Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Riders, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today. Equifitt.com offers personalized coaching through clinics and convenient online coaching available anywhere. Clinics available include fitness, yoga and fitness, and sport-psychology and fitness. You can get a free subscription to monthly rider fit tips, or download the ebooks at Equifitt.com.
In recent pieces we've discussed at how the rider's seat informs movement both upwards (torso and shoulders) and downwards (thighs and legs). We've also discussed why symmetrical movement pattern is so important in a rider's body, and how it can be impeded negatively by structural issues (skeletal misalignment/other chiropractic issues), muscle and ligament tightness (perhaps leading to massage or other release technique therapies) and muscle strength imbalances, especially in rotational movement.
Since a rider requires symmetry in dynamic motion, rigidity, tension and firing pattern (neuro-muscular stimulation sequence and strength) asymmetry can block your ability to move with your horse, and respond pro-actively and effectively as you ride. In other words if you have a 'lazy left' hip, tight shoulders or hips or are bracing yourself in an attempt to create the correct posture, you are working against yourself and your horse.
Movement patterns in your body, which are required in riding, can sometimes be quite complex, resulting in your instructor's directions sometimes seeming contradictory. A basic understanding of how your muscles work together to support your skeleton in the position of riding can help you, in much the same way understanding your horse's anatomy can help you understand his movement.
Traditionally, we have an idea that muscles cross a joint and act in a specific direction. For example, your biceps raise your hand holding the reins and your inner thigh muscles (adductors) pull your legs inward when you apply a leg aid. You can probably visualize your quadriceps in action on the front of your thigh when you are holding yourself in a two-point position over a training rail or in posting trot. In traditional anatomical thinking applied to conditioning, a trainer might have you isolate a muscle during an exercise. A bicep curl is a clear example.
In fitness and conditioning, thinking in terms of movement patterns rather than isolated muscle action is integral to functional conditioning for any sport. If you have seen warm-ups for dancers, plyometric training for hockey players or other cool movements with resistance tubing and free weights, or even martial arts, then you have observed integrated movement training. In Equifitt programs, we use mostly integrated movement training, after first training the building blocks for a movement sequence because a rider sitting on a horse is a system of movement patterns acting simultaneously. You do not have the luxury of isolating muscles consciously very often when you are riding.
Let's use posting trot and the quadriceps as an example. In traditional fitness, a trainer might have you sit on a machine, hook your legs under a padded arm and push the lower leg outward to perform a knee extension with the goal of building up your quadriceps. Exercises like this do build quadriceps. And there are times when you need to isolate and address a muscle in this fashion. However, sports require movement, so training the quadriceps to move and strengthening them in their full range of motion is more important for sport conditioning. You will often see sport coaches use lunges, squats and hill or stair climbing to strengthen quadriceps instead. Incidentally, those movements also simultaneously strengthen many other muscles too, especially the hamstrings which are on the back of your legs, and your gluteals. This is because in real movement requirement, those quadriceps never have to act on their own. They produce motion in conjunction with your other major muscles in your legs and behind.
By the way, I really like to have riders do lunges and squats, not only because they strengthen your legs in full range, but because they are so efficient: you don't need special clothing or shoes, and can squeeze a few in here and there in the barn aisle, pasture, office or wherever.
Actually, use of the quadriceps in riding is commonly mis-understood by non-riding trainers, who assume that standing in the stirrups is similar to performing a squat or plié on the ground. On the flat, riding means riding the wave of your horse's movement in a posting trot, for example. We know that the horse's momentum and spring partially carries you upward, reducing the amount of force you actually need from your own legs as compared to moving yourself off the ground against gravity. You also engage your inner thigh in the movement and avoid shoving against the stirrup. This means that your inner thighs are helping your movement up out of the saddle.