Weekend warrior: A person who participates in usually physically strenuous activity only on weekends or part-time. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the phrase “weekend warrior” was coined in 1981, reflecting the trajectory of the average American’s increasingly busy lifestyle. In the 30 years since it joined our lexicon, thanks to (or cursed by) advancements in mobile telecommunications, free time to pursue activities outside of work - including time with our horses - has felt increasingly compressed.
Consequently, by the time Saturday morning arrives, we hit the ground running to get the most out of our horse time -- and often pay the price for our effort with a litany of physical and mental complaints by Monday morning.
Our horses pay the price, too.
WALK, DON'T RUN
“Many of my clients have full schedules,” says trail riding specialist Jenny Lance of No Fences Horsemanship and Live to Ride Horses ( www.LivetoRideHorses.com ). “It's really tough for them to have time with their horses. The worst thing you can do is rush in each weekend, slam on a saddle, and go for a ride. You will have put nothing 'in the bank' regarding your relationship with your horse but you will certainly be making a withdrawal.”
Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) Master Instructor Teresa Kackert, of Great Horses of America at Menifee Meadows Equestrian Center in California, concurs: “Horses are resilient animals but need rest and recovery time, too. If you go to greet your horse the next day, possibly to embark on another activity with him or her, and rather than being perky and willing, they are standing in the corner of their stall or corral and not too happy to see you, that's a passive sign of overexertion.”
“I have many clients who are weekend warriors,” says Eleanor Criswell, EdD, originator of Equine Hanna Somatics in Novato, California. “Like humans,” Criswell explains, “horses experience stress and develop chronically contracted muscles.”
But take heart. It’s possible to battle the weekend warrior syndrome and win, thanks to some simple advice, savvy warm-up strategies, and stretching exercises designed to help both you and your horse enjoy your time together more comfortably and safely.
GROOMED AND GROUNDED
Kackert suggests, “One of the simplest practices I utilize is a good pre- and post-grooming session with my horse. I like to have my hands all over my horse, looking for possible signs of injury or compromise, especially in the legs and hooves. I like to apply subtle pressure to the largest muscle groups to see if he is sore. Usually he’ll respond right away if he is, so be careful. The most susceptible and responsive areas would be the back (both sides of the spine), loins, and rump.”
“Thoroughly grooming your horse, prior to riding, provides a great opportunity for warming up your upper body muscles, as well as your horse’s,” says Heidi Potter, a CHA Master Instructor and owner of Maple Ridge Stable in southern Vermont. “An effective and efficient technique is to place the curry in one hand, and the body brush in the other. This way, you are working both sides of your body equally and getting the job done in half the time. Your horse benefits, too.”
“A great activity for getting back in shape, particularly after winter hibernation,” Potter continues, “is hand-walking your horse. Hitting the hills and trails with your horse in tow provides an opportunity to spend quality time together, check in with ground manners, and get both of you back in shape for the riding season. Long, slow sessions are more beneficial than fast, short sessions, especially in the beginning. Work just long and hard enough for the horse to sweat a little, gradually increasing the length of time and activity level.”
“Here in central Oregon, we are pretty much shut down from December through March, unless riders have an indoor,” says CHA certified instructor, Lisa Murphy, of LT Equine, in Bend. “At the start of lessons, we hand-walk a few laps in the ring to get our minds focused while our bodies warm up.”
Once in the saddle, Murphy says, “We'll do walking without stirrups to stretch our legs, plus ankle rolls, head rolls, arm rotations forward and back. Two-point and posting at the walk, with and without stirrups, are good exercises to turn on unused muscles. I remind students to warm up the horse’s mind as well. Variety is important. I may have trail, reining, and jumper riders in the ring, all doing cavaletti and trot to back-up transitions as warm-up exercises.”
IT'S IN YOUR HANDS
During the winter downtime, Murphy's horses are hand walked three times a week, and turned out daily, “so our horses’ backs are generally sound once they go back to work.”
“I advise clients to hand walk their horses for 10 to 15 minutes,” Kackert says. “That usually warms up both horse and human!”
To give your horse a more thorough warm-up, Kackert suggests, “Simply walk under saddle for five to 10 minutes, working in some soft circles, bending, flexing and softening, using leg yields, and encourage suppleness before slowly jogging or trotting for 10 to 15 minutes. Some folks use longeing, which may be fine if the handler is experienced; otherwise injury or chronic conditions could result. Others use turn-out for the horse to get its ‘wiggles’ out, but that too can result in muscle strain or injury if not done properly.”
For horses who tend to get stiff, Lance uses Sore No-More(tm) liniment. “I love it because it's natural, smells good, and works. I can use it under a saddle or magnetic blanket to keep my horse supple." Murphy occasionally uses a lavender rinse, or Bigeloil(tm) brace on horses who are especially sensitive.
With proper stretching, your horse becomes more able and willing to perform, and the time invested in warming up also builds a closer connection between you and your equine partner. After all, the whole point of working for the weekend is to enjoy time with your horse, and for your horse to enjoy time with you.
