Are You Flexing? Stretching For Horse And Rider To Build Strength And Prevent Injuries

by Michelle Drum January 01, 2021 5 min read

Are You Flexing? Stretching For Horse And Rider To Build Strength And Prevent Injuries

This week, guest expert Amanda Bellido gives us an inside view of stretching for both horse and rider. Take a look at how adding some stretches can quickly benefit your next ride. 


As a former junior rider, I miss youth's natural athleticism; you were limber and resilient without much preparation. Before starting a lesson or entering the dreaded "warm-up ring" in the wee hours before a horse show, our bodies are cold as ice, figuratively speaking. Our horses are no different. They are natural athletes but need time to stretch and warm-up as much as we do. Approach riding as you would any endeavor- more preparation leads to better success, and the better shape you're in, the likelihood for injury to you and your horse, goes down. 

Stretching for both horse and rider leads to greater balance and flexibility and prevents time-consuming injuries. Leg and neck stretches for your horse using carrots as enticement are key. Core strength is paramount, focusing on the shoulders, chest, and back, followed by the legs. Yoga is a favorite not just for warm-up but benefits you post-ride. I've spoken with Amy Potter, founder ofFrom The Earth Creative, singer/songwriter ofThe Crooked Angels, and a lifelong equestrian, for tips on how she keeps herself and Elvis, her gorgeous Canadian Warmblood-Oldenburg gelding, loose and limber.

First things first, warm up before your warm-up!

Take a walk with your horse and get the blood flowing. Ever see Olympic runners bounce up and down, roll their heads and shoulders before getting into arm and leg stretches? It's a wake-up call to your body that serious stuff is about to happen. Okay, grab those carrots!

InHeels Down Magazine, Don and Jimmie Schramm emphasize that stretching "improves range of motion and flexibility of a particular muscle or joint." Five significant ones to follow:

  • Stretches For Flexibility
  • Vet Recommended Stretches
  • Carrot Stretches
  • Stretches for Strengthening
  • Forelimb Stretches

Dr. Emma Poole stresses eight areas that all work towards the goal of 1. To prevent injury before a tough workout 2. To help the range of motion and movement. 

To keep your horse happy and flexible: 

  • Front Leg Stretch

Bay Horse performing a front leg stretch

  • Hind Leg Stretch
  • Stretching the Neck (carrot time)

white horse performing carrot stretch

  • Stretch the Topline (another carrot)
  • Stretch the Neck (more carrots!)

white horse performing carrot stretch

  • Belly Stretch (stretches those hip muscles prone to injury, especially from OTTBs)
  • Pelvis Rotation
  • SI (Sacroiliac) Joint

Horse massage therapist, Peter Atkins, is also a big fan of the "carrot method" and spoke toHorse and Rider about what works for him. Who isn't food motivated these days? Atkins suggests three areas using a carrot:

  • The Neck Stretch across the front leg, then switch sides
  • Neck Stretch to elbow and switch
  • Neck stretch between the front legs (get that topline done)

White horse bowing

Amy Potter (Potter, 2020) adds to this her favorite stretches to keep Elvis loose and limber, "One of my  favorite stretches for horses is leg circles, it slowly releases the fascia and increases range of motion." Potter learned several methods from a clinic by Linda Tellington-Jones, mentioning that one will "see results quickly as they are able to make bigger and bigger circles." After those topline and neck stretches mentioned above, collection should be relaxed and natural. "I do lots of transitions from a long, low, stretchy walk (making sure they are coming up through the back and withers—otherwise, they are just on forehand) and light collection."


Again, a quick warm-up and deep stretches are essential to our favorite athletes' overall health and well-being.Horse and Hound, the premier equestrian publication of the United Kingdom, offers crucial information on why we stretch the horses before a ride. "Tips and pitfalls" from Veterinary physiotherapist Hayley Marsh help keep in mind the why behind these must-do exercises.

  • Never attempt these stretches before a light warm-up
  • No "jerky" movements
  • Keep the horse's head straight and level for carrot stretches 
  • Don't force it
  • Stretching as you girth up avoids skin and muscle pinching
  • Don't tether the horse during these exercises

Now, what about us? If you're already a yoga enthusiast, you're in good company. There is no need for a yoga mat, and all are be done quickly before a ride. Remember, warm yourself up too- bounce up and down like those Olympic athletes, shake your shoulders out! 

Amy Potter again has some welcome moves to do bareback. "I love doing stretches while riding bareback. It's a great way for both horse and rider to find their natural balance and fluidity." She also prefers to do her mounted stretches sans bareback pad. A series of "ankle circles, spine twists, arm circles for the rider" is how Potter and Elvis connect their rhythm. 

All about that hip action. 

"Hip Health" is the cornerstone of FEI's "Yoga for Equestrians" and tells the importance of keeping our bodies' most crucial hinge in tip-top shape. Why focus on strengthening your hips? Misbalance of your hips can cause lower back pain, anxiety, and a terrible night's sleep. Misbalance can also affect your hamstrings and IT band. A lack of connection from hip to thigh can confuse your horse if your leg and hand aids don't match your seat. FEI's most significant takeaway is: Don't ride tired, or anxious, or in pain. 

Nine poses mentioned to consider for a smooth ride: 

  • Mountain Pose on Mounting Block
  • Modified Tree Pose
  • Standing or Kneeling in Camel Pose
  • Modified Crescent Lunge

Woman in yoga pants doing dancer pose

 

Done in a series

  • Hamstring Stretch
  • IT Band Stretch (Iliotibial Band
  • Inner Thigh Stretch

 

To add to this hip flexing, Sandra Sokoloski, a physiotherapist talking toHorse Sport Magazine, advises on a few more squat stretches that add to spine and hip health. Keeping a straight back and your center of gravity with deep breaths helps to strengthen these movements.

  • Full Squat Hip Stretch
  • Hip Fold Squat Back

Woman Doing Squats

 

Katie Mital, Certified Personal Trainer, BS, ACE, CPT/CES of Bend, Oregon, spoke withHorse and Rider Magazine on crucial upper body stretches. These moves help lessen a "riding related injury" and promote "long-term flexibility." She emphasizes holding these stretches for at least 30 seconds for the best results. Using the barn structure, they helping the back and shoulders, reinforcing the "shoulders back" mantra we all hear in our sleep. 

  • Barn Door Chest Stretch
  • Arena-Rail Overhead Stretch
  • Cross-Leg Stretch

If you follow any of these skillfully honed exercises, you and your horse will stand out as the winning duo in the ring or on the trail. 

 

Written By: Amanda Bellido        


REFERENCES

Potter, Amy. From The Earth Creative, Singer/Songwriter of The Crooked Angels. Dec 9, 2020.


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