Horseback riding is an athletic endeavor, just ask anyone who has felt head-to-toe sore after a long day in the saddle. And like any other sport, the more physically fit you are when you ride, the better you'll perform. Not only that, but you'll be less likely to suffer a riding-related injury.
The bad news: You're not going to get in shape from riding alone. Horseback riding is great for building balance and working specific muscles, but additional exercise, both strength training and aerobic, can have a profound positive effect on your riding, says Katie Mital, B.S., ACE, CPT/CES, a certified personal trainer in Bend, Oregon. Katie is an avid rider as well as a fitness professional. She does local and long-distance consultations for equestrians, with her clients ranging from trail riders to competitive jumpers.
The following are exercises Katie recommends for riders of all disciplines. The program focuses on a mix of core strength, balance and flexibility, all things that will make you more physically fit and improve your riding.
Core strength. Your core is your powerhouse of strength and the base of your riding seat. "It's your abdominals, lower back, hips, butt and upper legs," Katie says. Building core strength improves your riding posture and protects your back from possible injury.
Warm up for five to 10 minutes before working on core strength by taking a walk around your neighborhood or down the driveway. Or tack strength training to the end of your regular cardiovascular training. Do two to three sets of 10-15 repetitions of each core-strength exercise (not including the plank), adding reps as you get stronger.
Stretching. It's not the actual stretching that helps our riding, but rather the long-term flexibility created by including stretching in our daily routine. Long, limber muscles help prevent riding injuries such as pulled or sore muscles. Many riders develop stiffness in their hips, hamstrings, chests and shoulders due to our constant position in the saddle, says Katie.
When we're riding, our heels are down, which stretches our calves, but our knees and hips are closed in a sitting position, allowing the muscles around these major joints to become tight.
"We also tend to roll our shoulders forward and ball up," Katie says. This hunched posture also seeps into our daily lives spent over computers, she points out, which creates tightness through our chests and jeopardizes our necks and backs.
Before you ride and do your stretches, warm up your muscles by increasing your heart rate. "You can catch your horse and lead him around the arena for a couple of laps," Katie says, "or even just vigorously brush your horse."
For the at-home stretches, simply add them to the end of your core-strength routine. When stretching, don't push past the point of comfort. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. "Longer if it feels good," Katie says.
Balance. Incorporating balance exercises will help center you in the saddle. You know when you zig right and your horse zags left? By practicing balancing postures, you'll improve your stick and up your chances of actually staying in the saddle when things get a little out of control.
Besides just staying on, improving your balance will also make you a more effective rider. Your hands will become independent of your body, and your seat and leg cues will be more precise. In turn, your horse will become more responsive to your requests.
1. Barn-door chest stretch
Technique: Find a vertical edge, such as a door jam, to use for the stretch. Here Katie is using a cross-tie beam. Raise your arm to create a 90-degree angle at your elbow, and press your forearm against the door jam. Turn your head and look away from the door jam to add a stretch for your neck. Repeat on both sides.
Payoff: Opens the chest by stretching your pectoral muscles and shoulders, making it easier for you to sit up tall when riding; reinforces "shoulders back" in your riding position.
2. Arena-rail overhead stretch
Technique: Standing half a body's length from the fence with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend at the waist and place your hands on the top rail. Your arms, shoulders and back should be flat. Relax your neck, breath deep, and let your body settle into the stretch.
Payoff: Creates flexibility in your shoulders and promotes good posture before mounting up; stretches tight hamstrings in the back of your legs; also stretches your calf muscles to allow for deep heels when you ride.
3. Crossed-leg stretch
Technique: Stand with your feet slightly apart, and then cross your legs right over left. Your right leg will be slightly bent and your left leg will be straight. Bending at the hips, reach toward the ground. For added balance, rest your hands on your right knee. Repeat on opposite side, this time crossing your left leg over your right.
Payoff: Another stretch to create flexibility in your hamstrings and calves, which gets your legs ready for the heels-down riding position; also stretches your lower back in preparation for sitting the trot.
