California Riding Magazine • January, 2012

Counter Pain with
Strength & Flexibility
Core and back exercises can help
when riding hurts.

by Jennifer Sharpe

Over the years we spend hours and hours in the same position in the saddle. Over time our bodies feel pain because we create physical imbalances. This means that by placing ourselves in unnatural positions we change our muscles, ligaments and tendons, creating physical imbalances.

These imbalances pull on the alignment of the skeleton structure, causing it to press down on the nerves. Nerves are the messengers between our brains and muscles, telling the brain where the body is so it can adjust the muscles when we want to move. When we have an imbalance, these messages to the brain slow us down and we experience discomfort and pain, decreasing our ability to ride effectively.

Sitting in any saddle changes the natural position of our pelvis. This change allows the lower back to be pulled down and out of alignment, which is why it is very important for riders to have an exercise/stretching program outside of their sport. Some of us are happy and able to do a few exercises and stretches without further help.

But, just as it is in riding, there is nothing like a custom program written by an expert to solve physical imbalances.

Physical imbalances start out small but in the long run, if left unattended, can and usually do become permanent. Either way, if you step out of your saddle and you experience tightness or pain then you need some exercises to correct your alignment.

But what exercises? Simply put, we need to increase the strength of our core and back muscles. We need to release the muscles that come from the upper leg to the bottom of the gluteus (butt muscles), the muscles that run on the inside of the groin and the chest. As an orthopedic strength and conditioning specialist, I repeatedly have to
stretch these muscles on 99 percent of my equestrian clients.
Here are three starting stretches to allow your body to release the everyday stress of riding. If your imbalances from riding are severe, do them every day: if they are minor, every other day. Here's a hint: If you have a hard time in the stretches themselves then you will need to stretch every day. It is when the stretches become easy that you can back off for a day or two.

1. After your body is warmed up:

Lying on your back, take a strap (about six-feet long) and place it on the bottom of your foot. Hold each side of the strap with each hand. Pull that leg up and arch your lower back. The arch of your back should have a space between you and the ground. Keeping that arch is very important, do not tighten up your shoulders or neck. Allow the resting leg to relax straight. The leg that you are stretching is the leg in the air. If you are really tight in the back of the leg then the leg will not be able to straighten. That is OK, just keep the arch. The strap will enable you to hold the weight of the leg, giving you more of a stretch. Hold this position for 30 seconds in sets of four on each leg.

2. Groin Area

Lie on your back and bend one leg under the other straight leg. The bent leg's foot needs to be under the straight leg's knee. Keep your spine and upper body straight. Place your fist under the bent leg's seat bone then press your lower back to the ground. As you press the lower back down try to not let the bent knee to rise towards the sky. The goal is relax the knee. As a trainer this pressing down of the lower back shows me if the client has lower abdominal strength because that's what allows you to hold the spine in place while keeping the knee relaxed. Hold this stretch for one minute for four sets on each leg. To rest, just switch to the opposite side and don't forget to switch your fist to the opposite side. By having your fist under your seat bone you are keeping the pelvis in alignment and stretching the muscles that, when imbalanced, will pull the pelvis down and the pelvis pulls on the lower back. Everything is connected!

3. Chest

You can use a Swiss ball or you can use the seat of a chair. Go onto all fours (like a horse), place one straightened arm on the ball then turn that shoulder towards the floor, relax the muscles of the arm. The supporting arm is slightly bent, chest forward keeping the shoulders away from your ears. Hint: keep your lower back up and you can turn this stretch into a core exercise! Perform for one minute four times on each side, again switching sides without resting in between.

Jennifer Sharpe is a C.H.E.K. Practitioner 2, NLC 3, Holistic Health Practitioner, Hormonal Balancing Life Coach., 510-523-4833.