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Equine Massage, Horse and Rider Fitness Training & Rehabilitation

From beginners to experts, no matter where they fall in the abilities category, like any other sport they need to accurately assess their strengths and weakness so that they can improve their performance.

As well as working with people, I  work with horses and their riders to help reduce injury and improve performance.  Just as you might find it beneficial to see a physio or professional massage therapist, so will your horse.I like to watch you work together, as team, and doing a bit of ground work – unless one of the two of you injured, as that shows me where I can most efficiently work to improve your performance.  I can then also slow you techniques to help keep both you & your horse fitter, happier and healthier.

To achieve their competitive best,  an adult rider should be engaging in cross-training activity three to four times per week for 60 to 90 minutes. Include core strength, muscle strength for balancing & symmetry, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. A non-competitive adult should be engaged in physical activity on a daily basis for 30 to 60 minutes, if they are in competition training, add 30 – 60 minutes a week of stretch and flexibility training to create more suppleness with stability. Don’t forget those spinal rotations!

If that rider is you, your program needs to incorporate your specific requirements, (injuries, postural issues, disabilities) into account, as well as any to compensate for any that your horse may have.  It will be very much like the training goals & schedule you have made for yourself, your goals are for the horse: to improve his overall fitness, endurance, suppleness, flexibility, strength, cardio fitness, refining technique & performance style.

Because we approach and mount Near side, most of our horses will have more left sided issues – i.e.  heavy on the rear end, leading to falling through on the forehand. If you have a tendency to land on one side when going over fences, for example, then doing more balancing and strength exercises, like Pilates, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais exercises, (along with good bone density exercises with weights for women), will help you gain more symmetry. This is important for  control over your body weight distribution in your stirrups so you are not repeatedly throwing your weight on one side of your horse & causing injuries.

First, get yourself a great riding instructor, or a winning exhibitor, a horse knowledgeable physio,  or equine & human therapist to assess your key priorities. What are your postural challenges/issues/ injuries? Do you with more weight in one stirrup than the other? Slouch or hunch in the saddle?

A great little exercise is taking away your stirrups until you sit properly at every gait.  Correct  saddle fit is crucial, but poor posture of the rider  is often overlooked as the cause of soundness issues in the horse. The effect your own lack of weight distribution symmetry and self-carriage has on the horse is magnified in power events such as racing, steeple chasing, high level jumping, and high stamina events such as dressage, distance riding, eventing, including rodeo & western trail, barrel racing &  gymkhana.

A similar issue in dressage could be a tendency to sit with one hip lower than the other or off to one side, causing your horse to drift in that direction and interfering with his straightness on circles and lateral movements. Another might be having tight muscle groups impeding your ability to have the deep seat you need for your level.  Your shorted QL &  tight psoas  muscles have just changed your horses’ performance, and not in a winning way.

Like other top athletes, as well doing your sport,  riders should do cross-training with cardio two to three times per week, depending on their discipline, to increase stamina. Cross-training can seem like a lot of work and you need to plan really well to fit it in.  Thinking in five to fifteen minutes units, can help you develop a realistic plan that will give you that added bonus— maybe even the edge, your competitors don’t have.

As well as assessing your own postural issues & your postural vices,  it’s vital to properly  assess your horse’s postural vs conformational  issues, including injuries, & natural choice of side. Are you tending to pitch onto your horse’s forehand when you get tired? Does this make him stiff in his forehand?  Are you stiff in your neck, head, shoulders,  & find yourself getting a sore back? Does your stiff & lack of deep seat back make you bounce on his back – giving him backache?  Are you out of breath more than you should be for the exertion you are doing? Are you or  your horse out of condition? Is your trainer constantly telling you to get your shoulders back but you can’t seem to keep them there? Does your horse have neck issues because of your overbalancing on the front? Questions like these will help you identify your specific riding performance issues, and better help achieve your goals.

Having a  friend make a  video that can show you what you are doing right, as well as wrong is very  helpful. Include working your horse on the ground, & letting him graze – observe & listen to his  chewing pattern, as head & neck injuries can often be caught there. In the horse, the Temporal Mandible Joint (TMJ) problems show up in chewing – & the TMJ  in the equine athlete is vital to being able to collect and lift himself over fences, or in dressage, getting his  carriage correct.  These short training videos are also an excellent way to see how you are achieving your goals, together & singly.

For example, your goal might be “Jump a whole course with my shoulders back, no lower back pain, without being breathless at the end, or having a side stitch”. You have just identified back and shoulder strength training and cardiovascular improvement as key priorities. Since riders who have trouble keeping their shoulders back also typically have tight chest muscles, stretching your chest and shoulders before and after each ride is going to be important. Lower back pain from riding is often related to weak back muscles combined with tight hamstrings, so stretching your hamstrings every day ought be part of your plan too. Tip: if your hamstrings are very tight, try stretching your quads first, on horseback if possible.  Or maybe you have poor core control & no posting power – instead of rising to the trot, you count on the hip/leg thrust of the horse to ‘bounce’ you up.  Lazy of you, bad for his back. Engage your core & find your rising rhythm improve.

