The Athletic Rider: Above All Else, Be Flexible

If we want our horses to stay loose and limber, we should demand the same of ourselves. Personal trainer Leah Hinnefeld shares some tips.

From Leah:

Flexibility may not be the first focus that comes to mind when discussing rider fitness. Unless we have very short legs and a very broad horse, flexibility training may seem to be an unnecessary part of a typical Rider Fitness program. Quite the opposite. Particularly as we get a little long in the tooth, flexibility training becomes one of the most important elements that allows a rider to spend years enjoying time in the saddle as well as remaining competitive (if that is her goal).


Flexibility, simply put, is the ability to move a joint through its full range of motion. Lack of flexibility is a sign of muscular imbalance and inefficient operation of the neuromuscular system. In other words, when you are not flexible your body just does not work as well as it should. When there is muscular imbalance, one muscle is working too hard while the opposing muscle is not carrying its share of the load to perform a movement. When this imbalance occurs, the nervous system calls on other muscles to assist the movement. Because these “assisting muscles” are being asked to do a job that they are not meant to do, they are at risk for muscle pulls or tears. In addition, inefficient movement impacts the joints, setting up an environment for joint dysfunction. As you can see, lack of flexibility can create a real mess of things!

A seasoned rider is well aware of the impact that lack of flexibility has on her horse. A dressage horse will not be able to perform a fluid half pass, a show hunter will fail to get a clean lead change and a barrel racer will struggle to bend tightly and keep his pace. Just like his rider, a tight horse is subject to limitations that will inhibit performance and put him at risk for injury. Countless dollars are spent on equine chiropractors, massage therapists and other body workers in order to restore and maintain muscular balance and flexibility in our horses. A thoughtful rider will always allow her horse to stretch and warm up before asking him to exercise.

How does lack of flexibility affect the Athletic Rider? 

Let’s face it, we are no longer a very flexible society. Between sitting long hours at a job or spending time on the computer, we are no longer the mobile people that we once were. As a result of the countless hours sitting, low back pain, neck pain and other neuromuscular injuries are on the rise. How many riders do you know that complain of low back pain and blame it on riding? Certainly the pain is felt during or after a ride, BUT the pain actually might be caused by lack of flexibility.

In addition to creating pain and potential injury, lack of flexibility also has a direct effect on a rider’s ability to effectively communicate with her horse. Sitting for long periods of time creates tight hip flexors. Tight hip flexors inhibit a rider’s ability to have a following seat or an independent seat. Tight hip flexors can cause a rider to bounce and appear disconnected from the movement of her horse. Tight shoulders won’t allow a following and forgiving hand on the reins.  Tight calves will not allow a rider’s leg to comfortably and correctly sink into her heels when in two point or going over a jump. Now consider how each of the issues will impact how the horse performs. What if the horse’s poor performance is actually the rider’s lack of flexibility?

What’s the solution?

Every Rider Fitness program should incorporate Flexibility training into the cross training rotation. Investing only one day a week in Yoga, (or some other focused stretching workout) can improve rider fitness and flexibility, especially when accompanied with the daily use of a foam roller. Never heard of a foam roller? No problem! The Athletic Rider has a blog introducing the benefits of foam rolling and you can check it out HERE.

A responsible fitness professional will be able to perform a postural assessment to determine your muscle imbalances and then offer a training program to correct those imbalances while addressing all areas of fitness. If you would like more information on the rider fitness programs offered by The Athletic Rider, please CONTACT ME! There is never a charge for your free fitness consultation.

Be sure to invest in your flexibility training daily. As always, your horse will thank you.

Leah Hinnefeld is a lifelong equestrian who spent over a decade studying hoof health and metabolism in horses before turning her attention to rider fitness. Leah is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Fitness and offers Virtual Fitness Training for riders and horse lovers. You can learn more about how to get fit to ride at Please contact Leah if you are interested in learning more about the virtual posture assessment offered by The Athletic Rider.


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