By Stacy Gallagher
As a personal trainer and rider I have a unique perspective when it comes to the subject of improving rider fitness. Consider squats as the vehicle for transforming your seat. This compound multi-joint movement done correctly can train the overall coordination and stability of the core and legs for multiple equine disciplines. The biomechanics of a perfectly balanced squat improve posture both on the ground and in the saddle. Creating a new postural awareness on the ground allows the rider to work on the strength and mobility deficiencies limiting their ability to achieve full postural strength while riding.
This graphic illustrates the transformation that a rider must go through to acquire an independent seat. Once full postural strength is achieved the rider becomes capable of fully utilizing their postural leverage to help the longitudinal stretch and engagement of the horse’s postural ring thus creating the synergy that we all want to have with our equine partners.
The first step in the process of squatting is to determine the stance width needed to descend into a deep bottom position (below parallel) and ascend maintaining vertical shins and a vertical torso throughout the movement. To discover the appropriate stance-width, start by holding onto a door frame and slowly walk the hands down the door frame to sit into a deep squat position. Let the knees go wide and lean back from the door frame till you can find a position where the shins and torso are vertical (as much as possible) and the foot feels solid and grounded. Once you have found this deep position squeeze your glutes to slowly rise maintaining this posture by walking your hands up the doorframe for stability.
There are three points to focus on for a solid, grounded foot – heel, big toe and pinkie toe. If the foot rolls inward then there will be very little downward pressure on the pinkie toe. If the foot rolls outward then there will be very little downward pressure on the big toe. Both of these indicate a lack of ankle mobility. This lack of mobility then effects the overall postural position and the ability to maintain proper squat form when ascending back to the starting position. In the saddle it will be difficult for the rider to find a good balance of pressure of the foot in the stirrup if they lack ankle mobility. If the foot rolls inward too much then the rider will compensate by gripping with the knee. If the foot rolls out too much then the rider will compensate by gripping with the calf or have no contact at all with the leg. An exercise I use when first mounting is to put my feet in the stirrups and then spread my toes in my boot as if I am growing roots in the ground. This releases any tightness in my ankle and allows me to better stretch my legs around the horse. By activating the root of my feet I am better able to align my whole body in the saddle.
Once the proper movement pathway has been identified then it is important to sync up breathing with the movement. Controlling the breath through the movement helps to maintain internal core pressure maximizing core stability. When descending in the squat focus on taking in a breath through the nose and expand the lower abdomen not the chest. When ascending release the breath in an exhalation through the mouth. This breathing process helps to maintain a vertical torso throughout the full range of motion. A good way to train this breathing is to sit upright in a chair and place your hand on your lower ab. Focus on expanding your lower ab such that you push your hand away from your body upon inhalation. Developing this lower ab core strength helps the rider to maintain a more upright position in the saddle and begin to transform their fork seat to full postural strength. I suffer from a stage 5 spondylothesis where my spine collapsed inward at L5/S1 causing an extreme arch in my low back over time and a loss of lower ab control. By learning how to access my lower ab through breathing I have significantly minimized this arch. This approach modified my center of balance allowing the evolution of my seat and assisting in the ability to sit more effectively in the saddle.
Lastly proper engagement of the glutes is the key to executing the movement properly. It is important to tuck the tail for the vertical descent but keep the knees wide at the same time. The tendency is to tuck the tail and then roll forward on the toes losing the vertical shin position required for the movement. When you roll forward on the toes the low back tends to arch and the butt goes back instead of straight down. That is why using the doorframe for stability assists in the ability to maintain perfect posture on the descent.
In the deep bottom position the glutes need to fire for the upward push to move out of the deep sitting position and return to standing. On the ascent the tendency is to lose the vertical torso and the knees collapse inward. The doorframe provides a vertical guide to maintain an upright position. To return the vertical torso the knees must return to the knees wide stance used on the descent. At the top of the movement squeeze the glutes towards the doorframe to stretch the hip flexors and psoas muscles. This stretch opens up the posture of the fork seat to bring the hips more underneath the center of balance instead of lagging behind.
There is a biomechanical synergy between core engagement, glute engagement and a grounded foot. The foot should be grounded first to find the right balance as the knees go wide on the descent. The glutes and lower abs work together to maintain the stability of the pelvic tuck required for a good squat and full postural strength in the saddle. The stage 1-fork seat has a complete lack of pelvic tuck making it difficult for the rider to stretch their leg long and ground their foot. This leads to a perched ineffectual position and a loss of postural leverage and connection. By training the squat in this way the rider opens their hip angle and releases their lower back allowing greater contact of the bottom of the foot to the ground. This assists the rider in their ability to stretch their leg long and sit in a more grounded way in the saddle. The rider then uses their core stability to plug in their seat bones and create an independent seat. In stages 3-4 of the transformation of the seat the rider learns how to tuck their pelvis and engage their leg at the same time. However, they have yet to release the psoas muscles needed for stage 5-full postural strength. Learning the upright posture of the squat not only trains the pelvic tuck but also trains the further opening of the hip angle stretching the psoas when pushing the glutes back to the start position. Start with 1 set of 10 reps, 4 times a week using a super slow descent/ascent making sure to time the breath properly with the movement then build to 3 sets of 10 reps. Over time this exercise will increase overall ankle/hip mobility and strength/coordination.