The role of the psoas in riding

You have two of them, and you use them every day. Yet, do you know where the psoas muscles are located? And why can knowing more about these muscles with a funny name help you become a better rider? There are (at least) two reasons that the psoas are important for riders: 1. they help one follow the movement of the horse and to give weight, seat and leg aids, and 2. they contract when one feels stressed, and riders need to be able to relax them consciously to not communicate tension to the horse.

Where are the psoas?

The psoas muscles connect the spine and upper leg, via the hip. They are attached to the front of several vertebrae in the lower back (lumbar spine), then wind their way to the front of the pelvis, there joined by the iliac muscles, which originate on the insides of the pelvic bowl, ending at the upper inside of the thigh bone (the lesser trochanter of the femur).

Diagram from the DailyBandha

The effect of the psoas on the rider’s seat:

The psoas muscles need to primarily lengthen when riding with a longer leg during dressage, and need to rapidly and responsively shorten and lengthen when closing and opening the angle of the hip while jumping.

Dressage riders need to subtly control the movement of the leg, even as it hangs long.

The yellow line indicates the shoulder-hip-ankle alignment. The blue line indicates a relaxed and long psoas that is not pulling on the spine or thigh bone. Note that this sensitive mare’s back is raised, neck is long and head is low, accepting contact happily.

If the psoas is tight, the moment the rider drops the leg, the shortened psoas will pull the lower back forward into a “lordosis,” or overarching of the lower back, leading to compression of the vertebrae and, over time, damage to the intervertebral discs.

Here a tight psoas (blue arrow) is pulling the lower back forward and down. With the back braced in this way, the rider has no choice but to push the chest out and to grip with the buttock muscles and lower leg (red arrow), which is too far back, to counterbalance the rest of the body.

More commonly, tight psoas muscles will pull the legs forward and up, leading to a chair seat, which unbalances both rider and horse.

Chair seat – a very common misalignment. The tight psoas (blue arrow) pulls up on the thigh bone, which pulls the lower leg forward (red arrow); the rider tries to balance this by leaning back. Note that the mare does not like this misaligned pressure on the long back muscles that line either side of the spine – her head is up and back is tense.

A jumper rider’s psoas muscles need to be very responsive to the changing position of a balanced rider as s/he follows the movement of the horse over a jump, shortening, lengthening, then shortening again very quickly – see photos below, and take particular note of the opening and closing of the rider’s hip angle as she follows the movement of the jumping horse. The psoas muscles can become very tight, since they are contracted most of the time in a two-point seat, and this tightness not only limits the rider’s ability to follow the movement of the horse, but often also contributes to a sore and strained lower back.

Psoas muscles are medium contracted (blue line)
Psoas at their greatest contraction (blue line)
Psoas lengthen (blue line) as angle of rider’s hip accommodates movement of the mare’s body as she is preparing to land.
Psoas at their longest (blue line) as the rider is almost standing vertically while balancing over the mare’s center of gravity as she lands.

The role of the psoas as “emotional muscles:”

The psoas muscles are engaged when one is running or kicking, bringing the knees up in both actions, and are activated during the flight or fight response. Because of their role in avoiding or counteracting danger, the psoas are “emotional muscles,” meaning that they involuntarily contract when we feel under stress. Most of the contemporary stress we face is not life threatening, yet our bodies evolved to help us either get away or fight off a threat, and these same bodies haven’t quite caught up to the world of mental stress in which we find ourselves now; thus, our psoas muscles tend to continually be tensed. There is always the possibility of falling off when one is riding, and if one is at all nervous, the psoas will involuntarily tighten, causing the rider to curl into a fetal position. A sensitive horse feels this muscle movement and fearful energy, and, taking his cue from the rider, will become anxious, leading to a downward spiral that might end in a bucking horse and a panicked rider that is now sure to be ejected from the saddle.

The rider’s psoas tightens (blue arrow) in response to fear, and pulls the body towards a fetal position (red arrows), usually accompanied by the rider holding onto the horse’s mouth to try and stay on board (we will not go so far as to demonstrate the bucking horse scenario…).

The tyranny of the modern lifestyle on the psoas:

Unfortunately, most of us, even those of us that are quite active, sit in chairs and cars for hours every day. Coupled with daily stress (see above), this position causes the psoas to shorten, eventually leading to chronically short, tight and unresponsive muscles. What makes matters more challenging is that the right and left psoas muscles are likely to be different in their level of tightness, leading to different level of pulling on the power spine, and possible hip misalignment. For example, most cars now have an automatic transmission, meaning that we only use our right leg to step on the break and gas – the psoas is one of the main muscles that lifts the leg up off the pedals; think about how often we repeat that action in a day – week – month…. Furthermore, how many riders mount their horses only from the left side?  The effect on the horse aside (although, it is an important one), how does that affect musculature and coordination?

Part two of this series provides asanas (poses) for stretching and toning the psoas muscles.

 

Author: Sylvia Vitazkova, PhD, CYT

Dr. Sylvia K. Vitazkova is a certified yoga teacher, life coach, horsewoman, and conservation biologist. Sylvia’s formal study of yoga began while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and intensified when she began to practice Ashtanga Yoga in 1997 while attending Columbia University for doctoral studies in biology. Sylvia soon realized that she wanted to help others experience the consciousness and transformation that her own practice fostered in her and began to teach in 1998, subsequently studying in Mysore, India, in 2002. Sylvia continues to evolve her practice by learning from senior teachers, the most influential of whom has been Barbara Benagh. Her teaching focus is on correct alignment, the joy of being fully present in one’s body, and the psychological and spiritual context within which the physical practice is embedded. Parallel to being a yoga teacher, Sylvia had a full-time career as a professor of Conservation Biology, having taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including a course she created on nature and spirituality, which brought her two areas of expertise together. She has conducted and published the results of her research on wildlife in the tropics, and has been involved in the creation of a number of conservation studies programs. Sylvia’s experience in mentoring students naturally led her to life coaching, in which she became certified through George Mason University in 2014. A lifelong connection with horses has been woven throughout these experiences, from her first pony while a child in Africa, to teaching at riding camp in the U.S., then Claremont Riding Academy in NYC, to the current and ongoing exploration of how yoga can be a tool for better and more connected riding. Sylvia now leads InBodied Living LLC, a wellbeing organization and consultancy, with her partner, James Houston.