Horse Riding Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Horse riding stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with horse riding injuries for good.
Horseback riding, also known as equestrianism dates back thousands of years with the earliest evidence suggesting that horses were ridden by men close to 6,000 years ago in 4,500 BC. Throughout history, we have relied on horses for war, work and of course, recreation.
If you’re looking to improve your horse riding performance or just seeking to prevent horse riding injuries it is important to follow the information in this article. In addition, adding a few simple stretches to your fitness program will also help. To get started on a safe and effective stretching routine that’s just right for you, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.
Considered a valuable military asset, horses played an integral role in an army’s speed, strength, and capabilities to secure defeat, right up until after the First World War. They have been steadily ridden for use in agriculture and are still frequently found on ranches and farms across the globe.
Horses have been used in modern times for sport and entertainment since the 18th century with the emergence of organized horse racing. Although racing is considered the cream of the crop when it comes to horse related sporting events, there is also Dressage, which includes Show Jumping and Eventing. Polo is another popular sport played on horseback and who could forget the rodeo? Beyond these recreational activities, some of us ride horses for the simple pleasure of it, providing the body with a decent work out in the process.
There are several different types of horse racing with thoroughbred or flat racing being the most well known. This involves the light-weight jockey and carries a significant purse as well as a fair amount of prestige for the winning horse and rider.
There is the Steeplechase, which is a distance race over varied terrain that typically requires the rider to manoeuvre the animal over obstacles such as fences, ditches, hedges and walls while covering a distance of 3 to 4 miles.
Equestrian events made their way in to the Summer Olympics in the 1900’s and are still a regular part of the games as we know them today. In addition to their popularity at the Olympics, Dressage, Show Jumping, and Eventing are also popular competitions held at horse shows throughout the world.
Polo is a team sport in which the players use a wooden mallet in an attempt to score by shooting a small ball in to the opposing team’s goal, all on horseback.
Although it may appear quite simple, horseback riding is actually a skill that requires practice much like any other sport. Professional equestrian athletes are in peak physical condition and riding is an excellent form of exercise as it utilizes several muscles simultaneously; giving some of the body’s major muscle groups a fairly intense work out.
Horseback riding actively engages several of the body’s muscle groups with significant background work from the joints and tendons that they are attached to. The hip flexors are a group of muscles that help to provide free range of motion allowing the body to bend in to the hips, and the hips to be pulled in towards the torso. A sit-up is a good example of the hip flexors at work and these are used when riding to hold the trunk of the body in a vertical position and prevent you from shifting back behind the line of gravity.
The hips work in conjunction with the rectus abdominis as well as the muscles in the lower back to keep the torso properly aligned, keeping the rider firmly positioned and anchored in the saddle. This also helps the horse maintain balance, which can prevent serious accidents.
The hip flexors are made up of the psoas muscles as well as the iliacus and together they form the iliopsoas. Located on either side of the spine in the lower back, the psoas is one of the largest muscles in the body. They reach across the front and down in to the pelvic area where they attach to the trochanter located towards the top, on the inside of the leg. The thigh muscles also attach here, which is why it’s possible that a strain to the psoas can be felt as pain in the thigh area.
The four major muscles in the thighs are also known as the quadriceps. These are made up of the rectus femoris (middle of the thigh), the vastus lateralis (outer thigh), the vastus medialis (inner thigh) and the vastus intermedius, which is situated up top at the front of thigh and lies between the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis.
The other muscles in this region that are engaged while riding are the sartorius, gracilis, adductors, and pectineus, making the thigh the area with the highest concentration of active muscles while riding. This group serves to not only grip the saddle, but also to flex and extend the leg allowing the rider to rise up and down as the horse is trotting as well as to easily come up out of the saddle during show jumping. There are five adductor muscles in total that run from the pelvis to the thigh and down to the knee.
