People that aren’t familiar with horseback riding often think of the sport as nothing more than a rider sitting on a large animal that carries them around. If you’ve ridden a horse and couldn’t walk the next day, then you tend to think differently.
Core strength is the single most important component of riding safely and maintaining your balance. Balance involves small minute movements of your stomach, back, and pelvic muscles and requires more control and detail than the larger movements of your arms and legs.
One way to test your core fitness and balance on your horse is to ride without using your stirrups to stay on. Letting your legs hang down the sides of your horse, can you ride a circle or trot without squeezing? If you have to grip with your thighs or your calves, you’re using leg strength, not your core muscles to stay on. This is a sign that you need to work on your core strength.
Another way to guage your core strength is by riding gait transitions. When you make a downward transition from a canter to a walk do you feel your upper body bobble or lean forward? Do you feel your upper body lean back and your legs and buttocks tighten when you start to canter or gallop your horse? If this sounds like you, then you may need to work on core strength.
The next essential factor in riding is leg strength. Leg strength is needed not only to cue for transitions, but also for controlling different parts of the horse’s body, including the shoulders and hips. Leg strength is also necessary for lateral work. Your legs have to be strong enough to motivate your horse to move and to send a clear signal of what you want.
A good test for leg strength is posting without stirrups. Can you execute posting properly without stirrups at a trot? What about posting at a walk? Both of these exercises are difficult, however posting at a walk is more challenging, as it requires a rider to lift his own body weight instead of relying on the bounce of the horse to boost him up.
The last essential element of riding is flexibility. Can you mount your horse easily or is it tough to get your foot to the stirrup? Do you struggle to get your heels down when you ride or get your legs aligned in a ear-shoulder-hip-heel order to properly cue your horse? If these movements are difficult for you to accomplish then you may need to work on flexibility through your ankles, calves, thighs and hips.
Simply spending more time on the back of a horse or riding without stirrups will help to improve your riding. To work on your mid-section, “planks” are one of the best exercises for complete core strength. Pilates and Yoga are great exercise disciplines to help with every aspect of riding as they focus on not only core strength and balance, but flexibility as well.
Horses require consistent fine-tuning throughout their careers. If we expect our horses to be fit then we also need to be fit for riding and need to fine-tune ourselves. The great thing about working on balance, leg strength, and flexibility is that when you improve those things, your horse and your riding life will improve right along with you.