Exercise Your Way to a Better Ride

In this article, a Team Horse & Rider panel provides fitness tips to get you in stellar shape for riding. Achieving greater stamina, muscle strength and flexibility will make you a better rider. Plus, your time in the saddle will be more effective and enjoyable.

Our question this month actually comes from three different readers:
I’m in the 65+ age group and often compete against 20- and 30- somethings. I want to be fit, strong, and tall in the saddle–and not feel like a sack of potatoes in comparison to my younger competitors. What type of exercise program would be most beneficial for someone in my age group?
Miriam McGurran
Woodbury, Minn.

Before and after any type of exercise, it

I’m a newbie who’s just starting taking riding lessons. I haven’t been very physically active the last few years, and I know my muscles aren’t in good condition. What exercises can I do to improve my riding?
Cathy Michiels
Lake Charles, La.

I was an avid rider as a kid and rode through high school and college. Since then, family obligations and a demanding job have kept me out of the saddle for quite some time. I really want to get back into it, but am apprehensive, as I’ve gained weight and am out of shape. What can I do to prepare?
Cindy Woods
Rock Hill, S.C.

We turned to a panel of Team Horse & Rider members for advice on the topic of getting and staying fit for riding: Al Dunning, Robin Gollehon, Carol Metcalf, Lynn Palm and Stacy Westfall. They’ll offer general information on the three building blocks of fitness–stamina, muscle strength, and flexibility–then share some specific tips for making your efforts to condition your body do-able and even fun, on your horse and off.

Fitness Basics
Stamina comes from aerobic fitness, the ability to sustain work for prolonged periods; it enables you to ride without gasping for breath. “Cardio” work (which gets your heart pumping for at least 20 to 30 minutes at a time) is needed to develop this sort of endurance.

“Riders need to incorporate cardio work into their exercise regimens several times a week,” advises Robin Gollehan. “Jogging, power walking, aerobics, kick-boxing, bike riding–there are lots of options.Choose something that’s fun for you, and you’ll find it easier to stay faithful to your exercise sessions without burning out.”

As Carol Metcalf points out, you may find it easier to do shorter workouts several times a week, instead of one two hour workout once or twice a week. And, she adds, you can supplement your workouts by being proactive and looking for opportunities for additional aerobic exercise throughout your day.

“Take the stairs instead of the elevator,” she suggests. “Walk instead of driving if you’re going a reasonable distance. Step briskly and swing your arms when you’re walking through the mall or across the parking lot. Use every opportunity you can find to move.”

Carol adds that swimming and water aerobics, because they’re essentially zero-impact activities, can be great cardio choices for baby boomers with joint issues. “A stationary bike is another great tool, as it’s easier on your knees than jogging and it’s always ‘out of the weather.’ Power walking on a soft surface–such as the padded, mesh walkways available at many gyms–is also a good option for boomers,” she points out.

Al Dunning, whose own back problems have ruled out high impact exercise choices, favors an elliptical machine,which simulates a walking/running motion but in a gliding fashion that avoids pounding. “It’s much easier on your bones, joints, and muscles, and especially useful if you’re working through an injury or are subject to constant soreness,” he says.

Muscle strength enables you to use the various parts of your body effectively to cue and control your horse. Of special interest are your core muscles–those found in your midsection, including your abdominals, lower back, and inner thigh. A strong core makes everything you do, including riding, easier. It also enhances balance and protects your back from injury. Obviously, strong arms and legs are also key to the effectiveness of a rider. Exercises and movements that target key muscles groups will develop muscle strength.

“A little muscle toning every day can add up to a surprising strength boost,” notes Carol, who adds that maintaining muscle strength is especially important for mature riders. “If you’re over 40, you’ve lost about 10 percent of your former muscle mass, and if you don’t maintain the muscle you have, you’ll continue to lose it at an increasing rate as you age.”

Her suggestion? “Incorporate key muscle-toning moves (crunches, push-ups, squats, lunges, biceps/triceps work–the usual key group) into ‘spare’ moments in your day, such as when you’re watching TV or waiting for water to boil in the kitchen. Start without weights, and as you increase your strength, add small free weights (available inexpensively at second-hand sports stores), then increase their size/weight gradually. This is especially important with your squats and lunges, which work the large muscle groups of the legs.”

