Riding Ain’t Enough: Why Strength Training is a Must-Have for Equestrian Athletes

Equestrian Strength Training

As riders, we assume that spending hours in the saddle, training and honing our skills, qualifies us as pretty fit individuals. The truth is, riding alone isn’t enough to build strength past a certain point, or to take our riding to the next level. That’s why strength and conditioning training is a must-have in our routine. Read on to find out why strength training is so important for equestrian athletes and how it can give our riding a boost.

The importance of adequate load:

It’s crucial to understand the importance of heavy lifting in stimulating muscle growth. Bodyweight exercises generally require large numbers of reps in order to adequately fatigue your muscles. Similarly, time spent in the saddle in a schooling setting is equivalent to long, low load, “in-place” or non-moving”exercise. Neither is generally sufficient to achieve muscle growth. Incorporating heavy lifting into your training regimen by using weights that are heavy enough to fatigue your muscles within 6-12 reps, can help to achieve muscle growth and improve performance. 

Understanding the difference between muscle soreness and fatigue is also important. Soreness doesn’t always mean that you’ve worked your muscles hard enough to stimulate growth, and fatigue doesn’t always result in soreness. That’s why it’s important to work with a qualified Physiotherapist or trainer when developing a strength and conditioning program; especially if you’re new to training and unsure how to gauge exercise intensity.

 

Optimizing mounted performance starts with choosing the right exercises: 

Including both compound lifts and isolated exercises in your strength training regimen is beneficial. Compound lifts, such as deadlifts and squats, work multiple muscle groups at once and are great for building overall strength. As riders, we need to give isolated and accurate aids with our legs and hands, without gripping, twisting, or pulling with another section of our body. This requires independent isolation of single muscle groups against a stable but flexible trunk.  This is where isolated and unilateral exercises play a crucial role. Exercises such as single leg deadlifts, leg press, rows, or calf raises can target and train the muscle groups needed for riding. This will improve the rider’s position and control of the horse, as well as improve their communication effectiveness and clarity. 

Core stability is also a key component of equestrian fitness. While traditional core exercises such as crunches or planks can be helpful, they may not be enough to meet the demands of the sport. Riders need to maintain a stable trunk while dynamically moving their limbs. An example is when applying an isolated half-halt aid with the outside arm, while simultaneously applying pressure with our opposite leg to cue the horse to bend through a corner. To improve the clarity and effectiveness of our aids, we must contract specific muscle groups in a controlled manner, while keeping our trunk and pelvis stable and flexible. Incorporating exercises that replicate this type of movement, such as high plank with shoulder taps, suitcase carry marches, or bear crawls, can help to improve our core stability and our ability to manage isolated limb movement in the tack. 

Conditioning: More than just the odd run. 

Aerobic fitness is also a crucial component of strength and conditioning for equestrian athletes. While we tend to school mostly in a steady-state (or zone 2) level of cardio, some show environments require you to maintain an almost maximal level of cardiac output for 2-12 minutes at a time. To meet these demands, our training should not only include steady-state cardio such as jogging or cycling, but also high-intensity work such as interval training. By incorporating both types of cardio into your training, you will be better prepared for the extremely physical demands of the show environment. Aerobic fitness is beneficial for overall health and well-being, and can help to improve your endurance and stamina in the saddle. By including both steady-state and high-intensity cardio, you will be able to meet both schooling and showing demands.

Ride Hard, Recover Smart

As equestrians, we’re all guilty of putting our horses’ needs before our own. While our horses have a team of veterinarians, nutritionists, podiatrists, bodyworkers, saddle fitters, etc., we’ll stay up late braiding manes and cleaning tack the night before a show, grab a quick cheeseburger between classes, and only think about hydration when dripping sweat under our show jackets. If we want to perform our best, it’s time to start treating ourselves like the athletes we are. Taking care of the pillars of recovery like sleep, nutrition, and hydration year round can make a big difference in both training and show season, and give us that extra edge we need to shine in the arena.

A Breath of Fresh Air in the Goal Setting Category

Setting goals in equestrian sports can be tricky. We all know the feeling of wanting to score above a 75% on our next dressage test, or jump a clean round inside the time, or qualify for championships. But sometimes, things don’t go as planned. Your horse throws a shoe, you forget equipment, or the ring runs late and throws you off. It happens, and it’s frustrating.

Strength training offers a refreshing change. It allows us to set clear, specific, measurable, and attainable goals. And the best part is, we can track our progress along the way. It’s helpful to start your strength training journey with a professional like a trainer or Physiotherapist. They can help establish your baseline, create a plan, and set realistic goals for your progressions. And as an equestrian myself, I can attest that it’s nice to have an activity with clear measures of success.

