I feel wonky when I ride
In a recent survey I conducted, the winning answer to the question;
"What best describes you as rider?"
"I feel wonky when I ride. I can feel one side is noticeably stronger than the other."
Winning the poll by over 20% of the votes this is clearly a problem that many of you suffer with in terms of your riding & need addressing. So first things first let's understand what you are actually struggling with.
When we say feeling wonky we are talking about not sitting straight & evenly balanced in the saddle, perhaps you collapse into one hip, struggle to get the correct lead in canter on one leg, is your lateral work is far easier on one side than the other, is your horse really stiff on one rein?
In the fitness community, these feelings would be referred to as a "muscular imbalance". The muscles on each side of your body should be as symmetrical as possible; human beings are asymmetrical meaning that you will never be 100% even side to side. That is because humans aren't perfect! But we can limit the asymmetries your body caries to make sure you are as even as possible & this is the key with making equestrians strong & balanced.
When a muscle on one side of your body is larger or stronger than the same muscle on the opposite side then you have a muscular imbalance. Every client I work with has one more dominant side to the other and within riders, 9 times out of 10 it is more pronounced. It is from years of moving in your natural way but imbalances can often be the cause of injuries so they are important to recognise and correct.
Years of riding in your particular style will have meant that you have harbored and slightly nurtured these movement habits which have created these imbalances. Daily movements will have created habits too such as brushing your teeth with one hand, mucking out to one side, etc. For many when you start moving more symmetrically you often comment you feel unstraight, but remember your body has adapted over the years to this wonky position to allow you to be comfortable & move as you do. So when you start to change your position it will most probably feel very foreign & strange.
This is often the feeling when we start to be more aware of our position. Although you may feel straight when riding as your head & shoulders are in line with your horse's spine often your hip may be dropped to one side and you are pushing all your weight into one heel while the other leg just hangs. This can cause your horse to lean to one side & become crooked as he tries to compensate for the uneven weight balance despite the fact you feel straight.
Often with riders leg and hip imbalances are really common which in turn will affect your core stability hugely and therefore your position & security in the seat as mentioned above. The first step would be to identify these imbalances and try to understand where they are coming from?
Are you crooked in your pelvis or possibly collapsing your spine to one side? It is important to understand & identify where the problem begins & assessing the mobility & movement in that area to get a clear understanding of the root of the imbalance.
Often when riders just stand relaxed you will be able to see they slightly collapse into one hip. Then transferred onto a moving horse this imbalance is only going to be exaggerated. It still amazes me that riders will have the physio to check their horse as he is leaning to one side, get the vet out, buy a new saddle but never think once to address themselves.
Are you making your horse wonky too?
The answer is probably yes & the solution is to work on your strength, movement & muscular balance out of the saddle using functional movements that correspond to your movement in the saddle. Exercises like squats & lunges are fantastic lower body exercises that will help to strengthen all the muscles around the hip structure & target single-leg stability. First, you need to start with the basics.
When riding you can do a few little drills to address sitting evenly. Take your feet out of your stirrups and just let your legs hang. If your adductor muscles are tight and your inner thighs are gripping to the saddle this could well cause you to sit to one side more than the other so relaxing for a few seconds can really help. If your inner thighs are tight grab a foam roller for them & alleviate the tightness.
Let your legs hang down for 30 seconds or so and just relax, once you have done this put your feet back in the stirrups. Try not to shuffle around and adjust your seat as you will most probably end up sitting into one side again. Now you have your stirrups back focus on your pelvic position.
Think of your pelvis as a bucket of water, you want to make sure the bucket stays nice and even so you don't tip the water out of the front or the back. The same with your pelvis, if your pelvis is pushed forward the water will spill out of the front & if too far back, water will spill out of the back. We are aiming for a nice neutral position with the bucket sitting evenly. Having your pelvis in a correct, neutral position is so important to ensure you have proper core stability & avoid putting your spine in a compromised position. A pelvic tilt either way can cause lower back pain, knee pain & cause your hips to sit crooked which we want to avoid! Pelvic position can often help many riders issues improve when focused on.
A great way to understand about pelvic position & maintaining a neutral spine is off the horse with pelvic control exercises then progressing onto core movements such as a deadbug. Understanding the feeling of holding a neutral spine & recognising an anterior or posterior pelvic tilt will really help you to feel the position you want to keep in the saddle.
Mind-muscle connection is also a big focus when feeling wonky. You need to be really connecting your brain and feeling the muscles you are working both when you ride & when you train yourself. Listening to your muscles working and being really connected to your body will help to feel the differences side to side & overtime as this connection becomes habit you will be able to identify when you are crooked or not using each side evenly. This is really really important for us as riders.
There can be lots of different reasons riders feel wonky but the majority of the time it is daily habits & repetitive actions that cause one side to become stronger than the other. Your body is very clever and adapts to the demands you place on it for example, if you are using one hand more than the other that hand will become stronger & find the particular movement much easier.
Feeling wonky is a very common feeling for riders but the best way to start addressing the problem & correcting it is taking yourself out of the saddle. Focus on your pelvic position out of the saddle, understand the feeling of holding a neutral spine. Really connect your brain to your body and listen to what your muscles are feeling. If one thigh is super tight take a roller & spend some time stretching & releasing the tightness. Overtime work on functional movements once you have established the foundations of position & mobility, this will all help to address your imbalances. First focus on moving well and correctly in your multi-joint, compound movements again feeling that mind-muscle connection. Once you are confident and moving well with good form in these movement patterns introduce your single leg work to address the strength & balance on each side individually.
The feeling of wonky won't miraculously improve overnight. It is something that will take a long time to correct and change due to the years of your body compensating but if you consistently work to improve & strengthen a little every session you will really improve your balance & straightness and become more even helping your horse to perform as well as he possibly can.
I hope this helps you understand the feeling of wonkiness,