Equestrians treat their horse as “the athlete,” however consider themselves last on the list. Why don’t we take our health seriously? Every competitive athletic sport has a stretching program to prevent injuries and improve performance. We have a program for our horses– why don’t we have one for ourselves?
It is time that we, as equestrians, take our fitness and health seriously to reduce our risk of injury. It doesn’t have to be regular pilates practices or a stretching routine worthy of a yoga guru. I’m talking about a short controlled and coordinated equestrian physical therapy program that will have you ready to be a better partner for your horse.
Why You Need Pre/Post Ride Workouts
It’s important that riders match their horses in terms of fitness and health. A rider who is out of shape will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by a very fit horse. In contrast, an extremely fit rider could push an out-of-shape horse too far, leading to injury.
Fitness and health are not synonymous. Being fit can be easily obtained through practice, whereas health must be cultivated. Fitness is about using balance, coordination, and cardio to create the physical stamina that benefits the horse. Health is when all physiologic body systems within horse and rider are working in harmony.
If you and your horse are having an off day, you may want to consider the health of you and your partner. Were you stuck at school, work, or in traffic that increased your frustration level or gave you a headache? Was your horse stressed by their stablemate calling out to them? These are all examples of you and your horse’s health not being in balance.
Of course we can’t be perfect all the time, that’s impossible! To improve your riding and become skilled dance partners, both rider and horse should match fitness and health levels. A pre- and post-ride workout, as well as a general fitness program, will help you achieve balance more frequently. A specific equestrian physical therapy program can help you create a plan that works for you.
The benefits of a pre- and post-ride workout are huge. A simple stretching routine can increase circulation, delivering oxygen and nutrients to working muscles. It also helps you become mentally prepared to ride your best, every ride. Through your workout, you can activate the right muscle groups for great equitation.
On the other hand, a post-ride workout can prevent an excessive drop in blood pressure or pooling in the lower extremities. If we stop working out too suddenly our blood pressure will drop to or below our pre-workout levels. This can cause light-headedness and pooling in lower extremities. It’s for these same reasons that we walk our horses to cool down as well. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (like me!) can design the right pre- and post-ride workout based on an equestrian physical therapy program to help you obtain all of these benefits.
Types of Stretches
To get all of the benefits of pre- and post-ride workouts, it’s important to understand the different types of stretching and when to use each one. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you design an equestrian physical therapy plan that incorporates each one appropriately. There are several types of stretches, including: static, ballistic, dynamic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).
Static stretching targets a single muscle group by stretching for a period of time and then repeating. It is used mainly to increase muscle length and achieve an increased range of motion for a particular joint. One of its biggest benefits is to decrease muscle and joint injury. Research shows that this type of stretching is best done during your cool down workout, as it may decrease muscle force when performed prior to activity.
Ballistic stretching provides a sharp contrast to static stretching. Instead of slow repetition, ballistic stretching involves uncontrolled and uncoordinated movements usually involving momentum and bouncing. While this can increase muscle flexibility, the risk of injury is much higher as it can cause unwanted soft tissue tearing.
Dynamic stretching uses controlled, coordinated functional movements of the joints and muscles without holding a position. These moves are repeated with an increasing range of motion and force. Dynamic stretching is best done as a warm up to increase muscle coordination during sport-specific movements.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is a physical therapy modality that activates muscle proprioceptors through facilitation, inhibition, strengthening, and relaxation of selected muscle groups. A PNF-trained partner assists with stretching by providing isometric contraction to a targeted muscle, followed by a relaxed passive stretch to increase muscle elasticity. A lot of technical terms there, let’s break it down.
For example, to increase the range of motion in your hamstrings, a Doctor of Physical Therapy may have you lie on your back and raise one leg straight up in the air. Then, they would use their expertise to push your leg to a straighter position and gently lengthen the hamstring.
Research has shown that PNF stretching techniques provide the greatest increases in range of motion in the shortest amount of time. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I am trained and skilled at PNF stretching to achieve your fitness goals.
My Pre- and Post-Ride Program
I put my expertise as a Doctor of Physical Therapy to practice in my own riding routine. When I was 15 years old, I was competing in the hunter/jumper ring. I sustained a lumbar spine injury and eventually had to have a spinal fusion from the multiple traumas I had as a young competitive rider. Now, as an adult equestrian, I have had to learn how to incorporate a dynamic movement warm up to get me ready to be a better partner for my horse. I start with standing anterior, posterior, and lateral pelvic tilts. This helps me understand how my pelvis and spine are moving or not moving that day.
In order to perform these pelvic tilts, place your hands on your hips. For a lateral tilt, shift your hip bones up and down vertically. For example, at one point your left hand will be higher than your right and vice versa. An anterior tilt moves the front of the pelvis horizontally forward and down, moving your rear end higher up in the air. A posterior tilt pushes the back of the pelvis down and your hip bones forward.
Next, I have to turn on my gluteus medius. Yes, that’s right I said turn on! Since pain and muscle imbalances have caused poor posture habits in my past, my gluteus medius needs to be reminded to activate when and how I ask it to. This means tapping into muscle or motor memory.
Start by standing with your left side close to the wall. Bring your left thigh parallel to the floor keeping your knee bent and your foot also parallel to the floor. Press your right foot into the floor, while pushing your left knee into the wall. Do not let your torso lean to any side. Make sure that you are in posterior pelvic tilt and your right knee is not bent. The gluteus medius of your right leg is now firing all its muscle fibers.
I don’t have to do all these exercises very long anymore because I have created new motor memories. I started at 1-2 minutes each, so really my pre-ride workout was no more than 5 minutes. Now on good days it takes about a minute, but some days are better than others. This drastic decrease in the time it takes me to perform my workout was all thanks to equestrian physical therapy.
My post ride workout consists of static stretches to help with the flexibility of muscles and joints. If at all possible you want to do these in the saddle while walking your horse out.
The first one is to drop the stirrups and open my hip angle while bending my knee and lifting the foot. This is targeting my overworked and under-stretched hip flexors. To avoid goosing your horse, it’s important to keep your spine in neutral.
If my horse is cooperative, I then go into frog legs. This is when you flex your hips and knees lifting both legs out and off the saddle while keeping your pelvis neutral. This is stretching your back muscles. My horse is now able to tolerate me doing this at a walk– and I don’t feel like I’m falling off! Yes, I still hold onto the pommel for dear life sometimes.
Lastly, I make sure my chest, upper back, and arms get stretched. Sometimes this happens off my horse (she only lets me get away with so many shenanigans on her back). It starts with stretching my arms forward clasping hands together while nodding my head down and holding it. With my hands still clasped I raise my arms to the sky rolling my shoulder back and down. Lastly, I drop my hands to my waist keeping my shoulder blades back and down. I try to touch my elbows behind my back as I look up, allowing the chest to open and the spine to extend.
Treat Yourself Like the Athlete You Are
No matter how you look at it, equestrians are athletes and we deserve better than the treatment I see most riders offer their bodies. A pre- and post-ride workout is a great start to cultivating a better health and fitness mindset and become a better partner for your horse. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I offer the expertise you need to become your best self. If you want a pre- and post-ride workout program tailored to your strengths and weaknesses, sign up for a full rider assessment today.