5 Exercises to Become a More Effective Rider

Troubleshoot five common issues and become a more effective rider with tailored fitness and horsemanship exercises.

Photos by Nichole Chirico

Every horse-and-rider duo is a work in progress. That’s what makes the journey so fulfilling—there are always areas to improve. Sometimes a recurring issue can cause frustration, though. If you continue to struggle with a particular maneuver and feel like you’ve tried everything, you might turn to a trusted friend or trainer to get their advice and horsemanship expertise. Perhaps it’s then that you realize that you can’t get your horse to do what your friend or trainer can. And while this may be disappointing, it’s also empowering. If it’s not your horse, this means that your riding challenge might be something you’re doing. This means that it’s in your control! Regularly assessing your own riding makes you a better rider and improves your horse as he’ll benefit from stronger leadership. 

Here we’ll describe common challenges that many riders face. We’ll share some ways you might be contributing to the issue and how to work through it with fitness-related and horsemanship drills and exercises. If you think you struggle with one of these common issues, ask someone to video you so you can see and better assess what’s going on or be willing to take an objective look at your riding with the lens of self-improvement.

Common issue: Horse walks off while you’re mounting.

Walking off while mounting isn’t just frustrating, it’s also a safety hazard. Determine if you’re causing some of the issues by taking too much time to mount or making your horse uncomfortable. If you have to bounce multiple times to get into the saddle or find that you hang on the side of the saddle for an extended period before swinging your leg over, it may be that your horse walks off to regain his balance or move away from the pressure. 

1. Step-ups are an exercise you can easily do at home or at the barn to help strengthen your legs—all you need is a mounting block!
2. If you struggle with getting on your horse, one-leg standing holds 30 seconds at a time can be an easy way to improve your balance.
3. Core strength is extremely important when you’re riding. Try incorporating planks and superman holds into your workout routines.

Learn More: 30 Small Fitness Changes to Improve Your Riding

Fitness fix: To alleviate the issue in the short term, use a mounting block. Then, focus on your strength and flexibility to make it physically less challenging to get in and out of the saddle. Improve your balance with one-leg standing holds. Stand on one leg for up to 30 seconds, alternating between legs, throughout the day. Incorporate step-ups into your workout routine, alternating which leg you step up with, left and right. Use the mounting block, a hay bale, or tack box and increase the height of the implement over time. The goal is to increase your leg strength so you can propel yourself upward as you step into the stirrup. 

Horsemanship fix: If you always let your horse walk off when you mount or as you’re mounting, you’ve allowed him to develop a bad habit. To break it, ask him to stand still while you mount. Gather your reins, even tipping his nose in slightly, before you step up to ensure that he doesn’t have too much room to walk forward. If at any time in the process of mounting, he starts to walk, ask him to back up. Allow him to settle and try again. Don’t try to get on while he walks away. As you swing up, continue to hold the reins, and keep him standing—even after you’ve gotten on­—for 30 seconds or more. You may even ask for his first step to be a sidepass or pivot and walk the other direction, simply to break the habit of forward motion after the mount. With time and consistency, he’ll quit.  

Common issue: Horse has to break to a trot or crossfires during lead changes.

First, decide if you’re anticipating the change. If you find yourself curling down and leaning forward to get into position or bracing because you’re trying to maintain position, you aren’t setting your horse up for success. Lead changes are all about softness and position, for you and your horse. 

Fitness fix: You need to have enough hip mobility to move your leg back on his side to ask for the change, while simultaneously keeping his shoulder lifted with your inside legs. A strong seat is also important to ensure that you can stay seated through the transition. This can be especially challenging on a horse with a lot of movement, which is why variations of squats, lunges, and step-ups are recommended to improve your leg strength. Also, use planks and superman holds to support your core strength. (Find more information in “Fit for Your Ride” at HorseandRider.com). 

Strengthening your upper and lower back will also allow you to sit up tall rather than hunched over your horse, making it even more difficult for him to stay lifted in the shoulders and change leads. Even if you have adequate strength, a lack of flexibility can keep you from using that strength. Pigeon (yoga) stretches, completed while standing or sitting, are effective as is the figure-four stretch. Also stretch your shoulders and chest to ensure that these muscles aren’t too tight, pulling you forward and hunched. 

Learn More: Trail Riding Fitness

Horsemanship fix: Consider how you’re setting up for the change. If you lean forward and look down, you take away his forward motion, making the maneuver more difficult for your horse. Sit up straight and look ahead, even allowing him to pick up some speed in the center if he’s used to slowing down and losing momentum. Then, set him up properly. If you’re changing from left to right, you want him soft and set up as if you’re asking him to pick up his right lead. As you prepare for the change, squeeze with the outside leg (right leg in your left lead), pick up the right rein, and ask him to pick up his shoulder and get soft in his face. Ideally, your horse’s body is in a “C” shape in the direction you want to go. For example, it will be in a “C” shape to the right as you prepare to change from left to right here. Once he’s soft and his shoulder is over, take a straight line and switch your leg pressure to the left leg, giving him an extra kiss or verbal cue to ask for the change. If he crossfires, ensure that you have also moved his hip over before he changes. If he doesn’t move over, you may need to break to a trot or walk, push his hip over, and try again. 

Develop your horse’s softness and ability to yield to pressure outside of lead changes to make this setup easier during the maneuver. During your warmup, work on sidepassing, and ask for him to flex and bend through his neck and face either by bending in place or asking for small circles. 

