Muscle Imbalances
Muscle imbalances are very difficult to recognize. We do things in a certain way over and over again. We feel very comfortable. This comfort doesn't let us see our crookedness and unevenness.
I will try to show you my muscle imbalances as an example. I will explain how I can see them. This example may help you to explore your own imbalances.
Let me start with the fact that I am a right-handed person. This means I usually use my right hand to take things, open doors, throw a ball, etc. I also use my right leg to kick a ball. All these activities require my right side to be very active and mobile, while my left side is very stable and grounded.
Imbalance in my hip extensors
My left buttocks and hamstrings are stronger then my right ones. Their job is to ground me.
Because my left buttocks and hamstrings are so strong they ground my left seatbone into the saddle like a rock when I ride. My right seatbone almost floats above the saddle (look at the picture to the left). My saddle pad used to get wet only under my left side and stayed dry under my right! To even the pressure out, I have to consciously engage my right buttocks and hamstrings and think of pressing my right thigh down into the saddle. Now I'm finally starting to get it right. My horses feel straighter and more vertical under me (look at the picture to the right).
Imbalance in my hip flexors
On the front of our thighs we have a very important muscle, rectus femoris. Its job is to extend the knee and flex the hip at the same time. In a rising trot, this muscle lifts you up from the saddle and regulates your descend. Unfortunately, its strength may be different in the left and right legs. For example, my preference to kick a ball with my right leg made my right rectus femoris stronger then my left. Therefore, it can lift my right seatbone out of the saddle even if I don't want to. This imbalance adds to the previous problem with the uneven weight distribution.
Imbalance in the position of my pelvis
My pelvis is not parallel to the front plane of my body. It is twisted. My right hip is always pushed forward. My left leg is rotated more inward then my right one. My left tensor fascia lata (the muscle that rotates the thigh inward) is shorter than my right one. Even though, it's shorter, it doesn't need to work hard because my thigh stays rotated inward naturally. Therefore, it doesn't get enough work out, and it is weak. When I started doing exercises for this muscle, I couldn't even engage it.
If I want to look left I rotate my pelvis to the left and then the rest of my body follows. My body does not twist at all. All the twist is in my legs and hips. This motion is very easy (look at the picture to the left). If I want to look right I don't move my pelvis. All the twisting is happening in the middle of my body between my rib cage and my pelvis (look at the picture to the right). This turn is harder for me. This made my right external oblique abdominal muscles stronger then my left ones.
Compensating for these imbalances in the saddle.
  • I consciously keep my right seatbone back and down by engaging my hamstrings and muscles under my right seatbone. This helps to ground my right side.
  • Due to my crooked pelvis and the heavy left seatbone, my tendency is to slip to the right. To "counteract" this, I push my left seatbone forward by rotating my left thigh inward (wrong way). The right way would be to shift left across the saddle and ground my right side. Then advance the left seatbone with oblique muscles. This centers me over the saddle.
  • When I ride circles to the left I have to be careful not to open my shoulders toward inside. I also need to keep my right seatbone down. I have problems with the connection on the outside rein because the right side of my body wants to advance too much. I sometimes think of opening my shoulders to the right to stop that.
  • When I ride circles to the right, I have to push my right seatbone back. Otherwise my horse falls inward. I push my right thigh down. To bend my horse to the right, I must feel that my whole right leg is vertical like a pillar.
  • I must use these corrections with any dressage exercise such as shoulder-in, travers, renvers, half-pass, flying changes, pirouettes etc. The difficulty of the movement adds to the complexity of necessary corrections.
I will never be able to make myself completely symmetrical. However, I can work toward minimizing my imbalances. I do stretching exercises and strengthening exercises. I pay attention to how I ride and to my horse's reactions. I observe my habits and change them.

If you are a right-handed person do not assume you will have the same imbalances that I have. There are other factors, such as legs of different length, scoliosis, job-releated muscle development, habits, injuries, etc. They all can influence your unevenness. Left-handed people are generally less asymmetrical because they live in the world where most things are set up for the right-handed people and they have to cope with that.
When you start working on your imbalances, you need to realize that your body will not give up without a fight. It wants to do things in the comfortable and familiar ways. Many times your body will fool you and make you think you are doing it right while in reality you are not. The changes will not come fast and be subtle and hard to see. Prepare to be patient and consistent. Most importantly, listen to your horse. He will tell you when you are wrong and when you are right.
Irina Yastrebova, Riding Instructor and Trainer.
My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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