By Lisa Burch, Physical Therapist, Doctor of Physical Therapy
This article was an honorable mention in the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award in first person experience for GMOs with 175-499 members. It first appeared in Tracking UP, South Carolina Dressage & Combined Training Association, July/August 2020.
Click here to read part one.
What is Muscle Recruitment?
Muscle activation is the ability to have a muscle “turned on”. This refers to a full muscle contraction that activates immediately. Muscles that are not activated present as weak and slow to contract. Surgery and pain inhibit muscle activation. One of the physical therapist’s primary jobs is to get patients to achieve a full muscle contraction quickly and effectively. Once the muscle is “woken up”, i.e., contracting the way it should, then the progression goes to strength and functional activity.
Poor muscle activation also happens from day to day uneven movement patterns. Riders are right or left hand/ leg dominant; they lead and tack the horse from the left, and often hold the pick the same way and throw manure the same direction while mucking stalls. This sets up natural asymmetry, meaning some muscles are stronger and work more effectively than others. Activating the most important riding muscles and those that are often inhibited can assist the rider in managing unexpected horse movement, and it facilitates the ability to communicate quick and effective aids to the horse.
Muscle reactivity/activation is different from muscle building (i.e., strength development). Activation is the idea of turning on or waking up a muscle before it’s asked to perform in the actual exercise.
In this article, I will review one of the most common rider issues that equestrian physical therapists encounter. There are a few simple yet strategic things that can be done to improve muscle recruitment and muscle control to make the rider more effective in the saddle.
These suggestions are not for individuals with a significant injury or major orthopedic intervention such as spinal surgery or joint replacement. For those individuals, please seek advice from your MD and/or physical therapist prior to attempting the exercise shown here.
Most common problem for riders: Hip Stability Andy Thomas is the lead Physiotherapist (Physical therapist) for the US Equestrian Olympic team. He has evaluated over 15,000 riders of all levels. His most common finding is weakness in hip stabilizers on one side, often accompanied by tightness in the opposite hip.
My personal experience working with riders confirms these same findings.
This issue often appears in riding as difficulty with lateral work, such as a pirouette to one side versus the other. It may show up in a jump off as difficulty getting a tight turn to one direction versus the other.
It is not uncommon for upper body postural issues such as a fixed arm or rounded shoulders to stem from lack of stability in the pelvis below. “Core Strength” is terminology that is frequently used to refer to abdominal strength that is clearly needed for effective riding. Often “core” brings thoughts of crunches and the perfect six pack muscles on the mannequin at the sports store. The “core” is much more than just the rectus abdominis (the “six pack” musculature). Adominal, back, pelvic floor, and hip muscles are all involved in producing the stable core and balanced position every rider desires. The gluteus medius, part of the Gluteal complex, has a big role in this stability.
The Gluteal complex provides a great deal of our lateral hip/pelvic stability. Gluteus Maxim us, Gluteus Medi us, and Gluteus Minimus are the specific muscles that form the gluteal complex. Most people are familiar with Glute Max as the power muscle with the primary function to extend the hip (move it backwards). The Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus move the leg to the side, away from the body and, importantly for the current discussion, stabilize the lateral hip. This stabilization translates to the ability to keep the hips level when standing on one foot. Another function is to keep the pelvis stable on one side while applying a leg aid on the other side.
Importance of the Gluteus Medius
The gluteus medius (glute med) is a large, fan-shaped muscle on the outside of the pelvis. The glute med is significantly larger than the gluteus minimis and is highly important for the purpose of stabilization in the saddle.
If an imbalance in the gluteus medius exists, the rider will often exhibit one or more of the following problems:
• more weight on one seat bone
• a tight grippy leg on one side
• a loose ineffective leg on one side
• a collapse on one side
• one arm that is relatively “fixed”
Equestrian physical therapists frequently see a tight hip (often the piriformis, a muscle that helps to turn your leg outward) on the opposite side of the inactive or weaker glute med. This tightening may be due to overwork compensating for the weaker side. The tightness may start to improve on its own if function of the inactive or weaker glute med improves.