Common issue: Horse bounces or stops on his front end.

A horse often stops on his front end or bounces when he anticipates the stop. Typically, he’s either not running freely or you’re changing something when you ask him to stop. It may be that you drive your horse forward right up until you ask for a stop and then you grab with your legs or throw your body back to avoid popping out of the seat. He then reacts by bracing. 

Fitness fix: If you don’t have a strong seat or don’t have control of your seat, you pop out of the saddle. Work on your leg and seat strength with squat variations. In Bulgarian split squats, you have one leg elevated behind you on a mounting block or your couch and lower until your front leg is bent at a 90-degree angle at the knee. This builds strength in both legs and improves stability. Regular squats are also effective if balance is an issue. Having strong legs will give you the confidence you need to relax into your stop and tuck your rear, rather than squeeze and hold on.

Horsemanship fix: Many reining trainers use an exercise called fencing to encourage free movement, which has you drive your horse all the way to the fence and allow the natural barrier to be the cue to stop. Let him settle, and then turn and go back across the arena to stop again. You don’t have to be teaching your horse to slide to a stop like you would in reining to use this technique, as it helps you and your horse to learn to look past and drive through where you’d normally stop. If he continues to bounce or anticipate his stop even after he’s moving freely, work on moving his feet after you say “whoa.” Spin, rollback, pivot, walk in a small circle—anything to get him to move his legs and loosen up. Along with these exercises, continue to mix up the routine, stop in different locations or sooner than normal to keep things fresh and him listening.

Common issue: Horse walks out of his pivots.

If you aren’t able to sit balanced in your saddle without leaning too far forward or back, you’ll grip with your legs, or your weight will be off to one side. Focus on staying in the middle of your saddle, pushing your weight into your heels. 

Fitness fix: Build your leg strength, again, with Bulgarian split or regular squats. Side squats are also effective in developing inner- and outer-leg strength to keep you in place without gripping with your calves. To do this, stand in your regular squat position, but rather than lower down, lower to the side with your working leg bending to a 90-degree angle and your non-working leg straight out to the side with your heel on the ground. Return to standing and complete additional repetitions on that side before switching. Planks and wood chops, where you move your extended arms from low to high across your body, create that deep abdominal bracing strength that keeps you from wobbling in your saddle. 

Horsemanship fix: If your horse continues to leave the turn even when you’re correctly positioned, you want to stop his forward momentum. It’s not uncommon to teach your horse to pivot by walking him into it, but with a horse that has too much forward momentum, you’ll want to start from a stop. In practice, start the pivot and give him an opportunity to leave it. When he does, pick up your reins and ask him to step backward into the turn. If you think he’ll step out at a show, keep your hand off his neck to support him. This sends the signal that you’re still there without micromanaging the turn.

Learn More: Horse&Rider OnDemand

1. To avoid having your horse walk off when you’re mounting, gather your reins, tipping his nose slightly to the left to ensure he doesn’t have much room to walk forward, then get on. If he walks off, stop and back him up a few steps and then ask him to stand still.
2. Develop your horse’s softness and ability to yield to pressure outside of lead changes to make this setup easier during the maneuver. During your warmup, work on sidepassing and ask for him to flex and bend through his neck and face either by bending in place or asking for small circles.
3. If your horse crossfires when you change leads, ensure that you have moved his hip over enough before changing. If he’s not moving his hip over enough so that you can properly change leads, you may need to break to a trot or walk and work on pushing the hip over before attempting it again.

Common issue: Horse struggles to transition smoothly between gaits

Some gaits are more difficult to transition to and from. Work on those that are most simple first before moving on. Always consider your setup and your physical ability to ask as an area for improvement.

Fitness fix: Changing speed, and especially going to a faster or extended gait requires glute (bottom), hamstring, and heel drive. If you’re only kicking with your heels and not driving, you don’t utilize these major power centers of your body. Improve your hip-drive strength with glute bridges. To do these, lie on your back and drive your hips upward, slowly and in control, and then go back down. Focus on driving through your heels, your hamstrings, and your glutes, just as you would in the saddle. Hip thrusters, with or without a weight on your lap are also useful. Lean with your shoulders elevated on a mounting block, your couch, or a tack box with your knees bent and pointing upward and your heels near your glutes. Drive your hips up so that you have a 90-degree angle in your knees (you should look a bit like a table!). Keep your chin tucked to ensure the drive comes from your hips and glutes and not your midsection.

Horsemanship fix: Usually if your horse struggles to change gaits, it’s because you’ve allowed him to hollow out. This means, he’s not soft in the face and collected in the bridle. This causes you to have to pull back and use a verbal command to slow down or continuously kick until he speeds up, hoping he’ll pick up the correct lead if you’re asking for a lope. Instead, you want him to get soft (as with lead changes). When you apply pressure at his shoulders or near his hips, he should shift over and away from it. When transitioning smoothly from a walk to a lope, for example, begin by bridling him up, then squeeze with your outside leg while simultaneously using a verbal cue, such as a kiss, to ask him to lope off. If he trots into it, break down to a walk and try again, collecting him and pushing with more encouragement. You may even need to support his inside shoulder with your inside calf if he tries to dive in. When going from a faster to a slower pace, you can use a verbal cue, such as “easy” or “walk,” or pull slightly back and soften with your legs. In practice, use a hand cue to support either the verbal or leg-release cue until he begins to associate it with the action you want. 

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