• As always, check with your health care provider before starting this or any other exercise routine.
• Warm up before riding by leading your horse around the arena or doing some vigorous grooming.
• Stretch before riding to include flexibility training into your regular routine.
• Set aside time at home for strength training and stretching to improve your riding.
4. Band row
Technique: Fasten an exercise band or tube in a door or around a solid post. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent and your back straight. Hold one end of the band in each hand with your arms straight, and then pull back in a rowing motion until your elbows are at your sides. Release back to straight arms to complete one repetition.
Payoff: Builds upper body strength in the upper back, chest and arms, while also rolling back your shoulders and opening your chest for riding.
5. Band oblique twist
Technique: Hook an exercise band in a door or around a solid post. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and holding the band in your left hand (the band is taut), use your stomach muscles to twist away from the door. Keeping your stomach muscles engaged, return to the start position to complete one rep.
Payoff: Creates strength around your spine and in your abdomen; stretches tight hip flexors to help create a long leg in the saddle.
Technique: Standing tall with your arms at your side, lift your right foot off the ground while bending your right knee. Work to hold this position. If necessary, pick one point in front of you to focus your eyes and help find your balance. Once you're comfortable and can hold this pose, place your right foot against your left leg, rotate at your hip and point your knee to the side. Rotate your knee back into its neutral position, and then put your foot down. Repeat with your left leg.
Payoff: Develops balance to improve your security in the saddle; also stretches tight hip flexors and reinforces posture.
Technique: Lie face-down, supporting yourself with your forearms. Lift your knees so that you are balanced on your elbows and toes, keeping your back and neck flat. Keep your abdominal muscles tight so that your back doesn't "sag."
Payoff: Works your entire core to build muscles and support posture.
8. Alternating arm/leg lift
Technique: Start on all fours with your back flat like a table. Lift your right arm straight in front of you. At the same time, straighten your left leg out behind you. Hold for a few seconds, and then repeat on the opposite side, this time lifting your left arm and right leg.
Payoff: Works the muscles of your lower back and opposing shoulder; develops balance as well as strength.
9. Reverse crunch
Technique: Start on your back with your hands behind your head supporting your neck and with your feet flat on the floor. Now use your stomach muscles to pull your knees up to your chest. Return to the start position.
Payoff: Builds abdominal strength without curling your shoulders or your neck.
10. Bridge with leg lift
Technique: Lie on your back with your arms at your side, knees up and bent, and your feet flat on the floor. Raise your stomach to create a "bridge" between your knees and your shoulders. Lift and straighten your right leg. Hold. Then repeat with your left leg.
Payoff: Creates balance while also stretching a rider's tight hip-flexor muscles and working the core.
Technique: Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Using your arms for balance in front of you, sit back as if you were sitting down in a chair. Make sure your knees don't go over your toes. From the squatting position, stand back up.
Payoff: Builds a foundation of strength in your buns, the back of your legs and muscles in the front of your legs to help you maintain security in the saddle.
12. Plié squat
Technique: This is a modification of the traditional squat. Start by standing with your toes pointed at a 45-degee angle in the ballet-like "plié" position. Bend your knees and slowly sink down, keeping your knees lined up over your toes. Return to your original position to complete one repetition.
Payoff: Strengthens and stretches the inner thigh while building leg and glute strength.
13. V-sit stretch
Technique: This is a high-school gym-class staple. Sit on the floor with your legs forming a "V." Keeping your back flat and your seat bones grounded on the floor, lean forward until you feel the stretch in the back of your legs. You don't have to go to the floor. Riders, especially, are tight in this stretch.
Payoff: Stretches your hamstrings (back of your legs) and the insides of your thighs.
14. Butterfly stretch
Technique: Another high-school oldie-but-goodie. From the V-sit stretch, pull your heels in together. Again, keep your back flat as you lean forward into the stretch.
Payoff: Stretches the insides of your thighs and loosens your hip joints.
Editor's note: For more information about equestrian fitness, visit personal trainer Katie Mital's website at www.kmpersonalfitness.com