Most riders would love to loosen up and develop more comfort and stability ? the famous ?Velcro Butt? that keeps you in the saddle, no matter what surprises await. If you're short on time or have no instructor, why not stretch while mounted? Our horse's movement can help us become even more supple and flexible; it's the best of both worlds.
These stretches require
- A steady, obedient horse who will let you focus on yourself
- Your regular tack
- A safe place to ride
Begin at the halt, and when you are comfortable with the stretch, ask your horse to move forward and try it at the walk.
As with everything else, modify any of these as your body (or your horse) needs. If you need some support, ask a friend to walk you and your horse around on a lead rope while you experiment. Or, if your horse is good and steady on a longe line,by all means get a friend whom you trust to longe you.
Keep your eyes open if you're solo, but if someone else is guiding your horse, try closing your eyes to feel what's happening in your body and his. Closing your eyes allows you to develop increased feel and awareness on a much deeper level. But your helper has to know what you're up to, so be sure to let him or her know that you?d like to try it. And, as with all stretching, be sure to breathe deeply into the stretch and exhale fully so your muscles will relax and release even more.
Head and Neck Release
If you get tension headaches or your jaw is sometimes tight, start with this stretch. You?ll be softening your own ?poll!?
- Sit up tall in the saddle, checking that you have equal weight in both seat bones. As you inhale very slowly, look up. As you exhale, look down. This is like a slow-motion ?yes? in rhythm with your breathing. Take your time; inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat three to five times.
- Continue the same breathing and now move your head slowly left to right, like a very slow ?no.? Keep your eyes level, and turn your head only as far as you can comfortably. Repeat three to five times.
- Now, looking straight out in front of you, with eyes level, inhale. As you exhale, slowly drop your left ear to your left shoulder. Inhale as you bring your head upright in the center, then exhale as you drop your right ear to your right shoulder. Repeat three to five times.
- Your goal is to perform these gentle moves smoothly and fluidly, in rhythm with your slow, deep breathing. Does your jaw feel looser, your neck freer?
The Taffy Pull
If you feel like your shoulders are up around your ears because they?re so tense (who doesn't?), try this stretch. You?ll feel the tightness melt away, not only from your shoulders, but also from your elbows, wrists and hands!
- Hold your reins in one hand. With the other hand, lightly touch your fingertips to the top of your shoulder, palm down.
- Imagine that there is a big piece of taffy on your shoulder. As you inhale slowly, pull the taffy up to the sky.
- As you exhale, let your hand float down, palm up. About halfway down, gently turn your palm over and let your arm float down to your side. Repeat three to five times before going to the other arm.
Tiptoes, Knees and Ankles
Loosen up your major shock-absorbing joints, the hips, knees and ankles, all with one exercise. This is great for anyone who wants to stop bouncing on her horse, to sit the trot better or riders who have been told to ?Get those heels down!? without ever knowing just how to do that. Start at the halt; once you are comfortable with the sequence, try it at the walk.
- Keeping your reins in your hands, place your palms down on either side of your horse's withers. Use your hands for support for the next steps. If you don't, you will not get the benefits.
- Leaning on your hands, stand up on your tiptoes, just as high as you can. Your knees and ankles will lock ? that's what we are looking for. Remember, this is not two point, nor is this correct riding. You are doing a very specific exercise that feels really funny at first, but I promise you won?t stay here for long!
- Hold this position for two to three seconds, then bend your knees (be sure to keep your heels way up ? no cheating)!
- Now relax your ankles and drop your heels down as far as they want to go. No pushing heels down here, please!
- Throughout each step, your seat should not touch the saddle.
- Repeat eight to 10 times, then gently ease your seat back into the saddle.
The muscles around your hips, knees and ankles, which have just worked very hard and have been intentionally over-tightened, will now happily release and let go. Remember to breathe!
The more supple we become the better we feel and the more we encourage freedom of movement in our horses.
Suzanne Sheppard is an AQHA Professional Horsewoman from Middletown, New York. She and AQHA Professional Horseman Bob Jeffreys teach together through Two as One Horsemanship.