By Olivia St Pierre-Baxter
I’m always amazed at how sore I am the day after my first ride back from even the shortest riding hiatus. As someone who rides 4-5 times per week on average, just a week off on vacation will leave me sore for days to come. I’ll be the first to admit that I live a busy and often overwhelmingly scheduled life, trying to balance my “big girl” job in the city and studying for the MCATs, with my time at the barn. It is not uncommon for things to fall through the cracks. For me, my personal #FitnessGoals are often the first to go.
While strength and conditioning training programs like CrossFit have recently garnered attention as a popular unmounted training option in the equestrian world, strength and endurance in the saddle ultimately starts with having a strong, balanced core, healthy joints, and self-awareness.
When we are on the ground, we come into alignment from our feet. Strong feet, ankles, knees, calves, and thighs give us the foundation we need to walk and jump and run. If we have problems involving alignment or discomfort in our lower extremities, we will most certainly also feel discomfort in other joints or muscle systems.
When you mount a horse, your anatomical alignment essentially shifts to center itself around the hips and of course the seat. If our hips aren’t supple, we feel the physical repercussions. Tight hip flexors may cause lower back pain, rigid posturing, and even muscular and joint pain in the knees and legs. Beyond that, tight hips prevent us from having the flexibility needed to make the subtle adjustments that enable us to communicate and ride to our full potential.
Often times, when I come to the barn after a long work day, my horse can sense my stress.
Knowing this, it comes as a surprise that more riders don’t make it a habit to incorporate regular stretching rituals into their training. Just as horses require a certain consistency with ground training in order to build their muscles and their minds, riders should also dedicate time to training from the ground up.
I’ve found that incorporating a gentle yoga practice before every ride has greatly improved my overall performance, as well as my recovery between rides. The more I practice, the more I fall in love with the way that yoga challenges me to engage both the mind and body in a way that greatly benefits my communication, comfort, and posture, in and out of the saddle.
Often times, when I come to the barn after a long work day, my horse can sense my stress. By taking a few moments to unwind before I ride, I’ve found that there is less tension and frustration between my horse and I, and more gains in our training together.
The following six stretches are exercises that I like to focus on before I ride. Each of these postures have hip-opening potential, and additionally may engage your other muscle systems in a gentle back-bend or twist. I love that I can bring these stretches with me wherever I am in the world, whether that be at a show across state lines, in the tack room on a rainy day, or simply in the paddock before a ride. You can use a mat if you wish, or find a comfortable spot in the grass.
*NOTE that I am NOT a physical therapist, athletic trainer, yoga instructor, or doctor. My experience with these postures and their benefits come from years of personal practice. It is important to remember always to listen to your body, and only do what you feel comfortable with. Knowing your limits is the best thing you can do to grow. Feel free to make modifications where needed, and don’t forget to breath.
1. High Lunge with Backbend
Start from standing, extend one leg out in front of you and bend into a runner’s lunge, keeping the back leg still lifted. Interlock your hands above your head, and reach back as far as what feels comfortable for you.
2. Warrior III for Hip Stability
From the high lunge, shift your weight forward into your front leg. Straighten your front leg as you lift the back leg off of the ground, and reach your hands forward or let them settle at your heart. Keep your gaze fixed forward to help you balance. This posture not only stabilizes the hips, but also engages the core while offering a full-body stretch. Repeat on both sides.
From a seated position on the ground, set one leg out in front, bent at an angle parallel to your hips. Extend long your back leg. You can then rest on your hands, forearms, or come all the way down so that your forehead is resting on the ground for a deeper stretch. Repeat on both sides.
4. King Pigeon
With your front leg still in half-pigeon, bend your back leg, and reach one or both arms behind you for a back-bend and gentle twist. Repeat on both sides.
5. Seated and Reclined Figure Fours
Bend your knees with your feet still planted on the ground in a seated position. Extend one leg and rest that ankle on the opposite thigh. Repeat on both sides.
Lay on your back and slowly lift your bum and hips into the air. Imagine that your hips are on a string, and continue to reach them upwards towards the sky, keeping a gentle pelvic tilt. You can rest your palms down on the ground beneath you, or tuck your shoulders in and interlock your hands on the ground below your back. This is a wonderful posture to hold for several minutes both before and after riding.