Riding Fit

Overcoming Knee Pain

An equestrian fitness expert explains how to manage knee pain from riding and how to avoid it in the future.

Question:

I suffer knee pain after I ride. Is there anything I can do to strengthen my knees?

Answer:

Before we look at ways to strengthen knees, we first have to understand why our knees are hurting. Some of the reasons can be one or a combination of the following:

  1. Extremely tight hamstring (back of the upper leg) muscles.
  2. Misalignment of the kneecap as it tracks while riding.
  3. Pressure on the kneecap as a result of wearing tight jeans, breeches, chaps, etc.
  4. Weak muscles surrounding the knee joint.

Let’s go through each of these possible culprits and some solutions.

Tight hamstrings: When the muscles on the back of the upper leg are tight and not very flexible, sore knees and a sore back can hinder your body. Riding horses has a tendency to make the large muscle groups of legs tighten up. After all, we are supporting the horse through all of his movements, right? Stretching must be part of the equestrian athlete’s program. Simply placing one leg out in front of you on top of a tack box or bale of hay for three to five slow breaths will allow those hamstrings some stretch time. Loosening up these muscles will create balance and harmony at the hip joints and the knee joints.

Kneecap alignment: The kneecap naturally tracks throughout all leg movement. When your legs are on either side of the horse, the knee can get pulled out of alignment. This is known as chondromalecia. The most-common wear and tear usually occurs during posting the trot, but is not limited to just that motion. What can you do about this? Simply resting the knees and even applying ice will give you some relief. Strengthening the muscles that connect into the knee joint can help keep the knee track more correctly. (See the exercises at the end of this article).

Pressure on the kneecap: Wearing tight jeans, pants or chaps while in the saddle can make knees sore. I finally figured this out during my all-around days when I would show pretty much all day. Because I rode all day, I thought over-use was the cause of my knee pain. I would dismount and literally feel crippled. But long after those days, I would still feel a similar soreness after warming up over fences. The common denominator? Chaps. I had purchased a pair of schooling chaps that were custom made and very tight fitting around my legs. They were great to ride in, but I figured out the pressure from these tight-fitting tools was pushing my knee down while I rode. I started to experiment with half-chaps, and what do you know? The soreness went away. If you are wearing very tight western chaps, try to take them off when you are not in the show pen; this saves your knees and your nice show clothes!

Let's move into some exercises for strengthening your knees: The major muscles of the legs need to be strong into the knee joint. Three exercises I like to start with are very simple, but effective:

  • Straight leg lifts: Begin seated on a ball or a chair, or laying flat on a mat with one knee bent. Lift the straight leg as high as you can without sacrificing posture. Keep the straight leg very stiff, engaging all the muscles around the knee. Do this daily or every other day for two sets of 12 repetitions. In three weeks, you will notice a difference in your strength.
  • Hip extension: This is basically a single-leg bridge. While lying on a mat, extend one leg and then bend the other leg with your foot on the mat. Extend your hips up until you have a straight line from your shoulder, through your hips, to the knee and lastly your foot. Keep extending your hips up and down for two sets of 10 repetitions.
  • Leg extensions: Stay in the same position as above. Bend the knee of the straight leg and bring it in toward you as you inhale. As you exhale, straighten the leg keeping it as close to your upper body as possible. This will work the quadriceps at the front of the thigh and stretch the hamstrings on the back of the thigh. Lower the straight leg down toward the mat and begin the motion again. Do two sets of eight repetitions.

These exercises can be done daily to focus strength and flexibility around the knees. Hopefully these insights will reduce your chronic knee soreness and get you happy in the saddle again!

–- Emily J. Harrington, CPT, equestrienne fitness trainer, is an avid hunter jumper and an AQHA world champion. Look for a yearlong rider-fitness series with Emily beginning in January in The American Quarter Horse Journal. Go to www.aqha.com/journal to subscribe!