Horse Rider Fitness: Equestrian Workouts

Katie Navarra

Good fitness also can provide you strength in the saddle.

Riders spend hours planning fitness routines for their horses, but often skip working out themselves. Equestrians of all backgrounds from colt starters to professionals and competitors to recreational riders can benefit from staying in shape.

“Being a physically fit rider has a wide range of benefits from being a more capable and confident rider for your horse to creating the ability to be more competitive to reducing injury and improving energy levels,” says Kelly Altschwager from Wellington, Colorado. She is an ACE certified personal trainer, health and wellness coach and nutrition specialist. She specializes in helping the busy horse person get and stay fit for both riding and life.

Strength and core training exercises improve a rider’s seat and increases the effectiveness of leg cues, and can be done in just a few minutes every day. Kelly shares three exercises for an equestrian workout for riders of all disciplines and ability levels.

Strength building exercises

Exercise: Walking Lunges

How to: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Place your hands on your hips or let them hang by your sides. Step forward with your left leg and concentrate on putting the weight in your heel as you step. Bend the left knee as close to a 90-degree angle as possible. Hold for a brief pause and keep your knee behind your toes to avoid straining the joint. Without moving your left leg, step your right leg forward and repeat the lunge motion as above. Start with 10 to 12 reps on each leg. Repeat two to three times.

Why it’s important: Riders rely on their quads, hamstrings and glutes for stability in the saddle. Building these muscles improves balance and range of motion for a better seat, increased cueing ability, better leg control and endurance.

Exercise: Bent Over Resistance Band, Dumbbell or Barbell Rows

How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and lean over until your body is in a 45-degree angle. Slightly bend your knees and hold your core. Pull your pelvis under you to avoid arching your back.

If you’re using dumbbells, hold one in each hand and pull them up towards your belly button while keeping your arms close to your sides. Then lower weights down. If you’re using a barbell, grip the bar shoulder width apart. Use the same stance and motion described above. To use a resistance band, assume the same position, but slip the band under the arch of one foot. Hold the band with the opposite arm and pull up towards your belly button. Strive for 10 reps and repeat two to three times on each side.

Why it’s important: Proper equitation requires strong lower back and mid-back muscles. A rider’s hips and glutes must stay engaged to achieve a good seat. This exercise targets both areas.

Exercise: Front Delt Dumbbell Raises

How to: Stand with your chest tall, shoulders back and pull your belly button towards your spine to engage your core. Alternately lift each dumbbell straight up in front of you with your palm down, lifting from and squeezing the front of your shoulder (front deltoid), instead of driving up from your hand.

Why it’s important: Stacking hay, cleaning stalls and saddling all require shoulder strength and this exercise focuses on those areas.

Stretch it out

Short, tight muscles are weak. When asked to extend to full length tight muscles are prone to pain, strain and injury. Desk jobs compound the problem, especially in the hamstrings. Kelly recommends a brief pre- and post-ride stretch to stay limber.

Pre-ride stretches

The stretch: Single Leg Chair

How to: Stand with your feet hip width apart. Lift your left leg and place your ankle on your right knee and bend into a squat. You’ll feel a stretch at the spot where your hamstring meets your butt. Hold onto a stall wall or arena fence for balance if needed. Hold for five to 10 seconds and repeat on the other side. Do two to three reps.

Why it’s important: It loosens the hips and lower back muscles.

The stretch: Bodyweight Squats

How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly turn your toes out. Keep your eyes forward and concentrate on pulling your belly in. Gradually bend at the knees and drop your hips, lowering your body while keeping your heels planted on the ground. Hold for a few seconds and push up through your heels back to a standing position and repeat. 

Why it’s important: This basic movement warms up the legs and strengthens the lower body.

Post-ride stretches

Since you’ll be laying on the ground for these stretches you may want to wait until you get home. Or find a clean area in the grass, roll out a yoga mat and enjoy a few minutes releasing your muscles.

The stretch: Child's Pose

How to: Kneel, keeping your knees about hip width apart. Sit back on your heels and bend your upper body over towards the ground stretching your hands out in front of you. Rock your weight back into your hips.

Why it’s important: Stretches out the shoulders and low back.

The stretch: Lying Knee to Chest

How to: Lay on your back with your right knee bent and left leg straight out. Pull your right knee into your chest and hold. Release and switch legs. Repeat two to three times on each leg.

Why it’s important: This stretch lengthens the lower back, glutes and legs, all needed for good posture.

Benefits of equestrian workouts

Regular exercise helps reduce the daily aches and pains associated with the physical demands of horse ownership and riding.

“Riders who lack strength and flexibility often experience knee pain, a tight or painful lower back, hip pain or a lack of mobility and flexibility,” Kelly says.

A body in motion stays in motion. Sticking to a regular exercise routine builds strength and can alleviate muscle soreness. Best of all, a fitness routine allows both you and your horse to progress and grow more steadily in and out of the arena.

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