In these rather unusual days when lots of riders can’t, or are choosing not to ride, it’s important that we continue to engage and stretch those muscles which we use during riding, in order to keep us in the best possible shape for when we get back on board. This is applicable to both us and our horses. It will also give you the opportunity to practice those stretches to perfection, with the idea of them becoming part of your regular riding routine once back on board.
Ours and our horses muscular system needs to be flexible to achieve peak performance, and stretching is the most effective way of developing and retaining flexible muscles and tendons. Often with our horses, we would incorporate stretching during ridden work, however ground work and assisted and passive stretches can be just as effective, if done regularly and properly.
Stretching has numerous benefits.
- Improved range of movement. By stretching we are able to increase the length of muscles. The benefits of an extended range of movement include increased comfort, a greater ability to move freely, and a reduced susceptibility to injuries
- Increased power. By increasing muscle length we increase the distance over which they are able to contract. This potentially leads to an increase in power and athletic ability and an improvement in dynamic balance (the ability to control muscles)
- Reduced post exercise muscle soreness
- Reduced fatigue. Fatigue can result in a decrease in physical and mental performance. Muscles work in pairs. Flexibility of the non-working (opposing) muscle means that each movement of the working muscle takes less effort, as the working muscles do not have to exert as much force against them
- Improves posture
- Develops body awareness and co-ordination
- Promotes circulation
- Improves relaxation and stress relief
As with most activities, there are rules and guidelines to ensure that they are safe. It is vitally important that the following rules be adhered to, both for safety and maximizing the potential benefits of stretching.
1) Warm up prior to stretching
Trying to stretch muscles that have not been warmed is like trying to stretch old, dry rubber bands: they may snap. A correct warm up should consist of light physical activity. So a brisk walk for you / in hand for your horse to ensure the muscles are warm before stretching, is crucial
2) Stretch only to the point of tension
Stretching is not meant to be painful. When the muscles are stretched to the point of pain, the ‘stretch reflex’ kicks in, which is the body’s safety measure to prevent serious damage occurring. The stretch reflex contracts the muscles, thereby preventing them from being stretched.
3) Stretch the opposing muscle groups
Every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle that acts against it. Eg the Quads are opposed by the Hamstrings. The opposing groups of muscles provide resistance to each other to balance the body. If one of these groups of muscles becomes stronger or more flexible than the other group, it is likely to lead to imbalances that may result in injury or postural problems.
5) Stretch gently and slowly
This helps relax muscles which make stretching more beneficial and help to avoid muscle tears and strains.
6) Breathe slowly and easily whilst stretching
Many people unconsciously hold their breath whilst stretching, which causes tension in the muscles making it difficult to stretch. Breathe into the stretch (although this is slightly harder to ask your horse to do!)
Over the next few weeks, I will be demonstrating key stretches for you and your horse in order to maintain flexibility, suppleness and all the associated benefits.
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