DO: Try to create a schedule & include time for each activity.  You do not necessarily need to go to a gym, cleaning stalls is great for upper body strength. Remember to squat & activate your gluts and hamstrings as you lift and push the wheelbarrow.  Try carrying a full water bucket in each hand – or half fill them and use as hand weights for bicep curls. Try to vary your weekly stretching – do different stretches will result in supplier,  fitter muscles.

DO fit in smaller work outs – it’s so much more efficient to do 5 minutes of good work, than 20 minutes rushed & poorly done. You can do core work every time you ride – just remember to activate your core and pelvic floor muscles.  There a lot of stretches that that can be done on horseback – (or on a large swiss ball or the Equizer – if you have one) making both of you more mobile. I am including a few of them below. You can do a more general stretch, or  focus on one muscle group at at a time, creating flexibility while maintaining the rest of your body with quicker stretches.

Do remember to include work on a swiss or balance ball, squats,  balancing on one leg,  one legged squats, star or box jumps. hopping  from one foot to the other, skipping rope, using a balance board -anything that improves your balance  when unhorsed, will improve it on horseback. Just remember to use your core!

If you have trouble keeping your heels down all the time,  doing different gentle calf stretches every day, along with ankle rotations will make them more supple and getting your heels down will be easier for you.

Do learn how to help your horse stretch & NEVER force a joint, try these great tips from a vet: http://vipsvet.net/equine-stretches.html

Do learn to stay relaxed on the horse, this does not mean flopping around in the saddle with loose muscles. Balanced riders must develop a feel for where their body is positioned relative to the horse’s centre of gravity & they  must must be able to do this while looking straight ahead, not down. We all have “muscle memory,”  – but riders, like dancers, need to work on theirs  so that the muscles fire in the right increments that enables them to maintain their equilibrium in motion – or at any gait or on any line they are riding without gripping with their legs or grabbing at the reins to stay on.

There are a number of exercises that riders can use to help themselves develop the “muscle memory” they need to stay in balance with their horses.

Please note that I always advocate working with a good riding instructor when undertaking new skills -they will see things you do not, and will save you time, effort, money and possibly help prevent an injury to you, your horse, or a bystander.

Here are a few to start with:

* Frog position. Riders draw their knees up to help them find the middle of the saddle and to stay there without gripping with their calves. start with sitting, progress through walk & trot.

* Dog position. Riders lift their thighs away from the saddle (like a dog lifting its leg) to help them find the centre of the saddle without gripping with their thighs.

* Up two, down one. Instead of normal up-down posting to the horse’s two-beat trot, riders stay up for two beats, sit for one beat, and keep repeating this pattern. This constantly changes the diagonal that the riders are on and prevents them from using the rhythmic thrust of either hind leg as a crutch to maintain their balance.

* Riding without stirrups. Riders can work on this alone but I recommend they work with an instructor or with a knowledgeable riding partner who puts their horse on a lunge line so they can work without either stirrups or reins. If you are tempted to do it solo, use a small circular pen, as it’s easier to stay on track. Start at the walk (in both directions) and gradually work up to the trot and canter as balance improves.

Once you have developed your seat,  you can can add new balance challenges such as riding with arms out on both sides, with both arms straight up, or with arms out to the side as they twist from side to side at the waist.

* I do not recommend riding with bareback pads to develop balance because they encourage gripping with the calves. A good saddle helps the rider sit correctly.

* Do try Cavaletti poles and small jumps,  working your horse from the ground and under saddle.

* For improving suppleness have a line of cones  with enough distance that your horse can go through left, right, left without touching cones. through all gaits.  As the horse becomes more supple, you can shorten the distance and work through all gaits, until you can do the in & out without falling off or pulling on his mouth. If you aren’t supple, your horse won’t  be either!

A  favourite of the gymkhana circuit is turning 360 whilst seated on your horse forwards, right side, back, left side, returning to forwards. When you can do it sitting, progress to walking, trotting & at a controlled canter.I would suggest working with a partner on a long line so that you can simply concentrate on your balance.

My personal party piece favourite was done on a horse called Penny, who graciously let her owner & I do the double switch. Riding bareback, in tandem, both turn all the way around in every gait. The perfect finish is switching places so that the lead rider trades places on horseback at a canter. You need a really steady horse for this, lots of time and a soft landing place, in case you fall off whilst practising. You also need to be supple!

Don’t forget that as well as your horse, you need a day off too, and that muscles need time to rebuild after strength training. You both need at least 48 hours in between strength training and intense cardio workouts. You should also not train intensely on the day before a show, or during an intense string of show days, however, it is essential to keep moving so that neither of you stiffen up. Walking & gentle stretching to keep loose, will help keep joints supple, and maintain flexibility while lowering stress levels will be more appropriate.

And if you are a rider who also runs, or does other sports – any injuries you seem to have acquired and can’t seem to shift are possibly from you compensating for your horse, or vies-versa.  Regular MOTs with your physio & professional massage practitioner can help put you in the winner’s circle.


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