#RiderProblems: Hips Don't Lie

I don't know about you, but my hips are a mess. I guess that's what 20 years of pretty regular riding + not a whole lot of cross-training, stretching, or other consistant forms of physical activity will do to ya (and I have no excuse...my mom is a yoga instructor! She tries to help me, and does help, but I've historically been horrible about sticking to a regular program.) Let me be your cautionary tale, so you can do better than I've done. 

What do I mean by "mess"? When I ride, I usually get one or two painful cramps in my hips during the course of my warmup. Having my legs spread wide (even though Clay is not very wide at all as far as horses go!) is just painful for me, which is a bummer, seeing as you can't very well sit on a horse at all without spreading your legs (I guess I could take up side-saddle...) But of course, like most equestrians, I thought of this pain and discomfort as a minor nuisance, not a serious issue, and did nothing for a long time to address it (luckily for me, I believe my issue primarily stems from an unbalance between the strength of my abductors/adductors, and therefore is fixable with stretching/strengthening exercises.) But it was high-time to address it, since this issue isn't only a detriment to riding but to other activities as well...like giving birth.

This might be going full TMI on you (perhaps skip to the next paragraph if the mention of childbirth and the notion of how that happens makes you queasy), but the painful cramping I had going on in my hips when I was birthing my daughter was almost worse than pushing the baby out. And there was nothing I could do to relieve it, since I had two midwives and my husband literally prying my legs apart with all their strength (and having a hard time, thank you very much riding-muscles) because it's impossible to get a baby out without opening your legs, but of course, my legs being spread wide is exactly what causes my hips to cramp and I cannot un-cramp them once they're cramping without bringing them back together for a minute to let them release. I'll leave that little story right there, but it was NOT fun for anyone involved–least of all me–and I vowed in that moment to get to the bottom of this before I have my next child, and for the sake of my riding career as well.

So, what can be done? Well, sticking to a g-dang regular yoga routine is pretty key, in my case. Yoga is magic. It is the remedy to several other funsie issues I have as well...a sacrum that doesn't like to stay in alignment, chromic neck and back pain, and is just a way to check in with and connect to my body, breathe and emotions. Yoga's foundational principals are strikingly similar to the foundational principals of Dressage, so they go hand in hand very seamlessly. The issue for me has been finding time every day, amidst the needs of the household and my family (not to mention a clean place on the floor to stretch out, amidst the toys...), to do even a short yoga sequence on a regular basis.

But pain, when you stop ignoring it, is a great motivator. So is the horrifying prospect of not being able to ride comfortably for years to come. So for the past month I've been using 15-60 mins (depending on the day) of baby's nap time every day to do a yoga routine. Sometimes it's a very gentle one, aimed at just focusing my mind and connecting with myself. Sometimes, when I know I'm going to be riding that day or the next, it's more focused on mobilizing my hips. Sometimes it's a sacral-alignment routine. It's less about what I "do" and more about just taking time to check in with my body and ask what it needs today. We ask a lot from our bodies all the time, and it's pretty rare that we give back to ourselves in nourishing ways.

The hip routines I do are not "hip openers" (a popular term you hear a lot in some yoga classes). Why not? Because hip openers are typically destabilizing for the sacrum (more info on that can be found here, if you care), and I don't need any help in the destabilized sacrum department. Instead, I am focusing on increasing blood-blow and mobility in my hips by doing slow, careful full-range-of-motion movements that are isolated to the hip socket/joint. Some people might not even consider this type of exercise "yoga" as it almost crosses over into the physical therapy umbrella. But whatever you want to call it, it's working for me. I haven't had a hip cramp while mounted in about a month, and I just feel generally more relaxed and less defensive in the saddle (you subconsiously hold yourself tensely when you're expecting a stab of pain at any moment...Not exactly conducive to Dressage, since tension in the rider blocks the flow of energy in the horse.) 

Here are some of the things I've been doing on "hip days":

1. The stretches in the two videos here–but carefully, as some of these can be considered "hip openers". I don't do these on days when my sacrum is feeling misaligned or "crunchy".
2. The stretches in the video here– ditto the warning above.
3. This hip sequence, which is warming and focused on strengthening rather than stretching.
4. This hip sequence, which is gentle and provides a release and stretch for my hips but doesn't irritate my sacrum/low back.
5. This more demanding hip sequence, for when I am feeling up to a stronger routine that challenges my hips' specific issues and weaknesses. 

If you're experiencing something similar, I hope my story helps you to know you're not alone out there dealing with this, and that there are ways to fix it! Of course, as always, nothing mentioned on this blog is supposed to replace the advice of your medical practitioner or an expert in the fields of yoga therapy/physical therapy. This is simply my experience, and I am sharing it in hopes of opening up discussion on this issue and perhaps prompting others dealing with this to give yoga a try, because it has been working for me. I'd love to hear from you if you're in a similar boat...what have you tried that has worked for you?