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Rider Fitness

Yoga for Riders

Improved balance and focus, better reaction time, increased range of motion, added strength, greater flexibility, fewer injuries, and a boosted immune system? Yes, please! Horseback yoga postures—and yoga on the ground—can help with all those and more.

Periodically loosen tightness in your arms and shoulders during a ride with eagle arms. Photo by Carol Engan Borelli

Through personal “groundwork” in the form of yoga, you can more fully experience and fine-tune your body, thus creating better overall health and increased awareness. Riding requires the use of specific muscles—some more than others. Equestrians need to focus on developing strength in their legs and core; open hips; and a supple, healthy back and spine.

In addition, as a horse person, you probably are doing other physical things besides riding, such as lifting saddles, cleaning hooves, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying water buckets, picking up feed bags, and slinging hay bales. These are other good reasons to keep the body strong and flexible.

As we get older, it’s typical for balance to become challenged, flexibility to decrease, and strength and bone density to diminish. Our reflex time and coordination becomes compromised. Doing yoga helps us to stay strong and healthy for longer.

Yoga Stretches for Riders

After riding a while, it also feels great to get off your horse for a few moments for a little stretch session. When I take time to stretch with yoga poses occasionally during a ride, I get less stiff and sore.

The Lunge. Photo by Carol Engan Borelli

I also feel better when I get back on my horse—more relaxed and in-tune with him. I believe my horse moves better, not to mention that it just feels nice to move the body in gentle ways after having engaged many muscles during a riding session.

Here are some suggestions you can easily incorporate in the arena or on the trail:

Dancer Pose. Photo by Carol Engan Borelli

◆ The Lunge (shown here supported by a tree and a hug by Sampson) is a great stretch for the legs and Achilles tendon and is a good quadricep strengthener.

◆ Dancer Pose (shown here supported by Captain) improves balance, and stretches the legs, shoulders, and chest.

Certain yoga postures can be done on horseback to improve balance, strength, focus, mindfulness, and connection. It’s enjoyable doing light poses on your horse; it’s a good opportunity to improve balance and focus, stay relaxed, and build connection and trust.

Here, I suggest two specific poses for use on horseback: those that help the rider improve balance and alignment, as well as become truly “body aware.” It’s important to do only yoga postures that are safe for you and your horse. In most instances, I recommend having a friend (whose feedback can be helpful) hold your horse while you’re doing the movements. It’s also wise to wear a helmet.

Yoga poses on horseback can be done as a specific session or simply before riding to limber up. You can also throw in one or two of them here and there while you ride, perhaps to loosen up a tight area. Or you can use them on a break during a lesson to keep the body relaxed and less stiff.

Remember: When you stay relaxed, so does your horse.

Eagle Arms

This pose prevents tightness in the shoulders and upper back.

This is a good stretch to do before you ride, as well as when taking breaks. It’s not uncommon to feel tightness in the shoulders and back from using (engaging) those areas while riding (holding the reins and keeping a proper seat).

Take full breaths and feel the muscles you use to hold T pose. Photo by Carol Engan Borelli

HOW TO DO IT: Extend your arms out front, crossing one over the other at the elbows. Bend and intertwine your arms. Remember, you may or may not be able to clasp your hands—either way is fine. You can simply hold this position for several breaths, or attain added benefit by moving your crossed arms up and down with the breath. I like to do this three times: inhale while lowering, exhale going up.

The arm on top will get the deeper shoulder and shoulder-blade stretch. Do both sides, taking turns with which arm is on top. When you release the pose, notice how those areas feel.

T Pose into Warrior Arms

This pose helps with body alignment and awareness, balance, finding and moving from your physical center, learning to move from your core and working arm and upper back muscles.

Incorporate a twist, looking out over your fingertips. Photo by Carol Engan Borelli
This excerpt from Yoga for Riders by Cathy Woods is adapted and reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

HOW TO DO IT: While sitting on your horse and looking straight ahead, inhale your arms to a T position. Both arms should be at shoulder height, with palms facing downward. You can remain here while taking a few full breaths, feeling the muscles that are working to hold you in place.

Incorporate a twist to further the stretch and gaze out over your back hand’s outstretched fingertips. Continue to keep the arms at shoulder height while in the twist.

This article about yoga for riders appeared in the October 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Cathy Woods

Cathy Woods is the author of Yoga For Riders and the creator of Body, Mind, Equine. She offers retreats, clinics and presentations for equestrians, around the country and internationally.

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  • Cathy and Readers, Please see also the article in this month's Horse Illustrated on our Stanford somatic horsemanship program, "Equine-imity--Stress Reduction and Emotional Self Regulation in the Company of Horses," which is qigong ("chee-goong") with horses, by Natalie DeFee Mendik.

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