Ride Better 1-2-3: The Problem of Legs Creeping Forward

One of the discussion topics in the past week on this site has been around the problem of legs creeping forward when you ride. From what I see in clinics, this problem spans disciplines- it doesn't seem to matter whether you're in an English or Western saddle. Getting that heel more aligned under your hips is a challenge.

If you look at the past three weeks' worth of Ride Better/Ride Fit! blogs, each of the three riders in the examples also shared this problem.

The problem isn't limited to a style or aesthetic issue either. Your body is connected in a chain from top to bottom. When some part is out of correct vertical alignment, your body will compensate somewhere else created biomechanical compensating patterns which will affect the way your horse is going- and your stability in the saddle. I really liked Chris Irwin's last posting about flying changes because it showed how clearly rider positioning is connected to the way the horse in going in response to your timing and weight distribution.

I don't have any photos from the rider who brought up the forward legs problem, but we can discuss some general contributing factors here, and some associated issues.

Legs forward is often compensated for by your upper body tipping slightly forward, bringing your seat out of the saddle. You can't sit as deeply in the saddle with legs creeping forward. Sometimes, I see the same result, in a little bit of a reverse causality: the rider's lack of balance is causing her to tip forward, and her legs go forward in compensation. Either way, there is often an associated tightness in the hip flexor muscles, which close the angle of your pelvis and femur and pull the leg up. Usually, it gets worse as you get into problems in the ride, or pick up speed, or fatigue.

The shifting of the centre of gravity somewhat forward also often reveals weakness in the lower back and glutes (you are not holding your shoulders over your hips either- the back is giving forward). And, typically, where there is weakness in the lower back it is often paired with weak lower abdominals since these two opposing muscle groups are major contributors in your ability to hold your body erect: shoulders over hips, over heels.

Finally, you may have tight calves. I know they aren't anywhere near your knees, but if they are tight, then your ankle doesn't flex adequately to get your heel down in the angle required when placed under your hip. Your body wants to keep a more open angle at the ankle, and shifts your leg forward for relief.

So, corrective stretching that might help would be a runners' lunge for your hip flexors, and a calf stretch hanging one heel off the edge of a stair with the other foot on the stair.

However, stretching on its own is not enough because it won't prevent your body from reverting to its old habits when fatigued. You need to also strengthen appropriate areas which would help maintain the desired alignment. I would start with strengthening your lower back through back extensions (lying on your stomach on an exercise ball or back extension apparatus at a gym, and lifting your back up and down in a kind of reverse situp).

Of course, there are many reasons for legs creeping forward, and you may have other contributing issues. It would be great to see some photos submitted for next weeks' blog.

Until next week- happy riding!

Heather Sansom, Equifitt.com Equestrian Fitness

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Comment by Nora Robinson on March 28, 2009 at 8:06am
thanks Heather.....the email is on the way!
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on March 27, 2009 at 8:49am
Hi Nora,

Ah yes...when we had suppler bodies! I ride an Arab as well. Your body ratio actually sounds more like a man's and if you look at the Spanish riding school (small horses, male riders mostly), you can see some really nice alignment. It really does mean strengthening your torso with a lot of core work (all the way around, not just abs). The nice thing about an Arab is you don't need much aid to ask them to go forward so you can ride mostly with your seat and hardly any leg. Even though croup high, they also want to naturally carry their poll high and are quite athletic and lightweight and can get their butt under themselves without hock overstrain in spite of being croup high (if they are not tense, which is the tricky part), so this helps. Though being smaller, you pitching onto his forehand would really drive him down that way too. It's like driving a Porsche instead of a Mercedes. If you're interesting in subscribing to monthly fittips, send an email to me at personaltraining@equifitt.com .
Comment by Nora Robinson on March 27, 2009 at 1:25am
realllllly super advice here.....I am a rider with having some difficulties in the past with legs coming too far forward. One thing that I have discovered in my search on saddle fitting for my horse, and now, for me.....is that you have to have a saddle that balances the rider over the horses center of gravity if you ever even hope to have a natural feel for balance when riding.

