15 Exercises for Equestrians to Build Strength and Tone (2024)

Equestrian sports require strength and endurance. As an equestrian, you spend hours a week in the saddle training your horse and sharpening your skills. Riding undoubtedly improves physical fitness and strength, but like any sport, equestrian training yields the best results when combined with strength-building exercises.

We’ve curated a list of the best equestrian workouts to help you build the stability and strength you need to level up in the saddle.

Importance of exercising for equestrians

Whether you participate in dressage, show jumping, or cross-country, riding horseback requires a unique set of muscles. Your core, back, hips, and glutes all play a crucial role in helping you stay on the horse and keep good posture while making the necessary cues. Many of these muscles are worked when riding, but strengthening surrounding muscles is important as well. Failure to target the right muscle groups in your strength training can result in postural mistakes, poor balance, or even injury while riding.

Improve balance and posture

Maintaining good balance and posture is key to any equestrian discipline. Riders must give aids to the horse with their legs or hands while keeping the rest of their body still. Balance allows you to stay in position over jumps and give clear cues to the horse with isolated muscle movements. Steady posture also helps you deliver successful aids and makes you feel lighter to your horse, freeing it to perform at its very best.

You can improve balance and posture by adding strength training to your weekly workout regimen. Core strength can help you improve position and cueing, while good posture is associated with upper body strength. You can also target specific muscle groups used for giving aids, which reduces your reliance on surrounding muscles. This contributes to clear and effective communication with your horse.

Prevent injury

The best way to prevent sports injuries is to work on strength and flexibility. Riding can be hard on your joints, and equestrians are especially prone to develop chronic back pain. You can take preventative measures against chronic pain by strengthening your back muscles, as well as the muscles that surround your joints. Be sure to set time aside for stretching after each workout–the stronger, more elastic your muscles are, the less prone you are to injury.

Falling from your horse can lead to serious injuries. Cross-training improves your balance, making you less likely to fall. Strength training exercises for equestrians also involve coordinated movements that will help you land safely in the case that you do fall from your horse.

What should equestrians focus on working out?

Abdominal muscles

A strong core is crucial for riders’ balance and posture. Obliques are the abdominal muscles that keep riders from collapsing their body to one side. Target your obliques to provide lateral stability for more symmetrical posture.

Another abdominal muscle for equestrians to focus on is the transverse abdominis (TVA). The TVA forms a corset shape between the ribs and pelvis, and its purpose is to help you remain upright. It also supports the spine, making TVA strengthening exercises a pivotal part of reducing back pain.

Upper body muscles

While the rest of your body is worked every time you ride, your upper body is less involved in horseback riding movements. This does not mean you should neglect your upper body when it comes to strength training! Hone your rein aids by completing shoulder-strengthening exercises. Stronger arms make it easier to give smooth cues and maintain control over your horse. Scapular retractors, or the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades, help keep your shoulders from rounding. Targeting those muscles can also improve your posture when riding.

Lower body muscles

The lower body is where all your power comes from when riding. Your glutes and hamstrings are responsible for keeping your hips balanced in the saddle, and they’re activated when you give halt cues to your horse. This muscle group plays such a crucial role in balance and cueing. Keeping these muscles stretched is equally important, as tight glutes can affect your horse’s balance, and tight hamstrings can cause lower back pain.

Hip adductors are the muscles in the inner thigh that help you stay in the saddle, and they are typically very developed in equestrians. On the other hand, hip abductors (the muscles in the outer thigh) are often underdeveloped. Abductors help you keep correct leg position, which in turn, leads to more precise leg aids. If you notice an imbalance between the two muscle groups, add a few hip abductor strengthening exercises to your training plan.

Your calves are also an essential muscle for balance and good leg position. You must keep your heels down when riding, which requires calf strength and flexibility. Strong lower leg muscles are also important for giving cues for your horse to turn or speed up.

15 best equestrian workouts

Ready to get to work? Create a workout from our picks of the best exercises for equestrians. Choose from core, upper body, or lower body exercises to strengthen the muscles that will enhance your performance.

