Always and Never Exercises for Riders, Part I

by | Aug 6, 2019 | competition, core, equestrian, fitness, Uncategorized

There’s a principle in sports performance called specificity of practice. Basically, research shows that to be good at something you have to practice THAT thing. For riders that means . . .

To be a good dressage rider, you have to ride dressage.

To show jump well, you have to practice jumping courses.

To be a great endurance rider, you’ve got to get out on the trails and cover some ground.

However, one of the most challenging aspects to the sport of riding is the difficulty of massed practice. What I mean by that is we are bound by limits of our horse. A horse can only be ridden so much, or take so many jumps, or practice so many lead changes. I read once how LeBron James wanted to improve is free throw, so he threw 300 shots per day for several months. If we jumped our horse over 300 jumps per day, they would be lame in a New York Minute! And many amateur riders don’t have a second or third horse for practice, so the move from beginner to expert can feel like a slow slog.

This is where work off your horse can really come into play. Specificity of practice is crucial to skill acquisition, but it also important to practice the pieces that make up the bigger parts. These “pieces” can be worked on off the horse, in the gym or your living room.

Here’s an example.

Riding is a core dominant sport, so spending time training your core strength will set you up to be more successful when you ride. Practicing core engagement in a controlled gym setting teaches motor planning, coordination, and increases your strength. Think of it was putting tools in the toolbox, so when you arrive on the construction job, you can build the house. That’s how it works with riding. Work in the gym to teach your body tools, then draw on those skills when you ride.

I don’t like saying “always” and “never.” In my career as a physical therapist, I’ve come across situations that needed unique solutions. But here’s my list of “almost always” and “never, with rare exception” movements for riders to consider when creating a workout plan.

“Almost Always” train these movements:

Squats – Great exercise that hits major muscle groups we use in the saddle.

Glutes (bridging, hip thrusters, single leg standing, clamshells) – Gluteal muscles are crucial for pelvic control

Deadlifts – This exercise integrates key postural muscles

Core strength (versions of Pallof press, deadbugs, weighted carries, plank variations) – Riding is a core dominant sport.  Learning Neutral – Brace -Breathe in a functional pattern provides the foundation for strength.

Push-Ups – The King/Queen of exercise. This move integrates everything together.

Shoulder exercises, including scapular stabilizers – Crucial for posture.

Balance work – The secret to riding is a leg on each side of the horse. Stay in the center!

“Never/Rarely” Train These Movements

Calf muscles/toe raises – You want your boots to fit, and promote heels down not up

Rowing with palms down/thumbs in – Strengthens the latissimus, which promotes internal rotation of the arm. Opposite of what riders need

Hip flexor dominant moves (sit ups, jack knives, etc.) – Gets in the way of proper core engagement in the saddle

Prolonged planks – Holding a plank for minutes on end isn’t how core muscles are meant to function

Supermans – Puts tremendous forces on spine joints


In part 2, I tell you more about why I put these exercises on these lists and show you how to do them. Click this link to check it out!

The Core Challenge for Equestrians starts September 9th. This is a great way to learn how to properly engage and strengthen your core muscles. You’ll become stronger, straighter, and a more effective rider in 14 days. Click here for details!

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Sign up for my email list and get the Equestrian Athlete Weekly Checklist. This tool helps you track actions that support being an equestrian athlete. It’s a great tool to help you work off the horse so you can be better on your horse!


Hi, I’m Shelley!

My exercise philosophy is simple – consistency beats perfection, strength should radiate from our core outward, and short, high intensity workouts are awesome. I’ve been a physical therapist for almost 20 years and see so many people struggle with consistency, accountability, and injury. Intrepid Wellness was born out of a desire to help people gain confidence, embrace the importance of fitness, and go after their goals.