After receiving numerous reader questions requesting advice on exercises to improve their riding skills, we turned to a panel of Team Horse & Rider members for their suggestions on getting and staying fit for the saddle: Al Dunning, Robin Gollehon, Carol Metcalf, Lynn Palm, Cleve Wells and Stacy Westfall.
In the January 2008 Horse & Rider article “Exercise Your Way to a Better Ride” (page 72) our team members offered general information on the three building blocks of fitness–stamina, muscle strength, and flexibility–then shared some specific tips for making your efforts to condition your body do-able and even fun, on your horse and off.
Here, we’ve provided photos demonstrating several muscle-toning and stretching exercises our team suggested. Before attempting these exercises on your own, check with your doctor or a fitness professional to ensure they’re safe for you. Also, 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.
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 thighs. 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 a rider’s effectiveness. Exercises and movements that target key muscles groups develop muscle strength. The following are a few examples:
1. Crunches: Lie flat on your back (on either a soft surface or an exercise mat), spread your feet about shoulder-width apart and place your hands behind your head, so your elbows form triangles on both sides of your head. Then, tighten your tummy muscles and lift your head, shoulders and neck off the ground. Clench your abs for a second or two, then release and slowly bring your head and neck back down.
Make sure you’re using your stomach muscles–not your neck muscles–to lift yourself. Lifting with your neck can easily strain those muscles; plus, you won’t be working your abs effectively. Do 25 to 50 reps (depending on the strength of your abdominal muscles), rest, then do another set.
2. One-legged squats: Stand on a soft, even surface or an exercise mat, place your hands on your hips (for balance), maintain good posture and tuck your rear-end underneath you. Then, slightly raise one leg so that it’s bent behind you at a little less than a 90-degree angle. Shifting your weight to your grounded leg, slowly bend down, then back up.
Don’t bend down so far that you put too much stress on your stationary knee. Just a slight bend-and-release will effectively work your quadriceps.
Once you’ve done a rep of 15 to 20 bends on one leg, switch to the other and repeat.
3. Squats: Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, maintaining good posture–your back should be straight and tall, your shoulders square, and you’re looking straight ahead. Then, slowly squat like you’re sitting in a chair with your arms extending in front of you as you “sit.”
Don’t bend down so far that your bottom is level or below your knees. Your lowest point should be at a 45-degree angle (rear-end to knee). And keep your weight centered over both legs evenly, so you don’t strain your knees. Once you’ve gained enough strength that it’s easy for you, add small hand weights for a greater challenge.
4. Calf raises: Stand with your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart, place your hands on your hips. Then, slowly lift yourself up onto the balls of your feet so you feel the “burn” in your calf muscles.
Hold for one or two seconds, then slowly bring your heels back down.
Do 15 to 20 reps, rest, then repeat.
(Tip: Make sure you don’t lock your knees. Your legs should be straight, but keep a slight bend in your knees.)
5. Lunges: On a soft surface, stand with one foot 3 to 4 feet in front of the other. Place your hands on your hips while keeping your back straight, then bend your back knee toward the ground so you’re in a lunge position. Hold for one or two seconds, then stand back up.
When you bend your back knee down, keep your weight on the ball of your back foot to help you balance and to prevent slippage.
Do not bend your front knee past a 90-degree angle toward the ground. In this photo, our model is demonstrating an incorrect “front-knee position” as a visual aid. You’ll notice that her weight is over her left knee, passing 90 degrees. This could strain one or both of her knees.
Here, our model has bent her back knee down so it’s almost touching the mat. This is a more advanced lunge. For beginners, start by slightly bending your knee, and once you’ve increased the muscle tone in you quads, you can dip down farther for a greater challenge.
6. Biceps curl: With weights in-hand (always start with small weights of 1 to 3 pounds), stand with your feet a little less than shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and your bottom tucked in. While holding one weight at your shoulder (to maintain an even amount of weight on both sides of your body), slowly “curl” your other arm up so it’s at shoulder level. Then, slowly bring it back down to your side.
