Lower Leg Stability Part 2.

Last week we talked about how leg and glute strength were integral in lower leg stability, hopefully you have been doing the little circuit so your legs are feeling the burn now.

 

Today we are going to look at another area that may affect your lower leg position, and that is the stability of your pelvis. You see we focus a lot on having a mobile pelvis as riders but in fact it also needs to be stable. Part of this is what would be considered core stability but there are also many other muscles of the hips that help to keep it stable that your generic core stability would not hit. It usually focuses on just the middle.

 

So what has your pelvis got to do with your lower leg? Well it's obviously attached! Think about it your leg comes directly out of your hip socket so it makes sense that it's direct attachment to the body must be stable. Imagine a table leg that has not been securely fastened to the table-the leg will not be very stable and in fact the whole table won't be.

 

So, in order to stabilise your lower leg you have to start further up the chain at the pelvis. You will find this is true of most things in terms of the human body, a stable pelvis and shoulder joint will fix a lot of problems. But I won’t go into that whole can of worms right now it’s just important to bear it in mind.

 

Anyway, how can we stabilise our pelvis? Well there are actually quite a lot of muscles involved in hip stability but other than the Glutes that we have already covered last week the abductors  are probably the most important to consider.  The abductors are responsible for taking your leg away from your body (the exact position you are in on a horse) so they need to be strong to deal with this properly. It is interesting that many riders may experience pain in this area that can be wrongly mis-diagnosed as being due to a tightness when in fact it could be a weakness-again a blog for another day.

Today we are going to strengthen our abductors specifically.

Officially the abductors are the Glute Max (that’s your big bum muscle) Glute Medius and Minimus and Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL).

 

The Clam is a great exercise and can be done as a beginner and advanced exercise.

 

Clam and advanced clam

Crab Walks

1 Leg Squat and Side Leg Raise

 

So I know this feels like I haven't addressed your lower leg at all but I need you to trust me that if you build solid foundations in this case your pelvis the attached limbs will be much easier to control, so if you are struggling with your lower leg please give this a go and put the work in doing these exercises 4-5 times per week and I promise you will see results, and not just in your lower leg so this is definitely more bang for your buck work.

 

 

Lower Leg Stability Part 1.

I often get asked what we can do about flappy, unstable lower legs.

I often probably give what sounds like a dismissive response of let’ sort out the hips and core and see where are at then. I know that is frustrating for riders as we want a fix to our exact problem now!

So, I will try to explain why I say this now.

In terms of riding position and aids to the horse the lower leg does not need to be in contact with the horse unless directly giving an aid. If your lower leg is constantly on your horse’s side he will quickly become dull to it and no longer respond without a more forceful action.

The problem most riders tell me they have is that they niggle their horse with their lower leg, even when they try really hard not to they find it difficult to keep it still. Unfortunately this also means they then feel like they have to keep niggling as the horse isn’t listening.

Whether we believe it is the case or not the majority of the time this niggling comes down stability. The stability of your lower leg comes down to the stability of your hips and torso too, as they are the foundational unit from which they operate.

I am a follower of Mary Wanless and her Rider Biomechanics, as I believe her system has the potential to teach every rider to ride to the best of their ability. Mary teaches the rider to hinge from the knee as they ride-in this respect the lower leg almost becomes irrelevant unless giving a specific upwards transition and/or lateral aid. Far too often when trying to stabilise our lower leg we push down into the stirrup; which causes our seat to pop up. If we can focus on lengthening the front of our thighs and into our knee this will create a more stable base without losing our seat.

The magic of this is, that if you use all of those big muscles above the knee –quads, hamstrings, glutes and core muscles to stabilise you, your lower leg will automatically become stable as a result. The energy/go signal your horse receives comes from your hips and seat bones. I advise you to go and check out Mary’s books if you want more on how this works.

I find this most easy to see in rising trot when you essentially pivot over the knee to rise up using the power from your glutes and hips.

For me other than hips that are so tight they have broken my physios acupuncture needle (true story) this was a fairly easy adaption to my riding. Apparently when trying to encourage others to do the same not everyone has quite the same thigh strength!

