5 Things Equestrians Should Work on Out of the Saddle


Jamie Graham, MS, CTRS, CPT is the founder of Haybales & Barbells, an equestrian fitness company that was founded in 2020. Jamie provides various fitness programs for equestrian athletes of all different levels and her training philosophy is that fitness is about how you feel on the inside and not how you look on the outside. Keep reading to hear Jamie’s insight on what you can work on while out of the saddle to be better while in it!

Photo credit (above): Kayla Norene Photography

Horse riding is not a sport. Said those that have never ridden a horse before.

For us that are equestrian athletes, we know very well that riding is indeed a sport and that it may be the most difficult sport there is (because name me another full-body sport where you need to control a 1200 pound animal while simultaneously making everything look effortless?).

Just like any other athlete, we need to work on skills outside of our sport, so that we can be the best athlete that we can be.

As a lifelong equestrian, riding instructor, and fitness and recreation professional, I have had the honor of helping equestrian athletes feel the best physically and mentality through fitness training and I have come up with five things that equestrians should work on out of the saddle in order to be the best riders that they can be for themselves and their horse.

1. Strength

Riding a forward horse requires a lot of strength. Riding a lazy horse requires a lot of strength. Riding any horse requires a lot of strength. From good trunk strength to be able to sit on the horse and have good posture, to good core strength so we can withstand any unexpected movements and protect our spine, strength training is a crucial part of any equestrian's riding journey if they want to excel as an equestrian athlete. Adding muscle tissue to your body reduces the chance of injury, especially in a sport like horse riding, and helps your aids become more effective.

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Strength is crucial to good posture in the saddle - and you don't need fancy weights!
Photo credit:
Kayla Norene Photography

2. Flexibility & Stability

Have you ever noticed that you have issues swinging your leg over to get on your horse? Maybe your hip flexors or adductors are too tight! Or maybe you have trouble keeping your heels down? Maybe that’s your body telling you that your calf muscles are too tight and therefore inhibiting your heels to drop down. If your body is tight and rigid, this may cause communication issues with your horse because you aren’t able to translate your body cues to him. One common issue with equestrians is tight hip flexors, caused by a prolonged period of time sitting at a desk. When your hips are tight, this may cause your pelvis to tilt forward, thus causing an arched lower back while riding and can lead to you not being able to fully use your seat effectively. We need to work on flexibility out of the saddle so that we can remain soft in every aid that we give our horse, and instead of blocking the energy from our horse, we are able to absorb it.

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It's important to work on your flexibility out of the saddle so that you can be soft and effective in your aids.
Photo credit: Kayla Norene Photography

3. Coordination

Horse riding requires an immense amount of coordination. Literally every single part of your body is doing different movements at the same time, from your pinky controlling the reins to your toes staying pointing to the sky, equestrian athletes need to work on their body coordination no matter what discipline they ride. Working on mind-body awareness through fitness training can help train your brain to be aware and connected to your body. It also involves your proprioceptive system which allows you to understand how and where your muscles are moving, and also your vestibular system, which allows you to maintain your balance and your posture.

4. Mental Health

Sports can help individuals manage stress, reduce the level of stress hormones, calm your mind, and improve your well-being. In fact, participating in sports can have long-term effects on your mental health and those who participate in sports have a better general mental well-being than those who do not (Vella et. al, 2017). But competitive and elite athletes, equestrian athletes included, may oftentimes experience burnout from over-training, extreme stress from expectations, and a decline in mental health due to the excessive pressure. It is important for equestrian athletes to recognize any changes in their mental well-being and to seek interventions to help them maintain their mental health if such symptoms arise. Taking care of your mental health out of the saddle will not only make the sport more enjoyable for you and your horse, but it will also make it much safer.

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Sports can calm the mind, but excessive pressure can decline your mental well-being.
Taking care of your mental health makes the sport more enjoyable for you and your horse!
Photo credit: Kayla Norene Photography

5. Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Did you know that a study has shown that horse riders have a similar respiratory capacity compared to soccer players? (Lee et al., 2014) If you have poor cardiorespiratory fitness, it may be difficult for you to ride for a prolonged period of time and your horse may not get the work that he needs. Building up your heart muscle and training your heart and lungs to work together for a longer period of time will not only improve your stamina while riding, but is beneficial for your horse too! Improving your cardiorespiratory fitness is not just useful while you are schooling your horse at your home barn, it will also come in handy because you will feel less tired when you spend hours at a horse show that requires you to be on your feet or riding all day!

Be sure to follow Jamie on Instagram, where she gives out free equestrian fitness tips and tricks. Happy riding!

Lee, S., Lee, D., & Park, J. (2014). Effects of the Indoor Horseback Riding Exercise on Electromyographic Activity and Balance in One-leg Standing. Journal of physical therapy science, 26(9), 1445–1447. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.26.1445
Vella, S. A., Swann, C., Allen, M. S., Schweickle, M. J., & Magee, C. A. (2017). Bidirectional Associations between Sport Involvement and Mental Health in Adolescence. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 49(4), 687–694.