June 2019 - Are You Really Ready to Ride?
Written by by Darby Bonomi, PhD with Duncan Kennedy
Tuesday, 28 May 2019 21:00
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Here’s a warm-up routine to match your horse’s.

by Darby Bonomi, PhD with Duncan Kennedy

I am sure that you don’t just get on your horse and expect him to immediately perform at his best. I bet you have a regular routine that includes sufficient warm-up time with stretching, suppling and a gradual increase in the intensity of the work.

Do you do the same for yourself?


Darby Bonomi and Duncan Kennedy

Most equestrians create time for their non-riding workouts and their mental game, but don’t prepare themselves physically to ride. Why not? We equestrians are athletes, too, and deserve to be cared for as such. I was in the same boat until I became an older rider with a sensitive back which really needs some TLC to keep me tall and strong in the saddle. And, to be honest, what really kicked me into gear was the realization that my back soreness not only inhibited my ability to ride my best, but also affected my horse’s performance. I decided that I needed some help to build core strength, protect my back and be as supple as possible before every ride.

I consulted Duncan Kennedy, Chief Fitness Officer at Feel the Wheel Fitness (www.feelthewheelfitness.com) in San Francisco. A former collegiate and national team rower, Duncan works with many youth and adult athletes to increase flexibility, balance and strength in order to improve their performance. As with other athletes, Duncan suggests a thorough warm-up routine for riders prior to getting on. I asked Duncan to develop a warm-up specifically for equestrians. Knowing our time constraints and general resistance to doing things for ourselves, I encouraged him to keep it as efficient as possible.

The routine below may seem daunting at first, but the total time is only about 15 minutes, divided up between home and barn. Give it a shot. I hope that the results will impress you as much as they did me.  

Foam Rolling

Start by getting yourself a hard foam roller that is about 3’ long. They are not expensive, and your body will thank you. Think of it as having a massage therapist available to you 24/7. Foam rolling before a workout decreases muscle density, increases circulation and muscle pliability, and sets the stage for a better warm-up. The key is to search for tender areas, or trigger points, and to roll these areas to decrease the tissue density and overactivity.

Spend 5-7 minutes rolling your buttocks, hamstrings, quads and upper back with the roller horizontal to your body. Turn the roller vertical and roll the sides of your spine and your inner thighs. Roll each area about 10 times slowly. At first this may feel uncomfortable, especially on those tight areas, but if you roll regularly, you will come to enjoy it and notice a quick response in your body. Bonus: Rolling at night also helps with sleep!

Low Intensity Stretches

Next, do a quick low intensity stretch circuit to increase your mobility and flexibility. These exercises are brief—only 5-7 repetitions per side.

90/90 Hip Swings for loosening hips. Sit on your bottom and place heels on the ground with knees at a 90-degree angle. Swing your knees gently right and left. 5 swings per side.

90/90 Hip Swings for loosening hips.

Adductor Rock Stretch for stretching inner thighs. Set one knee on ground below hip and other leg lateral. Place both hands on ground so back is level with floor and joints are stacked. Push hips/butt back to heel.  Do 5-10 rocks with momentum.

Adductor Rock Stretch for stretching inner thighs.

Alternating Spiderman: for groin and hip flexor mobility. Establish a plank and then pull one foot up to the outside of the hand. Allow body weight to suspend and stretch. 5 per side.

Alternating Spiderman: for groin and hip flexor mobility.

T-Spine for thoracic mobility. Begin on all fours. Place one hand on the ear and open the elbow to the sky. Follow the elbow with your eyes. 5 repetitions per each side.

T-Spine for thoracic mobility.

High Intensity (Dynamic) Stretches

High intensity dynamic stretches raise your core temperature and take your muscle groups through their full range of motion in a slow-to-fast sequence. The dynamic portion should gradually increase the stress, get the joints moving and blood circulating, and activate and elongate the muscles. These exercises should first stress flexibility and then movement. These are done for 10 yards followed by an easy jog back to the starting spot. I like to do these at the barn, before I groom my horse. When I’m at a show, I do them right before getting on.

Knee Hug with Toe Raise

Leg Cradle

1. Knee Hug with Toe Raise
2. Leg Cradle
3. Lateral Lunge
4. Straight Leg March
5. Straight Leg with Skip
6. High Knee Run

Lateral Lunge

Straight Leg March and Straight Leg with Skip

High Knee Run

My advice is to practice this warm-up for a week or two and see how you feel. Make it part of your routine, and experiment with the exercises that work for you. You may find that some of the stretches are more useful than others, and you may have others that you want to incorporate.

The point is to treat yourself as the athlete that you are so that you can perform optimally and offer your best to your horse.

As I mentioned above, my back is not nearly as supple as it once was.  I have found that when I’m particularly stiff, my horse Little Wing, who also has a sensitive back, is more squirrelly and has a harder time with lateral movements. Increasing my own flexibility and building up my core strength has dramatically reduced my own discomfort and, in turn, Wing’s. And, with additional strength and balance training—thanks to Duncan—I’m better able to stay with both Wing and my other horse, DaVinci, over the larger jumps.

Now when you see me at the barn or the show doing my funny movements, you’ll know what’s up.  My kids cringe when I do them in public, but I hope I can inspire others to warm up also. Come and join me! It’s more fun with a crowd.  

Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Performance Psychologist based in San Francisco. She can be found at: www.darbybonomi.com.