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Rider Fitness Tip of the Month: Lengthening Your Leg

Rider exercises to stabilize the lower leg in the dressage saddle and fix floppy legs.

Heather Sansom

Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Rider, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today. EquiFITT.com offers rider fitness clinics & workshops, Centered Riding® instruction, and convenient distance eCoaching for riders anywhere.  Subscribe to receive free monthly Equestrian Fittips, and download rider fitness eBooks at:  www.equifitt.com/resources.html

This month's piece about unmounted exercises for the dressage rider is a continuation of last month's article ‘Fixing Floppy Legs'.  In the last piece, we looked at tension in a rider's inner thighs and ankles which can block the softness needed in the hips, knees and ankles to follow and allow the horse's motion.

Flexibility is only one half of the suppleness equation.  As with a horse, suppleness in the rider's muscles requires four components: lack of physical tension/tightness, balanced strength & endurance, muscle memory/knowledge, and mental calmness.

Returning for a moment to the rider with floppy legs discussed in last month's article, let's assume that this rider has been doing the stretches prescribed and has made significant gains in the softness of their inner thigh muscles, and their ankle flexibility.  In a relaxed position at halt, their leg hangs longer, and drapes the horse better, and their heel is better positioned: deeper than the toe, and nicely aligned under the rider's hip.

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However, as the ride progresses, a rider who has only focused on stretching will usually find that they are slowly reverting to the old muscular tightening patterns through the ride.  The muscle memory and firing patterns have not changed, just because the areas are now more flexible.

If the rider has had a problem with floppy legs or legs that creep up or forward for some time, the various muscle memory patterns contributing to it will take some time to fix permanently.  The easiest start is stretching tight areas.  Another easy fix involves simply pausing the ride when you feel your body reverting to it's old pattern instead of maintaining the new softness you achieved through stretching.  Riders are often aware of when their horse is ready for a pause or walking break after working some exercises, but they are not so often aware of the same need and signals from their own body.

There are two bodies going through these exercises.  Fortunately and unfortunately, your horse cannot produce a better movement than you allow.  If you start to revert to an unproductive pattern than puts him on the forehand, such as your legs creeping forward, or that interrupts his motion, such as flopping, then you are asking him to compensate for you, and making him work harder than he should to accomplish what you are asking and please you.

There are times in your riding when you will need to pause for the horse, and times when the horse is fine, but you need to pause for yourself.  Continuing to ride around with an improper muscle firing sequence or pattern, just reinforces it.  It is like making a young horse who is not balanced, go around on small circles.  It does not teach him to flex on a small circle or engage his hindquarters if you are pushing him too much.  It just breaks him down and teaches his body how to do poor circles which you have to untrain later.  The same is true for the rider's body.

So, the rider who has achieved some better flexibility in formerly tight areas that made their legs shorten, will do well to pause in their ride when they feel the old tensions coming back.  At first, the rider may pause quite a lot.  A rider committed to changing their own patterns for the sake of being able to advance past their old plateau, may have to spend several rides pausing quite a lot to stop the old firing patterns.  The horse may not get his full workout, but the time will be worth it because of the better self-carriage that the rider will achieve for later work.

In the pause, it can be useful to breathe, release the muscles, or even dismount to stretch the tight areas (using flowing gentle stretches).  You are training your body to have an ‘off' switch to the areas you do not want to engage so strongly in your ride.  At the same time, it can be an excellent moment to let go of any mental tension which may have been building up.

If your body is tightening again, your balance will be compromised, and your brain will be releasing tension related signals whether you are conscious of them or not.  Most riders do not have too much calmness in their training, so taking the pause moment to re-find your deep abdominal breathing, loosen your shoulders, and re-set your thinking will do much more for your ride than just the benefits of interrupting an unproductive muscle firing pattern.

Once the rider has achieved some good flexibility using the stretching exercises, and has the new habit of noticing, catching and stopping the old habits (better feel), they will notice that they do not have as much stamina for maintaining correct carriage as they perhaps thought they had.  The final component in the equation of keeping joints and muscles supple, is balancing strength on both sides of the affected area.

Riding with a pattern like inner thighs tightening, or heels creeping up, or legs creeping forward causes a constant firing signal to the muscles involved.  It creates a very strong ‘on' signal to those areas.  Teaching your brain to have an ‘off' switch by stretching and pausing in your ride is a start.  However, physiologically, the formerly tight areas cannot stay soft if they are not in balance with their opposing muscle groups.

