Equestrian Fitness: Pre-Ride Workout

Riding itself is a workout, so it may seem that a pre-ride workout is a little bit of an overkill. However, I’ve found that warming up my muscles before I get on the horse results in a much more pleasant and productive ride.

I like to ride in the morning, so this workout is also about waking up and taking the kinks out of sleepy muscles. Usually I do this routine, then I have a cup of tea and a light, but high-protein breakfast before heading out the door.

Here’s my pre-ride workout:

1. Jumping Jacks:

25 of ’em, right off the bat, just to get the blood flowing.

2. Standing Toe Touches

I actually am not sure what these are called, but what I do is stand up with my arms straight out to the sides. I then lift my leg straight and twist to touch the opposite hand to my toes. Alternate legs and arms, 10x.

While standing, lift leg straight and touch toes with opposite hand, just like this creepy diagram shows.
While standing, lift leg straight and touch toes with opposite hand, just like this creepy diagram shows.

3. Squats

Nothing crazy, just a few to warm up the legs. I do maybe 15 or so.

4. Yoga

I go through a quick sort of modified sun salutation routine that focuses on opening up the hips and stretching out the thigh and back muscles.

Starting in downward dog, I move out to plank, then lower myself down to chaturanga. Then I push myself up to cobra and then back up to downward dog.

Next, I lift one leg straight up behind me and then bend it at the knee. I circle that leg a couple times in one direction and then in the opposite direction to open my hips, then hold the position for a stretch.

hip-opener-dd-734x618
Hip opener stretch in downward dog.

After that, I straighten the leg out behind me again and bring it forward between my hands for a low lunge.

Low lunge.
Low lunge.

Next, I lift my arms for a high lunge, then move into warrior 2, triangle pose, and twisting low lunge.

warrior 2
Warrior 2
triangle
Triangle
TwistingLunge-p117
Twisting lunge

 

 

 

 

 

From the twisting low lunge, I place both hands down on the floor inside the front leg for a really nice hip and hamstring stretch. If I’m feeling particularly flexible that day I go down on my forearms.

Low-lunge-dropped-knee
An amazing stretch for your hips and your hamstrings.

From here, I go back into downward dog, go through another plank-chaturanga-cobra routine and then back to downward dog to repeat the sequence with the other leg.

After all of this is done, I lay down on my back and go into happy baby pose, and then pull my knee across my body for another twist. Return to happy baby pose again, and then repeat with the opposite leg.

happy baby
Happy baby pose makes for happy hamstrings when you’re in jumping position.
knee-down-twist
This twist is so wonderful on your lower back.

5. Abs

To get my core warmed up, I do 25 Bicycle Crunches followed by 25 hip lifts. Then I repeat that.

Hip raises.
Hip raises.

6. Gracilis Stretch

To finish off the workout, I end with this intense but lovely stretch for my gracilis muscle. I wrote before in my post on flexibility about how tight that one can get. When I found this stretch, I noticed a big difference in the efficacy of my leg while riding. I have more flexibility to lengthen and wrap my leg around my horse, and this gives me more stability to hold myself in the saddle. It also allows for more suppleness throughout the interior of my thigh, so my legs don’t become so fatigued while squeezing my horse forward.

On your knees, move them as far apart as they will go. Keeping your lower back flat, bend forward from the hips (like you do in jumping position) and come forward to rest on your forearms. If you’re able to, come even further forward and make a pillow with your hands to rest your head on the floor. Breathe. This is an intense stretch, but if you relax into it for a moment, you will feel those inner thighs loosen up.

The best inner-thigh stretch!
The best inner-thigh stretch!

This routine isn’t set in stone. Sometimes I do more of something, sometimes less. Sometimes I leave some of this out, sometimes I add other things, especially different yoga poses if I feel particularly tight somewhere. All throughout, I throw in little movements and stretches as it strikes me (like a neck roll or an ankle roll). The point is just to get limber, however works best for you. This routine offers a little bit of cardio to get the blood flowing and then stretches everything out, focusing on the areas that tend to become the tightest while on the horse.

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Tough Times

Today’s lesson was a little bit tough for a number of reasons. Our regular trainer, Hannah, was out of town so we opted to ride with a new guy named Omar. We started out with kind of a rushed vibe to the lesson; he is new to the barn, and I think anxious to not get behind on his lessons schedule. So we didn’t get a chance to talk with him first and to let him know our riding level and where we were coming from.

