Home » Why Do My Knees Hurt After Horseback Riding and How To Fix It

Why Do My Knees Hurt After Horseback Riding and How To Fix It

There’s nothing better than a long trail ride.  However, at the end of the day, it sure seems like my muscles feel sore and my joints begin to ache.  I know that my horse is doing most of the work but why does it seems like my body takes the beating?  Even with today’s comfortable saddles and all the right gear, horseback riding causes knee pain for lots of people.

So what is it that’s causing knee pain and discomfort when riding and more importantly, how do you prevent it?

No matter what type of horseback riding you do, knee pain is caused when pressure is applied to those joints in an unnatural way for long periods of time.  Seat and leg position, weak muscles and tendons, saddle types, stiff stirrups and tight pants all combine to cause painful knees.  

After a long ride my knees often ache and there are things we can do to fix that problem.  Read on and I’ll share all the tricks that solve my knee pain while riding horses.  I’m sure they will work for you too.

5 Reasons why horse riding causes knee pain

Knee pain caused by horseback riding fits into 5 basic categories: riding posture, tack choice, clothing, horse physique and old injuries.  The great news is that you can control and change 4 of them!  Let’s go over each reason in a little bit more detail so you can get back to riding pain free!  

1. Riding posture

You might be thinking that proper posture only applies in fancy show arenas.  Why do you have to worry how your legs hang on a trail ride or while barrel racing?  

Body posture and correct form in the saddle is extremely important for all riding disciplines.  Not only in relation to knee pain but for your overall comfort.  All the muscles, tendons and ligaments in your body work together to keep you in the saddle.  Getting sloppy in one area can cause pain to crop up in another.   

Your knee joints are only made to hinge one way enabling you to stand, walk and jump.  When you are sitting astride your horse with your feet in saddle stirrups, your knees become bent at an unnatural angle.  

Adding any lateral torque to your ankles, lower legs, knees or hips usually manifests as knee pain.  And it doesn’t take much.  You might not even realize you are twisting or squeezing certain parts of your leg to accommodate sitting in a saddle until it’s too late.  

2. Gear related problems

If you don’t have a history of knee pain, your choice of riding gear is most likely the main cause of knee pain and the first thing you should change.  I know it was for me.  And this is the easiest problem to remedy.  All you have to do is buy some new tack.  And what horse owner doesn’t love shopping for new tack?!  

Western saddles are by far the biggest culprit for knee pain because of their stiff leather fenders and stirrups.  While riding, your feet have to turn the stirrups outward 90 degrees and your knees receive the brunt of the pressure required to keep them in this position.  

Your feet also have to turn standard stirrups on English and Australian saddles but the thinner stirrup leathers greatly alleviates pressure on your knees.     

Before you start contemplating buying a new saddle, there are other simple, and less expensive, fixes you can do to your current setup that will help alleviate knee strain.  This will be covered in more detail later.

3. Clothing

Believe it or not, your choice of riding pants may be causing, or at least adding to, your knee pain while riding.  Pants that are overly tight or have extra fabric that bunch up behind your knee can apply excess pressure when you bend your leg.  Try pulling that excess fabric above or below your knee.  Better yet, make sure to get pants that fit appropriately while standing straight and bending your leg.

4. Horse physique

The body shape of your horse also contributes to excessive knee pain.  There is a lot of tension put on your knees from wrapping your legs around a rotund horse.  Picture the classic bowlegged cowboy.  Narrowly built horses and mules allow your legs to hang more naturally down and in line.  This plays into the correct posture and alignment section mentioned above.

You can help a fat horse loose weight but their basic anatomy can’t be changed.  This is something you have to be aware of when buying your horse.  While a wide chest, round barrel and flat back makes bareback riding more comfortable, it goes against knee comfort in the saddle.  

5. Old injuries 

Knee injuries are tricky.  Some people get lucky and heal completely while others have to deal with lifelong pain and flare ups.  Unfortunately, horseback riding is one of those activities that more often than not will cause old knee injuries to resurface in painful ways. 

You can conquer all of the problems mentioned above and still have knee pain while riding simply because you have physical knee problems that are tough to resolve.

How to prevent knee pain while riding a horse

We’ve talked about the reasons why your knees may hurt while horseback riding.   Now let’s go over how to prevent or lessen the pain so you can enjoy riding more!  

Before you even get on your horse there are a few things you can do to decrease the likelihood of knee pain.  

