Oh, how we love the spring — those sudden warm temperatures after the long, cold winter — with that glorious sunshine that just begs you to go outside and ride! But wait a minute — it’s been how long since you’ve ridden? You realize that the weeks have turned into a few months, and both you and your horse are going to need some conditioning to make a safe transition back to the riding ring or hitting the trails. Even if your horse was turned out during the winter, he was probably spending most of his time just standing around and eating.
No matter how old your horse is, you’ll need to assess his state of health and physical condition before jumping on and taking off on a joy ride. Do you have a young horse that is still growing? Or an elder horse that might be stiff or ache-y from arthritis or old injuries? Has your horse put on extra weight from inactivity, or lost weight over the winter? These parameters should be taken into consideration prior to starting a workout with your horse.
Take your time in planning your activity after the long winter break, and start out slowly. If your horse needs to gain or lose weight, adjust his feed intake gradually, and be sure he’s drinking enough fresh water. Consider your horse’s age, soundness and fitness level when preparing to ride.
Check your horse’s feet to see if they need trimming or new shoes, if your horse is shod. Hooves that are too long or unbalanced can cause problems and even injury from tripping or being unbalanced.
A good way to begin gradual exercise is to longe your horse. Even if he seems very eager and excited to ride, this does not mean that he is in tip-top physical condition and ready for a long or fast ride. By longeing you will get a good idea of what shape your horse is in without risking injury or a setback due to sore or pulled muscles. In addition, you won’t have to saddle up, and it will be easier to assess your horse’s condition.
Start by walking slowly and evenly for about five to 10 minutes, changing direction from time to time. Switch to a slow trot for the same amount of time, changing direction as with the walk. If your horse trips or is having difficulty – such as breathing hard, breaking a sweat or not willing to continue at a trot, stop before he becomes fatigued and bring him back to a walk. You can gradually increase the time you walk and trot by a few minutes each session, three times a week, and you’ll see gradual improvement in his stamina at both the walk and the trot without risking overdoing the exercise (muscle aches and stiffness can manifest themselves into bad behavior.) Young horses will benefit from a slow and steady exercise plan as their bones, muscles, tendons and cardiovascular system grow and become strengthened. You’ll find that your elder horse will appreciate this gradual workout, and it may increase her flexibility, comfort level and even heart and lung function over time. After several similar sessions, you can add in some slow cantering and hill work to help strengthen the muscles and cardiovascular system, and your horse should be ready to hit the trails or any ride you plan.
For those of us who haven’t ridden in a while, remember that it doesn’t take long for our riding muscles to start to lose condition. Often, mid-winter is the time of year when many “resolve” to exercise – and will begin strenuous workout sessions, more to lose weight than to improve muscle condition. In contrast, the gentle stretches and exercises that physical therapists routinely prescribe will help “cold” muscles to recover strength, flexibility and balance. Fortunately, you can begin in the comfort of your home with stretching exercises especially designed to help enhance your riding ability and balance your ‘seat’ on a horse. The stretching will increase the flexibility and strength of the muscles.
You should never bounce on a stretch; rather, strive to maintain a stretch for at least 10 seconds. Each stretch should be repeated at least once, and performed daily, even if you don’t plan to ride. Below are some of the pre- and post- riding stretches that can be used by all levels and ages of riders:
1. Quadriceps Stretch. The Quadriceps muscle is the long muscle in the front of the thigh. Flexibility in this muscle allows the leg to fall easily into place and attain the “long leg” required in many styles of riding. To do the stretch, bend your leg behind you and grab your ankle with your knee bent, and gently pull your knee back. Don’t allow your back to arch. Hold for 10 seconds, pause and repeat.
2. Iliopsoas Stretch. The Iliopsoas muscle is in the front of the hip and connects to the upper portion of the thigh. Women especially can experience tightness in this muscle, and this stretch can have a very beneficial effect on your flexibility in the saddle. In the half-kneeling position, lean or lunge forward to feel the stretch in the front of the hip. Keep your feet pointed forward and hold the stretch for 10 seconds. Pause and repeat.
3. Hamstring Stretch. The hamstring muscles are in the back part of the thigh. If these muscles are tight, they cause the lower back to flatten and restrict motion, creating a concussive position. Here are three ways to stretch the hamstring:
A. While seated, extend one leg straight in front of you; keeping the back straight, bend forward over that leg. Do not round your back; keep it flat and look ahead. Hold for 10 seconds. Pause and repeat.
B. Standing, place one foot on a stool or fence in front of you; keeping your back straight, bend forward over the leg. Hold for 10 seconds, pause and repeat.
C. Lying down on your back, lift one leg straight up with a slightly bent knee, hold the leg behind the knee with both hands and gently pull the leg toward you. Hold for 10 seconds, pause and repeat. This stretch is very effective for every kind of riding.
4. Adductor Stretch. The adductor muscles are the muscles of the inner thigh.
If these muscles are tight, they prevent the rider from achieving a deep and relaxed seat. Two types of adductor stretch include:
A. While seated, bring the soles of the feet together, take a deep breath and wait a few seconds to let the hip joint relax. Gently press down on one or both knees until you feel a stretch. Hold for 10 seconds, pause and repeat.
B. Lying on your back with both knees up, bring one leg up and place your ankle on the other knee. Gently press on the knee that is up, to stretch the muscles in the inner thigh. Hold for 10 seconds, pause and repeat.
5. Calf Stretch. If these muscles are tight, they prevent the heel from relaxing. Stand with one foot in front of the other as in a lunge position. Keep the heel of the back leg down and gently stretch forward. Hold for 10 seconds, pause and repeat.
6. Lower Back Stretch. There are three different types of stretches for the lower back. The first stretches the muscles that lie on either side of the backbone. The second and third help reduce pressure on the disc and help restore the normal curved position of the lower spine. Note that all three of these exercises should be performed in sets of 10, rather than holding the position for 10 seconds. Also, the standing backward bend is useful to perform periodically to relieve strain on the back while performing barn chores.
A. Lying down, bring both legs up to your abdomen and gently pull your knees closer to you. Perform 10 repetitions.
B. Lying on your stomach, place your hands as if you were going to do a pushup. Press up with your upper body but keep your hips on the ground. Perform 10 repetitions.
C. Standing, place your hands in the small of your back and arch backward. Perform 10 repetitions.
By repeating these stretches daily, you will improve the strength and flexibility of your muscles. It only takes a few minutes of your time, but will be well worth the effort once warmer weather returns and you’re back in the saddle!