Even a passenger on horseback needs the flexibility and control to stay on board. If you want to ride, you'll need strong and supple calf muscles both to keep your seat and to signal the horse. Heel position will give you away in a heartbeat if you haven't taken the time to develop basic riding fitness -- and working your lower leg muscles is essential preparation for posting a trot and taking a fence.
The heels-down position used for riding places a strain on calf muscles and increases the odds of injury to the ankle or the Achilles tendon. Strengthening and stretching calf muscles lowers the risk for injury and improves endurance and riding skill. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles run up the calf, and the Achilles tendon connects the gastrocnemius to the heel. The muscles and tendon permit the leg to lengthen and the heel to drop -- the position your leg is in when you are mounted. Re-create the foot-in-stirrup position by standing with the balls of your feet on the edge of a raised platform or stair and lowering your heels slowly toward the ground. Hold the heels-down pose for a count of 10, then slowly rise up on tip-toes and hold for another count of 10. Repeat three to five times for a dynamic calf stretch.
Tight or shortened calf muscles won't give you the springy feeling of moving easily with the horse. If your calves don't lengthen and you struggle to push heels lower than the stirrup bar, you end up putting pressure on your toes, tightening your knees, stiffening your calf muscles and wearing yourself out. Your ankle is too rigid to absorb the shocks of the horse's gait and it's harder to give nonverbal commands. Get calf muscles up to speed for cantering by standing in front of a wall, stepping toward it with one leg, and bracing yourself with palms against the wall. Keep both heels on the ground, hips and shoulders square with the wall, and slowly bend the front knee until you feel the stretch in the gastrocnemius muscle of the back leg. Hold for 10 seconds, then bend the back knee to stretch the soleus muscle as well. Switch legs.
Polish your hunt seat by strengthening quads and calves to support your raised torso in the saddle. A simple body-weight squat will do it. Stand with feet wider than hip width, engage core muscles, keep head up and chest expanded as you shift your weigh to your heels. Hinge at the hips, bend your knees and lower your torso until your thighs are parallel to the ground -- or as near as you can get. Soften elbows so the arms are parallel to the thighs and hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds. Push into the floor with your heels to come up. On horseback, the raised position with knees bent is used for trotting as well as jumping and is called a half-seat.
Elongate hamstrings and calf muscles with a crossover stretch. Engage core muscles to help lengthen the lower back. Cross right leg over the front of the left leg, which will soften the front knee while keeping the back knee straight. Hinge from the hips to touch the ground, or as close as you can get if leg muscles are tight. Stand upright, switch legs and repeat. This helps to relax the back for sitting trot and makes it easier to keep heels-down and legs strong against the horse's flanks. Borrow a move from dancers to work your calves, shins, feet and ankles. Sit with your back against a wall, legs extended, and strongly flex and point your feet until you feel the burn in your lower leg muscles.
- Horse & Rider Magazine: Exercises and Stretches Especially for Horse Riders
- Equisearch: Three Stretches to Prevent Horseback Riding Injuries
- Equisearch: Rider Fitness Tip of the Month: Lengthening Your Leg
- Horsekeeping: Balance and Flexibility
- Horsekeeping: Fitness
- The Ultimate Horse Site: Heels Down: Calf Stretching Exercise
- American Council on Exercise: Lower Leg Exercise
- Sports Injury Clinic: Tight Calf Muscles