Strength and conditioning training is an essential part of any equestrian athlete’s routine. Whether it’s lifting heavy weights to build muscle and improve performance or incorporating isolated exercises to target specific muscle groups, strength training can help take your riding to the next level. And don’t forget about core stability and aerobic fitness, both of which are crucial for maintaining proper position and control in the tack. 

Remember, as riders, we need to think of ourselves as athletes too, and prioritize recovery, such as sleep, nutrition, and hydration, to achieve optimal performance in training and during the show season. Don’t be afraid to lift some weights and give your riding a boost!

FAQ

1 .What workouts would be recommended for equestrians? 

Equestrians typically focus on exercises that will improve their upper body strength, core strength, and overall aerobic fitness. Some recommended exercises for equestrians include:

  1. Dynamic core stability: Planks with shoulder taps, Dead Bugs or Bear Crawls to help improve core stability with dynamic limb movement. 
  2. Hinge Pattern movements: Like deadlifts or hip thrusts, to target the glutes and improve control and stability of your seat and leg aids. 
  3. Rows: To strengthen the arms and upper back, for improved half-halt and upper body aids. 
  4. Calf Raises: For overall calf strength and achilles resilience, especially if the rider does a lot of jump schooling. 
  5. High intensity cardio intervals: To help emulate the competition environment. 
  6. Yoga, pilates, or other mobility exercises: To improve body control, awareness and joint flexibility. 

It’s important to remember that as a rider, you should focus on exercises that are specific to your riding discipline and your own specific needs. A reiner will have different demands on their body than a barrel racer, and a jockey performs in a much different position compared to a 5* eventer. 

2. How do you prepare your body for horseback riding?

Preparing your body for horseback riding can help reduce the risk of injury and improve your performance. Here are some tips: 

  1. Strengthen your core: A strong core will help you maintain a stable position while riding. You can achieve this by doing exercises such as planks, deadbug, or pallof presses. 
  2. Build leg strength: Strong legs, and especially strong quads and glutes, will help you maintain control of your horse and improve your seat and leg aids. General squat and hinge pattern exercises are useful for training these muscle groups. 
  3. Improve your hip flexibility: Riding horses requires a large range of motion at the hips, as well as good lumbopelvic control. Exercises like hip CARs help improve range of motion while also challenging pelvic stability. 
  4. Cardiovascular fitness: It’s important to train both for the long, low intensity work of schooling and the high intensity bursts required for competition. Steady state cardio like cycling, running or swimming is useful to combine with sprint work to train both sides. 
  5. Safety: Ensure you are working with a qualified coach and are comfortable and aware of safety issues involved in working with horses before starting a riding program. They are living creatures, very large, and can be unpredictable, so ensure you are aware of the risks.
  6. Get proper equipment: Make sure you have the appropriate riding gear, including a properly fitting helmet, and that your horse is in good condition, with well-fitting tack.

Remember, it’s important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your exercises as your fitness improves. And also focus on exercises that are specific to your riding discipline and your own specific needs.

3. What muscles are strong for horse riding?

Horseback riding requires a combination of strength, balance, and control, which are achieved through the use of several different muscle groups. While it is a whole body exercise, some key muscle groups include: 

  1. Core – A strong core helps to maintain balance and stability while riding, allowing the rider to be more in control of the horse. The core muscles include the abdominals, back, and hips.
  2. Quads and Glute muscles – In order to maintain a stable base, as well as provide isolated leg aids, riders must have good control and endurance in both quads and glute muscles. 
  3. Adductors – the inner thigh or groin muscles are used for maintaining stability in the saddle, but should not be isolated on their own. Gripping with adductors alone will result in an unstable base and swinging lower leg, and so training of these muscle groups should be combined with glute and quad exercises. 
  4. Upper Back – Scapular retractors and upper arm muscles are commonly used for providing arm and hand aids to the horse. A strong and stable upper back is also essential for creating a soft upper body and ability to isolate shoulder movement from upper arm and hand/wrist movements. 
  5. Calves – Isolated calf work is useful for equestrians to help build a strong and stable base, particularly for jumping disciplines. 

It’s important to remember that the specific muscles used in horseback riding can vary depending on the discipline and riding style, so it’s always best to consult with a Physiotherapist or trainer to help you identify which muscles you need to focus on strengthening.

4. What is the hardest equestrian discipline? 

Equestrian disciplines are diverse and can have various levels of difficulty. It is hard to determine which discipline is the hardest as it can be subjective and depend on the individual rider’s skills and experience. Each discipline requires different skills and abilities from the rider.

For example, while disciplines like reining and dressage require extreme technical skill and isolated strength, show jumping focuses more on gymnastic power, strength and quick decision making. Eventing requires the athlete to be incredibly fit and well rounded, like a triathlete, while endurance is aptly named as it requires both horse and rider to have a high level of fitness and stamina for competing in races up to 100 miles. Vaulting (gymnastics performed on horseback) requires a high level of strength, coordination and balance from the vaulter, while jockeys and drivers in Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing need incredible aerobic stamina on top of strength. 

