Strong legs and a tight, stable core are must-haves for equestrians, but it can be hard to find a regular workout that targets these riding muscles. A basic but challenging yoga routine can help.
“I had always thought yoga was more or less stretching, so I was impressed with the workout I got,” says Jamie. “I started yoga for the workout, but I kept going back because I learned something new every time, whether it was about yoga or myself. I was challenged physically and mentally and began seeing those changes. I grew stronger and more flexible—I couldn’t touch my toes when I started—and my mental toughness grew, too!”
Yoga for Focus
As an NCAA equestrian competitor on the Texas A&M University team used to clueing into a pattern for competition, Jamie realized that yoga improved her ability to focus more than she could in the past. Yoga was a way for her to train her muscles to react in the way she wanted by focusing on calm, paced breathing.
“Outside of yoga, when things get tough, you can check in with yourself and ask, ‘What am I doing with my breath?’ When things get difficult, turn back to your breath and the conscious effort of just breathing will soothe your mind. You want to go back to long inhale and long exhale to utilize the full capacity of your lungs and make the most of each situation.”
To start building strength and improving focus, Jamie guides you through three yoga poses for equestrians: Goddess, Warrior 1 (or the alternate pose, Crescent Moon), and Downward Facing Dog. These moves target the areas that get stiff or sore after riding.
Jamie recommends finishing the workout in Savasana, or Corpse pose, which is lying on your back.
“I allow myself about 2 minutes each stretch (per side) if needed. Don’t underestimate the benefits of Savasana,” she says. “This pose is important in the practice of yoga because it is the opportunity to slow down, process and allow the relaxation of the central nervous system.”
Yoga has much to offer for equestrians beyond a good workout. “Yoga literally means ‘union,’ and it seeks to create balance in the body as well as in the mind and spirit,” says Jamie.
Prepare for your workout through pranayama, or breathing work.
Ricketts says breath work can actually start warming the body internally, before getting physical. Here is her suggested warm-up routine:
Focus on drawing attention to your breath and using the capacity of your lungs, diaphragm, and accessory muscles that help with breathing.
A great way to do this is the three-part breath, allowing the stomach to expand on the inhale, followed by the ribs, and finally the top of the chest.
Linking that breath into movement, start slowly with some spinal movement in each direction: front, back, sides and twists.
Before getting in the saddle, use this wide-legged squat pose to loosen your limbs.
The Basics: Try to keep your chest elevated and shoulders over your hips as you bend your knees.Your knees should track over your second toe. Focus on a slight tuck of your tailbone, engaging your core and alleviating any unnecessary pressure in your lower back. Slowly sink into the squat, and as your inner thigh muscles loosen, deepen it.
Advanced Move: With repetition, the squat portion of this pose will continue to drop lower. Add a heel lift to the stretch to take it to the next level.
“This increases the challenge of holding the pose while on your toes, and it works your calf and inner thigh muscles even more,” says Jamie. “Be sure to keep your tailbone tucked in, and keep your shoulders centered, not falling forward.”
2. Warrior 1
Warrior 1 is ideal for opening the hips and strengthening thighs.
The Basics: Start facing forward, with both hips facing forward, then stretch one leg back as if you were doing a lunge. Reach upward with both arms, keeping your elbows about even with your ears. Be sure not to pinch in your shoulders, but keep them wide and even. Stretch back with both arms, elongating your torso by drawing your belly button in toward your spine to protect your lower back.
Modified Move: If you feel any pain in your back knee when you stretch down into the pose, turn your back foot so that the heel is lifted. This is Crescent. You can place one hand on your calf or your thigh if the stretch is too challenging. Then reach the other hand toward the sky similar to Warrior; the pose resembles a crescent moon.
The Workout: Alternate the pose with each leg and hold it for 10 breaths, then 20 or more. Remember to breathe with deep inhalations and long exhalations. To progress, Jamie says to hold for a few more breaths, which builds endurance.
3. Downward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog lengthens the backs of the legs while stabilizing your upper body. This will help you stretch your heels down in the saddle.
The Basics: Start standing and bend downward like you’re touching your toes. Stretch each leg back until you are in a push-up position, or high plank. Your fingers should be spread out, with pointer fingers pointing straight, your shoulders over your wrists, and your core pulled up and in (belly button to spine and slight tuck of the tailbone).
From plank position, keep your hands and feet where they are. Press down and forward into your hands as you lift your hips up and back. Your body will resemble an inverted “V.”
Proper Form Matters: This pose both stretches your torso and is also holding your own body weight when in the standing “V.” Your weight should be evenly distributed between your hands and feet.
Draw your shoulders away from your ears and think about pressing your chest back toward your thighs. Your gaze should be toward your knees or whatever is behind you. (It’s OK if your heels lift off the ground.)
Variation: Pedal your feet by bending one knee and pressing the opposite heel down toward the ground to work on stretching your calves and backs of your legs.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!