Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Loosen Up to Sit Up

by Lori Albrough

Sitting on the horse, we want our torso to be upright and our shoulders square, as I used to say to the kids I taught in Pony Club, “like a box of cereal”. In this way, our parts are stacked in the most efficient way for us to be in balance, to go with the movement of the horse, and to influence the horse with our seat and weight.

Unfortunately, today’s lifestyle works against us being able to effortlessly achieve this nice upright square-shoulders posture. The problem is that most people’s chest muscles tend to be overused and tight, and back muscles underused and weak. This results in a rounded slump-shoulder look more reminiscent of a dried-up leaf than the powerful equestrian we are hoping for.

The thing is, if you are forking stalls, carrying water and hay bales, and lifting saddles, you are strengthening and tightening your chest muscles. In contrast, we do very few activities behind us, which means the opposing back muscles are weak and let the strong chest muscles pull the shoulders forward. Couple this with the amount of time spent in front of the computer keyboard and the steering wheel, and you can see how this situation develops.

The remedy is not to “try harder” to get your shoulders back when you are riding. The result of the try harder approach is to make yourself stiff and tight, which will diminish your ability to ride properly. You will also end up sitting behind the vertical, leaning back to get the “shoulders back” feeling you are after. And intuitively we know that anything that you can’t do easily off the horse is not going to magically happen on the horse, when you are engaged in managing the details of riding, which even at its most basic comprises balancing yourself on a thousand pounds of moving muscle.

Instead we need to undertake some strategic training off the horse. The first step is to loosen up your chest muscles through stretching. You are going to get the most benefit if you incorporate stretching into your day as a practice. Working our craft as riders means that every single day we engage in activities that enhance our ability to positively influence the horse. Suppling our own body off-horse is just as important as suppling the horse’s body while mounted.

There are two kinds of stretching, dynamic and static. Dynamic stretching is what I do before I get going with my riding, as well as interspersed in between my rides and chores. This type of stretching is moving the body in a flowing way through it’s full range of motion, to gently loosen and increase range of movement. Later, when the work of the day is winding down, I will do static stretching. These are your long-held stretches, letting time and gravity lengthen the muscle fiber as much as possible.

Overhead Whip Pass

A good dynamic stretch to open the chest and loosen the shoulders is the overhead whip pass. This can be done anytime anywhere (yes I take a lot of good-natured ribbing for spontaneously breaking into a stretch, anytime, anywhere) and it takes just a few seconds, and uses props commonly found in the barn, like a long whip or a lead shank.

First stand in an athletic stance, knees and hips soft, pelvis level with tailbone slightly tucked. Take a fairly wide grip on your whip, hold your arms out in front of yourself, then bring your hands up overhead, take a deep breath and pass it down behind your back. Then roll your arms with the whip back over your head and bring them in front again. Repeat for a total of 4 to 5 times.

If this seems impossible, take a wider grip on your whip or leadshank (get a longer one if you have to) until you can do it. With time and repetition you will loosen up your shoulders and find that you can bring your hands in closer together.

Yoga Mat Static Stretch

A nice relaxing static stretch for the end of the day, that is good for the chest and shoulders, is simply laying back over a rolled-up yoga mat. Place the rolled-up yoga mat at about bra-strap vicinity, and lay back with knees bent, allowing your upper back to release. This stretch is best done for about five minutes. Use the time to let loose and concentrate on your breathing.

Strengthen the Back

The other side of the equation involves strengthening your back muscles. In this Dressage Today Online video tip, narrated by equestrian fitness expert Heather Sansom, I am demonstrating some good exercises used for strengthening the backline postural muscles.


2 Responses to “Loosen Up to Sit Up”

  1. Master Your Posture for Effective Back Training | Fjord Horses for Dressage, Sport, and Pleasure wrote:

    […] Lori Albrough on February 29th, 2012 Last month we talked about some stretches to loosen the chest muscles to help you improve your posture on the horse. Shoulders that are […]

  2. The Habit of Daily Stretching wrote:

    […] the related post: Loosen Up to Sit Up, for more dynamic […]

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