What I didn't know is how important the stirrup bars are in relation to comfort and the ability to ride in alingnment. And also the relationship between the length of the thigh to the center of the flap. And also the ratio of a riders top half to their lower half.

I have the worst ration...being 3:1. Meaning that I am longer from my hips to my head than my hips to my feet. I am perpetually top heavy. So I am trying a saddle now that has recessed stirrup bars (a dressage saddle) and a nice deep seat. It seems to be helping but I still have the natural inclination to shift forward from my waist. Have to retrain those flabby muscles!

Add to that the fact that I ride a short backed Arab who is bum high, and you can imagine what we have been going through LOL.

Anyway....I totally agree with the comments about back fitness (or lack there of!). And also about tension in the calf muscles.

As a mature rider...I definetley have my struggles. Worst of all....I think that remembering the ease and agility I had riding when I was a teenager, somtimes inspires me but often confuses me. Why can't I ride like that anymore?? That would be my biggest joy. Instead, I have good days and bad days....sweet moments, and horific ones. But I keep believing that one day it will all come together....
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on March 26, 2009 at 11:09pm
Hi, I just wanted to add a comment to Suzanne's about the ergonomic chair. These tilt chairs can be purchased at sport conditioning suppliers such as Fitter First, or sometimes through a physiotherapist. The Balimo Chair is basically a wobble chair common to sport conditioning balancing lines of product. You can ALSO get balance cushions you can put on your chair causing you to use your core a bit more and also sit up higher. Also, a common exercise ball a little on the larger side makes a great replacement for your desk chair or favourite TV watching chair...and results in much better posture if you sit on it regularly.
Comment by Chris Buckley on March 26, 2009 at 9:16pm
Dear Heather,
I ride mostly for pleasure in a dressage saddle. The saddle in the photos tips back a bit. My main issues are my legs coming up and feet forwards and seat coming out of the saddle at a canter. I tend to grip with my adductors which I believe pushes me out of the saddle and feet forwards.

My body issues are mainly in my hips. I've fallen on my rear a couple of times and might have some scar tissue on gluts (right medius). I have SI joint dysfunction and my right pelvis tilts anteriorly and my left tilts posteriorly. I see a chiropractor to correct this. My SI joints and lower back are generally tight and stiff.

Regarding exercise, I used to run a lot but stopped due to lower back pain. I joined a gym and stopped running and started weight training about a year ago. My back pain disappeared until about 3 weeks ago. I have not been riding much over the winter. My trainer at the gym and I have been trying to figure out what is going on regarding my back pain. I do believe I have tight hip flexors on the right and I have noticed a knot in my IT band on the right as well. It "pops" over my hip joint (femur). I found some weakness in my left leg when trying to externally rotate the femur against resistance, perhaps weakness in the piriformis or abductors? As you can see, I seem to be out of balance and not sure if my rotation of the hips caused me to train my muscles unevenly or if my muscle imbalance is causing my hips to rotate. Lastly, I was born very pigeon-toed which was partially corrected with braces when I was a toddler. My toes still tend to rotate in, which I suspect might put strain on my hip joint. Besides my legs being short, I think this too might make it hard for me to wrap my legs around my horse.

I have been stretching more (using the stretches you've suggested such as lunges, pigeon, etc) and working my back muscles to open up my chest. Can you suggest other stretches or strengthening exercises to reduce the pain in my lower back and become more open and flexible in the hips (which I hope will improve my position)?

Thank you in advance for your suggestions and this wonderful blog.


Comment by Suzanne Wild on March 26, 2009 at 8:27am
Hello all,
Heather commented in response to a blog of mine which is how come I have landed here (I am a total chat room virgin!)
I hope this helps - it did help me greatly...

