Fitness for Riders: Reducing Shoulder Tension

ders affects your entire back car- riage, often indi- cating

By Dr. Heather Sansom Keeping fit for healthy

living and good riding is about so much more than your physical fitness. Men- tal fitness for riding is about remembering to leave your stress in the tack locker. Many riders joke that their horse is their therapy. As a credentialed professional in physical fitness, equestrian coaching, and mental health, I’ve observed strong links between a rider’s state-of- body and state-of-mind. Most of us find peace-

ful solace at the barn, in the midst of whatever else is going on in life. However, horses are very sensitive to the stress and tension you may have brought with you. One of the key areas that riders show inner tension is the shoulders. This month I’d like re-share tips I’ve written in the past about re- leasing shoulder tension. You would think that

tense hips or legs might be the first target of observa- tion, because your seat is the connecting point with the horse’s back. Your shoulder tension is more observable from the ground, and riders are often more aware of it themselves. Also, it’s easy to address before you get on your horse. Finally, tension in your shoulders is only part of it. Tension in shoul-


tension that corre- lates with quicker movement, lower

‘feel’, less patience, and more rigidity in the arms while riding. These in turn make aids less clear, train- ing less patient, and your horse less supple in the poll or giving in the mouth. While the dressage

training scale might be the iconic symbol for making suppleness a foundational priority in your riding, most disciplines start with supple- ness. Suppleness is about readiness, without tension. You can’t achieve it in your body or your horse, if you have tense shoulders. To be transparent, I’ve

been noticing the issue more lately because it comes up in my own riding. These days, I have a more than full time schedule between my men- tal health and coaching practices, mostly at a desk or computer. I have also changed trainers in my rid- ing, to work more seriously on some of my bucket list goals in dressage. Just when I want to push myself more in my riding, and my profes- sion is pushing me, I need suppleness and relaxation in my body more than ever. Many of you may feel simi- larly at times in your riding life. Riding may help to de- stress, but it is not fair to ex- pect the horse to take all your stress. It is important to a smoother, more suc- cessful ride that we do

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things before the ride to minimize the impact of ten- sion on the ride itself. Let yourself use preparing for your ride as your tension re- lease, so that you and the horse can find more joy and harmony in the ride. This month’s tips di-

rectly address shoulder ten- sion, with exercises you can do easily, just about any- where. I recommend mus- cle stretching and releasing at various points in your day, and right before you ride. During stretch or mus- cle release exercises, re- member to use deep and rhythmic breathing. In addi- tion to getting your body to relax, it is also helpful in re- laxing the brain circuits re- lated to anxiety and stress. The forward reach exercise below is for strengthening the area of your back behind and below your trapezius muscle, so that you can pro- mote better back carriage (and less shoulder tension) throughout your day and your ride. You can make dra-

matic changes in your shoulder tension in the space of a few days or weeks by doing the follow- ing:

1. Stretch your shoulders and neck every day, all the time, in the car, at work, on your horse, and before you ride. Quick options can in- clude putting an arm behind your back, while bending your neck and reaching your ear to the opposite shoulder (e.g., if your left arm is be- hind your back, tilt your

head to the right so that the distance between your left ear and left shoulder length- ens, while that left arm ‘holds’ your shoulder down by the way it is propped be- hind your back). This seated yoga video - NyrTA - provides some ex- cellent ideas and a nice 10 minute routine. The only caution I would add is not to roll your head around to the back. Reach it back, but only roll your head around the front and sides to protect your spine.

2. Use fascial release tech- niques such as pinching the tight muscle areas or laying on tennis balls to release ac- cumulated tension in the fascial tissue and muscle complex. This Youtube video

link - atch?v=lWRX-vyB9Jw - provides a nice demonstra- tion of a shoulder fascial re- lease.

3. Get massage or other re- lease therapy to the area, then maintain it with good stretching habits.

4. Build up strength in your back and shoulders so that you are not riding ‘at your limit’ and your body can relax. One exercise I like is a forward raise with weight. In the photo (also from Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks), the model performs a slight squat, bent at the hips with a straight back. The straight back is very important. She is using only enough weight

to make lifting it to a posi- tion where her arms are aligned with her torso, slightly challenging. The reason is that you engage your lower trapezius. When you use too much weight, you might collapse or curve in your back, or compensate by using the areas of your shoulders which you are try- ing NOT to use. This exer- cise helps you with alignment, and integrating the lower parts of your

backline. In your horse, the equivalent would be getting him to use his back more, to lift his shoulders up.

Safe and Happy Training! Remember, Equifitt of-

fers personalized fitness as- sessment and coaching, riding instruction, and life coaching/mindset training for riders anywhere you can get internet. Working with riders remotely since 2007. Contact Equifitt if you are

interested in organizing a virtual group workshop or clinic.

© Heather R. Sansom, PhD.

Leading Equestrian Fitness since 2007. Fitness & Biomechanics Specialist. Personal fitness. Riding in- struction. Clinics. Mindset coaching. Available online almost anywhere.

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