So, rather than focus purely on the core stability element of this (check out earlier blogs and my youtube channel if you want some core exercises) let’s start with the basic matter of thigh and glute strength. Unfortunately as many of us have sedentary jobs our thighs and bums kind of go to sleep and as we may have been riding for many years bad habits and compensations creep in. This means we don’t quite have the thighs of steel and bums we can bounce a ball at we deserve from our hours spend in the saddle.

 

Try this little circuit 3-4 times per week and see your thighs and bum become a power station.

Set a timer for 3 x 1 min rounds perhaps with 10 secs rest between to give you chance to move between exercises. Repeat the circuit 3-4 times –literally only 12 mins of exercise you can do that can’t you!

Bridge half thrust-1 min.

Side Lunge to Balance-1min

Wall Sit – 1 min

 

Let me know how you get on!

Become Your Trainers Eyes

When I am working with riders one of the things they struggle with knowing when they are doing something right. It's all very well having your instructor put you in the right position and then continually cue you as you ride round, but what about when your instructor is not there?

So often when you have shifted your position slightly it feels 'wrong'. In order to make this our new default we have to embrace the 'wrong '.

I have a few tricks I use with my clients to help them recreate the perfection when they are on their own.

The luxury option would be to have mirrors in your arena but obviously that's down to budget and whether the arena is yours.

I find it really helpful to have someone video or take a picture when it's going wrong and when it's going right. I find the visual feedback really useful for me to understand how right the wrong feeling looked!

I also like to find inventive ways to recreate the position off horse. A gym ball is really good for helping you to sit evenly on your seat bones and being equal lengths front and back. It can also be more practical to use a mirror here to see how what you look and feel like matches up.

Try straddling a gym ball with your knees wrapped around the ball (as if you are at the top of the rise in trot). If you, can do this in front of a mirror to get some visual feedback. Encourage your inner thighs to relax and send your weight through the front of your thighs and tuck your tail bone under.Are you equal lengths front and back? If you can nail this position and hold it comfortably you will find many of your on horse position issues will be much easier to correct-even your lower leg despite it not being involved in this exercise-just trust me I will explain why another time!

Finding an exercise that switches on or relaxes the muscles you need to work on can help you become more aware of what you are trying to achieve. Struggle to get your core activated? Try this crunch exercise to recruit the muscles.

Having problems with moving with your horse? Then some of the standing series might help you focus on those movements.

Just try things out, videos, pictures, riding with a friend or working on your sticky spots off horse are all great ways to help you improve in time for your next lesson - you will be trainers pet!
Sent from my iPad
Sent from my iPad

Peak Performance For Summer

Well, it looks like summer finally arrived-it’s probably rapidly retreated as I’m writing this isn’t it.
This got me to thinking about electrolytes. I bet loads of you have added these to your horses’ water or feed when out competing or doing hard work over summer.
What about you though? It is too easy as riders to forget about ourselves. We can happily spend all day at the yard mucking out, grooming, riding and barely take a sip of water. I know this because I am guilty of it too!
Firstly, what are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are salts that carry an Electrical charge. They are responsible for cell membrane stability and muscle contractions. They are messengers of the body and without them we are unable to function properly.
When we sweat we lose Electrolytes. One of the most common and obvious signs of electrolyte loss is muscle cramping, but it can also cause more serious muscle strains, along with dizziness, nausea (and the follow ons…)headaches and even fainting.
Before we even get to these more serious stages though a lack of electrolytes will affect your general performance. This could be yard jobs or it could be your riding.
I’m sure you don’t work all those hours to pay for your riding hobby only to perform at less than your best because you simply failed to hydrate adequately? Your concentration and your muscle strength diminish which of course means your riding will suffer.
So, what can you do?
Most obviously you can ensure you drink plenty of water throughout the day. Take a large 2 litre bottle of water with you to the yard and make your way through it over the course of the day.
In normal circumstances unless you are doing extreme amounts of exercise I would not recommend sports drinks, however I think as most equestrians will be outside doing yard jobs and riding for hours at a time on hot days I think they are a simple way to keep your electrolytes in check. I use the sugar free versions to keep my calories in check and you can also get caffeine free versions if you need to drink them later in the day.
Although this may have sounded a little scary at the start it needn’t be a huge deal with just a little forethought and ensuring you and your horse are prepared for the hot weather.
Also, don’t forget your sun cream for you and your pink nosed friends!
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An Offer To Make You An Athlete

