When you go for a trail ride, do you ever feel stiffer on one side than the other? Less coordinated? In the arena, does your horse tend to pick up one lead more easily than the other, bend in one direction more willingly than the other, or fall in with his shoulder or out with his hip on one side consistently?
While these may seem like unrelated events, the bad news is that both might originate with you. The good news is that you can work to help your easy and not-so-easy sides reach a middle ground of easier movement. And as you become looser and more symmetrical in your movement, your horse can move more freely, too.
Wendy Murdoch, a riding instructor and Feldenkrais® practitioner located in Washington, Virginia, teaches based on biomechanical principles of anatomy, physiology, and functional fitness. Here, she shares three quick exercises that can help alleviate rider stiffness and increase range of motion.
First Things First
• Go slow. “The key to all these exercises is to go slowly and feel what you’re doing,” says Murdoch. “Don’t force or push yourself past your easy range of motion. Rather, allow your body to move, and bring your mind into the picture.” Be thoughtful, and bring awareness of your whole body to these exercises.
• Explore. Murdoch offers questions to explore while you’re doing these exercises. Don’t worry about doing something “wrong.” Simply have fun, experiment, and discover how your body moves.
• Start on the ground. For all these exercises, first become familiar with the steps while dismounted. When you’re ready to mount up, pick a quiet, enclosed area, such as a round pen or arena. Be sure your horse is comfortable with being touched on his neck, back, hips, and loin while you’re in the saddle. When mounted, do the exercises first at the halt, then at a walk. You can also try them at a jog, but only move up to the next gait if you are comfortable and relaxed.
• Begin on your easy side. “We all have an easy side and a more challenging side,” says Murdoch. “Starting the exercises on your easy side will help you explore movement rather than becoming frustrated with what seems difficult.” Return to the easy side any time you find that you can’t do the movement on the challenging side.
• Let your horse move. Allow your horse to follow along with what you’re doing. If you’re allowing movement in your back, he may want to move and release his back, too. Let him move, and see what happens. Here we go!
Stretch #1: Hand to Horse’s Hip
Before you begin: Place both reins in one hand and rest that hand on your horse’s withers or somewhere comfortable.
1? Gently take your free hand toward your horse’s tail a few times. How much of your body is involved with moving your arm back? Are you moving from the shoulder or from somewhere else? Where are you looking?
2? Let your shoulders, head, and hand move back toward your horse’s hip. Repeat a few times, slowly and easily. How much of your whole body is involved with the movement now? Can you notice what’s happening in your rib cage?
3? If you can, rest your free hand on the point of your horse’s hip. If you can’t reach that far, rest your hand where you can reach comfortably. Has your horse started to follow your movements by turning in the same direction?
4 ?With your hand resting on your horse’s hip, take your same-side hip back toward your hand. It’s normal to be able to only do a little movement. Don’t try too hard. Notice what your horse is doing.
5? Take your hip in the opposite direction. How hard or easy is this? What does your horse do now?
6? Return to the original movement — taking your hand back toward your horse’s hip. How much of your body is involved with the movement now? Does your horse follow you by turning in that direction?
7? Repeat this exercise on the other side, and notice if it feels different. If it does, where do you feel it most: shoulder, arm, head, and/or hip? If you allow your head, arm, shoulder, and hip to turn in the same direction, what does your horse do? What happens if you turn any one part in the opposite direction?
Stretch #2: Hand to Thigh
Before you begin: Place both reins in one hand, and rest that hand on your horse’s withers or somewhere comfortable.
1? Gently slide your free hand down the front of your thigh toward your knee a few times. Without forcing it, how far down your thigh can you go? Can you reach your knee?
2? Become aware of how much of your body is involved in this exercise. Are you moving from the elbow, from the shoulder, or from somewhere else? Do you push your lower leg forward, backward, or leave it in place?
3? Pull your leg back behind you, and then push forward against the stirrup. How do these actions affect your ability to slide your hand down your thigh? Allow your leg to simply hang underneath you. What happens now?
4? Where are you looking as you do this exercise? Look toward your hand, away from your hand, away from your hand on the same side of the horse, and away from your hand toward the opposite side of the horse. What’s the difference?
5? Slide the back of your hand along your thigh as opposed to the palm of your hand. What happens in your shoulder? Which position allows you to go further down your thigh with less effort? How might this relate to holding the reins?
