It's going to be spring soon. I noticed the other day that my thighs have gone all to pot. No matter how much mucking, shoveling, hay-tossing, and snow removal I do, no matter how many minutes I spend on the treadmill, balance board, or yoga mat, I get February Thighs. It's not just the appearance of Shar Pei Knees that bugs me; it's that I know the first time I go to hop (there's a joke for you!) on one of my horses, I'm going to have a moment when getting my leg over that saddle will be iffy. I can do knee bends and thrusts and lift weights, and still not be able to get those thigh muscles up off my knees for the push.
|,The iJoy Human Touch board.,|
my go-to for everything that ails me.
There's where the chicken meets the road. I'm out of riding shape from not riding. I can't get back to riding until I'm in better shape, and I can't get in better shape until I can ride.
|This looks like a hug, but|
it's a stretch for tight
neck and shoulder muscles.
The thing about riding is that it's an athletic event, not just a hobby. I've written before about whether we ride to get fit or need to get fit to ride. The latter is definitely the case. Riding helps us stay in shape once we're there, but any beginner will tell you that there's considerable pain and effort involved in those first few rides.
The horse feels the same way. If your equine buddy has spent the winter indoors as a stall captive, he's going to have no muscle to speak of. It takes only two weeks for muscle to begin to deteriorate into flaccid tissue. In a month, he's going to start to look a little limp in spots. He'll need to be worked back from the ground first before you saddle him and ask him to carry your weight. If he's been turned out in a big pasture all winter, he won't need as much work to get back into shape, but the longer he's gone between rides, the more you'll need to work him back at least to the extent that you don't just hop on those weakened back muscles and head out for a round of jumps or a long trail ride.
Fitness is a relative thing. I don't expect my seniors (which is all of my horses...and me) to ever get back into the shape they were in when they were competing. But the time invested in keeping them fit is well worth spending, because it minimizes down time due to soft tissue and joint injuries and keeps the vet bills minimal. I generally use the rehab schedule my vet gave me when Zip (and Dakota...and Zip again) had pulled suspensories and needed to be stalled and on limited turnout for what seemed (to me and to them) like an eternity. I start with making them walk, either under saddle or on a longe, for a few minutes a day and work up over a three-week period to a longer period and add in a trot. With both of them, because the injuries weren't serious and the treatment was, they were back to reasonable fitness for riding in 4 - 6 weeks, and full fitness in a few months (because I'm overly-cautious and I don't have an indoor, a fact which prolongs pretty much everything horse-related).
|Even the short horse needs|
some stretching exercises.
But if your horses have been cooped up for an entire winter or tend to be stall-kept all the time, then a longer, more specific program would be better. This one, for instance, from the Atlanta Equine Clinic. This program does not permit full-time turnout in a big pasture until the whole 60 days' work is completed, so adjust for your personal horse's needs.
Then there's us.
I can say from my own experience that the areas in which we most quickly lose fitness are:
1. Hip flexors and extensors
2. Hip, knee, and ankle joints and tendons.
3. Everything else.
We love videos, so here's one for you: Success in the Saddle
There's a lot of focus on core muscles in most of the fitness programs for riders, but I can attest from my own 50+ years of experience, that if you're mucking stalls, sweeping floors, and do a little yoga between shifts with the occasional ab crunch set thrown in, your core will stay pretty firm. Aging, however, steals the flexibility from joints and makes a lot of weight-lifting routines more pain than gain. If a rider of a certain age works a muscle group to failure, as is required for real building, failure will remain in place for days, if not weeks. The old 36-48 hour recovery thing goes the way of the built-in saddle bags on our hips and the boobage that seems determined to wind up confined by our belts: Seriously South.
So I've found that basic yoga (giving up periodically on poses that requires things like actual functioning tendons) with a smattering of side leg lifts and lunges helps keep it all toned and flexible without making the parts seize up like the suspension on an old car. We don't have grease fittings, more's the pity.
If you're willing to part with a few dollars, The Rider's Fitness Program book is worth buying. I like it mostly because it has a variety of exercises and full programs I can pick and choose from and modify to my little heart's content. And the exercises work. That's key.
So, have at your spring makeover while it's still winter and you can jump-start your attitude along with your body. You can let your horse hang out until you're good and ready and the ground has thawed and the temperature is above minus-hellhasfrozenover. By then you'll be hot to trot and you can really get into the whole partnership exercise routine.
Oh, and when you're done with Day One of your joint fitness program, you might want to consider finding a massage therapist who does horses and humans. Seriously. You need to live to ride another day.