Fitness is a key component of riding, but even very fit people are not necessarily ‘riding-fit’. Being able to run a half marathon doesn’t mean you’ll be able to jump on a horse and go, because riding uses different muscle groups in your body. The best way to get riding-fit is obviously to spend as much time in the saddle as possible and get into good habits early, but there are exercises you can do, both on and off a horse, which will help to improve both rider fitness, and your technique.
The parts of your body you need to work on for riding are in your core, your legs and your feet, your upper body, and your back; aerobic fitness also helps. Your abdominal muscles give you balance and poise, while your legs also help with your seat and your centre of gravity, and are a huge part of how you communicate with your horse. Developing upper body strength will help with your seat, while overall aerobic fitness contributes to your endurance.
Happily, being involved with horses already gives you a certain level of fitness: all that grooming, mucking out and carrying water buckets is great physical work. However, some more specific exercises will help you tone just the bits you need.
Pilates is a fantastic way of developing your core, strengthening your back and opening up your shoulders. There are holds, like the plank, which are easy to do at home, but if you’re starting out, it’s worth getting basic instruction. There are countless free online tutorials for pilates and yoga, but you can do yourself some real damage if you get it wrong, so it’s worth investing in a few classes to avoid mistakes.
The same goes for weight training or muscle work: personal trainers in any gym will be happy to show you how to exercise safely, whether you’re using their equipment or planning on using your own kit at home (you can do a surprising amount of training without having to use lots of fancy equipment).
A few easy exercises to help with riding fitness include:
Hip adductor exercises are great to build up strength in your thighs and involve sitting up straight with your legs apart and squeezing a ball between your upper thighs. Sit ups are also good for developing core strength,
It seems like a strange part of the body to work on but your calves and your ankles are crucial for a good riding technique and need to be as strong as possible. Ankle circles are an easy exercise that you can do these both on or off the horse: just rotate each ankle in turn fully round in sets of ten or fifteen. Calf stretches are a great way to help you keep your heels down in the stirrups. Just stand on the bottom step of a stair on the balls of your feet and slowly stretch your calf muscles by pushing your heels down. Don’t go too far and be careful not to bounce: this can cause the muscle to tear.
Improve your aerobic fitness by walking, running, swimming, cycling or taking a class at your gym. Swimming complements riding well: it stretches out stiff muscles and it’s excellent for developing your back muscles, which stop you tipping forward in the saddle.
Stretching is an important way to start and finish any exercise to protect your muscles, tendons, and ligaments by reducing their susceptibility to injury.
The range of exercises you can do while in the saddle is vast, and each move will help different riders with specific requirements. Ideally, an instructor who knows you can recommend which will best help you personally but below are some general all-round exercises.
Try standing straight up in the saddle and driving your heel down. You are aiming for a straight line in your body from your shoulder to your hip to your heel. Start while your horse is stationary, and as your strength improves you will be able to do this when he moves.
The most helpful on-board exercise to improve riding and fitness has to be riding without stirrups. It encourages you to find a deeper position in the saddle, it makes you work on your balance and it sets you straight, as well as developing your core strength. Just lift your stirrups up and cross them over the pommel to keep them out of the way while you work — you can do this at walk, trot or canter.
Practising a two-point seat is also a good exercise to develop strength in your legs. Holding onto the neckstrap if you need to, you sink your weight into your heels and keep contact with the horse from the two points of your legs while you lift your bottom slightly out of the saddle; try not to tip forward.
Also try mixing up your posting rhythms: instead of ‘up, down, up, down’ while you’re trotting, try ‘down, up, up’ where you post down, then stay up in the air for two beats. The challenge is to keep your lower leg and your upper body in place, and not to lose the rhythm — easier said than done!