Hips are like the centre of your universe when it comes to moving your body, and when they’re out of balance the rest of your body can suffer.
Perhaps your hips are strong and good at bearing heavy loads, but you may feel limited when it comes to moving in certain positions that require you to be more flexible, like deep squats or pancake splits.
Perhaps your hips are open and you’re quite bendy, but you don’t feel stable when you need strength and flexibility at the same time.
Physical imbalances in the hips and other areas of your body can lead to injury, joint pain, reduced physical performance and… a lack of joy experienced through your body.
Imbalances between strength and flexibility can be a thing of the past, once you understand movements like the horse stance.
Enter… The Horse Stance
The horse stance is a movement that has been practiced in different variations across many forms of martial arts from China (Shaolin Kung Fu, Wushu, Hung Gar, etc) Japan (Karate, Sumo), India (Kalaripayat). Each art form has different ways of practicing with different techniques and intentions.
The Chinese word for horse stance is Ma Bu, with Ma meaning horse and bu meaning stance. It can also be referred to as horse riding stance.
I dived into horse stance practice most deeply while studying the ways of Shaolin Monks.
The style I will be sharing is most reminiscent of the way Shaolin practice the stance – wide and low.
If you can imagine sitting upon an actual horse and how you hips and legs would be positioned, you begin to get a feel for what this style of horse stance involves.
Consistent horse stance training can have profound effects on;
- Your structural balance between flexibility and strength,
- Internal energy flow,
- Mental discipline,
- And the development of martial abilities.
You don’t have to be a martial artist to practice it though.
The horse stance is challenging and takes time to develop. This is potentially why it is less and less practiced these days, as many have become too focused on quick gains. I highly recommend you don’t fall for this trap, as the most powerful progress in my experience comes from commitment and long term, humble practice.
Why Practice The Horse Stance?
The horse stance is a position that has been proven over thousands of years to develop strong, flexible hips and legs, plus a focused, resilient mind.
I see the hips as the gateway to physical freedom. Hips that have a balance of strength and flexibility give a greater range of options when moving your body, whilst being more resilient to injuries.
Experiencing the benefits from horse stance practice begin at the physical level, and I’ve found over time many subtle and internal benefits can also be experienced (that I can’t fully explain with words, they must be experienced).
The effect of your horse stance training comes down to two key areas.
- Intention – why you’re doing it.
- Position – how you’re doing it.
Let’s begin with the why I recommend walking the path of the horse stance.
1. Tendons and Ligaments of Flexible Steel Anyone?
In addition to the horse stance – aka Ma Bu being an excellent tool to teach you how to get flexible hips, ankles and knees, it develops tendon strength through the lower body like few movements can.
Holding in this isometric (contraction without movement) position for long periods increases blood flow to the tendons and ligaments of the hips, knees and ankles. This is very important as blood doesn’t flow as readily to the tendons and ligaments (compared to your muscles), thus they take longer to strengthen and recover.
Imagine your body is like a river; if the water’s not flowing in any area you get a staleness of energy, which can cause a build up of gunk and muck. The water in this case is referring to blood flow.
When practiced diligently, with correct technique the horse stance becomes the tap to open up the flood gates of blood flow to those often neglected tendons and ligaments.
2. Get Prepared to Be Like Jean Claude Van Damme
The hip and thigh positioned trained in a deep and wide horse stance is similar to the position required for the middle splits. Horse stance practice (along with some additional supporting movements) can help to develop a different type of split, called the isometric middle split – like Van Damme demonstrates here in his epic split commercial for Volvo trucks.
3. Did Someone Say… Endurance!
With regular practice, the ma bu is also an excellent tool to develop high levels of lactic endurance for the lower body.
According to Wim Hoff (developer of the Wim Hoff Method), developing a 60 minute horse stance will adequately prepare your lower body endurance for the rigours of a marathon. Pretty cool huh!
Keep in mind – the depth of your stance, during this type of long duration practice isn’t as low as you would use to prepare for side splits. Remember, intention and position.
4. Who Doesn’t Like More Time?
These days life can get busy, balancing time for work, yourself and those you love, which is one of the reasons you may like the horse stance.
When practiced progressively with a clever approach. Horse stance practice can save you time by helping you get more flexible and strong hips, simultaneously.
Ma Bu requires strength to hold position and stop your lower body collapsing. It also requires more flexible lower body muscles. This can be referred to as an active flexibility exercise. By active I mean it involves both strength and flexibility.
Over time and with a focus on improving quality, instead of just hold time, the horse stance is a tool that will help make you both strong and flexible through the lower body.
