The thing I like most about these yoga poses is that they help stretch and strengthen the muscles affected by riding in different ways – depending on when you do them. If you use them as a warm up before riding, you’ll get your muscles limbered-up and ready to engage. If you try them after, they’ll help stretch out tight spots and prevent soreness. Here are my favorite poses for riders of any discipline (not just Western).
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WARRIOR I | Also known as VIRABHADRASANA I, this pose helps increase the range of motion in the hip joints, particularly by stretching out the muscles in the front of the hip. Unlocking this area can also help with correct leg position on horseback; the stretch to the back of the legs can help lengthen the leg down the horse’s body. The upper body gets a revitalizing reach upward to align the spine and cultivate awareness of how the upper body lines up over the hips.
HOW | Stand tall with your feet together. Step your right foot back behind you about 4 feet, turning the back heel down and angling the toes forward about 45 degrees. Put your hands on your hips and draw your right hip forward and your left hip back; think of squaring the hips forward. Feel the stretch through the front of the right hip and the left calf as you push down through your back heel. The back leg is energized and straight while the front knee bends. Keep your navel drawing in toward your spine as you lift your arms overhead; you may bring the palms to touch, or imagine you are holding a ball between your hands. Either way, keep the fingertips reaching high as your hips drop down. Think about creating space between your vertebrae as the crown of your head lengthens up as well. If you would like to challenge your balance, take your gaze up toward your hands. Hold for 5 deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
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WARRIOR II | VIRABHADRASANA II brings more opening to the hips as they open out (vs. squared forward as in Warrior I). This pose also hits the inner groin and thigh, encouraging them to release and widen more easily on the horse. The arms are strengthened in this pose, and reaching them away from one another actively provides a gorgeous stretch across the front of the chest.
HOW | Stand tall with your feet together. Step your right foot back behind you about 4 feet, turning the back heel down and angling the toes forward about 45 degrees. Bend your front knee to come into a lunge position, taking care not to let the knee come out over the toes; if this happens, you need to widen your stance. Keep the back leg straight and strong. Take your arms out to the sides at shoulder height; think about reaching the fingertips away from one another and keeping strong energy flowing through the arms while you reach. Make sure your shoulders relax down the back (vs. tensing them up toward the ears). Gaze softly out over your front fingertips. Let the hips be heavy and continue to let them drop down until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Hold for 5 deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
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SADDLE TWIST | Twisting on horseback immediately aligns the spine and opens the chest while providing a lateral stretch. Plus it feels really darn good.
HOW | Take your right hand behind you to the back of the saddle or directly on the horse’s croup (top of the hindquarters). Place your left hand on the right side of the saddle or the horse’s withers (where the neck and the back join) use this hand to gently push off the outside of the saddle/withers while lifting your chest up and drawing your right shoulder back. Think about turning your collarbones toward your horse’s rear. Let the crown of your head lift up toward the sky. Hold for 5 deep breaths, twisting a little deeper if possible on every exhale, and lengthening the spine more on every inhale. Repeat on the other side.
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SADDLE CAMEL | USTRASANA, or the camel, is a lovely heart-opening back bend. Heart-opening poses encourage emotional release, and help a rider be sensitive to her emotional state so she can connect with her horse. Camel pose counters rounded shoulders and addresses poor posture while increasing spinal flexibility.
HOW | Place your hands behind you on the edge of the saddle or on your horse. Establish your seat and feel your seat bones connect to your horse, making sure your hips and legs are relaxed and open. Gently begin to push off your fingertips to lift your chest toward the sky. Feel the arch in your mid and upper back. You can gently release your head back or, if that bothers your neck, look straight up. Use each inhale to expand the chest and lift the heart. Stay here for 5 deep breaths, and use your hands for support as you carefully roll up one vertebra at a time until you are upright.
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HIP OPENER | BADDHA KONASANA, or bound angle pose, is a pose I think about a lot while on horseback. The same opening of the hips allows the heels to drop down in the stirrups and facilitates using your inner leg muscles to direct the horse. Open hips are beneficial for a lot more than horseback riding – how about just releasing tension? The first place we normally think of as holding tension is the neck and shoulder area; but the hips also collect a great deal of our stress so working to open them is a worthy cause. It’s a lovely beginning hip opener for everyone.
HOW | Sit down on a lightly padded surface (such as a yoga mat or soft ground) and reach back to take your butt cheeks out and back so you feel the sit bones at the bottom of your pelvis connect to the floor. Bring the soles of your feet together, about 4-6 inches from the hips (the more open your hips and knees are, the closer your feet will come in). If your knees are not dropping very far, you can place blocks or blankets under them for support. Interlace your fingers underneath your feet, taking care not to pull the toes up. Keep a light and relaxed grip. Now tune into your posture; draw your navel in toward your spine to activate your core and straighten your back. Relax your shoulders and lift your chin slightly. You may remain here, or begin to slowly and gently come forward with your upper body, keeping a straight back and directing your chin toward the floor in front of you. Think about lengthening your spine – stop coming forward when your back starts to round. Hold for 25 slow, deep breaths. Before getting up, straighten your legs out in front of you for a moment.
Photos © 2008 Larry Stanley