This post has good information and stretches for anyone, not just riders!
In the previous post, I put Flexibility at the bottom of our Riders’ pyramid, because without it, range of motion is limited and proper musculoskeletal development depends on freedom of movement. Muscles work by pulling two bones together across a joint. If a muscle cannot contract and stretch according to its design, then the function of the joint it influences will be limited.
Each individual is different, but many of us share typical restrictions that prevent us from optimal performance. I will go through the most commonly found tight muscle groups and discuss some root causes, as well as the influence of the restriction in riding. Then I will offer some stretches to help alleviate the problem. Sometimes the issue can be the result of specific weaknesses, in which case the root cause will be eradicated by some strengthening and activation of muscle groups. More on that in a later post.
Hip flexors/ internal hip rotators: The muscles crossing the front of the hip joint and down the front of the thigh, stretching over the knee to attach to the the lower leg all serve to lift the thigh or close our hip angle. When these (psoas, rectus femoris eg.) are tight, we cannot stretch our legs down and sink into the saddle. They can also keep us from opening our hips to move the pelvis with the horse’s movement. This tightness often comes from seated work hours, driving, or weak abductors (muscles that pull the legs apart).
There are many approaches to this issue- here I will give you 3 variations of a basic quad stretch. I will add some internal hip rotator stretches in a later post.
As you can see, the goal is to drop your knee straight down below the hip and bring the heel as close to the buttock as possible. You will need to squeeze the buttock to help straighten the hip angle. The range you see here is the ideal- you may not come that close, but with time and practice, your flexibility will improve. Short holds of 5-10 seconds, about 6-8 per leg will be plenty to start.
Hamstrings/ calves: These muscle groups are hip extensors; they bring the back of leg toward the buttocks. The hamstrings, 3 in all, attach to the pelvis (ischial tuberosity), run down the back of the leg, and insert into the back of the lower leg (tibia). If the hamstrings are tight, they can pull on the lower back and inhibit pelvic movement with the horse. They can also cause us to draw the leg back and up, in essence shortening the leg and pitching us forward onto our pubic bone and off the seat bones. Weakness in the gluteals and stabilizer muscles is associated with tight hamstrings. More about strengthening later.
Tight calves can result in difficulty dropping the heel and weighting the stirrups. There are 2 main calf muscle in the back of the leg, one which crosses the knee joint and one that is attached to the back of the tibia. They both insert into the Achilles tendon, shortening the distance from heel to knee.
Here are a couple of basic stretches for each.
Calf: hang off a step, holding a post, and sink your heel down as far as you can. Try to take all the weight off the other leg. Again, with time and practice, your flexibility will improve. Holds of 10-20 seconds, about 6 per leg will be plenty to start.
Hamstrings: This stretch can be done standing or prone. The most important thing is to maintain a neutral spine- do not round your back, rather arch your back and bring your chest forward. In standing, keep both hips facing the bench or table. If you struggle with these instructions, do the floor version, actively lifting your leg as well as using a rope to pull it forward. Flex your toes toward your head. Short holds of 5-10 seconds, about 6-8 per leg will be plenty to start. Future posts will expand on the hamstring stretch.
Gluteals/ external hip rotators: Gluteal muscles are also hip extensors; they open the angle of the hip, allowing the leg to stretch down. They attach to the pelvis, sacrum and tailbone on one end and the upper leg (posterior femur) on the other. They can become tight when a variety of muscle imbalances are present, and are often weak in those seated at a desk or driving for long hours. Even when weak they may require stretching. These stretches also target the external hip rotators (specifically piriformis), which can tighten in response to or resulting from sciatic pain.
My favorite stretch for the glutes and piriformis can be done in a couple of positions as seen below. If you have a partner handy, they can assist by gently pushing your extended foot toward your head in the supine version below. Otherwise, just pull back on that leg without lifting your hips off the ground. Holds of 10-20 seconds, about 3-6 per leg.
Thank you, MV, for posing for these photos.
Not all exercises are suitable for everyone and this or any other exercise program may result in injury. Any use of this exercise program assumes the risk of injury resulting from performing the exercise and using the equipment suggested. To reduce the risk of injury in your case, CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE BEGINNING THIS EXERCISE PROGRAM. The advice and instruction presented are in no way intended as a substitute for medical counseling. Jennifer Westerfeld and Westerfeld Fitness disclaim any liabilities or loss in connection with the exercise and advice herein.
Feel free to post questions and comments below, or contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org for a personal consultation or fitness plan.