“Move with the horse.” It’s a fundamental goal of riding, whether you want to sit the trot better or have a horse happily galloping and jumping underneath you.
But before you can move with the horse, you need to be able to simply move. To limber up before getting on your horse—whether you’re getting out of bed and onto your first ride of the day, or especially if you’re going to the barn after a long, seated day at a desk—try these warm-up exercises from equestrian fitness coach Tony Sandoval of Coach Sando Fitness.
Start small and build with these: You can start with two or three exercises and adjust your repetitions of each so the entire routine takes less than 5 minutes. As you get into the habit of warming up, add movements or repetitions. Your entire warm-up should be about 10 minutes long, so depending on your schedule, you can do the whole set or pick a few to loosen your joints and wake up key muscle groups before you get in the saddle.
And a bonus: These all can be done in your tack room. The only equipment needed is a wall or pole to use for balance and something to sit on—like a tack truck.
1. Forward-Backward Leg Swings
Stand with your side facing a wall and place a hand on the wall to stabilize (or hold onto the back of a chair if you have one). Place the opposite hand on your hip, flex one foot and swing that leg forward and back like a pendulum from your hip socket, keeping both your leg and upper body straight.
“It doesn’t have to be a big kick up to the sky,” he says. “It can be wherever you’re at that morning. Just it swing it back so that the heel could touch the opposite wall, which is nice and easy. And as you feel better, you start increasing the intensity of the swing.”
He noted that most people feel the greatest intensity in the leg they’re standing on, as that leg must stabilize the body. Since humans are naturally asymmetrical, the exercises is often easier on one side than the other.
Do 15 repetitions on each leg.
2. Cross-Body Leg Swings
Stand facing the wall, or chair, with your body slightly inclined forward. Keeping your legs straight and foot flexed, swing one out to the side as far as is comfortable. Return that leg to center or past center. Your range of motion may increase with each repetition until you are crossing the leg in front of your body, but don’t move beyond what’s comfortable that day.
“[If] it’s a little sticky or you’re moving your shoulders all over the place, you’re trying to compensate,” he says. “Be quiet with the upper body. We’re just trying to get a feel for where you’re at with your mobility. Some days you’ll come in, and you can kick all the way to the ceiling, and other days when you’ve been sitting down for a long time you’re not going to be able to.”
For most riders, the right hip will have more flexibility in this exercise, Sandoval says, because we use a similar motion to swing our right leg over the horse’s back when mounting.
Do 15 repetitions on each leg.
3. Hip Flexor Stretch
Stand in front of your tack box (or a chair) and place one foot on top. Without leaning through the waist, slowly incline your body forward to feel a stretch through the front of the hip on the standing leg.
Increase the effectiveness by squeezing the gluteus (buttocks) muscles to gently press that hip more forward, feeling the stretch in the front of the hip.
“People that complain about tight hip flexors,” says Sandoval. “Sitting down all day, it shuts off your glutes. We need those glutes to ride, so when you are leaning forward, something as simple as squeezing a glute makes this hip flexor have to relax.”
Do 8-10 reps each leg, holding the stretch for 2 seconds each time.
4. Glute Activation
Raise your knee toward your chest until it is parallel with your hip, or higher if you are comfortable and can do so with a back and body that stay straight. If needed, you can start with your foot on a tack truck and lift from there.
Squeeze the glutes of your supporting leg for two seconds. Release and repeat. This exercise “wakes up” the glutes and will help to stabilize your hips.
Do 8-10 reps each leg, holding each knee lift/glute squeeze for 2 seconds.
5. Hip Circles
Using a wall to aid your balance, bend your knee at a 90-degree angle and make a slow, deliberate circle through your hip. Focus on keeping your speed consistent and your upper body straight and still.
Reverse the direction of your circle and repeat.
“Angle is everything when it comes to turning on those glute muscles,” says Sandoval. “When you’re sitting down those muscles get stretched out.”
He compared our muscles to bungee cords being kept in constant tension; over time it weakens, so we need to work with those muscles contracted as well.
Do 8-10 reps each side.