Don’t allow your arm to just fall down; half the workout is using your bicep muscles to slowly lower the weight. Constantly assess your posture and make sure you’re keeping your buttocks tucked underneath you, so you don’t strain your lower back.
Do 20 to 25 reps, then switch arms, and repeat. Try to do at least three sets on each arm and increase your weights as you get stronger.
7. Triceps curl: Standing with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, place one hand on your hip, while holding the weight with the other. (Start with small weights, then progress as you gain muscle strength.) Slightly bend your upper body forward, then slowly extend your “weight hand” out behind you so your arm is almost straight. Hold for a second, then slowly bend your elbow so you bring the weight back so it’s parallel to your shoulder.
Do 20 to 25 reps, then switch arms, and repeat.
8. Push-ups: Admittedly, many of us women don’t have a lot of upper body strength, so we suggest you start with the “mini-push-up,” until your arm, chest and pectoral muscles get stronger. (As for men: If your upper-body strength isn’t tip-top, start with the minis, then work up to full push-ups.)
On a soft surface or exercise mat, position yourself facedown with your stomach touching the ground. Bend your knees at a 90-degree angle, then cross your ankles to stabilize your legs. Place your palms on the ground, and slowly lift yourself off the ground using your arm and chest muscles. Hold for a second or two, then slowly bring your body back down–but NOT all the way to the ground. Stop with your nose as close to the floor as you can without straining yourself.
Use your abdominal muscles to keep your back straight (not hollowed), so your stomach doesn’t stick out, which could injure your back. Keep your head in line with the rest of your body to prevent strain and to increase the effectiveness of the exercise. Because push-ups are one of the more challenging exercises we’re demonstrating here, do fewer reps in each set. For example, do 10 to 12 push-ups (as opposed to 20 or 25), rest, then do another set.
9. Pli?s: Pli?s (as in the ballet move) are great for working your inner thigh muscles. Stand in “grande pli?” position, meaning your feet are a little more than shoulder-width apart and you’re turning your toes out at a 45-degree angle from a straight and forward position. Stand up straight, pushing your shoulders back, and tuck your rear-end underneath your hips (to protect your lower back).
Extending your arms out to your sides for balance, gently “pli?” by bending your knees, so you feel your inner thigh muscles working. Then, slowly release the bend and stand back up straight.
When you pli?, try to squeeze your inner thigh muscles for greater effect, and make sure you don’t bend your knees over your toes, as this could cause injury to your knees.
10. Arm circles: To stretch your shoulders, rotator cuffs, and back muscles, extend both arms out from your sides and make small circles forward and back (A).
Then bend your elbows so your hands are resting on your shoulders and draw circles in the air, forward and back, with your elbows (B).
11. Relax & 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.
Stand in a relaxed position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly lift your arms above your head in coordination with a slow inhale (A).
Hold for a few seconds; then release by slowly bringing your arms back down to your sides while exhaling (B).
Repeat several times.
12. Calf stretch: Stand with one foot 3 to 4 feet in front of the other, while slightly bending your front knee.
Place your hands on your hips for balance, and then slowly bring your back heel to the ground until you feel a stretch through your calf up to the back of your knee.
Then, slowly roll onto the ball of your back foot, hold, and stretch back down, so your heel is touching the ground again.
After several reps, reverse and stretch your other calf.
13. Hamstring stretch: Stand with one foot approximately 2 feet in front of the other. Keeping your back leg slightly bent at the knee, stretch down and forward until you can touch the tip of your flexed toe. (Reach down with the arm corresponding with your forward leg.)
You should feel a stretch through your hamstring–the long muscle that runs from the back of your knee up to the bottom of your pelvic bone. Hold for 30 seconds or up to one minute, then switch legs.
Repeat several times in both directions.
14. Triceps stretch: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping your knees slightly bent (don’t lock them), and keep your back straight and tall. Stretch both arms above your head, then drop one hand down your back, while clutching your elbow with the opposite hand.
If you’re holding the position correctly, you should feel a stretch through your tricep muscles and down your side. Hold for several seconds, then reverse.
Special thanks to H&R Editorial Coordinator Amanda Peterson for demonstrating these exercises.