I have read many articles that talked about the fact that if you ride horses you are an athlete. Some discussed the rider’s position, while others discussed using the inflated balls to help with doing exercises. These were great articles and I courage you to find and read them. What I would like to share with you is some basic strength training exercises that are specific to operating the horse. For these exercises, you won’t need any special equipment. Some of them can be practiced while sitting at a desk
In order for the human to effectively communicate with the horse, we must first have an independent seat. This comes from having the core muscle strength to sit balanced in the middle of the horse. While sitting balanced on the horse we must be able to effectively communicate. This communication is made using our seat, our hands and our legs. As an example, let’s say you want to ask your horse to step up and under with his right hind leg. First, to help the horse prepare, you need to take the weight off your right hip pocket. Then you would offer a feel down your right rein. That would be followed up by rolling your right leg back to get the horse to close the deal by stepping up and under with the leg. Let’s say the horse was having difficulty with understanding what you were asking through your reins and wanted push out with his nose. There, you would need the upper body strength to hold your rein position and allow the horse to figure out what you wanted. Now let’s say he wasn’t making an effort to respond to your leg. You would need to be able to firm-up tapping or bumping with your leg until you got a change. I’ve had some horses that it took quite a bit of firming-up to get them to try to make a change. (This wasn’t the horse’s fault. Just a misunderstanding.) Let’s not forget while you are having this debate with the horse, you’re staying balanced in the middle of his back.
Let’s first look at the core muscles we use when riding.
(This makes no difference if you ride English or western) The muscles that make up the front of your abdomen are the rectus abdominis. The rectus abdominis controls the tilt of the pelvis and curvature of the lower spine. The muscles that line the side of you torso are the obliques and the transversus abdominis. The obliques and the transversus abdominis increase the intra-abdominal pressure necessary for the support of the vertebral column in some exercises. The iliopsoas are hip flexors that run from your pelvis to your lower spine. They help to stabilize your pelvis. The quadratus lumborum is part of your lumbar spinal muscles. It is activated with other muscles when pelvis elevates when standing on one leg and position of body relative to gravity is altered (as when shifting the weight off of one back pocket). It also assists in rotation when waist is initially rotated. The erector spinae run from your pelvis up your back to the base of you skull. This series of muscle helps to stabilize your head and upper body. The latissimus dorsi along with other muscles of your chest and shoulders help to stabilize your upper body. The muscles of the glutes also help to stabilize the pelvis.
Our upper body muscles we use for communication involve the arms, shoulders, back and chest. For the legs, we use every muscle from our calves to our pelvis. Some of these leg muscles need to be strong in order for us to have stability while in the saddle. Buck Brannaman talked about the athletic stance we should have when we’re horseback in an Eclectic Horseman article. If we aren’t fit, we either cannot get into that stance or we can’t maintain it. Some of this fitness would be considered strength and some of it would be endurance. Strength being able to make one movement, endurance being able make several repetitions of that movement. Posting would be a good example. Most everyone can post a couple strides, but how long can you maintain the movement correctly and in time with the horse?
This brings us to the exercises.
They should be done 3-4 times a week. You’ll want to ease into them. I also recommend keeping a record of your progress. Start out with 1 or 2 sets of each exercise and gradually increase to 4-5 sets. Rest about 1-2 minutes between each set and a few minutes between each exercise. As you become more fit you can decrease you rest time. A note before start any exercise routine you need to be sure you are healthy enough to be able to exercise. If any of the exercises cause pain you should seek medical attention. I have had a few injuries myself over the years and found that some were due to body alignment issues. If you have pain issues, I would encourage you to find a medical professional who can check you body’s alignment from head to toe. One approach you could check out is Egoscue Method. You’ll want to do each exercise to the fullest rage of motion your body can do.
When doing strength training, I like to start with the larger muscles first, working toward the smaller muscles and finishing with the core muscles. The order you could use would be legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms and then core muscles. Your core muscles are always working to stabilize your body while you are doing other exercises. I have found by working them last, I am at less risk for injury while working other muscle groups. You can start out with one exercise for each body part and as you feel more fit you can add exercises.
The first exercise for your legs is the lunge. To do the exercise, step forward with one leg, landing on heel and rolling onto the front of the foot. Lower your body by flexing at the knee and hip of the front leg until the knee of rear leg is almost in contact with floor. Step back to original standing position by forcibly extending your hip and knee of the forward leg. Repeat the exercise by alternating the step forward with opposite leg. Make sure your upper body remains upright (good riding posture) during the exercise.
The second exercise for your legs is the squat. This is done by weight training folks with barbells or dumbbells, but you can do it with out any extra weight. The squat is preformed by bending the knees forward while allowing the hips to bend back behind while keeping your back straight and knees pointed same direction as feet. Lower your body until your thighs are just parallel to floor. Return to starting position by extending your knees and hips until legs are straight. Make sure to keep your head forward, back straight and feet flat on floor. You should keep an equal distribution of weight on your forefoot and heel. Your knees should stay in line with your feet throughout movement.
