I feel like hip flexors are often demonized as a rider’s worst enemy. There are so many articles/blogs/social media posts that blame tight hip flexors as the reason riders have hip restrictions which lead to stiffness and tension on a horse.
I’d like to dive into this topic more and take a 360 degree look at the issue.
HIP FLEXOR ANATOMY
The hip flexors are made up of two muscles: Psoas and Ileacus. We often refer to them as the “iliopsoas” because they are very intimately connected and have similar actions.
The psoas runs from the lower thoracic vertebral bodies to the top of the femur.
The iliacus runs from inside the pelvic bowl to the top of the femur.
HIP FLEXOR ACTION
The action of the hip flexors varies based on how the body is stabilized.
- When you stabilize your spine and activate your hip flexor, the iliopsoas flexes the hip by lifting up the femur.
- When you stabilize your femur (thigh) and activate your hip flexor, the iliopsoas extends the lumbar spine. When the lumbar spine extends, this indirectly flexes the hip by creating an anterior tilt of the pelvis.
HOW RIDERS USE HIP FLEXORS WHEN IN THE SADDLE
The iliopsoas, like most muscles, has two roles.
When contracted isometrically, It can act as a stabilizer. When riders engage core muscles and pelvic stabilizing muscles alongside the hip flexors, then the iliopsoas contraction neither moves the femur nor the lumbar spine. Rather it provides a nice brace through the hip which is needed to resist some big forces riders can encounter. For example, when a rider asks a horse to leg yield right, the left hip flexor isometrically contracts to stabilize the rider in the saddle. The isometric contraction means the body activates the iliopsoas muscle fibers enough to keep the femur or lumbar spine from moving when the rider starts to use their right leg to cue the horse to move laterally.
When contracted concentrically (shortening contraction) or eccentrically (lengthening contraction) it is involved in giving the horse an aid. To stick with the same example as above, when the rider asks their horse to leg yield right, the right hip flexor will contract, along with some other muscle groups, to give the aid to the horse to move laterally. The contraction of the hip flexor could be a shortening or lengthening contraction, depending on where the rider’s femur is starting from. If the rider needs to move their femur slightly forward and press against the horse, this is a shortening contraction. If the rider wishes to move their leg back to give the aid, the iliopsoas has a lengthening contraction to allow the hip to open with control. Muscle activation patterns can vary depending on the rider’s starting position.
The example I gave is a good example of how the body often uses the same muscle to do different jobs. One side often acts as a stabilizer while the other side acts as a mover. We can refine our riding skills by thinking of right and left sided muscle groups separately. The question isn’t “what action does the hip flexor have in leg yield?” Rather the question is “what action does the right hip flexor have in leg yield? What action does the left have in leg yield?”
WHEN ARE HIP FLEXORS PROBLEMATIC?
Like all muscles, hip flexors become problematic when they are too tight or too loose.
If a hip flexor gets tight, or shortened, it will pull a rider’s back into lumbar extension, causing anterior pelvic tilt. This can create significant postural problems and back pain.
If the iliopsoas is too weak, the rider will feel unbalanced and weak in their aids. The rider could also have back or hip pain issues due to lack of stability.
It’s also important that riders can differentiate the right and left hip flexors. Can you stabilize on one side while contracting the other side? It’s very difficult to give effective aids if you can’t separate the right and left sides of your body.
HIP FLEXOR EXERCISES
In this post I talked about the three components in a fitness program. Here are three exercises in those categories.
Hip Flexor Stretch (performed correctly)!
The classic runner’s stretch is effective when paired with a small amount of posterior pelvic tilt and glute activation. When you get into half kneeling, before you move your hips forward, think about tucking your tailbone and squeezing your buttocks together. Hold that tuck and squeeze, then move your hips forward. Hold for 15-20 seconds, relax and repeat several times. The “tuck and squeeze” stabilizes the hips and spine so the iliopsoas gets stretched instead of just moving your spine forward.
Hip Extension with hips, knees at 90 degrees
Lie on your back with your hips and knees at 90 degrees with a band around your feet. Work on pressing one foot away while keeping the other leg still. This is a good exercise to work on having one hip flexor lengthen while the other one is shortened.
Hip Flexor Activation in Supine with Band
Lie on your back with a band around your feet. Keep one foot on the ground and pull the other foot up, like you are marching. This will strengthen your hip flexor.
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