Flexibility is the ability of your muscles and joints to achieve a full range of motion. As a rider, you need flexibility in order to follow your horse’s motion (to “be with” your horse) and to remain relaxed and secure in the saddle. Regular stretching of all key muscle groups is the key to good flexibility.

“Yoga and pilates are terrific for flexibility, plus they increase core strength,” says Carol. “Call around to your area’s gyms to find classes,or if you don’t have access to an exercise facility, there are literally dozens of yoga or pilates DVDs you can rent or buy.”

The key to staying faithful to any exercise regimen is to make it fun. “Work out with a friend or a family member,” suggests Lynn Palm. “Alternate the types of exercise you do so you don’t get bored–and, as a bonus, it’ll result in more effective conditioning as different muscles are brought into play. The more fun and diversity you have, the easier it’ll be to stay with it.”

Naturally, you should check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine. And, advises Robin, “be cognizant of how your body feels as you’re exercising. If you feel pain–as opposed to just the ‘burn’ of working out–stop what you’re doing and consult a professional.”

Now, let’s look at our Teamers’ specific tips for developing fitness.

Great Tips to Try

  • Take a power walk with your horse on a lead rope. The movement is good for both of you, and if you pick up the pace, so you’re both doing a “working walk,” you’ll get your heart rate up nicely. –Lynn Palm
  • Make your barn chores double as mini-workouts. Instead of just plodding through stall mucking, aisle raking, or grooming, put in a little more effort to get your heart rate up and your blood pumping. –Stacy Westfall
  • For extra fun while you improve your balance and muscle tone, try a “rebounder” (or mini-trampoline). Unlike full-size trampolines on which you jump high, the rebounder is designed for small, controlled movements. Not only does it aid in coordination and balance, it also improves muscle tone in your legs, thighs, hips, abdomen, and arms–all of which you need to be an effective rider. As a bonus, it’s a zero-impact workout, meaning it won’t strain your joints, bones, or muscles–great for baby boomers. –Robin Gollehon
  • While hanging out or watching TV, place a beach ball between your thighs, then squeeze and release, squeeze and release. This is a great way to strengthen those inner thigh muscles so essential to core strength and security in the saddle. Plus, the more you do it, the less sore you’ll be, even after a vigorous ride. –Robin Gollehon
  • Exercise balls (available on-line or at sports or big-box stores) are great for improving balance and toning muscles. You can even practice your riding position by straddling it, then holding it with your inner-leg muscles. Google “exercise ball” for Web sites that detail how to select the right ball for you, and for listings of specific workouts–from basic strength training to yoga. –Stacy Westfall
  • To strengthen your calves, hamstrings, and ankles–and improve your ability to get your heels down in the saddle–place the balls of your feet on a rail (such as those on a metal fence or gate) while holding on to the top rail. Push up onto the balls of your feet and hold that position for several seconds. Then slowly bring yourself all the way down, so your heels are below the level of the rail, to mimic a heels-down position. Repeat this 10 to 20 times, take a break, then do another set. If you don’t have access to a rail, use a stair step and hold on to the stair rail for balance. –Al Dunning
  • A great exercise to develop your “riding legs,” and particularly those essential inner-leg muscles: Simply ride without stirrups. Do it in your Western saddle, or borrow an English one for an even greater challenge. Just walk at first to get the feel of it, then progress to a sitting trot. If you feel confident and have successfully increased your leg strength, post the trot without stirrups, then lope. In addition to toning and greatly strengthening your leg muscles, you’ll vastly improve your balance in the saddle. And, at the trot and lope, it can become an aerobic workout, too. –Robin Gollehon
  • To stretch your shoulders, rotator cuffs, and back muscles, extend both arms out from your sides and make small circles forward and back. Then bend your elbows, so your hands are resting on your shoulders, and draw circles in the air, forward and back, with your elbows. –Lynn Palm
Exercise balls are great tools for improving balance and toning muscles. | Photo by Caroline Fyffe
Riding without stirrups is one of the best ways to strengthen your essential inner-leg muscles. | Photo by Caroline Fyffe
Keeping your reins in one hand, stretch your other arm forward, as if you
  • Stretch on your horse! In addition to increasing your flexibility, it’ll improve your balance, security, and confidence in the saddle. (For safety, do these exercises on a quiet horse in a ring with a supervising instructor, or recruit a friend to hold your horse while you do them.) First, drop your stirrups, allowing your legs to hang long and loose around your horse’s body. Then do ankle rolls in both directions. Then, keeping one hand on the reins, reach up to the sky with the other hand and stretch down to touch your outside toe (the toe farthest from your arm); then reach down to touch your other toe. Repeat this with the opposite arm. Then, stretch forward with one arm (keeping your other hand on the reins) as if you were trying to touch your horse’s poll. Switch arms and repeat. Finally, with one hand on the reins, stretch your other arm back as if you were reaching for your horse’s dock. Switch arms and repeat. –Stacy Westfall