I have had a couple of conversations this week about riders’ stamina. Particularly why I could quite comfortable do rising trot all day and others can’t. Now I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near Olympic level fitness but I guess I have a decent level of fitness what with it being my job and all that.

Realistically to be riding fit you need only a moderate amount of cardiovascular fitness-think lungs and still being able to breathe, but you need a huge amount of muscular endurance.

Muscular Endurance is essentially your muscles ability to work for an extended length of time.

It is this that stops your legs from aching or losing power during a lesson with your trainer or towards the end of your dressage test.

  • Do you find that your aids don’t work as well as you would like them too?
  • Maybe they don’t feel strong enough or
  • Maybe you can’t sustain your aids long enough to get the required result.

Then it’s time to do some muscular endurance work!

Whilst your cardio work like walking and running will help, to really use your riding muscles you would need to use the rower or cycle. I personally prefer the rower as you work your arms, back and core too.

These are great options but I bet many of you aren’t even a member of a gym? Plus for the endurance benefits you would need to be on there for around 30-40mins-boring!

So what about a home workout that will improve not only your muscular endurance in your legs, but also your arms and most importantly your core alongside improving your cardio fitness to stop you puffing and panting too!

Now I know you don’t have time to go off and design that yourself, nor do you have time to spend hours doing it.

So I have put together a six week programme designed to improve your muscular endurance for riding, improve your core strength and control whilst also sneaking in a little cardio. The programme can be tailored to all fitness levels as there are options for beginners to advanced all laid out in an EBook with a day to day time table of 15 minute workouts and video links if you need them.

Does that sound good?

Well for the next 7 days I am offering it to you guys for just £10!

The price goes up after then so if you want to be fit before the show season is in full swing or you just want to start really excelling in your lessons hit the link now to get your copy and in 6 weeks you will be a Total Equestrian Athlete.




Stabilise Your Lower Leg

I’m following up a request this week-although it follows on nicely from last week when we loosened off our calf muscles.

The stability of our lower leg depends on a couple of things.

Firstly our overall core stability as if we are not strong in the middle then we will struggle to control our limbs when riding.

Secondly the function of our hip flexors, if they are dysfunctional in anyway either too tight or maybe weak then the leg will struggle to maintain stability.

And finally todays topic- our ankles.

Now last week’s stretches for the lower leg and the ball rolling will have a big impact on any mobility issues in the ankles, other than that if you really struggle with mobility then simply circling them in both directions 10-15 times a couple of times per day, also pointing and flexing and turning the foot in and out.

Unfortunately as it not surrounded by any big muscles (unlike the knee) the ankle struggles with stability. Secondly if you have ever badly rolled your ankle this could have damaged the ligaments that cross the joint. Due to ligaments not having a direct blood supply they are very difficult to heal. In order to re-establish stability in ankles we must strengthen the tendons and the small stabilising muscles around it.

If you find your ankles do not seem particularly stable then there are some things you can do that can help it.

They are also incredibly simple, by that I mean straightforward no equipment; they are actually harder than you expect!

First simply stand on one leg for a length of time-say working up to a minute is a great starting point.  Now try the same exercise with your eyes closed.

Then repeat this whilst standing on the ball of your foot. Eyes open to start then when you can comfortably do a minute without wobbling try closing your eyes.

Then if you wanted to up the ante you could try these exercises on an unstable surface such as a rolled up towel or a wobble cushion. Start with a flat foot and eyes open before working up to eyes closed and on the ball of your foot.