6. Hip Airplane
Stand in your two-point position and slowly lift one leg until it’s parallel to the ground, hingeing forward at the hip with a flat back. You may want to put a hand on your tack box to aid in your balance. Keep your hips and shoulders even as you do this—be careful not to lean in one direction—then open the hip angle on the raised leg to rotate slightly to the side (like a banking airplane), before closing it to return to square . Squeeze the glute of the supporting leg as you return to a standing position.
Do 8-10 reps each side.
7. Seated Pelvic Disassociation
Sit up tall on your chair or trunk with your feet flat and your hands on your knees. Rotate your pelvis so that you are sitting on the back of your seatbones before rotating to sit on the front of your seatbones. Focus on keeping your back straight so that you’re rotating through the pelvis rather than collapsing through the core as you move.
The goal is to warm up your pelvic muscles while using your core muscles to help stabilize your hips.
It’s important to think about your breathing throughout this exercise to help control and focus on all these muscle groups, as poor breathing technique makes it more difficult to dissociate your hips from your shoulders.
“When you’re tight it is very difficult to keep your hips moving while your upper body will still stay still,” he says. “Some of us know how to do it, but it’s been a long time because [we slouch], so then our muscles become dormant.
“If you can’t do it here, breathing nice and easy, where the environment is very stable, then it’s going to be very difficult to do it on a horse,” he added.
Do 8-10 reps.
8. Seated Chest Stretch
While seated, interlock your fingers behind your head with your elbows to the side, opening your chest and feeling a stretch across your pectoral muscles . Breathe in and rotate your elbows so that they are pointed forward. Focus on expanding your rib cage with the breath. Exhale and open your elbows back up again, trying to match or increase the stretch across your chest as you progress.
Do 8-10 reps.
9. Thoracic Spine Rotation
To improve mobility through the spine, do the twist: While seated, cross your arms and place each hand on the opposite shoulder. Turn your upper body to one side, while concentrating on keeping your hips still. (Often the seatbone opposite to the direction you are turning will lift—focus on keeping both seatbones on your chair or tack box.)
After turning in both directions a couple times, turn left but instead of returning to center, take a deep breath in and out and turn further.
“That is a cool trick that involves your body just going into another state of relaxation so you can get more range of motion, a cool little Jedi mind trick,” he says.
Do 8-10 reps.
10. Bent-Over Lat Stretch
Stand facing a wall, knees soft rather than locked straight, and extend your arms forward. Bend at the waist until your body makes a 90-degree angle (or as far as your body allows) and push your hands against the wall—or the back of a chair—exhaling and allowing your chest to drop toward the floor. Feel a stretch through your shoulders and back muscles—the latissimus dorsi—that run up the sides of your back.
To deepen the stretch, gently twist or rotate your chest from side to side to isolate the stretch first on the right side then the left. Exhale as you stretch to one side; inhale as you return back to center.
Do 8-10 reps.
Notes For Successful Stretching
• Breathing is your best friend and can help you focus.
“Breathing is going to start to improve as well, plus it puts your brain in the right state of mind that we’re warming up, not, ‘I have to do this; I have to go to the grocery store,’ ” he said. “[Other thoughts] get you away from what you’re trying to do, and that’s prepare yourself to ride.”
• It’s best to do these stretches right before you tack up your horse.
“Out of all the things we’re doing right now, what are the three exercises that are going to have the most [return on investment]? What are the three things I feel I need?” he said. “Do those three things that may take 5 to 7 minutes, and then off you go.”
• If you’re looking for a more comprehensive stretch, you can do a full set of exercises before you leave the house. This works best if you have less than a 30-minute drive to the barn.
“When you get in the car you would think that it goes away, but usually mobility and stability, even activation, it keeps in your body for about 40 minutes,” he said. “After a while then you start to degrade in your mobility, but you should be OK, and then you can just do the things that you usually do.”
• “Don’t be surprised if your mood is better,” he said. “The ability to handle frustration, it increases. We know that we are a stress animal, [and] you are riding a stress animal. Let’s not have two stress animals be a team. Let’s have someone come in that’s going to be a little bit more in a parasympathetic state, meaning we are resting and digesting, and we can absorb what is going on with our session.”
Tony Sandoval is founder of Coach Sando Training in Lexington, Kentucky, and the creator of the EqueStrength Development System, an online training program for riders. He spent more than 15 years as a Division 1 strength and conditioning coach before focusing his sports performance practice on equestrians.