Regardless of the type of riding, every equestrian can benefit from training strength, balance, reaction time and aerobic fitness both on and off the horse. A physiotherapist or trainer can help you develop a fitness and strength program to meet the needs of your specific discipline. 

5. What is the best exercise for horse riding? 

There is no one best exercise for horse riding as the specific needs can vary depending on the individual rider’s skill level, riding discipline, and the horse they are riding. However, a well-rounded exercise program, including training both on and off horse, that focuses on building overall aerobic fitness and strength, as well as improving balance and flexibility, can be beneficial for horseback riding.It’s always best to consult with a Physiotherapist, professional trainer or coach to help you create a personalized program that suits your needs.

6. How can I improve my core strength for horse riding?

Core stability is also a key component of equestrian fitness. While traditional core exercises such as crunches or planks can be helpful, they may not be enough to meet the demands of the sport. Riders need to maintain a stable, flexible trunk while independently moving their limbs. Incorporating exercises that replicate this, such as high plank with shoulder taps, suitcase carry marches, or bear crawls, can help to improve our core stability and our ability to manage isolated limb movement in the tack. 

7. How do I get stronger legs as an equestrian? 

Having strong legs is crucial for horseback riding as they help you develop a strong base, balanced seat, more isolated and accurate aids, and improve your endurance in the saddle. However, schooling on its own is often not enough of a stimulus to build leg strength. Compound exercises like heavy squats, lunges, and deadlifts are useful to build quad, glute and hamstring strength, and should be performed in both double leg and single leg variations. More isolated exercises like calf raises, leg extensions, hip thrusts and hamstring curls are also useful to target specific muscle groups. 

Regardless of the exercise being performed, the load should be heavy enough to fatigue your muscle groups within 6-12 reps. While bodyweight exercises are a great place to start, they will often not provide enough stimulus if you are truly looking for strength gains. 

It’s important to remember that building leg strength takes time and consistent effort, so be sure to incorporate these exercises into your regular workout routine. Additionally, it’s always best to consult with a Physiotherapist, professional trainer or coach to help you create a personalized exercise program that suits your needs and goals.

8. Is horse riding better for cardio or strength? 

Horseback riding can be beneficial for both cardio and strength, but it primarily depends on the type of riding and the rider’s goals.

Riding at a steady pace, such as general schooling or hacking/ trail riding, can provide a good cardiovascular workout, however it is often low, steady-state cardio. The horse’s movements, especially in disciplines like dressage, jumping and eventing, also require the rider to engage significant postural and core stability, and leg and upper body muscles, which can also improve the rider’s strength.

If the rider’s goal is to primarily focus on strength training, regular schooling is not typically sufficient stimulus to produce strength changes past a certain point. While a more intense schooling session, such as working on specific maneuvers or performing gymnastic exercises can have some impact on strength, off horse training involving targeted exercises is the best way to achieve strength gains.

Likewise, if the rider seeks to improve cardiovascular fitness, a combination of steady state and high intensity training, both on and off the horse, will provide the best outcomes. 

In any case, horseback riding is a full-body workout that can provide both cardio and strength benefits. It’s a great way to improve overall fitness, balance, and coordination. It’s always best to consult with a Physiotherapist, professional trainer or coach to help you create a personalized exercise program that suits your needs and goals.

9. Should equestrians go to the gym? 

Equestrians, no matter their discipline, skill level, or current fitness level, should be incorporating some form of off-horse training into their routine. While you don’t have to hit the gym every day, it’s important to supplement your riding with exercises outside of the saddle. The reason being, riding alone doesn’t always provide enough of a workout to keep you in tip-top shape for competition.

Most riding is low-intensity cardio and long-hold muscle activation, but when it comes to competition, you need to be able to perform at a high level of both cardio and muscle strength and endurance. While schooling higher intensity movements, grids or patterns can be beneficial, it’s not always possible to do enough for your own fitness gains without risking overtraining your horse. 

Additionally, there can be significant consequences to getting fatigued while schooling or in competition. Body fatigue can lead to adopting an asymmetrical position, which can negatively impact your horse’s balance and movement, leading to pain and lameness. It can also result in weak and inaccurate aids, affecting your performance and training precision. Fatigue can also be dangerous, as it can affect your stability and decision-making, severely hindering your ability to save yourself from a runout, refusal, or fall should things go south. 

That’s why it’s crucial for equestrians to incorporate off-horse strength and conditioning exercises, in addition to your regular riding routine. This should include strength training at least twice a week, as well as cardio exercises that mimic the demands of competition. To ensure you’re getting the most out of your training, it’s always a good idea to consult with a Physiotherapist, trainer, or coach to create a personalized exercise plan that fits your specific needs and goals.

  

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