Core workouts for equestrians

1. High plank with shoulder taps

If you’re looking for ways to improve your balance and posture, this one’s for you. The high plank with shoulder taps works your TVA, obliques, and shoulders. It forces you to keep your body still while moving only your arm, which also makes it the perfect exercise for improving your hand aids. This exercise helps strengthen your lower back as well, so it’s ideal for those with back pain.

How to do a high plank with shoulder taps:

  1. Start in a plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders.
  2. With your core engaged and your hips stable, lift one hand off the floor and tap the opposite shoulder.
  3. Return to plank position, then repeat with the other hand.

(3 sets of 20 alternating reps)

Modification: Start from a modified plank by dropping to your knees, or plant your palms on an elevated surface like a bench or a wall.

2. Dead bug

The dead bug is another core workout that targets the TVA and obliques. It’s meant to be a slow, controlled movement that develops your core stability. Dead bugs are a great way to improve balance and posture and reduce back pain.

How to do a dead bug:

  1. Lie on your back with your arms extended straight up and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.Optional: Hold a light dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Engage your core muscles to flatten your lower back against the floor.
  3. Without touching the floor, slowly extend one leg straight in front of you while lowering the opposite arm over your head.
  4. Return to the starting position, and repeat with the opposite arm and leg.

    (3 sets of 12 alternating reps)

    Modification: Start on your back with your feet on the floor and your arms stretched behind your head but not touching the floor. Slowly touch one arm to the opposite knee, hold, then return to the starting position before repeating with the opposite arm and leg.

    3. Oblique V-ups

    Most core exercises involve many different parts of your core. True to its name, oblique V-ups is an exercise that primarily targets the oblique muscles. If you’re looking to develop lateral stability that will perfect your posture, try out this challenging but rewarding workout.

    How to do an oblique V-up:

    1. Lie on your left side at a 45-degree angle with your legs extended and stacked on top of each other.
    2. Place your left arm on the floor for support, and place your right fingertips behind your right ear.
    3. Engage your core to lift your legs off the floor, keeping them together. At the same time, lift your torso off the floor, driving your right elbow toward your knees.
    4. Squeeze your oblique muscles at the top of the movement, and slowly lower your upper body and legs back down to the starting position.
    5. Complete one set of reps on your left side before switching to your right side.

    (3 sets of 8 reps on each side)

    Modification: Lift only your torso off the floor, squeezing your oblique muscles at the top.

    4. Alternating side planks

    Side planks are a great way to develop those hip abductors that are so often underdeveloped in equestrians. Additionally, alternating side planks work your obliques and shoulders, forcing you to move with control as you transition from a plank to a side plank. They get more and more challenging with each set, but do your best to dig in and embrace the burn.

    How to do alternating side planks:

    1. Start in a plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds.
    2. Shifting your body weight to one side or the other, rotate from high plank to a side plank position. Keep one hand directly below your shoulder, and lift the other straight up to form a vertical line through your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds.
    3. Return to a high plank, and hold for 30 seconds.
    4. Rotate to a side plank on your other side, and hold for 30 seconds.

    (3 sets of the 2-minute rotation)

    Modification: Start in a plank with your knees on the floor. When you rotate to the side plank, keep your bottom knee on the floor, extending your top leg so that your foot rests on the floor.

    5. Bird dog

    The bird dog is an excellent full-body movement that can help you build balance, posture, and coordination. It works your TVA, shoulder, upper and lower back, hamstrings, and glutes. It’s great for those who experience chronic back pain, as it’s low impact and it builds the core and back strength you need to reduce that pain.

    How to do a bird dog:

    1. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.Optional: Hold one dumbbell in each hand and let the weights rest on the floor, using them for stability.
    2. Engaging your core, extend one arm straight in front of you and the opposite leg straight behind you. Maintain level hips and a neutral spine throughout the movement.
    3. Hold for a moment, then return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

      (3 sets of 12 alternating reps)

      Modification: Instead of extending your leg straight behind you, slide your leg back so that your toe is still touching the floor.