6? What happens in your chest as you slide your hand down your thigh? Do you round or arch your upper back? What happens with your head?
7? Notice if you twist your ribcage or keep it straight as your hand moves toward your knee. Does looking toward or away from your hand affect the movement of your ribcage, neck, and/or shoulders?
8? What happens in your hip joints? Do they open or close? Does your back position (rounded or arched) affect your hip movement? Can you find a middle position between rounded and hollow, and does this change the movement?
9? Where’s your weight? Does it feel like you’re leaning off the side of your horse? Which seat bone feels heavier?
10?? If you’re comfortable, try this exercise at the walk and notice what your horse does. Does he begin to walk in circles, lean in, or drift out? Does your head position alter the direction your horse walks?
11? Return to the original movement. How much of your entire body is involved with the movement now? Can you now move more easily? Can you reach further than the first time?
12? Repeat this exercise on the other side. Notice if it feels different, and if so, where?
13? If you’re comfortable, try this at the jog. Notice if you resist or limit hand movement down your thigh. Can you find where you can let go of excess muscular effort to make the exercise easy at the faster gaits?
Stretch #3: Forearm to Thigh
Before you begin: Sit on a level surface or on a fitness ball that allows you to have a right angle behind your knee, and so your knee and thigh are on the same plane. In between the movements below, take breaks and sit in an upright position. (You’ll mount up in a bit.)
1 Place your forearm on your thigh with your hand on your knee. Let your other arm hang to avoid feeling too restricted. Notice the position of your spine, head, and pelvis while you’re sitting here. It’s fine if you’re flexed or rounded in the back.
2? Gently change the curve of your spine from flexion (rounding) to extension (hollowing) as you leave your arm on your thigh. Notice what part of your spine moves as you flex and extend, and what happens with your pelvis, spine, and head. Did you only move one part of your spine, or did the movement include the entire spine?
3? Repeat this movement many times, going from flexion to extension. Does the movement get easier? Notice whether you feel the movement through the entire spine now.
4 Notice your head as you go from flexion to extension. Does it stay motionless, follow the movement of your spine, or go in the opposite direction? Does your head drop as you flex (round) your back and rise up and back as you arch (hollow) your back?
5? Move only your pelvis and keep your spine and head relatively still. Do you feel your seat bones coming under you as you round your back, or going out behind you as you arch your back?
6? Arch and round your back, making the movement smaller and smaller. Can you feel the middle place between arching and rounding your back? When you’re in the middle place, is there a widening across the pelvis and do your hips feel like they sink back and down as your head lengthens away from you? You’re searching for this place.
7 ?Slowly come up to sitting while maintaining this lengthened alignment of your spine. Notice the movement of your head and neck. Imagine lengthening a tiny bit more and feel if your head goes slightly upward. This is a very small movement; don’t exaggerate it or you will hollow your back and neck.
8? Gently move your head left and right. Vary between slightly rounding and arching your back and feel what happens to the freedom of your head and neck. Use very small movements or you may not be able to feel the difference.
9? Switch to the other side, and repeat the exercise. Is it easier on this side?
10? Mount up and take your reins in one hand. Place the other hand on your knee with your elbow on your thigh. You’ll have to bend forward to do this, which may necessitate pushing your seat back in the saddle to have enough room.
11? Gently arch and round your back. Pay special attention to that middle point where your spine is lengthened (as you discovered off your horse). Think of lengthening your head away from your seat. Come up to sitting and feel how it is to sit in the saddle with your spine lengthened.
12?? As you ride, think of lengthening through your spine. Notice what happens in your pelvis and hips. Does this make a difference in how your horse moves? What happens to your horse’s back as you lengthen through your spine?
Enjoy the Ride
“There are no wrong answers in doing these exercises — it’s all about discovering how to allow movement and bringing awareness to what your body is doing,” says Murdoch. “In just a few minutes, you might find you’re both moving a bit more freely.”
Take that freedom to both your arena work and trail rides, enjoying your time together now that you and your horse are able to bend, turn, and blend with each other a little more easily.
Kara L. Stewart is an award-winning journalist and full-time horse owner who has worked in the equine-publishing field for more than 20 years. She’s based in Sedalia, Colorado.
Our thanks to human model Teresa Danielson of Aurora, Colorado, and equine Morgan model After Midnight (“Tikka”) for demonstrating these stretches.