Riding Exercises for Strength and Balance

Riding Exercises for Strength and Balance

These simple horseback-riding exercises are guaranteed to make you stronger and more balanced in the saddle.

horsemanship exhibitor wearing black chaps and shirt rides a buckskin horse (Credit: Journal)

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Strength and balance work together to help you relax and communicate with your horse so you can have the best ride possible whether you’re doing an equitation pattern, competing in horsemanship or even speeding around barrels. AQHA Professional Horsewoman Andy Moorman uses several exercises like different posting rhythms and riding without stirrups to help her riders become more secure in the saddle.

1. Hand on Hip

This exercise makes you ride down through your leg and find your balance and center of gravity over the horse’s center of gravity. At the same time, you learn to be independent of your hands for balance.

Pick up the trot and place one hand on your hip. Your other hand holds the reins, which should be loose to keep you from balancing on the horse’s mouth. As you trot, make an elongated figure-eight. Your outside hand should hold the reins as you go around the turn, so as you change directions, you will change hands. For example, on the left circle, left hand is on hip and right hand on reins. Vice-versa for the other direction.

This forces you to turn your body toward the direction you are going. It makes you bring your outside shoulder forward, holding your inside shoulder up. Your balance is improved, and you relax and flow with the horse.

Now that you’re more balanced and relaxed in the saddle, you can focus more on becoming a team with your horse. 

2. No Irons Required

When you ride without stirrups, you are forced to stay more centered on the horse, so your overall balance and “feel” improve.

Make sure your horse is quiet and relaxed. To get my beginners ready for this, we drop irons, ride for a little bit, then pick them back up. I try to make this exercise fun, and we try to get into a rhythm. For example: drop stirrups, do a sitting trot circle. Come out of the circle, pick up stirrups and post five strides. Then drop stirrups again, then post five strides and sit again.

If you do little bits of riding without stirrups, you don’t wear out or get in trouble, and pretty soon you can do this more often and for longer. Soon, you can post without stirrups. It’s a great idea to ride without stirrups or reins on the longeline. This way, you learn to create transitions and tell your horse where to go with your seat and leg aids  instead of your hands.

If you don’t push yourself to ride without stirrups, you’re never going to get better. Try to ride every day, as much as possible, without stirrups. After some time, riders actually like it when judges ask for work with no irons.

3. Down, Up, Up

Improve balance and feel of your horse while developing a secure leg.

When you post, you typically post down, up, down, up, down, up, right? To do this exercise at the trot, which we call “Down, Up, Up,” you post down, then stay up in the air for two beats. So it’s right diagonal, up, up, left diagonal, up, up, right diagonal, up , up, etc. This exercise, which I learned from trainer Sarah Goode, sounds very simple, but you have to have a secure leg to hold yourself in the air for that second beat before you come down again. And usually, if people are not strong  or I should say, “educated” in their legs – they’ll end up doing down, down, up. So you have to concentrate to do the down, up, up. When you do this, you don’t sit all the way down and unfold your back on the seat part; you just touch the saddle with your seat. It’s touch, up, up, touch, up, up. When you think about it that way, you keep your back arched so you’ll stay in your leg and not fall behind your leg.

I suggest that you enter a big, rectangular area like a show ring. I have my students go down, up, up, on one long side, then do a posting trot around the end of the arena, then get into a two-point position on the other long side of the arena. Then do a posting trot around the end. That way, it’s not a lengthy amount of any one exercise, but there are a lot of transitions to work on at the same time.

4. Count to Five

The right side of your brain controls feel – the part of riding that feels the horse’s rhythm. Some people use primarily the left side of their brains to ride, which can be OK, but they spend a lot of time over-thinking and analyzing instead of just feeling what their horses are doing.

I recommend that my riders count as they ride, because counting keeps the left side of the brain busy and allows you to ride out of the right side of your brain, by your natural instincts. A lot of times, when we get a little tense or a little unsure, we hold our breath, which makes us stiff. You’ll find that this exercise makes you take in a lot of air, and you’ll start to relax. The amazing part is that you’re so busy counting, you’ll stop over-thinking about your horse!

As you ride, whether it’s at the walk, jog, trot, lope or canter, count everything: your breaths, your horse’s steps. I arbitrarily recommend counting in sets of five, because it gives riders enough time to think, but not so much time that they get bored. Counting aloud also forces you to breathe. If you’re having trouble breathing, speak louder.

For instance, at the sitting trot, count when the front outside leg of the horse hits the ground. Count: one, two, three, four, five, with each beat, and deepen your seat when that outside leg hits the ground. Count until you can count out loud in that rhythm.

Next, add another part: sit, sit, sit, post, and when you post up, do five posting, five sitting, five posting. Then move into the two-point position. Count to five while holding the two-point position, then move into five beats of posting, and then back to sitting for five. Next, repeat everything. By the time you’ve done this a few thousand million times, you’re not going to have any trouble with much of anything.

The horses become very relaxed. Their legs become just like a metronome, and they drop their heads and necks. I’ve never seen it fail.

5. Perfect Those Transitions, Maintain Rhythm

When you ask the horse for downward transitions from the canter to the trot, you should always come up on the correct diagonal, while keeping your horse going forward. Other downward transitions should be performed with no loss of rhythm.

Canter to trot: Understand that downward transitions are not made from your hands; they are made from your body. As you make that transition down, if you deepen your leg and keep your horse going forward, that’s when you’ll get a lovely trot.

At the canter, your rhythm feels like a bumpity, bumpity, bumpity. To go from the canter to the trot, you will feel a bumpity, bumpity, sit (first beat of the trot), post (second beat of the trot)  and you will always come up on the correct diagonal.

All you do with your hands is balance the horse. You don’t take back, you don’t throw away, you just change body position. And let the horse drop and go forward.

If you have a horse that’s tense, practice going from the canter to the posting trot, then sitting trot, walk and repeat the process. Pretty soon, that horse’s back will get really soft, and so will the rider’s. It’s a great warm-up for a pattern. The whole thing is that you have to keep your rhythm, keep your feel.

Whatever transition we make, we make it in the same rhythm. We never let the rhythm change. Even if you’re going to a stop, you still maintain the rhythm so that you ride through from the back end so the horse’s hind legs stay under.

Trot to Walk: I make my riders come from the canter or the trot to the walk with no loss of rhythm. Make the horses walk through because this teaches them to keep their hind legs coming through. You can’t go: trot, trot, trot, waaalk, waaaalk. It’s got to be: trot, trot, trot, walk, walk, walk. (Andy snaps her fingers with a measured, steady beat.) You keep that rhythm. It makes riders use their legs to keep the horses coming through  just like follow-through in tennis, baseball or golf. Force yourself to maintain the rhythm and balance.

Be sure to download the premium e-book Fit to Ride to expand your exercise library. The 29-page e-book includes tips on using yoga and rhythmic breathing to become a better rider, seven keys to a successful equestrian workout including Pilates, 18 best exercises for riders and more. 

Strong Foundation From the Ground Up

Just like these exercises build a foundation for strength and balance in the saddle, your horse needs well-groomed ground for the foundation for soundness and performance. A John Deere tractor is the tool to do it. The official farm equipment of AQHA, John Deere offers members up to 28% off of purchases, thanks to the AQHA Members Plus program.