One of the things I'm most often questioned about is the frequently heard instruction ‘relax your thighs’. It is a term I very rarely need to use, in part because the majority of people I teach are women, and in part because I believe the inner thigh should be in close contact with the saddle. Looking through the pictures of top riders in the magazines, I rarely see thighs off the saddle.
So why is this term so commonplace in riding lessons?
I have a number of theories, including:
The origin of most riding instruction, in the UK at least, was from the army, training the recruits, who were mostly fit young men, used to hard physical labour. In their lower body the average man’s muscles are 34% more toned than the average woman (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8477683).
I would suggest that the 'average' male riding instructor would have significantly greater muscle tone than the average guy. This is not only because that is what helped them to become successful riders in the first place, but also because they ride, or have ridden, 6–7 horses per day, 6–7 days per week, often for many, many years. As a result, their thigh muscles will be strong. It is quite possible that there comes a time in their riding that these guys feel they can and need to reduce the strength of their thighs. The average female rider will struggle to get their thighs anywhere near as strong as these guys. However, when these guys teach they often say what they would be doing or thinking if they were riding your horse, and over the years ‘relax your thighs’ has become one of the many misunderstood instructions issued in the riding arena.
‘Relax your thigh’, or ‘relax your leg’, is also used in response to seeing a rider who is either tighter against the saddle at the knee than higher up in their thigh, or gripping upwards with their thigh, heel or both. The real strength in the thigh is required at the top of the inner thigh, close to the knicker line. How that area is tensioned has a lot to do with how the thigh is lengthened out of the hip socket, lengthening the muscles down the saddle. I sometimes talk about applying a sticky-backed plastic cover (the skin and tissues beneath) to a book (the saddle) and smoothing out the air pockets from the top to the bottom (knickers to knees).
With regard to the rider who grips up with their knee and/or heel, yes the muscles down the front of thigh probably do need to release and lengthen, but the inner thigh should not detach from the saddle in the process. These riders will have a sense of disconnection and 'air pockets' at the very top of the thigh, which need to be eased out. They may also need to 'relax' their pelvic floor to achieve this.
The same riders also often struggle to keep their feet flat or heels down, but ‘relax the thigh’ is not the answer for them. Think of a body hanging, like a gymnast on the hoops or horizontal bars – if their legs are relaxed then their toes will be pointing down, not up. For them, getting their feet parallel to the floor or heels down requires the positive actions of turning their toes up and stretching their heels downwards to lengthen their Achilles' tendons, towards the horse's hock.
I teach a wide range of ages and abilities to ride, from the 4-year-olds sitting on a pony for the first time, to professionals. Most often the 4-year-olds will sit on the pony initially with their toes dangling down, but on the whole are able to change this pattern fairly easily. Women who spend much of their time wearing high heels, where the heel is habitually higher than the toes, find the change much more challenging, as the muscle patterns throughout the body need to adjust; this usually takes time and focused attention.
There will also be riders whose legs naturally hang too long down the saddle and need to be more tensioned in all the joints. Or you may have one leg that comes up too much whilst the other one goes down too much.
Activating the muscles in your legs correctly whilst riding requires first that the core is stable and second the ability to differentiate the muscles in the legs and buttocks from those in the pelvic floor. However, they are also part of the stability tensioning system, of your muscles and fascia supporting your bones, running in the vertical plane, from your head to your toes.
When riders get their thighs on more correctly they are often concerned that this has taken their lower legs/calves away from the horse's side. This is correct. If the lower leg is generally off the horse, when you put the leg on, then the aid is much clearer to the horse and there is less 'white noise' through which the horse is trying to hear/feel the leg aids.
So, what to pay attention to?
(a) In your flatwork:
(b) Off horse:
So, although 'relax your thighs' is often an irrelevant instruction, don't get too relaxed about your thighs - you may well need some help to get the best connection to the saddle. Give me a call to arrange an assessment. 01993 832 520.