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The Dressage Rider and the Psoas

About 100 years ago, before I became a full time Pilates teacher and then a RESā„¢, I rode horses. I was one of those horse crazy girls from a very early age. I distinctly remember seeing a horse on TV before I could speak, and running over to the box and banging on the screen in an attempt to get the horse to come back. For whatever reason, I was passionate about them always!

I finally stopped riding about 7 years ago, as creating a business in the city was taking all my time, and truthfully, owning my own horse was not in the cards, and riding OP’s can be frustrating. I guess I will never realize my Olympic dreams. šŸ˜‰

However, I give a lot of thought to how the stuff I’m learning now would have been so helpful then. As well, my decades of riding horses are hard to forget, and I often use that movement background in order to help understand new concepts. When I have trouble sleeping, it’s not sheep I count, but tempi changes.

So I guess that whole world is still deeply ingrained.

It will come as no surprise to any rider that what they do when they sit on a horse will have a consequence in the behaviour of the horse, whether it was intentional on their part or not. Ideally, a rider desires to develop the horse’s natural abilities and does nothing to restrict him in achieving these abilities. But what if you are restricting him without your knowledge, or even with your knowledge but beyond your control? What if there were tension patterns inherent in your own body that prevented you from being fully in control of your own actions? Take those kinds of tension patterns onto a horse and your riding teacher suddenly has more to deal with than she can possibly hope to change (hard enough in a static body, never mind one on a moving horse!).

Take the psoas for example (psoa – Greek for loin). This is not one muscle that the name implies, but two. You have psoai (pl); one on either side of your body, deep to the spine, running from the level of your lowest ribs to the upper inside part of your thigh bone (called the lesser trochanter). They work independently, not symmetrically; in other words, they can do different things at the same time on each side of the body. If you are a meat eater, the psoas muscle is the tenderloin – that long, expensive, very tender piece of pork or beef that you see in the supermarket.Ā (Since only about 50% of the population has a psoas minor, we will not address them here.)

Below the psoas, attaching to the inside of the pelvic bowl and running down to share an attachment point with it, is the iliacus muscle. This muscle has a very broad attachment on the pelvis and a very narrow attachment on the lesser trochanter. Historically, these two muscles have been unfortunately lumped together and termed the “iliopsoas.” I say unfortunately, because these muscles have different actions despite their one shared inferior attachment, and lumping them together has led to a great deal of confusion as to their individual functions.

Seen from the side, the psoas runs down through the trunk at an angle, from the spine forward towards the front of the abdomen, across the front of the pelvis and backwards again to the lower attachment point. It hasĀ many attachments, from the anterior transverse processes on the vertebrae, sides of the vertebral bodies, and even the intervertebral discs, running down to the inferior attachment point at the lesser trochanter.

As such it crosses many joints (spine and hip). Because your central nervous system is housed within the spine, the psoas is a mover of the central nervous system. It’s a large muscle that can reposition the rib cage, and also moves the legs. It can influence your upper, core and/or lower body.Ā Hip flexion is but a small portion of what the psoas does, and it does this by bringing the femur out in front (it also has a part in chronically flexed knees) and not by anteriorly tilting the pelvis, as is often mistakenly believed.

The psoas major also has layers; the deeper layer and a more superficial layer. Deep attaches to L1-5 transverse processes, which means it has the potential to move lumbar vertebra relative to each other. Superficial attaches from T12 to L5 bodiesĀ andĀ discs.Ā It can therefore displace vertebral discs relative to the vertebral bodies.

Between the two layers is the lumbar plexus, which is a nerve complex responsible for nerve supply to abdominal muscles, back/spine muscles, pelvic floor, and adductor (inner thigh) muscles. Electrical flow to a muscle determines the health of the blood supply to those muscles. As well, the flow of lymph (waste) removal is dependent on this plexus and its health. So if the psoas is tight, and blood flow is restricted, all these tissues can potentially be negatively affected. (But hey, what do dressage riders need with abs, spine, inner thigh and pelvic muscles?)

Lumbar Plexus

We know that tight muscles that can’t release and yield back to their supple and original length will test as weak, and most of us have tight psoai (I’ll get to why in a minute). If a muscle is chronically shortened, it cannot generate force. If it cannot generate force, it cannot create vasodilation and increase blood flow to its tissues. If it cannot optimize blood flow, the tissues are not fed, and if they are not fed, regeneration does not take place, resulting in tissue disease and death. In the case of the psoas, not only is the psoas muscle itself at risk, but think of what a tight psoas does to the structures it attaches to, and the many nerve feeds to muscles around the trunk, hips, thighs and spine.

