The digital age has turned us into creatures of “sitting” instead of the active beings we were intended to be. Combine that with the stress of hurried lifestyles, bad habits and overuse of muscles, and we begin to associate pain and imbalances in the body as part of aging or daily living. Treating our bodies like machines racing against time can only lead to breakdown, frustration and costly downtime.
If you’re fortunate enough to get away from it all and get out on the trail, you’ve taken one giant leap into the whole body approach to health and wellness – stress reduction. Time in the saddle can create a multitude of discomforts though, some of which are listed below. If you’ve done nothing to prepare yourself before and after riding, some conditions can be amplified resulting in an uncomfortable ride.
- Pain in the lower back can be unbearable and distracts our attention. Supporting our upper body onto our lower body, the low back needs its structure to be strong and balanced. When weakness, imbalance and muscle strain are evident the pain can be debilitating. Developing core strength through exercise and stretching can mitigate low back pain.
- Most of us hold stress and tension in the shoulders. Long durations of computer work and bad posture can intensify this condition, reduce mobility and lead to chronic neck tension and upper back discomfort. Improving shoulder circulation can help to alleviate these circumstances.
- When we are still, we allow the body’s connective tissue to become restrictive. Moving and dynamically stretching mobilizes the joint and muscle fibres, loosening up these adhesions which riders may find in the hips, gluteals and ankles.
- A common source of knee discomfort is associated with neglected muscles at the hip joint and muscles that run along the inside and outside of the leg.
Ten to 15 minutes of isolated and dynamic stretching can improve circulation, reduce muscle tightness while riding, and address imbalances. Stretching routines as a daily habit can provide other positive benefits such as reduced risk of injury, improved posture and greater freedom of movement.
The exercises chosen here can be incorporated in the barn before and after your ride. You should never stretch cold muscles, so it¡_s a good idea to actively brush your horse before stretching. Exaggerated brushing movements will get the blood flowing, allowing your muscles to be receptive to stretching. Changes in flexibility take time, so be patient and consistent. Work yourself up to holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds, at your own comfortable range of motion.
Reducing stress, consuming proper nutrition, incorporating muscular strengthening and stretching exercises, as well as including at least moderate (vigorous is better) cardiovascular exercise for your heart, is essential for general health.
1. Calf Stretch + Shoulder Circles
This stretch involves mainly: the lower leg muscles (gastrocnemius, soleus), shoulders, chest, and arms (deltoids, levator scapulae, trapezius, triceps, pectoralis)
- Stand in a tall position (hips under shoulders) with one leg extended back.
- Press the heel to the ground and feel a stretch in the lower part of the extended leg.
- Add a shoulder roll, by bringing your shoulders up to your ears and rolling them down and back.
- Repeat for 10 slow shoulder rolls, and then switch legs and complete 10 vigorous shoulder rolls.
2. Leg + Upper Back Stretch
Stretch involves mainly: pelvic girdle (quadriceps, psoas, rectus femoris) and upper back muscles (trapezius, deltoids)
- Stand with one foot on a mounting block or stable surface.
- Slowly bring your back knee towards the ground until you feel a stretch in the hip flexors and front of the thigh.
- Add an upper back stretch by bringing your arms around in front as though you were hugging a big tree that you can’t quite get around, and lower your chin down slightly.
3. Hamstring Stretch
Stretch involves mainly: posterior leg muscles (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus)
- Put one foot onto a mounting block or stable surface, keeping both knees slightly bent.
- Hinge at your hip and extend your upper body forward until you feel slight tension in behind the thigh.
- Pull your abdominals in to keep your lower back stable.
- You shouldn’t have to go too far to feel this stretch
4. Back, Chest, Shoulder + Glute Stretch
Stretch involves mainly: muscles of the back and shoulder girdle (trapezius, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, triceps), chest muscles (pectoralis) and pelvic girdle (gluteus maximus, piriformis)
- Stand a couple of feet away from a stall, wall or fence with your arms out in front.
- Sit your hips back and allow your upper body to come between your lengthened arms – you should feel a stretch in your shoulders, chest and back muscles here.
- Try adding a glute stretch by crossing onr leg across the opposite knee as shown – keep your elevated knee wide and you should feel a stretch in the glute and the hip.
- Take a short break, then repeat on the opposite side.
5. Back Twist + Side Leg Stretch
Stretch involves mainly: lower back muscles (quadratus lumborum, erector spinae), external hip rotators (piriformis, gluteus minimus)
- Sit on a stable surface with your hips facing front and your feet on the ground. If you can’t quite reach the ground put your feet on an elevated surface.
- Start to twist in one direction using the surface to push you into a stretch for the back – go slowly.
- If you are tight on the outside of your leg, try crossing one leg as though you were sitting in a chair and twist in the same direction as the crossed leg. Adding ankle circles will loosen up the ankles.
To warm-up the legs and hips, start with your feet out very wide and your toes out. Reach to the ground or to your thighs with bent knees and a straight back. Start to shift side to side as though you are doing a lunge. Your knees shouldn’t go past your toes during the movement. Do this for 30 seconds to one minute.
Remember to breathe normally during all of the stretches. Listen to your body while doing any exercise and stop if you feel discomfort, pain or become dizzy. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine like this. Not all exercises suit everyone.
Breathing Techniques and Posture
There are three main modes of breathing that may affect your posture in the saddle.
Abdominal breathing – the belly expands on inhale and descends on exhale. This type of breathing is relaxing and, since there is no real involvement of the abdominal muscles, can result in the slouched posture indicated in Photo 1, and potentially a sore back at the end of your ride.
Clavicular breathing – the abdominals become rigid, eliminating the use of the diaphragm. You may associate this type of breathing when alarmed, panicked or stressed. Muscles are rigid, the shoulders are up, and, as indicated in Photo 2, not a very comfortable position for horse or rider.
Diaphragmatic breathing – involves the diaphragm moving up and down on each breath. There is expansion of the ribcage and involvement of the abdominals, which helps stabilize the low back. This type of breathing keeps the mind clear and attentive. Photo 3 indicates an alert posture in the saddle associated with this type of breathing.