There are two types of people: ones that feel stiff as a board and those who seem to have a second career as a contortionist. Don’t be jealous of the super flexible rider that can easily mount from the ground, they may be struggling with stability in the saddle. Likewise, the stiff rider may also be struggling with stability in the saddle but for different reasons than a flexible rider. In both scenarios, the same principle rings true: we all struggle with flexibility. Either we have too much or we have too little, and finding out where your muscles are “overactive” and where your muscles are “underactive” is the art of increasing your flexibility.
The good news is that with some hard work and a little patience, you don’t have to deal with flexibility issues. Sports physical therapy can help you open your hip angle while strengthening your hip stability to significantly impact the amount of riding agility you have in your body over time. With the help of physical therapy for riders, you’ll learn how to become a more balanced partner in the saddle for your horse.
How to Reach Your Full Range of Motion
Before we start talking about increasing flexibility, let’s make sure we are on the same page. Flexibility is not just stretching the muscle, it may also mean that you need to deactivate or turn it off the muscle to achieve optimal range of motion. Stretching an overactive muscle may cause damage and lead to injury.
First, flexibility starts with “muscle tone” which is the resting tension of the muscle. Evaluating muscle tone looks at how easily the muscle responds to stretch or contraction without influence from outside forces. Our muscle tone can be either “overactive” or “underactive.” in both cases there is diminished muscle contraction leading to poor performance. Believe it or not, your hips likely have both overactive and underactive muscles causing you to be less balanced in the saddle. A physical therapist is expertly trained to identify the specific muscles that need to be turned on or off to achieve optimal range of motion.
Agility for Equestrians
We’re not gymnasts, so why do we need to be flexible? In fact, we don’t need to be more flexible, we need to be more agile. When you are agile, your muscles have the adequate muscle tone and strength to be balanced in a functional activity like riding. When your joints, muscles, and tendons have proper flexibility it increases our shock-absorbing abilities in the saddle, among many other things. For example, landing from a jump, you need to be able to sink down into your heels to absorb the impact. If you’re struggling with flexibility you can’t do that.
On a different note, dressage riders must be able to move fluidly and smoothly with their equine partner. Having your muscles activate and deactivate at the right time with the proper force helps you to move with your horse and develop a balanced seat, instead of bouncing along on top of the back.
Being an agile equestrian means that flexibility is just as important as strength. However, more and more equestrians are concerned with developing muscle rather than being able to activate the right muscles at the right time. This common misconception is a big problem. Luckily, physical therapy for riders can change that mentality one equestrian at a time.
When to Stretch
Why is it that most equestrians faithfully stretch their horse, do their minimum ten minutes of warm-up prior to intense riding for their horse, but then just jump on and go without warming up their own body? Activating the right muscles prior to riding can increase your agility while preventing injuries. That being said, please don’t perform stretches in the barn aisle where you could be trampled. Keep your stretching to the tack room or at home instead.
Before we get started, it’s important to remember that your body is not made of isolated parts. Everything is interconnected and works together to help you move smoothly. For example, tight hamstrings may be indicative of a larger issue occurring elsewhere in the body. If you’re struggling with flexibility or pain while riding, the best course of action is to contact Dr. Shields and get a full evaluation. Don’t push yourself too hard.
Stretch those Hamstrings
Can you touch your toes? If you groan when you hear that question, then you could be struggling with hamstring or gluteus maximus tightness. Tight hamstrings and gluteus maximus are probably why you feel like your hips don’t drape over the saddle.
Hamstrings are responsible for bending your knee and are interconnected with gluteus maximus at the hip joint. They allow you to run and walk by extending your leg. Think about the two-point position: your knees are bent, your hips are bent, and you need to have the necessary flexibility to shock absorb in those joints in that position. Slowly increasing flexibility in your hamstrings and gluteals allows you to better absorb movement in the half-seat and sitting trot to maintain balance.
Open Those Hip Flexors
Whether you ride dressage or hunter/jumper, your hip flexors have a major impact on the quality of your ride. Opening or closing this angle can be the difference between a blue ribbon and not placing, as well as the difference between a relaxed canter or a hand gallop. Stretching your hip flexors before riding can prevent injuries and help you have a great ride.
Flexibility Can Transform Your Ride
We’ve all heard these words come out of our trainer’s mouth: “shoulders back and down,” “stop leaning to the inside,” “hands low,” “align the shoulder, hips, heel.”
But how often do you hear some variation of these sayings in your lessons? Does the correct position feel unattainable? Every competitive horseback rider seeks perfect equitation. What most riders don’t realize is that agility combined with strength is the key to perfect posture.
Increasing your flexibility can solve challenges and take your competitive riding to a whole new level. However, it does take patience and the help of a sports physical therapist. Physical therapy for riders takes a full body view to increase flexibility and maintain strength. It’s important to work on flexibility with the guidance of a Doctor of physical therapy to ensure that you don’t injure yourself and that you’re stretching the right way.
If you’re having issues with flexibility, get started with Dr. Shields’ Full Rider Assessment.