Conditioning and Stretching for the Rider
by Scot Hansen
As we enter into the summer season, the desire to ride outside increases as the days get longer and the sun shines warmer. No matter where you are, summer will probably give you the itch to increase your riding. Along with this increase in riding will be an increase in the demands placed on the muscles used by you and your horse.
Several things take place during this time of increased activity. The most common is that we tend to ride more often and to take longer rides. This extra demand on you and your horse can add up to sore muscles for both of you. How do we deal with this? There is nothing that quite works the riding muscles like riding itself; however, there are a few things that we can do for ourselves that will help prepare us so that we can minimize injury and discomfort. And the most important of these is stretching.
Yes, stretching can do a lot to loosen up the winter tightness and to ensure that the muscles are able to accept the increase in work as a friendly companion instead of feeling like its an all out assault. While we dont use lots of muscle strength when riding, we do use quite a bit of muscle tone. One way to increase that tone is to stretch, bend, and reach. The usual stretches for most sports will be a good start, but then there are a few that we can add that are more specific to our sport.
After doing some of the more familiar stretches such as a toe reach, side to side bend, cherry picker, hurdler stretch, etc. we can add some of additional stretches from our riding position.
Get yourself a sturdy saddle stand and place your saddle on it. Elevate the stand with something solid so that you can sit in your saddle with your legs in a normal riding position (we dont want your feet dragging on the ground). Climb onto the saddle and be careful not to roll it as we are not going to be affixing it to the saddle stand. Remember to be careful during your stretching exercises. We assume no liability for you falling off your stationary horse. But if you do, forward the photos so we can enjoy the moment along with you!
Take a seat and relax. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Assume a nice, relaxed, natural riding posture (not stiff and forced) and breathe again.
Raise your arms to shoulder height and slowly rotate your upper body to the right and then to the left, going as far as you can without twisting or raising your seat out of the saddle. Do each side ten times, and remember to breathe. When you are rotating your body you must also watch that your shoulders do not dip down to one side, your arms and hands should stay on an even plane of rotation. While doing this exercise, feel what it does to your seat bones in the saddle.
Next, reach forward as far as you can with your right hand towards what would be the horses left shoulder and act as if you are going to pet him on the neck and then stroke down towards his left shoulder. While doing this, dont let your seat rise off of the saddle. But let your core muscles and your back stretch, and keep your legs in a good riding position. If you simply lean way forward you will lighten your seat and probably cause your saddle to tip off the stand. Oops. The reason this happens is that you didnt really stretch but merely leaned your entire body forward. You may be able to reach a long way or perhaps only a short distance. It doesnt matter as long as you start feeling some of those riding muscles getting stretched out. Each time you go forward and stroke the invisible ho! rse, hold that for a count of ten before you rise back to the starting position. Now work on the other side.
Next, reach back and pet your horses invisible rump. Again, the object is to have you stretch core muscles that are used in riding and not simply lean way back. Try to reach to the opposite side of the rump from the hand you are using (i.e., use your right hand to touch the rump on the left side). Dont forget that you should be reaching behind you and to the opposite side. You will need to twist your torso a little, but dont merely turn this into a twisting exercise. We could do that on the floor. Instead, this exercise is designed to help remind us to keep our seat in place and still get some stretching done. All the while feeling what is happening to our seat bones and legs as the change in position causes us to shift our weight. Remember that your horse can feel these weight shifts, as well, when youre r! iding.
Pet the horses rump as before but let your body twist around to the front first and then back to the rump. There will be more of a twisting motion to this exercise, but remember to try to keep your seat relatively solid. You will find that this stretches your side muscles from your waist towards your armpit. Again hold each stretch for a count of ten, and do ten on each side.
Time to work on the legs. Remove your foot from the stirrup and try to lift your leg from the hip directly out to the side of your horse, now rotate it backwards in a slight arc and bring it back along the side of your horse. Go back as far as is comfortable and do the motion through the hip and not just the knee. Repeat on the other side. I find this exercise is a great one for lengthening your leg.
During all of these stretches, its important to keep a solid riding seat. Yes, you will move around a bit, but you shouldnt feel like youre going to knock the saddle off the stand as you do these. The fact that the saddle is not attached to a real horse causes you to be more accurate in what youre doing and to stretch some of the riding muscles and not just bend and reach in any manner.
These same exercises can be performed from your horse and lots of students are taught them or variations of them. But getting loosened up on a saddle stand first makes it easier to do the exercises safely on a moving horse later. Mostly it allows you to stretch as much as you want without having to over use the horse or even going to the barn. You can do this inside while watching TV, staying out of the rain and can do it everyday or several times a day. In the meantime, you can still ride your horse on the normal days that you ride him, but you will find that, as you loosen up and flow better, your horse will, too.
You will also find that stretching and returning to the normal position causes your body to strengthen the core muscles as well as stretch them. You will ride better, and it will help keep you and your horse more balanced, which will prevent both of you from becoming sore and stiff as your riding activities pick up.
Copyright Scot Hansen 2003