Category Archives: Anatomy and Physiology

Stretching shins with Hero Pose

Your legs, when positioned correctly in contact with the horse, are the most influential tools you have to effectively communicate your aids.

Yoga can assist you in developing a correct and effective riding position by improving the muscular strength and flexibility of your legs.

“Yoga for Equestrians” by Linda Benedik & Veronica Wirth

Dressage rider leg position

Photo by Douglas J O’Brien on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Hero Pose – Virasana

vira = man, hero, chief
asana = pose
Pronounced: (veer-AHS-anna)

When I took dressage lessons I wasn’t able to hold the proper leg position until over time had stretched out the stiffness in my ankles and leg muscles. Leg flexibility is important for riding.

Muscles of shin marked with colored ink on leg

Due to an injury this summer I have a weak right knee and am stiff down my right shin over my ankle (anterior tibialis).

Hero pose stretches the hips, thighs, knees, ankles and feet. It can be a good posture to practice neutral spine and staying centered over the hip bones.

As with all exercises, it is important to build up slowly. Use a block under the hips to ease the stretch.

Hero Pose

The following video gives good examples of using props as you increase flexibility. With practice the buttocks will be on the floor centered over the hips between the ankles and feet.

Also see “Child’s Pose” in a prior post, which is similar.

If the shin muscle (anterior tibialis) is tight, then you can do a myofascial release using a soft roller.

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Equine Skeleton

We can imagine our human skeleton while doing yoga exercises to improve our flexibility, strength and balance. Working with our horses, we can imagine their equine skeleton.

Equine skeleton

Equine skeleton by Walter F. Varcoe of Articulated Equine Skeleton Specialists

Dr Christin Finn DVM, CVA in this short video has a live painted horse and discusses the horse’s skeletal mass vs soft tissue. The Painted horse shows the anatomy of the equine skeleton.

Dr. Roberta Dwyer DVM of the University of Kentucky explains the bones of the horse’s skeleton in the following video.

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Hip flexors

‘Lifeloveandhorses’ blog is about “optimizing health, happiness, and peace” for my horses and myself. Yoga is a good form of exercise to increase strength, stamina, balance and flexibility.


= praise (from root anj meaning honor)
Pronounced: (AHN-jah-nay-ah-sa–na)

Anajaneya pose is a type of lunge that stretches the hip flexor muscles, such as the psoas. The pose is similar to a “runner’s stretch”.

The psoas enable riders to influence their horses with their seats and legs. By mastering the use of these muscles, riders will be able to maintain self carriage, both on and off the horse.

– Tom Nagel, author of “Zen & Horseback Riding

Anterior Hip Muscles diagram

Hip muscles

The psoas is the only muscle in the body that connects the legs to the spine. One action of the psoas is flexing the thighs at the hip enabling us to raise our knees. It assists in thigh rotation and adduction, helps to stabilize the pelvis, move the lower back, and links by connective tissue to the diaphragm.

The iliacus is another hip flexor that connects the legs to the pelvis. It joins into the thigh bones with the same tendon as the psoas muscle and often called the iliopsoas together.

These hip flexor muscles lie deep in the body behind the abdominal and pelvic organs.

Stretching the hip flexors is important for horseback riders, as well as for runners.

Yoga instructor Sage Roundtree describes a Low Lunge exercise.

This is an interesting interactive tool for learning about the human anatomy.

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Neutral Spine Part 2

Correct positioning of your back, starting with your pelvis, is important for your balance, resilience, and comfort.

– Sally Swift in “Centered Riding 2”

Finding Neutral Spine and Neutral Pelvis – Sitting

When you are either arched or slumped – that is, not in Neutral Posture – your back, neck, shoulders, and joints begin to hold tension and may become stiff and painful.

– Peggy Cummings in “Connect with Your Horse from the Ground Up”

Finding Neutral Spine in the saddle

In the 20th century particularly, styles of riding came into fashion which are greatly removed from the nature of riding and from the natural style of riding.

– Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling in “Dancing with Horses: The Art of Body Language”

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Neutral spine Part 1

When sitting or standing in neutral, the body is most stable, strong, and free so the limbs can be used effectively without restriction.

– Peggy Cumming in “Connect with Your Horse from the Ground Up”

Human skeleton side view (S curve)

Normal spine has an S shape

Tada = A Mountain
Asana = Posture

Mountain pose, Tadasana, is the foundation for all of the standing yoga postures. Tadasana pose is standing with a “neutral spine” where the spine has the natural 3 curves. If you sit or stand up against a wall in neutral spine your head, mid back and pelvis should touch the wall. The outward curving of the spine are called “kyphotic” curves. The inward curving are called “lordotic” curves. In yoga transitions the Mountain Pose will be a position to re-centering and relaxing before moving to another pose. The body as it moves will come in and out of neutral spine and neutral hips.

The bones and muscles in the body are all tied together and affect each other. Over tight muscles can pull the body out of position. This may be from emotional tension or because the muscles have not been properly stretched. Other muscles may have become over stretched.  Imbalanced muscles will pull the body out of position and out of balance putting strain on the spine and joints. Understanding what the neutral position looks like and how the bones align is an important first step to making changes to posture. Stack your head, over your mid back, over your pelvis.

  • The head position affects the spine and the hip position. In neutral spine the head sits evenly balanced over the spine with eyes looking forwards. Imagine a string pulling the spine upwards from the top of your head to lengthen your body.
  • Lift the breastbone.
  • The shoulders are  relaxed and arms hang naturally by the side.
  • The hips can swivel independently from the legs by tilting forwards, sideways and backwards. A tilted pelvis alters the back’s alignment, such as with a flat back or sway back. Neutral spine has a neutral pelvis. In neutral spine the pelvis is in a neutral position. If you imagine the bones of the pelvic girdle as a bucket carrying water, then the hips  in neutral pelvis would not spill the water. The hips are not tipped front or back or to side. A neutral spine is not a rigid position, but is a point of centering and balance.
  • The knees are kept soft, not locked, but straight.
  • How the feet and legs are positioned can affect the tilt of hips and thus the spine. In neutral spine the legs stand under the hips with straight ankles and the feet pointed forwards with body weight evenly carried on them. The body is relaxed. It is important to have proper foot support, so that the feet do not roll inwards or outwards and have a proper foot arch. There are special foot supports that can be inserted into shoes to help.

  • Military posture has a very straight spine.
  • Too much kyphotic curving causes round shoulders or hunched shoulders.
  • Too much lordotic curving is called swayback.
  • Sideways curvature of the spine is called “scoliosis”.

Detailed explanation of muscles used in Tadasana from “Yoga Mat Companion 1: Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses” by Ray Long, MD, FRCSC.

I found it easier to note the rocking of the hips and feel of neutral spine while lying down.

Finding Neutral Spine – Supine

When you’re in Neutral Posture, your pelvis is neither tipped forward nor backward; your pelvis is aligned over the middle of the seat bones (ischial tuberosity) whether you are standing, sitting on a chair, or on your horse’s back.

– Peggy Cummings in “Connect with Your Horse from the Ground Up”

Finding Neutral Spine and Neutral Pelvis – Standing

Sally Swift suggests a standing “Teeter Totter” exercise. Tip forwards and try to hold the position. Tip backwards and try to hold the position. Let yourself come back to center and feel how much easier it is to be in proper alignment and balance.

Take time to imagine the significance of this contrast on a horse.

– Sally Swift in “Centered Riding 2”

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Rock and roll

The pelvis is the foundation of the riding seat.

– Sally Swift from “Centered Riding”

Pelvic anatomy

Pelvis diagram posterior view

Pelvis - posterior view

The ischial tuberosity are the two bones of the pelvis that you sit on.

Each half of the pelvis is composed of three bones, the ilium, the ischium and the pubis, that have fused together during development. The topmost bone (the one that forms the pelvic rim) is the ilium. When you put your hands on your hips, they are resting on the iliac crest.