We also didn’t have much of a warm-up. With Hannah we usually do a least a little while of flatwork before we begin jumping, trotting and then cantering around the ring several times to warm up our muscles and our horses. We didn’t really do that today, just trotted a bit and then went right into jumping. That didn’t really work for me because Jubilee, who I rode again today, can be sassy and slow at the trot to begin with before she warms up and gets interested in doing the fun stuff. I also realize now just how much I need it. As I get older, it takes me a longer time to get warm even doing things I do frequently, like pitching softball. For something like riding, which I only get to do twice a month, it is even more necessary. And it’s not only for my muscles, it’s for my mind as well. Establishing a rhythm and a connection with the horse takes a little time, especially on a school horse who experiences tons of different riders in any given week.

So going into the jumping I was already feeling somewhat harried. Omar was after me to get more trot from Jubilee, which I was trying to do but which I knew wouldn’t be an issue once we got warm. I was trying to explain this to him, someone who was unfamiliar with my mount to the point that he kept calling her “he,” but he wasn’t really listening. Without enough trot going to the first couple of jumps, she slowed down in front of it and and refused, pulling off to the left at the last second. Unfortunately, that set up a pattern that continued throughout the rest of the lesson as we jumped the different elements around the ring. First it was the crossrail, then it was a line of 5 down one long side of the ring, then it was a stand-alone oxer (a jump with two rails next to each other, making it wider than a regular jump) on the diagonal, then it was another line of 5 down the other long end of the ring. With every one of these, it was the same thing: Jubliee refusing the first time, or the first several times, rushing out to the left.

My frustration was mounting throughout this, not with her, but with myself. Each time, Omar was coaching me, telling me what I already knew I was doing wrong. I was getting more and more upset with myself because I knew that I could do these things, have done them thousands of times before, and was making such a poor showing of myself with a new trainer who had no idea of my abilities. It didn’t help that some of my fear came from the fact that this was how I fell last week, with her pulling off to the left unexpectedly. Each time I would try for a jump and she’d do it, I knew deep down I could make her go to the jump but became hesitant, allowing her to slowly drift to avoid it rather than pushing her on faster with my leg on the off chance that she’d cut quickly away at the last second.

But nevertheless each time I finally did it. I turned her right around after every refusal, tapped her with my crop, and tried again. Sometimes it took four or five tries, but I got her over every jump. And of course she took them all beautifully. The first line I think we actually got in 5 strides, which was unexpected given her performance last week. The oxer was a joy; I haven’t jumped one of those in a very, very long time and they are super fun since you’re in the air longer.

The final sticking point was the other line. I was so worked up by this point, tired, frustrated, anxious, and parched with thirst. We missed that jump what felt like a zillion times. Then we finally got over the first one and she refused the second one a zillion more. I was at the end of my rope with myself, and with this trainer who I felt didn’t understand me and wasn’t listening to me and didn’t see that I actually knew what I was doing. He was talking very fast and I couldn’t catch my breath and all of a sudden I was having a full-on panic attack. It’s hard for me to even admit that this happened to me, especially because it was over nothing. Panicking in the traffic circle at Kensington? Fine. That is a dangerous situation. Panicking because I’ve frenzied and pressured myself into a frustration meltdown? Not fine.

I dismounted and went and sat down on a jump. I asked Omar for a minute to regroup, and started breathing again. In the meantime, he worked with my riding buddy, who was having a similar tough time with him and with her mount, but who was at least getting over most of the jumps. Then I got up, apologized, and got back on my horse. Of course she was full of spikey energy at this point, feeding off my frustration and also just wanting to go run around. Oddly, she seems to love to jump. I’m not really sure why she kept running out on them today. Maybe she just wasn’t ready either, like me, and it created a feedback loop. Who knows. So I walked with her around the ring once, calmly. We passed the jumps that were giving us such a hard time, and she watched my riding buddy take her last turn at the line. I talked to Jubliee soothingly, asking her to remember how much fun we had last week flying through the jumps.

We picked up the canter on the other side of the ring and headed toward the jump. I wasn’t letting her get out of this one, and squeezed her to the base of it. But I lost my nerve after the landing and she refused the second jump. Again.

The lesson was over; we heard them calling Omar for his 1:00 lesson over the loudspeaker. But I was not ending like that. He said, “Go again.” I squeezed her to the first one and then, eyes through the line, with all of my will, I said, “GO”. We flew through the line in 4 strides, taking them in that perfect unison I had felt with her last week.

Despite my embarrassment at not looking my best today and at letting myself psych myself into a panic attack, I feel good about this lesson. I feel good about toughing it out, about getting my mount over every jump, and about proving to myself–not to anyone else–that I could do it.