And Don’t Forget To…

  • …maintain a healthy weight for your body. Excess weight makes it difficult to balance in the saddle. If, as a result, you’re putting more weight in one stirrup than the other, you’ll lean and pull the saddle to one side. This is not only dangerous for you, but will cause your horse a lot of discomfort. –Al Dunning
  • …eat healthfully, as it helps you feel good as well as maintain your proper weight. There’s nothing mystical here: Fruit, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy–you know the drill. –Robin Gollehon
  • …drink lots of water! It lubricates joints and muscles, improves blood flow, flushes toxins from your body, and improves your physical and mental performances. Avoid coffee and sodas containing caffeine. –Carol Metcalf
  • …improvise where necessary. If you don’t have access to free weights, use large soda bottles–they’re about 2 to 3 pounds each, which is plenty to work your arm muscles. –Carol Metcalf
  • …relax and breathe! If you’re constantly tense, you’ll never achieve ideal balance in the saddle, and proper breathing is a key ingredient of relaxation. To improve your own breathing, combine it with easy stretching. Sit in a chair and lift your shoulders as high as you can (almost to your ears) while slowly inhaling. Hold the position for a second or two, then release your shoulders so they drop back down, while you slowly exhale. Repeat until you feel more relaxed–ideally before every ride. Another good one to try: Stand in a relaxed position, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly lift your arms above your head in coordination with a slow inhale. Hold for a few seconds; then release by slowly bringing your arms back down to your side while exhaling. Repeat several times. –Lynn Palm
Incorporating key muscle-toning exercises like biceps curls every day can quickly boost your stength. | Photo by Caroline Fyffe

The Experts
Al Dunning, revered trainer and legendary horseman, has been a leader in the local and national horse industry for over 30 years. He’s currently a carded judge with NRCHA and he and his students have garnered over 21 world titles. Al owns and operates Al Dunning Training Stables at Almosta Ranch in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Becky.

Robin Gollehon has more than 70 world and national championships in yearling longe line, Western pleasure, and hunter under saddle. Robin currently trains youth and amateurs at her training and breeding facility in Versailles, Ky., with her husband and business partner, Roger Gollehon.

Carol Metcalf has won numerous AQHA world and reserve world titles in Western pleasure and Western riding. In 2000, she was named the AQHA Horsewoman of the Year. She currently coaches youth and amateurs in reining, working cow horse, Western pleasure, and Western riding at Metcalf Quarter Horses in Pilot Point, Texas, with her husband, Steve.

Lynn Palm has won over 34 AQHA world and reserve world championships, and has shown horses to a record four AQHA Superhorse titles. She was also named AQHA/Professional’s Choice Professional Horsewoman of the Year. Lynn trains and teaches at her Palm Partnership Training schools in Ocala, Fla., and Bessemer, Mich., with her husband, Cyril Pittion-Rossillon.

Stacy Westfall was the first woman to compete in (and win) the Road To The Horse competition in 2006. In the same year, she also won the Freestyle Reining Championship at the All American Quarter Horse Congress with one of the highest scores in NRHA history: 239. Stacy operates her Westfall Horsemanship in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, with her husband, Jesse.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Horse & Rider. For advice on keeping your horse in peak physical shape if you’re taking a hiatus from showing or regular riding, see our March 2010 Team Horse & Rider Problem Solvers, “Retaining Show Shape” with Carol Metcalf. To order a copy of either of these issues or other back issues, call 877-717-8928.