Side diagram view of pelvis

Side view of pelvis

Pelvic Anatomy Sacro-iliac Joint: This video gives a good 3D rotational view of the pelvic bones, as well as describing a reason that we are stiffer in movement as we age.

Amazing example of how the body can move – hips and spine. Belly dancing by Sadie from Denver, CO.

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Human Spine

Human skeleton side view (S curve)

Normal spine has an S shape

The spinal column is separated into 5 sections. Seen from the side, a human’s healthy spine has two curves resembling the shape of the letter “S”.

Pivot point of the head on the neck

The head rests on top of the spine at the atlanto occipital joint.

The cervical (neck) (red color) / C 1-7 has an inward curve. Arteries that carry blood to the brain pass through openings in the side of the cervical vertebrae. The flexible neck supports the head, which is like a bowling ball. The head balances on the first cervical vertebra called the atlas and pivots on the second vertebra called the axis.

A head neck joint has two joints. The atlanto-occipital joint and the atlanto-axial joint.

Atlas (C1), and Axis (C2) vertebrae

Knowing how the cervical vertebrae function is important to understand how your head and neck moves and stays in proper alignment.

This site provides an exercise to help you find the pivot point of your head on your spine.

The thoracic (chest) (blue color) / T 1 – 12 has an outward curve. This area of the spine is very stable. The vertebrae are  attached firmly to the ribs and sternum (breast bone).

Lumbar (abdominal & lower back) (yellow color) / L 1 – 5   has an inward curve. These vertebrae are able to move and flex. Sometimes people are born with a sixth vertebra in the lumbar region

Sacral (buttocks) (green color) / S1-5 fused into one  has an outward curve. They are at the base of the spine and form part of the pelvic area.

Coccyx (tail bone) (purple color) / fused


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Human skeleton

Human skeleton

Engraving from the Iconographic Encyclopaedia of Science, Literature, and Art By Johann Georg Heck. Engraved by Henry Winkles. 1851

We all have a skeleton inside us. What is the posture of your skeleton?

Click for link to Front and Back view of skeletonwith bone names labelled.

1940s Importance of Proper Posture

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Human skeleton

There are over 206 bones in the typical adult human skeleton, a number which varies between individuals and with age. Human babies are born with 270 soft bones that fuse together by the age of twenty or twenty-five into the 206 hard, permanent adult bones.

Human appendicular skeleton diagram

Human Appendicular skeleton diagram (from Wikimedia)

Human Axial skeleton diagram

Human Axial skeleton diagram (from Wikimedia)

The axial skeleton has 80 bones together and includes the skull, the spine, the ribs and the sternum (breastbone).

The appendicular skeleton has 126 bones. This includes the two limb girdles of the shoulders and the pelvis) and their attached limb bones (arms and hands, legs and feet).

Horse skeleton diagram

Horse skeleton diagram (from Wikimedia)

Horse skeleton

Horses typically have 205 bones.

The axial skeleton contains the skull, vertebral column, sternum, and ribs. The appendicular skeleton contains the fore and hind limbs. Unlike his human rider the horse has no collarbone, plus the horse is able to lock the legs to rest and sleep standing up.

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Awareness – Body Scan

Twice this week I awakened before dawn when it was still dark outside. Sitting in bed I did some stretching feeling where I was stiff. Where was I holding tension in my body?

I could hear my husband breathing on the other side of the bed and one of our cats quietly snoring at his feet. Moving my joints I heard clicks, cracks and pops. My right knee has a grinding sound just before I straighten it out. When did I develop this sound? Was it when I twisted my knee this past summer? The knee is much weaker now and perhaps damaged a ligament.

How do my joints feel as they move? I note the different ways my hands, elbows and shoulder joints move. What happens if I move my shoulder with my palm up? What happens if I move my shoulder with my palm down? I hear the click and pop of my right shoulder. My collar-bone doesn’t connect to my sternum properly on that side. Could this cause me imbalance in my body? Is there a difference in how my shoulders can move on my left and right sides?