5. Athleticism In Droves
Achieving the horse stance hold with correct technique, for periods of 2 minutes and beyond has many carry-over benefits that will help your squat, dead-lift, jumping abilities and overall lower body athleticism.
6. Internal Presence and Energy Flow
In order to hold position in Ma Bu for a prolonged period, your skeleton must be aligned as evenly as possible, and you must learn how to regulate your flow of internal energy or chi. The more you’re out of alignment, the harder it is for energy to flow and the more painful the stance will be in specific areas of your body. For example – if you slouch forward your back, or neck will become sore / tires quickly, if you lean back too much your hips will be taking more weight than necessary and thus tire faster.
Each time you experience too much loading in a specific area, it’s your body giving you a signal to find better alignment, and allow energy to flow through that area.
The more you listen to these signals and adjust your position accordingly; the better awareness you’ll have of how your body is aligned from the inside, rather than just relying on external stimulus. I call this internal presence.
The skill of internal presence can deeply enrich the way you experience and understand your body in every moment of your life.
7. The Ultimate Practice
Beneath it all I find the horse stance is a powerful tool that teaches you the process of letting go. Letting go of tension, letting go of ego, letting go of the jumble of thoughts. In my perspective this outweighs all the points before a thousand fold.
The more we let go, the more space we can create to fully live.
Now you know some of the reasons why you should put yourself through the proverbial fires the horse stance sculpts you with – let’s talk about how you can begin your practice.
How Do You Perform The Horse Stance?
There’s a couple of different ways to perform the horse stance, depending on which style of martial art you observe. For example in styles like Wushu and Chang Quan it is common to hold the horse stance (Ma Bu) with the hip back (anterior pelvic tilt), whereas in traditional styles and in southern styles the knees are forward and hips are tucked (posterior pelvic tilt).
Both of these variations have their benefits. With regards to hip position – I recommend to work towards developing freedom of movement towards as many positions as possible. To best do this, try both positions (hips forward tilted / tucked) and work on the most challenging first.
Humble Beginnings… At The Wall
To begin the horse stance you’ll use the wall as a reference tool. This will help align your body correctly, ensure you’re not cheating and teach you correct position for when you move away from the wall.
The wall should be used as a guide not something you become addicted to.
11 Tips For The Wall Horse Stance
Before we get into cues, it’s important to simply use these as a guide and not worship them as religion. Remember there is no right or wrong when it comes to moving your body, there just is and is not.
These cues will help you get started, and after consistent practice you’ll more deeply understand how your individual body works in the position, beyond words.
- Begin with your feet at least 1.5 times your shoulder width.
- Keep your heels on the wall, or as close as possible.
- Keep your hips tucked under (aka, posterior / neutral pelvic tilt).
- Keep your upper back and head on wall.
- Grip the ground with your feet, whilst opening the knees apart as much as you can.
- Keep your toes gripped on the ground (this will help your ankles and to fortify the stance, it’ll also activate your kidney meridian).
- When in the stance, you should not be able to see your big toes.
- Relax as much as you can.
- Only go as low as you can whilst maintaining correct alignment.
- Build range progressively, add resistance if necessary.
- Breathe slowly and deeply!
Progress from the wall when… you understand the feeling of the position.
Beyond The Wall
Once you move beyond the wall, explore gradually widening and deepening your stance, to build a basic foundation.
Here’s a test I recommend you do to determine your readiness to widen your stance.
Here’s some general progression guidelines.
Step 1: 3 Step Horse Stance
Step 2: 5 Step Horse Stance
Step 3: 7 Step Horse Stance
I consider a basic horse stance foundation to be when you can balance two circular objects (I use two Hacky Sacks in the video) on your thighs and perform a 10-15 deep breath hold, at a 3 step width. I prefer to count breaths instead of time, as it brings the focus within instead on the external.
Bringing your focus inwards provides some deeper experiences that can often be missed if you’re fixated on a timer.
Today we covered the what’s and why’s about horse stance training.
Begin your horse stance at the wall, then progress your stance width using the test in the video.
Remember the importance of understanding intention and position in your horse stance practice.
Practice, practice, practice the horse stance and in time you’ll understand how to get flexible hips. You’ll also open up many movement possibilities, like the middle splits and more. In time you’ll experience a lower body that feels free to do more of what you choose, without limits.
The question is what would you do if you had a lower body like this?
Your potential resides in your practice.
Take Your Horse Stance to the Next Level
In the Embodied Flexibility program you’ll learn a step-by-step approach to improve your flexibility for a deeper Horse Stance, better martial arts and movement abilities.
Click the button below to learn how.