To horseback riding enthusiasts, achieving the perfect fit between horse and rider is the ultimate challenge. The smooth, graceful movement of riding a trail, working on dressage skills or competing in a variety of events provides satisfaction for both horse and rider.
In addition to being a wonderful way to explore the outdoors, horseback riding provides another outlet for a stressful day. Few non-equestrians realize, however, that this activity can be very physically demanding.
This sport requires good balance of your “seat bones,” good sitting posture, well-stretched calf muscles, strong adductor muscles (a group of muscles on the inside of your thigh) and strong quadriceps (front thigh muscles). If you currently lack any of the above, don’t be discouraged! The love of this sport, along with some basic knowledge, and stretching, is an excellent way to develop these capabilities.
First, let’s look at the “seat bones,” or ischial tuberosities, which are the bones that make up the base of the pelvis. These bones are what the horse feels as your weight is carried on his back. If these bones aren’t even, which can happen when you take a fall and land on your buttocks, the imbalance will affect the performance of the horse. It may also lead the horse to have its own back problems!
To illustrate this, think of giving someone a piggyback ride. When you position the person on your back, you try to make sure that your passenger is centered, not off to the left or right of you, which you would immediately notice. Being off-center causes your muscles to work much harder in an imbalanced way to compensate.
While working with high-level equestrians, we often hear, “I thought my horse was off balance, but now I know it was I who was structurally off kilter,” causing the horse’s problems. People often relay stories of how their horses were receiving chiropractic adjustments on a regular basis for a chronic back problem, when all along it was the rider who was the root of the problem!
Next, let’s look at good sitting posture. This is more than that small parental voice in the back of your head telling you to sit up straight! In terms of horseback riding, it is very important that you have good balance of the three natural curves that give your spine mobility and stability.
A forward curve at your neck (cervical spine) and low back (lumbar spine) and a backward curve at your mid back (thoracic spine) comprise those normal curves. If you have too much or too little of these curves, it will be hard to attain a comfortable and proper riding position.
Some of these imbalances can be corrected with exercise, however, if the imbalances compensate for other injuries, a visit to a physical therapist specializing in manual therapy may be what you need.
Flexibility of your ankles to allow your heels to stretch below the level of the ball of your foot is important to correctly position your feet in the stirrups. To check this, see if you can raise the front of your foot while keeping your heel on the floor while you stand. If you have difficulty doing this, it may mean that your calf muscles are tight or it may indicate an imbalance of the bones forming the ankle joints.
Strong adductor muscles are essential to keeping you on the horse. These inside thigh muscles give you control and balance. To strengthen these, squeezing a basketball between your knees is helpful.
Lastly, strong quadriceps (front thigh muscles) are also necessary. They act as shock absorbers and allow you to time your ride with the horse’s rhythm. Doing partial wall squats will strengthen these muscles. As always, check with your doctor to make sure these exercises are appropriate for you to do.
Remember that to gain the most enjoyment and the best physical exercise from the sport of horseback riding, take some lessons and practice good postural awareness.
Enjoy the ride!