Flexibility is the range of motion of a joint. A rider must be especially flexible in the pelvis and hips. The rhythmic movement of a horse can improve your flexibility because the movement of the horse closely approximates the movement of your pelvis during walking. That is the basis of hippotherapy, a form of physical therapy that uses a well-trained and balanced horse to improve a person’s posture, balance, muscle tone, mobility, and function.
The older you are, the more time and attention you will have to spend to ensure that you are comfortable during riding and after. It is best if you work stretching into your everyday life. I have the following rule written on the activity board in my barn, “Make things less convenient”. More than one person has asked me, “What the heck does that mean??!!” It is just a way of reminding myself that convenient is seldom better when it comes to maintaining flexibility. So I design some of my barn chores (and office and domestic tasks) to be less convenient. I walk out to feed each horse on pasture twice a day; I put frequently used items on the top shelf so I have to stretch to reach for them; I bend over to use a short brush and pan to pick up manure and debris in the grooming area.
You can use isotonic exercises to tone and stretch your body. Isotonics are exercises in motion, the kind you probably have done all of your life. Perform these exercises with slow, steady stretches. Bouncing can dangerously exceed a tissue’s extensibility and result in injury.
Here are some of my favorites:
The quadriceps stretch – to improve flexibility of the large muscles on the front of the thigh. If quads are tense, they may prevent you from developing a long leg as you ride. Stand on one leg (you may need to grasp a support) and grab your other ankle with the hand on the same side. Smoothly pull your heel toward your buttocks. Keep your back straight and extend your hip (downward). Hold. Repeat with the other leg. You can do this exercise before you mount, during a break, and after you ride.
Hamstring stretch – to lengthen the large muscles at the back of the thigh for a deep seat and long leg. Stand keeping one leg straight. Bend the other leg slightly at the knee and move its foot around the front to the floor on the outside of the other foot. Bend at the waist and reach for the floor. You will feel the “burn” at the back of your straight leg.
Side stretch – to elongate the side of your body, especially beneficial for a rider with a collapsed side. With your feet hip-width apart, raise one hand over your head. Reach for the ceiling as you stand on your tiptoes and feel your entire side elongate.
Lunge – to strengthen the quadriceps and stretch the gastrocnemius and Achilles tendon for “heels down”. Place one foot 2 feet ahead of the other. Bend the knee of the front leg, keeping the back leg straight and the back heel on the floor. Hold your arms out to your sides, horizontal to the floor, keeping your back straight. You should feel a strengthening in the quadriceps of the front leg and a stretch of the gastrocnemius and Achilles tendon of the back leg. Repeat with other leg.
The stirrup stretch – to improve the balance, coordination, and stretching of the obliques required for mounting. With one foot flat on the floor and the opposite hand on your hip, raise the other leg with the knee bent so the thigh is at least horizontal. Reach the opposite elbow toward the knee. Hold. Repeat with the other leg.
Symmetry stance – to improve your overall balance, symmetry and poise. You’ll need a mirror or a friend to critique you. With your feet placed wider than your shoulders to approximate the position on a horse, arms out horizontally from shoulders, tuck your buttocks as if to sit. Keeping your lower back straight, squat as far as you can toward the floor while keeping your correct position. Regulate your breathing.
Calf stretch – to stretch your gastrocnemius and Achilles tendon in order to help you ride with a long leg and low heel. Stand with your knees straight and the balls of your feet on the edge of a 2-4-inch step. Let your heels stretch down. Hold five seconds. Rest or raise above the step on your toes.
Back stretch – to stretch your lower back and hamstrings for preventing a hollow back. Lie flat on a floor or mat. Bring one or both knees to your chest. Clasp your hands around your upper shins and hug your legs toward your chest for a better stretch. Keeping your back flat, slowly raise your head and touch your nose to your knees. Hold for five seconds. Slowly uncurl. Repeat. Don’t forget to breathe.
Lower back relaxer – to stretch and relax your lower back and hamstrings and round your lower back. This exercise is convenient in the arena or along the trail. Use it before, during, or after riding. With your feet flat on the ground, squat so your seat reaches for your ankles. Clasp your arms around your legs, rest your chin on your knees, and let your muscles relax. Once you have practiced this relaxer, you will find your body remembers it and will automatically configure in that position when you squat to put bandages or boots on your horse’s legs or to clip his legs.
Abdominal strengthener – to tighten and strengthen the abdominal muscles for protecting your lower back as you ride. With knees bent and feet flat on floor, your back, shoulders, and head flat on the floor, point your arms forward toward your knees. Exhale and slowly begin lifting your head, one vertebra at a time, to raise your shoulders off the floor. Inhale as you let yourself down just as slowly.
Lateral leg lifts – to improve the range of motion of the hip joint and to strengthen the thigh muscles for effective leg aids.
Version A. Lying on one side, support your upper body with a bent elbow. Keeping your lower leg extended on the floor, raise the other leg. With your foot parallel to the floor, alternate extending your toe and heel.
Version B. In the same position, bend your upper leg and place the foot on the lower leg at the knee. Raise and lower the lower leg. The added weight of the upper leg creates more work for your lower leg.
Hip stretch – to stretch and relax some of those difficult-to-reach hip and buttock muscles that can get tight as a result of riding. Sit on the floor with your legs in front of you. Bend one leg at the knee and cross that foot over to the outside of the opposite thigh. Draw the leg close to your body, keeping your back straight. Hold.
When it comes to riding, be sure to warm up both yourself and your horse. Take it easy. Don’t risk injury. Here is one of those situations where the slower you go, the faster you will get there. Tack your horse up and lead him around the arena or use longeing or ground driving to warm him up and be sure you get plenty of walking and stretching in before you mount up.
Read Full Post »