Riders are athletes. Shouldn’t we train for the sport like one? Start with this stretching guide, courtesy of our friends at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC, the boutique show that puts horse and human athletes first—every time.
What sport gives you the arms of Michelle Obama, thighs that can crack a coconut and will render you completely unable to touch toes and/or do the limbo?
One hundred points if you guessed horse riding!
“One thing that happens with a lot of sports, but particularly riding, is that there isn’t a lot of cross training, so the body is held in one position a lot,” says performance coach Steve Morris, of Morris Coaching in Calgary, Alberta.
“When that happens, you start to get some muscles that are too short and some that are too long, which puts the body under strain. Because you’re doing it for hours every day, it piles up, especially over the years.”
Some of the most common areas of tension Morris sees in his equestrian clients are the hamstrings, the hips and the groin. By targeting these areas with pre- and/or post-ride stretching, you can improve symmetry in the body, help prevent muscle tearing and support the joints.
“The more you can maintain yourself and keep yourself feeling limber and agile, the stronger you’ll feel and the less likely you’ll be injured,” he says, “so you can ride pain free and at the top of your game.”
Sequence one: the hamstrings
All of the stretching sequences Morris recommends include both dynamic and static aspects—that is, a moving stretch and a stationary stretch.
“You really want to strive towards achieving maximum length in a stretch, as well as have an elastic feel to the muscle throughout its range of motion,” he explains.
For the hamstring sequence, start in a forward fold.
“First, you stretch both hamstrings. Then you target one, then the other by walking the motion—you bend one knee, straighten the other, and alternate. Feel one side stretch, then the other,” he says.
Next, step one foot over the other and target the outside hamstring, relaxing into the stretch before repeating it on the other side.
Finish your hamstring stretch with a dynamic toe touch squat. “Squat deep, sitting onto your heels, then come upright, fully extending the legs while the hands stay at your toes,” he says. “Repeat the squat a few times until the hamstrings feel nice and long, ending with a deep forward fold, trying to get as low as possible.”
Stretch tip: If you find one side is tighter, make sure you linger a little longer or “double dose” that side. For instance, if your left side is tighter, go left, right, left so it equalizes better. Your end game is to find symmetry and flexibility through the whole body.
Sequence two: the hip flexors
“A lot of riders feel back pain and 90% of the time it’s because their hip flexors are too tight, particularly in combination with tight hamstrings,” reveals Morris.
Staying with the theme of both static and dynamic stretches, assume a forward lunge position with your back knee on the ground.
“You’re looking to get deep into a forward stretch across the front of the hip. You’re pushing your hip forward and down as deeply as possible, really thinking about the front of the hip being long and elastic,” he continues.
“You don’t want to protect and hold against any stretch. You want to be in a place where you’re comfortable enough that there’s a balance between intensity and ability. You want to feel able to get deep into that stretch and continue to find more depth as you go, using relaxing breath to help you get there.”
Add a dynamic element to the stretch by bringing the arms back to allow the stretch to continue through the front line of the body.
Then arc left side to right side to incorporate the sideline of that body into the hip flexor.
Stretch tip: Find a time in the morning and/or evening when you might have a little bit of time to yourself so you can settle into your stretching more easily.
Sequence three: the groin
The groin is one of the most important stretches for riders as these muscles tend to get short and tight from holding onto the horse.
“The more elasticity you can create in the groin, the less likely it is to tear. You’ll even find you have more strength. A muscle that has a good range of motion and elasticity is a stronger muscle,” emphasizes Morris.
For this final sequence, start with one leg out to the side in a deep static stretch to encourage the groin muscle to release.
Then proceed to a dynamic side squat
“You’re going to feel a deep stretch into the groin as you go deep into the squat. Only go as deep as you can and always be cautious of knee problems. But if you can, challenge the depth each time,” he advises.
To finish, do a Plié squat with the toes and knees turned out. “You’re really trying to sit your bum deep into your Plié squat to find the groin stretch at the bottom of that.”
Repeat on the other side.
Stretch tip: Repeat your stretch sequences in part or in sequence as often as possible. If you have a particularly tight groin, try adding a single groin stretch between horses.
Morris’s take-home message: Riding is excellent exercise. There are no two ways about. It’s just not the only exercise you should be doing.
Discover more of Steve Morris’s fitness tips for riders at morriscoaching.ca.
Thunderbird Show Park, aka “tbird,” is one of North America’s premier equestrian show facilities. Located just minutes from the TransCanada highway in Langley, the horse capital of British Columbia, tbird hosts six major Hunter and Jumper Show Tournaments a year as well as a variety of different equestrian events and shows. Catch the FEI World Cup Qualifier Langley on August 27th, 2017! Learn more at tbird.ca.