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