Loosen up with stretches

Take a few minutes to stretch.  Prepare all your muscles, not just your legs, for sitting and moving in the saddle.  There are all kinds of stretches you can do.  The easiest way to come up with a routine is to do a quick search on YouTube.  Find a quick, 5-10 minute stretching routine that you can do before each ride. 

Pick your riding clothes for joint relief  

Choose comfortable pants that have enough stretch and give around your knees.  Bunched up fabric will squeeze your knees and apply unnecessary pressure when they are bent.

Leather riding chaps can also add bulk and stiffness around your knees.  If full length chaps are your style, again, make sure they are not too tight when you bend your legs.  Taking them off when you are not riding also gives your legs a rest.  

A good alternative for Western riders are leather chinks.  These fringy leathers cover your leg from hip to just below the knee and attach loosely around the back of your thigh putting no pressure on your knees.  

For English equestrians, or anyone for that matter, half chaps are great option.  Leather half chaps are worn on your lower legs from the ankle to just below the knee.  Your legs are protected from stirrup pinching yet your knees are free from pressure.

Make your Western saddle work for you

Making a few small changes to your existing tack setup can make all the difference when it comes to alleviating knee pain.  

Turning the stirrups to hang perpendicular to your horse allows you to simply slip your feet into them.  There won’t be nearly as much, if any, pressure on your knees since you don’t have to keep the stirrups turned with your legs.  

If Western riding is your style, take a look at these options for adjusting stiff stirrups.

  • Tough-1 Stirrup Turner –  These nylon leather straps are a simple and inexpensive way to physically turn your stirrups to a more comfortable position.  The strap attaches between the stirrup and the bottom of the fender, turning the stirrup so it hangs perpendicular to the horse.
  • Cashel E-Z Knee Stirrup Turner –  Cashel makes a metal stirrup turner that works similar to the Tough-1.  It’s a little fancier looking, especially if you participate in horse shows.  Just make sure it doesn’t rub your ankles causing other leg problems.  
  • Tough-1 Aluminum Swivel Offset Stirrups – Instead of adding an attachment that turns your existing stirrups, you can buy an entire swiveling stirrup.  These stirrups turn 360 degrees and can be locked in place, guaranteeing that you will find a position that is perfect for your legs and knees.  Simply remove your old stirrups and replace with these.  If you like how your current stirrups match your saddle, you can just buy the Tough-1 Stirrup Swivel
  • Tapaderos are another viable way to keep stirrups in the turned position.  If you do a lot of riding that requires you to protect your feet, like brushy and wet trail rides, these will do double duty. 

Make your English saddle work for you

For those of you who prefer English disciplines, the narrow stirrup leathers shouldn’t put as much pressure on your knees.  However, if your knees are extremely sensitive or you spend a lot of time in the saddle, there are pivoting stirrup irons for English saddles too. 

MDC Comfort Stirrups allow you to pick the most comfortable position for your legs by providing three adjustable positions: 0° (standard), 45° and 90°.  Alleviate the most knee pressure by keeping the irons in the 90° position.

Ease your knee pain while in the saddle

It’s a safe bet that most riders don’t experience knee pain at the beginning of a ride.  Maybe you start to feel the twinges and sharp pains after a couple miles.  If you don’t want to cut your ride short, there are several tricks you can try to soothe knee pain as it occurs to keep you in the saddle longer.   

  • Make sure your posture and leg alignments are correct.  Your body works as a whole.  Pressure in one area, like your ankles, can manifest as pain somewhere else.
  • Rest your toes lightly in the stirrups.  You should not be constantly pushing down hard in the stirrups.  
  • Don’t squeeze with your knees.  You should not be maintaining your balance in the saddle by squeezing your horse with your knees.  This type of leg pressure is guaranteed to cause knee pain.  
  • Make sure your stirrups are the correct length.  Stirrups that are too long may not necessarily cause knee pain but they will decrease the control you have in the saddle and your ability to move with your horse.  Stirrups that are too short pull your legs upward causing an excessive bend in your knees.  Keeping your knees in this position for too long causes stiffness.      
  • Give your knees a rest.  As you ride, pull your legs out of the stirrups once in awhile and allow them to dangle free.  This relieves pressure on the knee joint.
  • Get off and walk.  Nothing helps stretch tight and painful knees like getting off your horse and walking for a spell.  It may hurt to walk at first, but you will loosen back up.  Go ahead and do some more leg stretches mentioned above too.      

Final thoughts 

It can be uncomfortable and frustrating to have knee pain while riding your horse.  It certainly curbs excitement and prevents you from riding as long or as often as you wish. 

Hopefully the tips in this article can help manage or prevent your knee pain so you can get back to riding!