What does a tight psoas look like – how can you tell if you are tight, and in this discussion, how will that affect the rider? Here are some reasons the psoai can be tight: chair sitting (especially if you sit with a slumped spine and tail tucked), biking, running, treadmill walking or running, stair climbing, elliptical machines, tucking the tail (yours, not the horse’s), sucking in the stomach (to appear thinner or in a mistaken belief that this tones the abs), rib thrusting (either because the muscle is tight, or because culturally you have been trained to do so, or through sports such as gymnastics and ballet, or military training). All of these can result in a chronic rearrangement of the muscle fibres of the psoas.

Because sitting on a horse is still sitting, and most of us sit far too much as it is, even if you don’t do any of the other items on the list, it is very likely you have a tight psoas. Here’s how to test it:

Lie down on the floor, a hard wood floor is best for this. Lie on your back with your legs extended. The back of your thighs, your hamstrings, should be fulling resting on the floor. If they are not, this is an indication that your hips are flexed and your knees are bent (even minutely). Now, regardless of where your legs are relative to the floor, bring your attention to the rib cage. Are the bottom ribs on the floor, or are they too lifted? Sometimes the spine is off the floor all the way from the lower back to the upper shoulders. The broadest part of your ribs just below the bra line should be well grounded. One of the signs of a tight psoas is “shearing” of the upper lumbar vertebra. This is a term that means the upper vertebra are displaced forward (toward the front of the body) relative to the ones below them. This results in a “rib thrust” described above. So regardless of whether you have a rib thrust because your psoas is tight, or your psoas is tight because you have a rib thrust, you need to deal with that.
Please note: the lower back or lumbar spine does not have to be on the floor. There has been some confusion as to what parts of the spine should be touching the floor if the psoas is long enough. The ribs, all the way down to the bra line should be touching, and the back of your thighs. The lower back shouldĀ have its regular lordotic (forward) curve.


Do you see that in the above photo (of me) that there is daylight between my ribs and the floor, and my hamstrings (back of thigh) and the floor? If this looks forced to you, tilt your head and pretend I am standing. Not so different from a lot of postures out there. As a matter of fact, most people would think this was “good posture” maybe even for riding. (If you click on the photo it will enlarge for easier viewing.)

So if your psoas was optimal in length and could yield to its full length, theĀ hamstrings on both legsĀ and your lower ribs would be firmly on the floor. If one or the other or both is not, you have work to do. As well, one hamstring may be on the floor or closer to it than the other. Because we do not use our bodies symmetrically and the psoas muscles work independently, one can be tighter than the other. Standing on the ground, or in the stirrups in this case, will have the result of a pelvic/spineĀ rotation.Ā Do you find one lead easier than the other, or circling one way easier than the other? Has your coach repeatedly told you to bring one shoulder back or that you are leading with one hip? I don’t think I need to go into detail here how that would inhibit the success of any dressage movement (your riding coach can cover that).

The above demonstration just showed you how a chronically short psoas can change your posture, or position. If your goal is to achieve a free hip and leg, supple lower back, force generating abs for half halts and spine support on those big extended trots, inner thigh length for a deep seat, long, effective leg and deep heels, you cannot achieve an optimal position on a horse or anywhere else until you RELEASE the psoas! Stretching that sucker is not effective, because the fibres are chronically short – this means their resting length has been re-set to a shorter position. Stretching it will get you nowhere. The brain needs to be reminded where the attachment points (bones) need to be relative to each other in order to allow the muscle to release and eventually to yield and allow a healthy blood flow back to the area.

So far we have learned that a tight psoas can restrict your ability to move freely in the spine, hips and ribs, negatively effects the health of tissues surrounding it in the trunk, pelvis, abs, spine and thighs (potentially causing pain in any of those areas), can create rotations in the spine and pelvis, chronically shortens the legs by flexing the knee and hip, can create compression of the discs and shear the rib cage forward causing further damage to the discs (not to mention putting a large portion of our body out of balance with the centre of mass in the pelvis, and creating unstable environment for the shoulders – which would lead directly to contact issues). Holy cow – that’s probably enough to motivate anybody. But there’s more!

Your kidneys and adrenal glands are situated below the upper psoas attachment. The central nervous system is affected by a tight psoas, and anybody who works with animals knows that emotions can effect posture and vice versa. You know your horse is relaxed when that tail is loose and swinging right? What message does it send your horse when your CNS is clamped down? Your psoas clamps down when there is a reason to protect the vital organs in a “flight or fight” situation. Normally we would encounter such a situation very rarely, maybe a few times a year. However, in our society, we are more likely to have biological stress reactions on a far more regular basis. There is a chemical event that occurs during times of stress, and normally our body would be able to deal with these chemicals and clear them from our bloodstream and return to a normal state of health in a short amount of time. Because we are always giving this signal with a chronically tight psoas of the fight or flight response, our adrenal gland is constantly working, leading to adrenal fatigue, and eventually exhaustion.Ā 

How are you feeling when you walk up the centre line? A little nervous? Did your horse give you some “attitude” in the warm up? It’s very possible that the psoas shortens in response to the fear of being in front of a judge or riding a nervous horse that might decide to toss you on the ground at any moment! In any case, such a response on the part of the psoas is not going to lead to a relaxed horse or rider. So what can you do to release the psoas?