The next exercise is the standing leg curl. Steady your upper body by holding onto a chair or wall. Curl one leg bringing your foot towards your hip and return the leg slowly back down. It is helpful to raise up slightly on the opposite foot to keep the leg you are working off the floor. Make sure to work the leg slowly both up and down. Be sure to keep the lower leg bending straight in relation to the upper leg and the rest of the body.
Another exercise for the hamstrings, that also strengthens the lower back is called the good morning. Bend forward at the waist while keeping your upper body straight. Bend over until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Be sure to keep your legs and upper body straight through out the exercise.
Two exercises to help strengthen your lower leg are called the calf raise and the reverse calf raise. For these exercises it is helpful to stand on a step and hold onto something to stabilize your upper body. For the reverse calf raise, stand on the step with only your heels touching the step. Lower the front of your feet and toes down as far as you can, then flex your feet upwards toward your calves as high as you can. The calf raise is simply the opposite of the reverse calf raise. Stand with your toes and balls of your feet on the step. Lower you heels down as far as you are able, flexing at the ankle. Then raise up on the balls of your feet extending at the ankle.
The next muscle group to work would be your back. To help strengthen the upper back you can do a supine row. This can be done lying under a sturdy table or a low chin-up bar (the kind that goes in a doorway) or something similar. You’ll want be able to grasp the table or bar with a wide overhand grip and have your arms nearly completely extended. Pull your chest up to the bar while keeping your body straight. Then return to the starting position. If you are lucky enough to a chin-up bar mounted high in a doorway, doing chin-ups also help to strengthen the back. This exercise also helps to strengthen the arms and shoulders. The proper way to execute a chin-up to work the back would be done with your hands more behind you head.
The next group of muscles to work are the chest muscles. One of the simplest exercises to do is the push-up. You’ll lie prone on floor with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Raise your body up off floor by extending your arms keeping the body straight. Still keeping your body straight, lower yourself to floor by bending your arms. Make sure both your upper and lower body stay straight throughout the movement and your chest should remain off the floor while doing repetitions. You’ll also get some arm strengthening with the push-up, too. As you become stronger you can move your hands closer together or further apart. You can also prop your feet up on a chair. If you want to do even more, have a friend sit on your shoulders.
Another exercise to strengthen the chest is called the dip. This can be done easily between two chairs. This movement is similar to push-up, but you are working the chest muscle at a slightly different angle. With two chair set a little more than shoulder width apart, support your upper body with your hands. Lower yourself down and forward as much as you can, then return to the starting position by extending your arms.
A variation of this exercise is done with your feet resting on one chair while your hands are on another. Lower your upper body down while keeping your legs straight. Return to the starting position by extending your arms and raising your self up. This works chest, back and triceps (the muscle on back of your upper arm).
For your mid-abdominal muscles, the rectus abdominis, one of the best exercises is the sit-up. Hook your feet under a support and hook your hands behind your head. With your knees bent, curl your chest to your knees and slowly back down to the starting position. This exercise can be modified to the crunch by resting your lower leg and feet on a bench or chair, and also by adding weight to your chest.
Your obliques are the muscles that run from your pelvis half way up your side and tie into your pectoral muscles. They are well worked by doing a seated twist. Take a wooden dowel or broom handle and rest it on your shoulders just behind your head. Hold the dowel with both hands a comfortable distance apart. While keeping your head looking forward, twist as far as you can to one side and then twist to the opposite side. You should keep your upper body straight, as in a good riding posture.
The erector spinae muscles run along your spine from your pelvis to the base of your skull. This muscle can be worked by doing an exercise called the superman. Lie face down with your arms extended out in front of your head and your legs straight, just like you were flying. To execute the exercise, arch your arms and legs off the floor then back down. You should feel like you are bending backwards at the waist.
For working your internal and external hip muscles, I recommend the side lying leg raise. Lie on your side with one arm under your head and the other you can use for balance. While keeping both legs straight raise the upper leg a comfortable distance up and away from the lower leg and slowly lower it back down. This works the outside of your leg and hip. To work the inside of the leg and hip, remain on your side, but use your upper leg for support by resting your foot on the floor. You’ll need to raise the lower as high as you can off the floor, crossing it front of the upper leg and slowly lower it back down.
These are not the only exercises for horse person to use to get physically fit. I chose some very basic exercises that should have fewer limitations. In the future, I hope to have another article on basic weight training for the equestrian. Good luck with your exercises.
www.johnsanfordhorsemanship.com Author of "Colt Starting" & "Beyond Green Broke"