I think there are three aspects to equestrian fitness. The first two are strength and stamina, and I think the third is one that is often left out: flexibility.
I’ve found this to be the most difficult thing about coming back to riding as an adult. When I started riding again about two years ago after my nearly decade-long hiatus, of course my muscles were not in shape. It was hard to grip with my legs; it was even more difficult to squeeze a slow horse to move on. It was very hard to hold my upper body still. But I had muscle memory helping me out there. So my muscles knew what to do and would instinctually do it even though they weren’t really strong enough. It’s a lot faster and easier to train muscles that already know what to do and simply need to get stronger to do it than it is to start from scratch and teach them what to do. It’s something my riding buddy and I talked about a lot, how we couldn’t fathom starting to ride at our age if we hadn’t had so much experience in our youth.
Training my muscles to get stronger wasn’t too difficult, and I noticed a difference there right away. Every time I’d go to the gym to run or to do the leg weight machines, I’d see results; I’d be able to run faster and longer, or I’d have to put the weight up on the machines. But I wasn’t seeing the same results when I rode. My legs were objectively stronger, yet not a great deal more effective at doing the things they were supposed to do on the horse.
The amount of time it took me to warm up seemed to be the issue. I’ve noticed as I’ve aged that in general it takes longer to warm up. This is even true on the pitching mound, where I used to be able to throw a few warm-ups and then step right into the first inning and now if I don’t get to a game early and go through a whole warm-up routine, I won’t hit my stride until the second or third. In my riding lessons, it was taking me most of the lesson to get warm—flatwork was agony and it was like I was just getting started when I took my first jump. I tried stretching at home before the lesson, doing a little light yoga and calisthenics to get the blood flowing, but by the time we drove out there and mounted up I would be cold and inflexible again.
Warming up before a big exertion is useful and necessary, but there’s a lot of controversy about whether stretching before exercise is helpful at all for performance and recovery. But it’s not just on the horse that I feel my flexibility has become limited; it’s all the time. The area between my lower back and my knees, including lumbar muscles, my hips, hamstrings, and IT band seem to be all jammed up all the time. I feel them tightening and pulling on each other when I walk or sit. So warming up isn’t the only issue, it’s my general flexibility.
All of this has led me to do some research into the anatomy of these areas. The thighs are particularly interesting. Most people are familiar with the quads and the hamstrings, but there is a whole group of muscles called the adductors on the interior of the thigh that work to keep your knee rotated correctly and your leg stable. Looking at a diagram of these muscles, I was able to pinpoint the one that seems to be the hardest for me to stretch when I’m riding: the gracilis muscle. It’s the most superficial of the muscles on the interior of your thigh; a long, thin muscle that goes from your pubic bone all the way down to your knee. It is involved in the flexion of both your hip and knee and it’s the muscle that prevents all of us from being able to do the splits. When you’re riding, it’s the muscle that is directly against the saddle, the first line in holding yourself onto the horse and keeping your knee closed and bent at the correct angle.
Merely strengthening this muscle is not enough. I’ve spent plenty of time over the last several months using the adductor machine at the gym (and its counterpart, the abductor) to strengthen those muscles. But when they are tight, they aren’t particularly useful to me. I can’t access the strength I need from them–to let my leg really lengthen and wrap around the horse–if there’s no flexibility there.
So now I’m trying to seek out exercises that will specifically target flexibility in that area. My first thought is yoga. I’ve been going to a class once a week for the last few weeks but haven’t gotten much out of it physically because it was very meditation-focused; I’ve now found a different class that is more anatomy-focused and it seems to be a better fit. I’ve only gone to that one once but will continue to go weekly to build flexibility throughout my body. I will probably also do some practice at home using poses that are focused on this region. I found this informative blog post with a list of poses helpful for healing, strengthening, and stretching the adductor muscles.