First of all, take this course:Ā http://www.restorativeexercise.com/psoas-science/
For $40, or a lot less than one dressage lesson, you can listen to a 2 hour lecture by biomechanical scientist Katy Bowman on the psoas, expanding on what I have touched on here, and a one hour psoas exercise and release protocol that I suggest you do every day or as much as you can.

In the meantime do this release: in the test position above, bolster the shoulders and head/neck until the hamstrings are firmly on the ground. You can roll up blankets or use several pillows, a yoga bolster or even a sleeping bag rolled up. How much bolstering you need will be determined by how tight you are. The lower ribs are not on the bolster. In this position, you have nothing to do but allow gravity to act on the upper attachment of the psoas (lowest rib) and allow that to drop down to the floor. This might take 5 minutes, or 5 months. It depends on several variables.

This is only one psoas release but it is a good start. Remember, tucking the tail (posteriorly tilting the pelvis) and thrusting the ribs (lifting the chest and pulling the shoulders back) is not conducive to a relaxed psoas or a functional spine, pelvic floor or abdominals. That posture will only aggravate the issue.

Read part 2 of the Psoas here.





15 thoughts on “The Dressage Rider and the Psoas

  • Awesome! So clearly described as to how things work and why it’s important! Thanks so much for taking the time!

  • So interesting. My daughter (11) takes riding lessons (hunter jumper and western) and they keep telling her to lengthen spine/keep ribs up/keep chin up, put shoulders back etc..and she’s finding that it hurts her back! I tell her to drop ribs, but then they tell her to pull them up again. Very frustrating! Is she sitting wrong? What part of her “bottom” should go on a saddle? How should she be aligned? Just questions I have as a total novice and wondering if the information out there in books for the rider on “how to sit in proper alignment on a horse” is correct or not.

  • Hunter/jumper has a different seat than dressage and is more “perch-y” in my opinion. Also, the Hunter-Jumper ring is more susceptible to the current fashion and like figure skating, can be subjective. Western on the other hand is more back on the bum, legs forward. I’m afraid very few trainers are as knowledgable about human physiology as they seem to be about horses’ and the chest up-shoulders back cue is like a broken record. Your daughter might be a little young for some of the more serious books but you could do some research into some of the old masters. They might be hard to find. Try the library!
    Horses are made to be horses – Franz Mairinger
    Dressage in Harmony – Walter Zettl
    Anything by Alois Podhajsky (My Horses My Teachers is a beautiful book!)
    Anything by Reiner Klimke.
    Look on YouTube for videos of Klimke’s daughter Ingrid. She puts out a lot of training videos. They are in German but you can watch her ride young horses and her riding is pretty flawless as far as I’m concerned.

  • She’s not sitting wrong, they’re teaching her wrong.
    Quite a cheap but excessively useful book, and one of a kind would be Mary Wanless ‘s ride with your mind essentials “

  • Great article, Carol!!! I’m writing my final thesis at university about “Kreuz” or “Kreuzanspannen” in horseback-riding. I think you call it “bracing the back”, right!? Well, the iliopsoas and my brother brought me to this totally crazy idea and now I have to deal with this darn muscle! šŸ˜‰ Actually I love it. So, your article gave me a whole lot of answers that I didn’t find yet.
    Best wishes,

  • At the test you’re showing in the photo, where should the arms be? Also, legs slightly open or closed? Turned out or parallel? I’d love to be able to show it and I’d like to be sure I’m doing it right! Thank you in advance, great post, very detailed and informative.

  • In the photo I put my arms up so you could see the trunk/spine. In the exercise the arms should be down along your sides, slightly away from the body, palms up.
    Legs should be straight, and not abducted but it’s okay if they “fall out” naturally with the toes are facing away from each other, as long as the legs are straight and not angled out so the feet are wider apart than the hips.

  • Yes, yes, yes, Marie!
    Look up Mary Wanless and her books and videos. There are also instructors who have been mentored by her, so they understand how to teach correct biomechanics.

  • Wanless wants her riders to constantly bear down in the abdomen constantly. Bearing down all the time would is not good for the pelvic area is my understanding.

  • I’m not familiar with her book at all, but you are correct – creating pressure is not good for the pelvic floor, nor the abdomen or diaphragm, which will also be affected.

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