      Upper body workouts for equestrians

      6. Scapular push-ups

      The scapular push-up is an isolation exercise since it uses a small range of motion to target the scapular retractors. Its primary purpose is to improve shoulder stability, so it’s a helpful strengthening exercise if you struggle with rounding your shoulders while riding.

      How to do a scapular push-up:

      1. Begin in a high plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from head to heels.
      2. Keep your arms straight as you squeeze your shoulder blades together, lowering your chest towards the floor.
      3. Press through your palms to return to the starting position.

      (3 sets of 10 reps)

      Modification: Complete the exercise on your hands and knees in a tabletop position.

      7. Overhead press

      The overhead press is a weight training workout, so it’s all about improving your upper body strength. It works your shoulders, chest, upper back, and triceps. The result? Stronger arms for smoother cueing and better control over your horse.

      How to do an overhead press:

      1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, palms facing forward.
      2. Engage your core, and press the weights overhead until your arms are fully extended, keeping your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders.
      3. Lower the weights back to shoulder height with control and repeat.

      (3 sets of 8 reps)

      Modification: Ditch the weights, or use lighter weights.

      8. Bent-over rows

      For improved posture and cueing, add bent-over rows to your workout routine. This weighted exercise strengthens your shoulders, upper back, and triceps, allowing you to maintain good posture and give cues without your arms getting tired.

      How to do a bent-over row:

      1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing you.
      2. Hinge forward from your hips, keeping your back flat and your knees slightly bent.
      3. Engage your core and pull the weights up towards your ribcage, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
      4. Lower the weights back down with control and repeat.

      (3 sets of 8 reps)

      Modification: If you suffer from back pain, try single-arm supported bent over rows. Plant your left hand and knee on a bench, your right leg straight and planted on the floor. Keeping your back flat, hold a dumbbell in your right hand and pull it toward your ribcage, squeezing your shoulder blade. Repeat on the other side.

      9. Superman

      This exercise primarily works the upper and lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Superman is great for improving posture and balance and stabilizing the lower back to alleviate pain. If you struggle with chronic back pain, start with the modified superman to build lower back strength.

      How to do a superman:

      1. Lie face down on the floor with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight.
      2. Engage your core and lift your arms, chest, and legs off the floor simultaneously, aiming to create a “flying” position. Focus on lengthening your body as you lift, and keep your head and neck neutral.
      3. Hold at the top for a moment, then lower back down with control.

      (3 sets of 12 reps)

      Modification: Lift only one arm and the opposite leg during the movement. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg to complete one rep.

      10. Burpees

      Burpees are considered a full-body cardio workout. You’ll feel the burn in your glutes, quads, core, calves, shoulders, chest, and triceps. Since it combines several movements, it develops good coordination, but it can also strengthen muscles to improve posture, balance, and cueing. Burpees are a versatile exercise–personalize them to your fitness level and ability.

      How to do a burpee:

      1. From a standing position, lower into a squat, placing your hands on the floor in front of you.
      2. Jump your feet back into a plank position.
      3. Perform a push-up, then jump your feet back to the squat position.
      4. Jump up explosively with your hands over your head, and land softly, immediately lowering back into the squat to begin the next rep.

      (3 sets of 10 reps)

      Modification: Burpees can be modified several different ways. Instead of jumping to and from plank position, you may choose to walk your feet up and back. You may also modify the push-up or remove it altogether. If you suffer from knee pain and need a low-impact option, you can also remove the jump at the end.

      Lower body workouts for equestrians

      11. Single-leg deadlifts

      Single-leg deadlifts can bring your balance and coordination to a new level. They engage your hamstrings, glutes, and core, developing power in your legs and stability in your core. Try it without weights at first, then add some weight as your balance improves to continue strengthening your legs and core.

      How to do a single-leg deadlift:

      1. Stand on one leg with a slight bend in the knee.Optional: Hold a dumbbell in one hand, or hold one dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing you.
      2. Hinge forward at the hips, and extend the free leg straight back behind you. Keep your back flat and your core engaged throughout the movement.
      3. Return to the starting position by squeezing your glutes and hamstrings. Do your best to keep the free leg off the floor, and complete a full set on one side before switching legs.

