Equestrians, no matter what their level of involvement in the sport, are athletes in a league of their own. To this end, strength and conditioning training exercises off the horse are as critical as time spent in the saddle in improving stamina, increasing general fitness and achieving a greater level of muscle memory. In order to be successful at riding, equestrians need a strong core, an unparalleled sense of balance coupled with strong and supple muscles. Amateur horseback riders benefit from incorporating an off-horse exercise routine targeting specific muscle groups, improving stamina and encouraging stretching and flexibility.
Aside from riding, it is often thought that caring for a horse is one of the best ways to condition oneself for riding. Hefting hay bales, walking horses to/from their paddocks, the repetitive movements of grooming and mucking stalls condition riders in ways few exercise programs ever will. However, as equine husbandry is not for all, developing a beneficial and challenging out-of-saddle fitness routine should be a top priority for the dedicated equestrian.
Balance is one of the key areas targeted by equestrians when out of the tack. With the growing popularity of yoga and pilates, many riders are incorporating these activities into their daily lifestyle. The added benefit of yoga and pilates is that they can be carried over into relaxation and balancing exercises once mounted as well. Another common approach to exercise that promotes balance is the use of a balance ball. Riders should straddle the ball in the position used in the saddle, with support coming from their feet facing forward. Extend both arms fully, parallel to the ground and attempt to lift the legs, one at a time, keeping the body as upright as possible.
Developing stamina is another area that horseback riders should consider when developing an exercise routine. While many would turn to running, this should be avoided if at all possible. Unfortunately, running typically shortens leg muscles which counteracts the requisite long supple leg muscles needed in the saddle. Instead, consider walking or swimming to build stamina. Yoga also proves beneficial in this area.
Encouraging muscle memory while working on stretching and flexibility is another key area frequently targeted by equestrians. An easy off-horse exercise to encourage proper muscle development is heel stretching. With shoes removed, riders should stand on a step on the balls of their feet, keeping their feet parallel to the ground. From there, lower the heels into a stretch as far as comfortable and hold for five to ten seconds. Rising up, to a similar height above baseline, again hold the stretch for five to ten seconds. Return to the baseline position, relax the muscles and repeat the exercise. This exercise is also beneficial shortly after riding for stretching out sore muscles. A second exercise to build muscle strength and memory is a ball clench. Here, riders take a ball (eight to ten inches in diameter is optimal) and grip it between their thighs. Using a walk or crawl motion, riders should attempt to move forward, one step at a time maintaining the position of the ball. In this exercise, progress can be monitored daily by the distance covered during the exercise. For an even easier variation on the previous exercise, equestrians can practice a clench and release exercise with the same ball while seated and watching television. Place the ball between the knees and work to maintain the position of the ball while clenching and releasing thigh muscles.
Unlike most sports that target specific muscles or complexes, riding involves most every muscle in the body. Time spent in the saddle is truly the best way to properly develop muscles and proper fitness. All riders benefit from strength and conditioning exercises out of the saddle. A fitness regime targeting balance, muscle memory and conditioning along with stamina, is most beneficial for time spent out of the saddle.