It is totally fine to hold on to something to get you started and it is fine to start really small as it really important you do not over fatigue in these positons as obviously this could cause you to roll your ankle-the very thing we are trying to avoid! You can do these in shoes if you prefer but for ultimate bulletproof ankles do them in bare feet-I just kept my socks on for the photos as the floor was cold!

Let me know how you get on, I love to receive your comments and suggestions!

Toes Relaxed, Heels……..Parallel

I’m going to sort of discuss two things today although they are linked so bear with.

Firstly the common theme of toes up heels down-que flashbacks of childhood instructors bellowing in your ears! If any of you are reading then I applaud and appreciating your voice box and lung capacity lol.

The thing is, if you actually watch the pros for example Carl Hester or Michael Jung their heels aren’t actually “down”. They are parallel to the floor at best unless in a jumping position.

You see the problem with heels down is firstly it is quite difficult to do, but also the very act makes most of us then push down to get our heels down. This has two effects: One it straightens out various joints in the body and inhibits its ability to absorb force (there’s your core gone!) and two the pressing down causes an opposite action somewhere else meaning your seat bones pop up-it’s physics dahling!

Having said that we do not want heels that point up and cause a shortening of the calf muscle as this will also shorten the hamstrings (back of the thigh) and in short cause tension further up the chain.

What we are actually after is a soft calf with a relaxed foot in the stirrup unforced at parallel maybe with a dipped heel if it does that without force.

To achieve this we need to lengthen and relax those calf muscles.

We must also understand as we do this that there are two muscles to the calf namely the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus. The Gastroc is the bulky muscle most of us can see, and the Soleus is directly underneath this and runs through to the Achilles tendon which then goes under the foot. Most people focus on the Gastroc when in fact the Soleus is key to lengthening and relaxing this area properly and enabling a relaxed lower leg and foot.

Here are my favourite ways to lengthen these muscles.

One is using a step or mounting block.  Hold onto something for balance if you need to and drop your heels off the step staying on the balls of your feet-and then just stay there and breathe. To stretch your soleus you stay in the same position and bend your knees slightly. This is kind of like being in your stirrups but notice how as I bend to lengthen the Soleus my heel is no longer down-this is quite normal as the Soleus is not as long as the Gastroc muscle. Is it making sense why you can’t keep your heel down with a relaxed lower leg now?

 

gastroc stretch

soleous stretch

 

I also like to stretch my calves in downward dog, just gently walking the feet (not fast bouncing) and then holding still and if you need more pressure you can use your other foot crossed over the back heel to add weight. Then bend the knees and repeat to hit the Soleus.

Finally a nice way to release the calf which can be done at your desk or just before you put your riding boots on is to roll your foot on tennis, golf, Physio ball. This is great for foot pain but also works to release the calf muscles due to their link through the Achilles and under the foot.

foot rolling

 

Try those out and see which one works best for you.

Remember Toes Relaxed Heels Parallel.

 

 

Stability Exercises For Soft Rein Contact

So last week we looked at releasing the shoulder blades to enable them to absorb your horses movement through the reins.

To establish a soft but stable rein contact we must also have a stable shoulder joint.

This can be difficult when as mentioned last week we spend so much time in poor posture. This can result in lengthened and weak back muscles and very tight and therefore dysfunctional upper shoulder muscles. This is why the first part of this section was to release the shoulders as they will be unable to correctly strengthen if they are tense.

So why is our rein carriage important when we ride?

Essentially if you are unstable you will inadvertently pull on the reins, which will make your horse resist you by pulling back which leads to you essentially holding each other up. If one of you let go the other would fall. For example if your horse drops his head you will fall forward. So, in order for our horse to be in self carriage we also have to be in our own self carriage.

Part of this does come from the core and much has been spoken about this however as the arms are attached into the shoulders think of the shoulders as an extension of your core. In order for your arms to be relaxed and giving they need their stable core to support them i.e the shoulders.

I see a lot of riders with large upper trapezius muscles (top of the shoulders and neck) and biceps yet with very little muscle throughout the rest of their back. This tells me that they are relying on their arms for their rein contact and their shoulders are tense due to the force.

