Four off-horse exercises to improve core strength, flexibility, and body symmetry from our resident coach CHRISTINE ARMISHAW.
I’m always on the hunt for easy little ways I can work on my riding technique and position, even when I’m not on a horse. Here are a few handy tips and tricks I personally use to improve core strength, flexibility and body symmetry. I even prescribe these exercises for my clients as post-lesson homework, because rider training doesn’t have to be limited to the saddle.
Heels down stretch
Because I used to struggle so much with keeping my own heels down, this is my favourite, and all you need is a low step. Stand on the edge of the step on the balls of your feet and let your heels drop below your toes. Hold the stretch for at least 25-30 seconds to give your muscles time to stop resisting and relax into the stretch. Holding on to a rail or leaning a hand against the wall can help with balance.
You can also do this stretching exercise using a jump pole lying on the ground, something all my clients see me do if there happen to be poles in the arena while I’m teaching – I just can’t pass up the opportunity for a good heels down boost. Another favourite place of mine to do this is when going up the travelator ramp at the mall, and I’m not even kidding! When out of the blue a friend asked me how on earth I managed to get my heels down so far, I knew my efforts had paid off.
The heels down stretch is easy to do and the rewards are great.
Shoulder and chest opener
Riding a lot can sometimes cause rounding of the shoulders and closing up of the chest. I realised I had this problem when, at a sporadic sports massage session, I simply could not pull my shoulders back to what the practitioner assured me was a ‘normal’ position.
The exercise to combat shoulder rounding is simple, but effective if done regularly. Stand in a doorway and hold on to the frame with one hand, just above shoulder height. Lean forward slightly, while looking back over the same shoulder. Once you feel the stretch come on, hold for 25-30 seconds then repeat with the other arm.
Pulling your shoulders back and staying broad through the chest while riding, both on the flat and while jumping, not only looks much better, it also offers you a stronger, more stable position.
Use a door frame to pull back rounded shoulders.
If you find that you collapse a hip and lean slightly to one side while riding, chances are you do it in other areas of life too. The best way to improve this is to notice how you tend to stand or sit when your mind is elsewhere and, when you do notice, to correct it. When driving in the car practise sitting tall and straight, rather than leaning on the door arm rest. When waiting in a queue, distribute your weight evenly across both feet and stand square. Seeing other people ahead of me in a line, leaning on one foot while they wait, has become a great prompt to check that I am standing up straight.
The human body has great muscle memory and the way you regularly hold yourself while off-horse is likely to be recreated when mounted. Becoming aware of how you let your body slouch or slump is incredibly insightful and will go a long way towards improving your position in the saddle.
If you notice you’re collapsing a hip, correct your posture and stand square.
Work your core
A strong core is everything when it comes to riding. Your core muscles are responsible for strength, balance and an independent seat; any off-horse core improvements you can summon will pay dividends and are well worth the effort.
An easy, core-engaging technique is to spend time sitting on an exercise ball each day. All the small movements of the ball underneath you cause your abdominals to activate in order to maintain your equilibrium and keep the ball in place. Plus, you can’t help but bounce on it a bit while sitting, which is definitely more fun than your average chair. The trick, however, is not to sit on the ball all day. If you get to the point where you are tired and your back starts to round, you are not doing your body any favours. Ten minutes is a good length of time, enough to keep you focused, engaged and reaping the benefits.
I love trying to balance on my knees on an exercise ball too, it uses all the core engagement mentioned above and more! If you’re up for a challenge, give it a go. The more steady and still you can hold yourself, the stronger your core has become. Just remember to be safe and work within your own limitations.
Adding these off-horse hacks into your daily life are easy yet effective ways to improve your riding. When practised regularly, they genuinely make a difference and, if they can give you an extra edge when you’re in the saddle, why wouldn’t you?
Now visit Equestrian Hub to watch a video of Christine demonstrating how to do these exercises effectively.
Feature Image: Christine keeping her heels where they should be (Image by Melissa Goodson, Snapshotaustralia).