A correctly placed knee prevents knee injury and can be used for subtle aids when we ride. However very few people actually spend a great deal of time thinking about their knees until they start to experience knee pain when they ride, a problem that is far more common than one might think. There is also some conflicting advice as to what we are supposed to do with our knees – turn knees in vs turn knees out, and for those old enough to remember – hold a 10 shilling note! So it is hardly surprising if one gets confused as to what is correct.
One of the main problems is that our knees are designed to move in only one direction, which is basically to act like a hinge. Knees are not designed to rotate. The knee likes to move in a bending and straightening way (flexion and extension). It doesn’t like to be kinked, twisted, or rotated. So if you turn your foot into a parallel position by rotating at your knee, your knees will eventually hurt. Over the years, this pressure causes the medial collateral ligament to tighten and the lateral ligament to weaken and stretch which puts wear and tear on the joint and causes arthritis. Basically it is our hips or more specifically our hip flexors and gluteal muscles (the muscles in our bottom) that control the rotation of our thigh and therefore the correct placement of our knee.
So on that note, let’s look at some of the common problems I see with knees when I give lessons, as well as some of the reasons why one might get pain in the knees either during or after the ride.
1. Incorrect leg position.
When you ride your ankle should be beneath your hip, as in the old adage “ear, shoulder, hip, heel” alignment. Your thigh bone should be rotated in from the hip joint, which allows the flat of your thigh to be in close contact with the saddle, your knee to touch but not grip the saddle and your lower leg to hang down the side of the horse so that the inside of the lower leg can be applied as and when needed, with an inward (not backward) nudge. To achieve this, your pelvis needs to be in neutral alignment. Too short a stirrup is a major contributor to knee pain. In addition, too short stirrups push your bottom towards the back of the saddle, causing posterior rotation to the pelvis (chair seat) which blocks your hips and forces your lower leg forwards. Too long stirrups tend to cause lower back pain rather than knee pain as they create an anterior tilt to the pelvis (overarched back). Riding with your stirrups too long also tends to take the heels too far back, which can in turn make the knee creep upwards.
2. Gripping with the knees
If you grip with your knees to stay on your horse, you may not only have sore knees but you will block the movement of your horse. Gripping with the knees is also tiring for the rider, causing general stiffness, and pushing the rider’s seat out of the saddle. Gripping with the knees can also make the knees creep upwards. Unfortunately, gripping with the knees is very common, particularly with beginners and those who feel insecure in the saddle. The classical masters all mention that the thigh needs to be turned to lie flat on the saddle to allow the knee to find the correct position, neither gripping or flapping. Getting the thigh to lie flat takes some effort initially but can be achieved by rotating the leg at the hip slightly inward by pulling the large thigh muscle with your hand, so that the muscles lies behind the thigh rather between the bone and the saddle. However to maintain this position easily you may well need to work on opening your hips, by strengthening your hip flexors, your core and stretching your psoas. The position of the thigh directly influences the position of the knee and when the thigh and knee are in the correct position, gripping doesn’t happen.
3. Knees turned out
There is a huge difference between taking your knees away from the saddle and turning your knees out. Taking your knees away from the saddle momentarily by lifting your thighs out from the hip is a great exercise. It enables you to check that you aren’t gripping with the legs and whether your pelvis is in neutral, not to mention helping to free the hips. Turning your knees away from the saddle is completely different; it blocks the hip and tenses the gluteal muscles , the biceps femoris (the big muscle at the back of your thigh) and gastrocnmius (big calf muscle). All this results in an insecure seat and encourages excessive and very often involuntary movement of the lower leg. The remedy is the same as mentioned above. Grab hold of your thigh and pull the big muscles backwards and outwards so that the flat of your thigh can rest against the saddle. If your thigh is right, your knee is also right.
4. Rotating at the knee
We have probably all been told at some time or another that our feet should be parallel to the horse’s sides. But we haven’t necessarily been told how to achieve it. If the big muscle at the back of your thigh is between your femur and the saddle, your knees will naturally be facing outwards. To counter this it is common for riders to rotate their lower leg and foot forward by twisting at the knee. Apart from the fact that this will pretty much guarantee that you will suffer from knee pain both when you ride and in later life the incorrect placement of the thigh ensures that your hips are blocked and you can’t follow the movement of the horse.
5. Knees creeping up
Mostly our knees start to creep up when we grip with them. If your stirrups are too long and you have to reach for them you will probably tense your legs when your horse starts moving or goes up a gait. As the thighs start to tighten, the knees rise and the hips lock. As our hips and knees become blocked so does the movement of the horse. His movement therefore become less smooth, which makes one tense even more, which forces the knee to rise further etc. etc. Another reason why the knees creep up can be tightness of the psoas muscle. This in itself closes our hip joint, and pulls our thighs and knees upwards. Apart from stretching our psoas off horse with pilates and yoga exercises, one can also think about trying to capture the feel of kneeling when you ride to encourage your hips to open and your knee to stay down and still.
6. Feet too far in the stirrup
According to the International Society of Rider Biomechanics your stirrups should be positioned beneath the balls of your foot. This is great advice, as the positioning gives your foot support and allows the ankle to be supple and soft which keeps the knee soft and supple. More experienced riders may have just their toes resting in the stirrup, which also allows the ankle to be soft and supple. The Spanish Riding School traditionally taught that there should be so little weight in the stirrups that it should look like a puff of wind could blow them away. The one thing in common with all of these practices is that the positioning allows the ankle to flex with the horse’s movement which in turn allows the knee to flex. If you jam your feet into the stirrups, so that the bar of the stirrup is under your arch rather than under the ball of your foot, your ankles can no longer flex when the horse moves, which puts an enormous concussive pressure on your knees and blocks your hips which in turn will block the movement of the horse. However the problem is often not you jamming your foot into the stirrups but your foot sliding too far into the stirrup. This tends to happen when the lower leg is too far back, either because the stirrups are too long or your hamstrings are too tight. Pilates, yoga or regular stretching can help your hamstrings, whilst shortening your stirrups slightly will take care of the former.
7. Blocked ankles
Blocked ankles mean blocked knees which in turn mean blocked hips and a restricted horse. Blocked (or braced) ankles invariably come about by the rider trying to force their heels down. Our ankles should always be soft and supple so that they are able to flex with the movement of the horse. However so many of us have been taught that our heels should be the lowest point that it is very common to see a rider forcing their lower leg forward and thrusting their heel down. And whilst this might make a good defensive riding position it blocks the ankle, which as mentioned above, blocks the knee and the hip.
As already mentioned, it is is relatively easy to place your knee in the correct position by adjusting the rotation of your thigh. However it is relatively hard to maintain this position easily without working on the necessary muscles. Attending a regular Pilates, Yoga, Rider Exercise, Equi Pilates or Swiss Ball class can make a phenomenal difference to your riding. After all the correct positioning of the knee not only solves pain issues it allows us to ride with more finesse.