IT'S A WRAP
Soft tissue injury and soreness are the bane of the weekend warrior. Leg wraps and boots are common protective choices, but are they right for your horse? "Wrapping is 'cheap insurance' so long as you know how to wrap effectively," says Lisa Murphy. "I use boots periodically but as most are made of neoprene, I'm careful about leaving them on for too long as they can trap heat and become an irritant. Since we trail ride a lot, boots and wraps are not conducive in water or thorny brush. I recommend polo wraps and walking for fifteen minutes at the trail head, which is good training for the horse anyway, and then remove the wraps before continuing your ride."
Heidi Potter uses wraps "for jumping and/or lateral work, especially for horses learning these skills; they have a propensity to bang themselves up more than experienced horses."
"Wrapping can be very helpful either in advance to help protect vulnerable areas or afterwards, to control swelling, heat, and stiffness," says Teresa Kackert, "especially if there's a long trailer ride home or a small stall the horse may stand in either overnight or for an extended period. However, if you're using any liniments or topical products, never rub them into the tissue and then wrap the area, as injuries like blistering may result. Never rub AND wrap!”
The somatic Cat Stretch (not to be confused with the Yoga stretch of the same name) takes just five to 10 minutes and helps achieve maximum flexibility. “Many people do it twice daily,” Eleanor Criswell says, “in the morning to prepare for the day, and in the evening, to decrease muscle contractions that have accumulated during the day or during riding and will continue to contract and re-contract through the night, leading to stiffness and soreness in the morning.”
Whereas the Yoga Cat Stretch is a single exercise (you are on your hands and knees, and first arch your back up towards the ceiling and then back down), the somatic Cat Stretch is a smooth series of movements, that start with lying on your back, knees drawn, while arching the pelvis upwards at the beltline and pressing the tailbone firmly into the floor. The stretch continues with rolling on to your stomach and gently lifting the head and opposing leg, and then returning to the original position on your back, knees drawn, to raise your head, and opposing leg and arm, until elbow and knee meet.
Seven additional exercises comprise the somatic Cat Stretch series. The movements are coordinated with natural breathing patterns.
“To stay limber, I suggest Pilates and Yoga to my clients,” says Jenny Lance. “You will find your balance, core strength, and flexibility -- all important to an independent seat. This will make your horse, his back, and his mouth happier.”
Teresa Kackert recommends starting with gentle exercises that gradually increase heart rate and respiration: “I always stretch out, simply bending over and reaching for my toes stretches my back, hamstrings, shoulders and calves. I also like to do the standing ‘flamingo’ stretch for my quadriceps, followed with trunk-twisters, arm circles, neck rotations, and finally, jumping jacks to really warm up!”
The Flamingo quadriceps stretch involves standing upright, then reaching behind to lift your right foot with your right hand, while standing on your left leg, and using your left arm for balance. Apply a slightly upward, pulling pressure with your right hand on your right foot; then switch to your left side and repeat. “The standing on one leg with your other tucked up behind is where the ‘Flamingo’ name comes from,” Kackert says.
Rider soreness, Heidi Potter points out, is often the result of incorrect position on the horse and gripping to find security, resulting in the over-use of certain muscles. “My answer is largely based on teaching the principals of Centered Riding(c) which helps riders find their natural balance and let go of the tensions that cause soreness and miscommunication with their horse.”
The word ‘somatics’ was coined in 1976 by the late Thomas Hanna, PhD, a Functional Integration practitioner who developed Hanna Somatics(r) to explain his principles of conscious body awareness and movement. Somatics provides ‘brain-muscle training’ for long-term muscle relaxation. Muscles often hold tension patterns long enough for the brain to condition the muscles to habitually continue to contract, long after the original cause (stress or injury) has healed. Somatics works to recondition the brain to relax the muscles and promote healthy patterns.
“Common complaints for riders are tight quadriceps, tight hip muscles (external rotators), back issues, neck, shoulder, and forearm muscles,” Criswell explains. “Postural issues can develop over time, such as being contracted on one side or being pulled forward, that impact a horse's muscle contraction patterns.
“Horses have many reflex movement patterns but they do have voluntary muscle control. Voluntary movements require a different part of the brain from that required by involuntary movements. Based on thousands of somatic sessions with humans, and a study of horse anatomy and kinesiology, I developed a basic hands-on protocol for working with the major equine muscle groups. The protocol can be done in about an hour, depending on the horse's readiness to respond. It can be used to prepare a horse somatically for a ride and take care of post-ride stiffness.
“The results of somatic exercises are cumulative. You and/or your horse become more and more somatically balanced and integrated. The key is to do them mindfully, slowly, and gently so that the motor cortex remains involved with the process. The motor cortex and its cortico-spinal tract are the only part of the motor system that can re-set the contraction level of the muscles. If you add that dimension into physical therapy exercises, you have much more of the desired effect.”
L.A. Pomeroy of Northampton, Massachusetts, has been an equestrian photojournalist, award-winning publicist, and member of American Horse Publications since 1992, working with the U.S. Equestrian Team, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Equisearch.com, and Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, as well as heading development and marketing for zoological institutions in New England. She enjoys trail riding in her native Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, collecting/researching equestrian art and collectibles, and making life better for the animals that share this planet with us.
Others who read this article have also inquired about: equine massage, equine health, horse health, equine therapy and holistic horse