“Activating” the glute med muscle prior to riding can make the rider more effective in the saddle and provide a better ability to recruit other core muscles. Remember: activating a muscle means to prepare it to contract more quickly and effectively.
A muscle that has been activated can then function better for the task at hand, which may be riding, or responding better to a strength training program. Developing true strength gains takes time, but improved muscle function through activation can happen quickly with simple exercises. If muscles function better on the horse and in the gym, then strength and endurance gains develop more readily over time.
I have often seen a softer, rounder horse that tracks up better and more evenly after a rider has done some simple muscle activation techniques, especially with the glute med.
Tip for success
Try this simple activation exercise a few minutes before mounting the horse. The picture demonstrates using a light resistance band around the wrists. This adds an element of postural feedback and light upper back muscle recruitment to put the shoulders back and down.
- Stand sideways to the wall with your weight on the leg furthest from the wall. This is your stance leg, and is the side where the gluteus medius will have higher level of muscle activation.
- Push into the wall with your bent knee. Do not let your hip or shoulder touch the wall.
- As you push into the wall, perform a slight squat with the stance leg, while gently squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hands should separate, putting mild pressure against the band.
- Make sure you do not arch your lumbar spine. A yoga block against the wall can help you to stabilize the bent leg and foster your push into the wall comfortably.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds then return to stand. Repeat 5 times for 2 sets on each side.
Putting the concept into action
Above are pictures taken during an onsite rider assessment. These “before” and “after” pictures were taken about 30 minutes apart. The subject was a very capable combined training rider who exhibited a common shift to the left and a loose right leg, as shown in the first photo.
The intervention included a gluteus medius activation and some brief hip mobility off the horse. These off-horse activations were followed by a few minutes riding in the saddle with a band (not shown) to further assist muscle activation.
The second photo shows a notable improvement with minimal intervention. The rider was given the Gluteus Medius wall exercise for her pre-ride routine.
In this article, the discussion centered on the need for muscular balance and activity to be more effective in the saddle, and to manage all the physical tasks associated with horse case and being an equestrian.
The Gluteus Medius is frequently inactive or weak on one side, resulting in some typical effects that show up in rider position and performance. Of course, there can be any number of unique variations per individual. The glute med activation for improved posture can be a helpful tool in the pursuit of the rider’s goals. In addition to improved position in the saddle, this may help with safety or “stickability” in the saddle, while also making the horse feel a little more comfortable.
Equine asymmetries and movement patterns were not discussed in this article. If riders maximize their own muscle function and balance, this should improve their ability to address the horses’ asymmetries.
In the next article, we will discuss rider mobility for improved posture, simple postural training on and off the horse, and suggestions for a quick rider warm-up prior to mounting.
What is a Physical Therapy Rider Assessment?
For an equestrian physical therapist, it can be very helpful to see the rider on the horse. This is an assessment that is outside the traditional role of the PT in the clinic. Individuals recovering from an injury or those with a pain issue should still be treated in a traditional physical therapy format in a clinic.
For healthy individuals who are looking to improve their performance, the onsite rider assessment is a helpful option. This is a service that Lisa Burch offers through her own company Equestrian Performance Physio. For riders located outside the Aiken area, Lisa offers clinics where multiple riders may individually go through the assessment.
The process takes about an hour per rider. Trainer involvement is encouraged but not mandatory.
- The rider warms up on her horse, then performs a few circles and centerlines in all three gaits and both directions.
- Then the rider gets on the therapy table for a brief assessment and specific muscle activation.
- The PT’s findings will indicate when to perform muscle release(s), taping or other techniques.
- The rider re-mounts and performs the original movement patterns with newly activated or released muscles. Improvement is often noted immediately.
Other tools, such as a band on the weak side or at the wrist, can further assist muscle activation. Band-type aides are only used for a few minutes as they are meant only to kick-start muscle function.
The rider receives a few simple exercises to continue following the session. These exercises are designed for warm-up prior to riding and to recruit specific muscle groups based on the findings of the assessment.