        (3 sets of 10 reps on each leg)

        Modification: Use a chair or bench to stabilize you as you hinge forward, or let your foot touch the floor between reps.

        12. Sumo squats

        While you should never target adductors with isolation exercises, the sumo squat is a compound exercise that works your adductors alongside your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and core. It primarily targets your glutes and quads, which are key to keeping you in the saddle and helping you give clear cues with your legs.

        How to do a sumo squat:

        1. Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes turned out at a 45-degree angle.Optional: Hold a dumbbell with both hands in front of your body.
        2. Keeping your chest upright and your core engaged, lower into a squat, sending your hips back and down.
        3. Press through your heels to return to the starting position and repeat.

          (3 sets of 15 reps)

          Modification: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and complete a basic squat.

          13. Bulgarian split squats

          This is another exercise that targets the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and adductors. Like the sumo squat, the Bulgarian split squat strengthens your entire leg for better balance and cueing. There is, however, an added element of balance and coordination that comes from completing the movement on one leg.

          How to do a Bulgarian split squat:

          1. Stand a few feet in front of a bench or step facing away from it, and reach one foot behind you to rest on top of it.Optional: Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
          2. Lower your body straight down towards the floor by bending your front knee, keeping your chest upright and your back knee hovering just above the floor.
          3. Press through your front heel to return to the starting position, and complete a full set on one side before switching legs.

            (3 sets of 8 reps on each leg)

            Modification: Try regular split squats. Stand with one foot a few feet in front of the other. Lower to the floor, bending both knees until your front thigh is parallel to the floor with your front knee at a 90-degree angle. Press through your front heel to return to the starting position.

            14. Walking lunges

            The walking lunge is a dynamic movement that improves balance and hip mobility. Targeting the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, TVA, and obliques, this exercise will help you be posture-perfect next time you’re in the saddle. This is another one that’s great for reducing back pain.

            How to do walking lunges:

            1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.Optional: Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
            2. Take a large step forward with one foot and lower your body towards the floor until both knees are bent at a 90-degree angle.
            3. Push through the heel of your front foot to step forward into a lunge with the opposite leg.
            4. Continue walking forward, alternating legs with each step.

              (3 sets of 12 reps)

              Modification: Instead of pushing straight into the next lunge, come to a standing position before lunging with the opposite leg.

              15. Calf raises

              If you struggle with leg position and keeping your heels down, you can directly target your calves with calf raises. It’s an isolation exercise that not only improves your calf strength, but challenges your balance as well.

              How to do calf raises:

              1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.Optional: Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
              2. Rise onto the balls of your feet, lifting your heels off the floor as high as you can.
              3. Hold at the top for a moment, then lower your heels back down.

                (3 sets of 20 reps)

                Modification: Hold on to a wall or sturdy object to help you balance.

                Make sure you stretch!

                Stretching is a must for any athlete. It increases flexibility, muscle strength, and joint health. Make a habit of stretching before and after training and exercising to prevent injury and improve your position and cueing.

                Exercise and ride in comfort and style

                Jump into your equestrian workout plan with training gear that will keep you feeling comfortable and dry whether you’re schooling or strength training.

                Here are a few of our favorite training shirts to wear when exercising:

                Jordyn Crew Neck

                With its modern crew neck design and flattering seamlines, this sporty training shirt will keep you cool for your workout on even the warmest of days. Complete with UPF 50+ sun protection and cooling nylon fabric, the Jordyn training shirt is perfect for an outdoor summer workout! Also available in girls’ sizes.

                Logan ¼ Zip Training Shirt

                Exercising on a cooler day? Meet the Logan training shirt! Its wicking and stretch fabric and thumbhole sleeves will keep you warm and dry, while its sporty seamlines and ¼ zip design will make you look and feel ready to jump into your fall and winter workouts. Also available in girls’ sizes.

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                15 Exercises for Equestrians to Build Strength and Tone (2024)
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