Do you have trouble sitting the trot? Is it harder to bend your horse in one direction than the other? Do you feel out of balance over jumps? German sports physiologist and popular clinician Eckart Meyners has designed an exercise program to help riders overcome problems such as these. His Balimo ("BALance In MOtion") Equestrian Program teaches you how to balance your muscles by strengthening the weak ones and loosening the strong, tight ones. It also helps you to improve your coordination, while "unblocking" tension in your body that inhibits its free movement. All of these benefits will improve your overall balance and will facilitate your body control and awareness in the saddle. This will allow for clearer, more precise communication with your horse.
Eckart has identified the most common muscle imbalances that riders struggle with and has designed more than 100 exercises to help rebalance them. The Balimo exercises also improve "cross-coordination"—the communication between the left and right sides of the brain. Moving your diagonal limbs (left arm/right leg, right arm/left leg) together encourages this communication in your brain which, in turn, helps to balance the two sides of your body. As a result, you'll find coordinating your leg, hand and seat aids in the saddle easier.
Concentrating too much on your position while riding, however, actually prevents you from focusing fully on your horse. The best way to promote harmony with him is to work on your own body first, before you ride.
But who has time to warm up, exercise and ride in the same day? If you're as busy as most riders, you need to integrate your body-balance exercise program into your daily life. This two-article series will show you how to do that with some of Balimo's fun, effective muscle-balancing and cross-coordination exercises. Fun is the key word. The more you enjoy what you're doing, the faster your body will learn and improve—and the more likely you are to keep it up!
Before you try to improve your body (and before you even get in the saddle), give it a chance to warm up. A proper warm-up will prepare your circulatory, muscular, nervous and hormonal systems to work. Your respiration will increase, allowing a speedier delivery of needed nutrients and oxygen to your muscles and prompt removal of their metabolic byproducts, such as lactic acid. Your body temperature will rise, thus lowering the friction between muscle fibers—reducing tension, cramping and the possibility of injury—and stimulating an increase of cartilage-nourishing fluid in your joints. This will also increase your range of motion, flexibility and relaxation.
The interaction between your nervous system and your muscles, tendons and ligaments will improve as well, resulting in better body awareness and coordination. Meanwhile, a good warm-up prepares you mentally and emotionally to focus on the task at hand.
Ideally, your warm-up should last about 20 minutes, but if your time is limited, break it into mini warm-ups throughout your day. The effects will last until you get on your horse, even if that's hours later. Here are just a few warm-up exercises.
Exercise 1: Walk on four sides of your feet
Benefits: While helping to warm up your entire body, this exercise increases your body awareness.
How to do it: Start by walking normally for a few steps, then roll your ankles out so you're walking on the outsides of your feet for several steps (Photo A, left). Next, roll your ankles toward each other and walk on the insides of your feet (Photo B, below). Then walk on your toes and, finally, on your heels. When you return to a normal walk, your whole body will feel lighter and more balanced. This is an easy exercise to do while walking around the house, walking the dog or leading your horse.
By experimenting with contrasting weight and body positions, you teach your body to recognize when it is upright and centered and when it is not. This concept can be applied to any physical movement on the ground or in the saddle. For example, in the saddle, by leaning far to the right and then far to the left, it'll be easier to recognize when you're truly sitting in the center.
Exercise 2: Skipping
Benefits: Here's another all-body warmer with an added cross-coordination component.
How to do it: Skipping sounds simple, doesn't it? But to boost your cross-coordination skills, try crossing your midline (an imaginary line down the middle of your body, intersecting with your nose and belly button) with your diagonal limbs. Be sure you're twisting in your torso with each stride.
As your left foot leaves the ground, pull that knee up and to the right, while reaching diagonally across your body to the left with your right arm. In the next step, twist in the other direction, bringing your right knee and left arm across your body. Skip everywhere: down the barn aisle, out to the pasture to fetch your horse, from your car to the grocery store. You may feel silly at first—until you discover how much it helps your riding!
Exercise 3: Crawling
Benefit: The diagonal hand-knee motion of crawling is believed to be an essential component of coordination development in human babies. By revisiting it as adults, we strengthen the connection between the left and right sides of our brains.
How to do it: While watching TV or listening to the radio, crawl back and forth across your living room floor for a few minutes. Try several variations: crawling forward like a bear, sideways like a crab, with your belly against the ground, or pulling yourself forward with your elbows, commando-style. This last variation also helps to loosen and relax your lower back.
The next set of exercises addresses common rider problems in specific parts of the body.