For example, the outer thigh (gluteus medius), external rotators and hamstring (the ‘rider's muscle') move the thigh in the opposite way to the muscles that rotate the knees in and clamp the legs.  The rider that succeeds in teaching their body to find an ‘off' switch for that tightening inner thigh muscle, will not be able to keep the muscle soft if the ‘on' switch for the opposite side of the thigh does not engage.  It is like playing on a teeter-totter with only one person.  You need another person on the opposite seat in order to balance on the middle.  You also need to have two people who are roughly equivalent weight.

When you bend a joint (your hip for example) one side of the body has to disengage (your hamstring) and the other side has to engage (your hip flexor) for you to lift your knee.  If all you ever did was lift your knee, you would create very strong hip flexors that might eventually become so tight they would pull your pelvis forward because they had no corresponding balance from the muscles in your seat and back of your thighs.  However, if you also had strong hamstrings and gluteals and could hold your leg back, your brain would turn those muscles ‘on' and this signal would turn the hip flexors ‘off', if your body was responding efficiently and properly.

Getting your body to stop reacting by squeezing your thighs inwards with your adductors means that you have to teach it to use your abductors and external rotators, and to strengthen those areas so that they have equal stamina.  For the formerly tight ankles, the opposing area that needs to be strengthened is on the front of the leg.  Stretching is a very important first step.  If you jumped the stretching step and started with strengthening, you would be trying to match tightness with tightness, which just creates more rigidity in the joints.

However, once the tensions have been improved through stretching, and there has been success with recognizing when the body is reverting to the old habit and stopping it, the rider is ready to start building more balanced strength.  For dressage riders, it can be helpful to think of these stages as similar to the training scale.  For any rider, it's really easy to understand training progressions when you appreciate the steps that need to follow one another in ground training or backing a young horse.  The first steps must always be present, but you cannot jump them to a more advanced step.

Strength training to balance your body for better self carriage does several things:

  1. Strength teaches your body there are other muscles to engage when you are riding (your brain finds the ‘on' switch)
  2. Strength enables you to have more stamina.  Balanced strength delays the moment when fatigue forces your body into its old or unproductive habits.
  3. Strength (combined with the flexibility) makes suppleness because it allows you to relax into proper carriage because the muscle fibres are balanced and you do not have to constantly correct your position.

I like to explain it like this: a rider needs strength so that they never have to use force.  (Except for rare moments such as position changes in games or cross-country jumping which would potentially injure the rider if they were not appropriately conditioned for moments requiring a combination of strength and speed.)  Otherwise, force (or tension) happens when the rider must fight their own body, or when the rider's body is blocking the horse, and the rider feels they must push (or pull) the horse not realizing that their own body is responsible for his lack of engagement.

The difficulty in strengthening areas of your body opposite to the riding tendency, is that it cannot be done on the horse.  Practically speaking, you will not ride around lifting your legs way out to the side constantly to improve the outer thigh strength to balance your formerly tight inner thighs.  You would not ride around lifting your toes constantly to strengthen the front of your shins because while it might be interesting for you, it would be confusing and ‘busy' to your horse, and not good use of your time in the saddle.

Some very easy exercises riders can do to create more balanced, leg lengthening strength, are leg raises, and foot exercises.  Both of these exercises can be done with no equipment at all.  As you build endurance with no equipment, you can add resistance to increase your strength by using resistance tubing or exercise elastics.

Hip Abduction & Extension

  1. Start on all fours with your spine neutral.  You should not have a hollow back.  You should have a slight feeling of rolling your tailbone under you and pulling your stomach up.  The core engagement required to maintain a neutral spine in this position is the same as what you need to maintain an upright pelvis in the saddle, so you are getting a bonus postural strengthening when you are doing this exercise.
  2. Lift your leg to the side.  Your goal is to eventually raise your knee to parallel with the floor, while keeping your spine neutral.  Only raise your knee as high as you can while maintaining a strong neutral spine.  You should feel your core engage more, the higher you lift.
  3. Bring your knee back down, and raise your leg out behind you, keeping your spine neutral.  If you are engaging your (stomach and low back in this case) correctly, you will not be able to lift your leg very high.  At the height of the movement you should have a feeling of fighting your own body to maintain the lift without allowing your back to hollow.  You should feel a cramp in the gluteals.

Toe Extension and Flexion

  1. Sit on the floor directly on your seatbones with your back straight.  If you do not have the postural strength to sit straight, sit against a wall.  Pull your toe back.  Repeat until you feel a burning in your shins.  You should work your way up to about 30 repetitions before you feel the burning.  If you feel it much earlier, this tells you that you really do not have the stamina in your lower legs for the length of your ride.
  2. In the same position, push your toe forward.   Stay focused on pushing from the top of your foot, not flexing your calves.  They will shorten, but make the movement from the front of your leg, not from the calves so much.

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