I feel tension in my shoulders and neck. I consciously tell them to relax. Am I still holding tension? Rolling my head from side to side my neck makes quiet grinding noises and then a couple of loud cracks. My neck feels less tense after the cracks.

I imagine the atlas and axis vertebrae and the joints at the base of my skull. Can I move my head on the pivot points without bending the rest of my neck? Feeling with my fingers on muscles of my head and neck I move my head slightly nodding up and down and turning side to side.

I lay back down. I often find myself holding tension. Am I actually relaxed? Breathe in to count of 4, breathe out to count of 4.  It’s like my body is on guard and holds tension to prepare to react. Breathe in to count of 4, breathe out to count of 4.  Am I ready for fight and flight?  Breathe in to count of 4, breathe out to count of 4.  Can I just focus on my breath and not think of anything else? Even for a breath? Breathe in to count of 4, breathe out to count of 4.

How can I tell the difference between relaxed and tense? I have read about a body scanning technique that presents a contrast to help become more aware of holding tension. The body scan tenses a set of muscles to feel the contraction and tension. After feeling the tightness, then you tell the muscles to relax. Feel the difference.

Starting at my toes I tense each area of my body and hold the contraction a few seconds, then ask the area to relax. – Tense the foot by pointing toe forwards, then relax. Tense the foot by pulling toes backwards, then relax. I work my way up the body tensing and relaxing each area. Continue down my arms. Clinch my fists, then relax. Move to my shoulders. Lastly I’m squinching up parts of my face and sticking out my tongue.

My other cat jumped up on the bed to investigate. I practiced mindfulness by feeling his soft fur on my hands and listening to his rumbling purring. He gave me appreciative licks on my hand with his rough tongue. I got up and the house was dark. Dark enough that didn’t matter if had my eyes open or closed. The house was mostly quiet. Is it ever truly quiet?

Again practicing mindfulness I take the time to just stand and listen. I can hear humming from a computer and the quiet roar of a plane flying over coming into land at the airport a few miles to our south. Is it coming from California and folks on the red-eye?

I stand in the dark hallway with my hands just touching the walls. I try balancing on my left leg, then my right leg. I wobble.  I ask my body questions. Do I tend to tip one way more than another? I seem to tip backwards mostly. When I start to tip over standing on one leg it happens quickly. My feet muscles try to hold me stable and fail. Can I do anything to make myself more stable? Bend my legs, think differently? Would this be easier if I could see and maybe focus on a point? I can’t rely on my body’s proprioception alone to remain stable in the dark. The body’s proprioception system provides informational awareness of your body in space. I definitely need to improve my balance, as well as stabilizing muscles to help me hold position.

I shake out my limbs. First my hands, then my wrists, and my arms. I swing my arms gently and feel the joints of my shoulders and elbows. Next my legs. I bend at my knees and feel how they support me. Where are my hips? I do a hip swivel and swing my entire leg back and forth. I rock my hips up and back and side to side. Watching that belly dancing show has taught me a few things.

Late afternoon now… how am I sitting? I’m slouching in an awful position at my desk. The lumbar support cushion does help, but the chair wants to lean back and takes me with it. Seems easiest to lean back into the chair this way, but maybe a reason I also hold tension in my neck and shoulders and my upper back often hurts.

Awareness is an important step in making changes.

For a practice:

  • Try a body scan and check where you hold tension. Try to tense at least one area, then relax. Note the difference in how that feels.
  • Try moving your synovial joints to notice how they function. See post  “Ride with Your Bones” for definition and examples of these joints.
  • Can you stand on one leg? What about balancing with your eyes closed?
  • If you are sitting now… then are you aligned over your spine? Are you riding the bones of your chair? What is tight in your body?
  • As a mindfulness exercise – close your eyes, try to clear your mind and just listen. What do you hear? Just sit for a couple of minutes and listen.
  • Try breathing in for a count of 4, then out for a count of 4. Can you have your mind empty and just breathe focusing on counting your breath? This is a simple meditation. Try for a count of 10. What does your mind do? Does it wander off?

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