So, how do we correct this?

One way I find really useful whilst riding is to imagine that your elbows are stuck to your sides directly under your shoulders (so there would be a straight line from the tip of your shoulder down to your elbow) This actually has two positive effects.

Firstly it keeps you in alignment and promotes neutral spine. Secondly the action of holding your elbows there will activate your back and shoulder muscles –which is exactly what we are after!

Unfortunately this can be quite difficult to maintain for a full hours ride so to help you improve quicker I have some exercises you can do out of the saddle.

Stable Shoulders = Soft Contact

Much is spoken of soft hands and soft elbows when riding however very rarely is much thought given to the shoulders other than are they rounded?

The thing is the soft and stillness of your hands and elbows relies on a well functioning shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle refers to the Scapula and the Clavicle and the Coracoid Joint that connects them together.

There are many muscles involved with Shoulder Function but the main ones to consider are Serratus Anterior, Pec Minor, Levator Scapulae, Rhomboids and Trapezuis.

As the shoulder is not a weight bearing joint stability has been sacrificed in favour of mobility.

This unfortunately means it is a prime candidate for instability and dysfunction. If you do not have a stable shoulder girdle you will not have stable elbows or hands as their actions start at the shoulder.

As many of us spend hours of the day in poor posture (Hunching, lifting……)the first thing we must do to improve our shoulders is to actually restore their movement patterns and function.

These are two great exercises for just that.

Firstly the shoulder blade decompression. This can help to loosen the shoulder muscles and help you to feel their movement.

On all fours without bending your elbows retract your shoulder blades-this will feel like you are dropping them down and that your shoulders come up. You should aim to keep your neck and shoulder muscles relaxed throughout. Just do 10-20 of these.

The second exercise focuses on restoring the most basic function of the shoulder blades and that is to retract.

This is much harder than you think if you are not used to doing it! Standing up put one arm in front of you keeping it straight and your neck and upper shoulders relaxed retract your shoulder blade so that the arm moves backwards. Everything else should stay still-no hunching your shoulders or poking your chin out! Once you can do the arms singularly do both together. I like to start singularly to encourage symmetry and spot any imbalance.

Once you are up to both arms moving relaxed and freely start to hold the retraction for 5-10 seconds maintaining a relaxed neck and upper shoulders also notice if your elbows try to turn out.........

 

 

Sitting Up Tall

Last week we talked about recruiting your core correctly whilst riding by visualising sticking your bottom rib to your hips. I have found this technique works really well, however another element to this is being able to keep the chest open to avoid the shoulders rolling in.

Unfortunately as most of us spend the majority of our time hunched over a desk we struggle to do this and instead bend from our lumbar spine sticking the chest up to create an open feeling in our chest. This unfortunately then undoes all the good work you had done on creating a neutral pelvis and shortening and activating the core at the front.

Remember how I mentioned that the front and back of your body should be the same length? In order to create an open shoulder and chest without compromising this length is to create space at the rib cage and height.

This is actually very subtle when you see it but I promise you the effects can be magical. I have mentioned before how if we are hunched and heavy in front this transfers more weight to the front of our horse, which can go a few ways from a very heavy horse in the hands, being on the forehand or struggling to really use the shoulders-either way it’s not what we are after.

To help you learn this technique I have an exercise for Thoracic extension. That is essentially upper back extension. It is a really subtle and small movement that focuses on keeping that bottom rib to hip with core engaged and then trying to separate the other ribs up and away and from each other.

Begin lying on your front, arms down by your sides.

Engage your abdominals so that you should feel them lift away from the floor a little. Keep your bottom ribs on the floor throughout, gently starting at the top of your chest imagine separating your ribs out and lift forward so that your head will come up but the only movement should be in your upper back. Return to the start position.

This can be made harder by putting your hands on your forehead as this adds additional weight.

This exercise should be done slowly and with real focus on the ribs. Try working up to 2 x 10 reps.

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