The gastrocnemius and the soleus are more commonly known as the calf muscles. Although they may appear to hang in a state of rest at the sides of the animal, these muscles are also engaged while riding as the calves are used to provide directions that prompt the horse to turn or speed up simply by applying pressure to its side with the calf. These are also flexed while the rider is up on their toes in the stirrups.
Most Common Horse Riding Injuries
As with all sports, horseback riding can cause pain and trauma to the body if the rider doesn’t take the necessary precautions to minimize the likelihood of injury. The joints in your hips, ankles and knees can take a serious battering while riding due to the continued and repetitive forceful pressure placed on them.
The tendons that connect the bones to surrounding muscles can also suffer in much the same way. Over time, this repeated battering can lead to a repetitive strain injury (RSI), which is also known as an over-use injury. Tendonitis is the inflammation of the tendons and is just one example of a repetitive strain injury. Damaged tendons can lead to a constriction of the muscle it is designed to move. Exercising proper body mechanics can work to reduce the chances of suffering a repetitive strain injury. Allowing the body regular rest intervals can also help to avoid RSI’s as well as to aid the body in healing from one.
Aside from head injuries, which can occur as the result of a fall from a horse and the RSI’s mentioned above, the most common injuries reportedly suffered by equestrians are pulled or strained muscles. A tally of equestrian related muscle injuries reveals that the adductors suffer the most abuse. A muscle tear or rupture in the adductors is typically referred to as a groin strain. The five muscles in the adductor group are the adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, the pectineus and the gracilis.
A groin strain can affect one or more of these five and are graded 1, 2 or 3 depending on their severity. With a grade 1 strain, the athlete will experience some discomfort but the pain is generally tolerable and regular daily activities such as walking and bending can typically be managed. There will usually be a feeling of tightness in the muscle and the area may be slightly tender to the touch.
A grade 2 strain will result in much more discomfort than a grade 1 as there is typically a tear in the fibres of the tendons. There is often some swelling or bruising in the area. The muscle(s) will feel weak when contracting and walking may be uncomfortable. Running is not recommended as it will likely produce a sharp pain and put the muscle at risk for further injury.
A grade 3 strain is the least common but by far the worst and most painful as it involves a complete rupture of the tendon. There is usually a noticeable degree of swelling as well as bruising. Some even report feeling a lump in the muscle. Walking will be painful and difficult. Running is virtually impossible and riding until the muscle has had sufficient time to rest and heal is out of the question.
Injury Prevention Strategies
Since so many of the muscle groups are used in horseback riding, it’s important to prepare the body for the physical demands of the activity.
- Equipment: Using high quality protective equipment that has been maintained properly will help prevent many injuries.
- Warm up: Just as a gymnast or runner must warm up prior to practicing or competing, so must an equestrian. It is a proven fact that warming up helps to prevent injuries as it works to increase blood flow to the muscles to gradually prepare the body to handle the demands of more strenuous or vigorous activity. A proper warm up routine can not only help to increase the efficiency of your muscles, but it can also reduce the potential for pulled muscles and decrease the severity of muscle soreness after your exercise.
- Strength & Conditioning: Training and exercise will keep the body in optimum form thereby minimizing the risk of injury. Strength training helps to build increased strength in the muscles and tendons and over time can improve the overall function of the body’s joints. The most common forms are weight and resistance training.
- Stretching: Stiff muscles and joints are susceptible to injuries so flexibility plays an important role in their prevention. It is for this reason that one of the key components of an effective warm up is stretching.
The Top 3 Horse Riding Stretches
Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for horse riding; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions beside each stretch.
Lying Knee Roll-over Stretch: While lying on your back, bend your knees and let them fall to one side. Keep your arms out to the side and let your back and hips rotate with your knees.
Kneeling Quad Stretch: Kneel on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance and then push your hips forward.
Standing Toe-up Achilles Stretch: Stand upright and place the ball of your foot onto a step or raised object. Bend your knee and lean forward.
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