Rider Anatomy Lessons: Muscle Form and Function

Riding is a full body workout. Whatever discipline you compete in, the muscles required to ride and ride well are largely the same. When a trainer tells you to use your seat bone, lengthen your leg, or sit up straight, do you understand how your body responds? What muscles you’re using and how that impacts your riding? A licensed physical therapist can teach you more about your individual biomechanics and how they’re impacting your riding performance. 

Create Core Stability: Abdominal Muscles

How many times has your trainer told you to “engage your core?” The abdominals are crucial for excellent equitation in the saddle. Strong abdominals create a straight back, balanced seat, and better control in the saddle. 

Weak core muscles create several problems when riding. A floppy posture due to weak abdominals interferes with the communication between you and your horse. Poor abdominal strength can also lead to an unbalanced rider. In turn, creating a sliding saddle, asymmetrical muscling in your horse, and poor competitive performance. A licensed hysical therapist can help you strengthen this large muscle group. 

The abdominals include the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transversus abdominis. The rectus abdominis creates the “six pack” that many fitness buffs strive for. These muscles make up two different groups split down the middle by a line of connective tissue, known as the linea alba. When riding, the parallel muscles are responsible for flexing the lumbar spine, as one might do to cue your horse to back up. They also help to regulate your breathing– a truly crucial element of controlling your horse’s rhythm. 

The obliques run up and down the sides of your core. These muscles extend from the ribs down to the pelvis and run on either side of your body. Any injury or strain to these muscles can create a ripple effect, to the point where even walking becomes difficult. In the saddle, the obliques are used to rotate the trunk and activate during lateral movements in particular. Each oblique allows you to bend your core from side to side in order to create the motion for your horse to follow. 

The transverse abdominis wraps around your entire abdomen, like a corset or brace. As the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, they play an important role in protecting your internal organs and lumbar spine. This muscle helps you remain upright and prevents slouching in the saddle. If weak, you’ll notice that your spine has an increased curve and your pelvis will start to tilt forward. This incorrect posture can be seen in the jumping position of newer riders who appear “duck-like” over fences. 

Find Balance: Hip and Gluteal Muscles

A soft and independent seat is essential for equestrians who want to have a competitive career in the show ring. The hip adductors and abductors are just two of the muscles that surround the hip joint and can hinder or help to create an independent seat. Most equestrians have extremely developed hip adductors, but weak abductors. 

Adductors are found in the inner thigh and help to hold you to the saddle, allowing you to absorb the concussion from your horse’s movements and stay with the motion of the gait. Abductors position your leg properly in any discipline. It’s important to work on strengthening your abductors. An imbalance between these two muscle groups can greatly impact your ability to drape your leg over your horse’s side. 

The gluteal maximus and gluteal medius control the rotation of your hips from front to back and in and out. Without strong gluteal muscles, equestrians would struggle to balance in the saddle. 

Perfect Your Posture: Psoas, Quadratus Lumborum, and Erector Spinae

The Erector Spinae group of muscles surround your spine and provide support and stability to your spinal column. This muscle group extends all the way from the base of your skull to the pelvis. Strengthening these muscles can prevent back pain and injury. The Erector Spinae allows for extension of the spine, as well as lateral flexion with unilateral contraction. It’s important to have spinal support while riding in order to maintain an erect posture and strong core. 

The Quadratus Lumborum connects the lower rib, spinal vertebrae, and top of the pelvis. Working with the Gluteal Medius and the Tensor fascia lata, the Quadratus Lumborum provides stability to the frontal plane of the pelvis. When riding, equestrians rely on this muscle to control their lumbar posture. A tight and overly active Quadratus Lumborum can lead to lower back pain and stiffness. A licensed physical therapist can help you discern if Quadratus Lumborum tightness is causing your lower back pain in the saddle. It’s important to stretch your lower back often in order to maintain flexibility in the muscle. 

Last but not least, the Psoas connect the spinal vertebrae and the lesser pelvis. These crucial muscles activate anytime coordination between the lumbar spine and lower limbs is needed. So, anytime you perform activities like walking, dancing, running, etc. When riding, the Psoas help to absorb shock by allowing the spine and hips to flex. The shock absorption and flexibility of the Psoas allows you to sink deep into the saddle and move with your horse, instead of bouncing around on top.  

Discover the Truth About Your Biomechanics

It’s important for all equestrians to understand how our individual anatomy can impact our riding performance. For example, if you’ve been struggling with the leg yield, it may be an issue with asymmetry in your obliques, causing you to rotate the trunk instead of using your seat bones. 

A licensed physical therapist can help you learn more about how your body is impacting your riding career. Exercises prescribed by a licensed physical therapist or Doctor of Physical Therapy strengthens anatomical weaknesses and prevents injuries before they occur. 

Schedule your consultation with Physio Equine Solutions today to learn more about the muscles you use while riding and how they could be impacting your performance.