I didn't perceive I had a 'legs forward' problem, or at least thought that any difficulty I had was due to age/arthritis in the hips. I have had back trouble and recently bought one of those 'ergonomic chairs' the ones where you sit on a tilted seat and your knees balance you on a pad a little lower than the seat. Artists and Designers often use them.

I had it a week and then rode for the first time since the winter weather allowed; I was amazed as I didn't ache afterwards (I'm 45 and always ache!), my position was deep and not at all 'unnatural' feeling. When I analysed it the answer seemed obvious; if you sit in a traditional office chair, your thighs are at 90 degrees and are therefore 'conditioned' to this position - with my new chair they sit at the perfect 45 degree riding position!

In addition, my thighs are more toned which has made my leg stronger. I didn't plan this but what a bonus!

I would highly recommend these chairs to anyone who works in and office.
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on March 26, 2009 at 12:37am
How to post your photos- Hi, I've had some questions about getting your photos up here for the Ride Better 1-2-3 blog. It's easy. Just put your cursor in the comment box and write about the issue you have questions about with your riding, or were thinking some off horse dryland training might help with, then click the little camera icon. You'll get a pop up box that allows you to browse. Click browse...it will take you to your computer so you can attach a photo. It will kind of stick the photo at the top of your comment regardless of where your cursor is, so don't worry about placement. Plus, you won't actually see the photo until you click 'add comment' at the bottom. It sort of shows up like a string of code. Don't worry about that. You can always click 'addcomment' if you're not sure, then delete it if it didn't work out.
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on March 24, 2009 at 8:24pm
Hi Jen- whew! I always hold my breath when I'm shooting in the dark like that, but have to rely on what I've seen before. Your picture is very validating to my comments! I would say that balance, along with tightness & weakness contributes to the issue. As we age, the SI joint tends toward seizing. Basically the ligament/fascial tissue around the area gets harder, and if you've noticed that the older folks hips don't move much when they walk...and younger people do more. This is bad news because then the nearest moveable joints that take strain of motion are the lower back disks...so you can eventually get lower back issues. Riders don't move hip joints much riding, and so some powerwalking and stretching help loosen you back up...get those hips a little more mobile. With more mobile hips, you can sit more squarely on your seatbones and let those hips absorb the motion of the horse better. Combined with strengthening the lower back and lower abdominals, and also as I said stretching the hip flexor to release your legs to be pulled back a little more. Also strengthening the gluteals is good because they start right at the SI joint, and support your hip and the backward motion of your leg. I know this gets complicated. With SI joint problem I would also look into lying on a foam roller or pilates weighted ball (placed right in that area) to help release the myofascial tissue. Some balance work like squats on a balance board, bosu...or even with your feet on two tennis balls will help develop more vertical centre of gravity.
If you find the exercises suggested above are helping, and you'd like a more complete program, I do work with people through online coaching if you're interested.
You have a touched on a really common problem. As the other comment to this blog points out- there are really many possible side issues, so there isn't a magical instant fix or workout in a box for all riders- although we can go with some general principles. Let us all know how it goes! (great picture by the way.)
Comment by Jen B on March 24, 2009 at 6:44pm

Hi Heather, Sorry I didn't get a picture to you earlier, but you have hit the nail on the head anyway! I couldn't get a recent picture, but this gives you some idea. As you can imagine, as he speeds up, I tip forward, the legs go forward and everything goes downhill form there!

I do have a back problem (or SI joint problem, as it were), which has been particularly painful recently, and weak lower abdominal muscles. So obviously you didn't need the picture to "diagnose" the problem!

Thanks for your insights!
Comment by Gary Stuart on March 24, 2009 at 3:54pm
Thanks for this very interesting post, Heather. The legs forward problem is so pervasive that it's obvious that there is no one quick fix for it (sort of like a disease caused by many genes that all need to be fixed before it's cured). The scary think is that by doing all the various fixes, you might get something else out of whack (like the golfer who fixes one problem only to create 3 new ones (I speak from experience!)).

Oh well, you have to keep trying!

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