessens.
Once you have been doing both static & dynamic mobility movements more regularly you should find your movement improves significantly & the tightness should start to release to some degree. Then you can start thinking of adding in some strengthening work such as clamshells or leg abductions. Banded resistance work is a good start point for your strength work, start with a lighter resistance band then overtime work to increase the resistance on the band so you are working harder & building your strength in the muscles & joints.
As you progress through your banded work you will find you need more challenge & this is where some more advanced strengthening exercises come in & you need to progress the challenge. The hip thrust is a fantastic exercise to help to strengthen & build those posterior muscles in particular the glutes & get your hips moving through full extension. Start with higher reps & lighter load then over time progress to higher loads & lower rep ranges.
Hip flexors are a very important muscle for riders & can affect your riding in many ways. Working on your own mobility & strength out of the saddle should most definitely be your primary focus but take your time & work with your range of movement to progressively improve over a period of time. Hopefully, this helps you to understand the reasons why you may be struggling with pain or tightness in your hips & how you can help to alleviate this!