Ah the irony… The core of our fitness strengths, as riders, are our all important core muscles. Aids don’t originate, or at least they shouldn’t, from the hand, seat or leg. Proper aids should originate from the core THEN reach out to the areas of the bodies where most believe they begin. If you’re handy enough to ride a seriously sensitive horse you’ll discover that with the focus on tightening the core and sitting deep in the saddle, your properly trained partner will glide into a halt or if you give it a half an ounce of a tightening and a slight sit, your mount will respond with a corresponding tempo control otherwise known as the infamous and mysterious half halt.
There are heaps of simple exercises to improve your riding one can do around the stable especially while tacking up. Quality stretching before riding can mean a world of difference especially on those cold days when our muscles are stiff. My athletic background is in dance, so I find myself hanging out at the stable next to the saddle racks, gates or arena walls doing little dance moves to warm myself up on the cold winters days. It really only takes 5 to 10 minutes and I’d venture a bet that if you applied a few exercises before your rides consistently for 2 weeks you’d notice a significant improvement with your time inside the sandbox atop your equine partner.
Here are a few simple exercises to improve your riding. Are their sawhorses at your barn? What about jumps or a feed table? I’m guessing you probably have a kitchen counter at home? If you can find any or all of the above then you can give yourself a wonderful warm-up to ride or even a complete daily workout! The key with these exercises is to remain aware of your body and be strong in your core, which is no different than when you’re riding.
Sidle up to one of the aforementioned items. This will be your ballet “barre” (that’s pronounced bar as in “he can do 15 reps at the pull up bar” type bar) let’s just call it your equine barre or equibarre for now. You can place either hand lightly on the barre and face your body sideways, align your heels gently touching with your toes angled out and bend and straighten your knees. In ballet terms this is called a plié and the position you’re in is called First Position. Do a series of 16-32 pliés then step your feet about shoulder width apart, toes still angled out. In ballet this is called Second Position. Again bend and straight your knees gently (i.e. – plié) for another 16-32 reps. Even if you’re quite fit, you’ll feel a nice burn. That burn is the lactic acid starting to move around and your muscles are starting to warm up. Fitness initiated! 🙂
You can follow those two warm-up exercises by facing your equibarre and gently placing both hands on it. Feet shoulder width or slightly more apart, toes turned out and simply rock from side to side with a bit of a lunge right and left. This will get the blood moving more, increasing the warmth to those muscles and allow you to stretch them easily before getting on your fiery stead. Again with the 16-32 reps which you can increase or decrease according to your personal physical fitness. Simple stretches can be done in this same position. Stop your right to left lunges, keep both hands on your barre, lean forward with a flat back and gently straighten your knees as much as you can. You should feel a stretch all the way from your heels up to your glute muscles. You can deepen the stretch by relaxing your knee for a break then straightening your legs again. If you can straighten your legs completely then try maximizing the stretch by leaning a bit more forward and really feeling your straight back all the way through your lower back muscles.
You can do a full fitness workout before you ride and it’s not going to exhaust you. Those neigh sayers (pun intended) please believe me, it will improve your ride and invigorate your person. For those of you without massive amounts of time, try the above few simple steps to warm yourself up then continue to think about stretching as you tack up. You can stretch your legs out while you are bent over picking your horses hooves or exhale and reach your arms high above your head stretching for the tack room ceiling just before grabbing your bridle off its holder. Be safe but be inventive. If you’re a dressage rider like me, than you can easily equate ballet to your riding just maybe forgo doing split leaps down the alleyway like I used to. 🙂
If you’re actually looking for a simple workout that was geared to the all-‐important core muscles, to firm and lengthen your muscles throughout the rest of your body then do check out the full equibarre workout (http://equibarre.com). Yes, there’s actually a fitness DVD called equibarre. You’ll find tons simpler exercises to improve your riding on the DVD that you can do at the stable or simply at home in addition to the ideas I’ve put forth above.