Horseback Riding For Dummies
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Before you start horseback riding, preparing your body for the task at hand is a good idea. This preparation means being at the right weight, developing muscle strength, and increasing your flexibility and stamina.

Put yourself on a health and exercise regimen a few weeks before you begin your riding lessons. Your instructor will go easy on you at first, so you don’t have to be completely fit when you start. Also, the riding itself can help your body develop some of the muscles you need for this activity. You do, however, want to make sure you don’t get so sore that you can’t walk for days after a lesson and that you’re strong enough to perform some of the basic skills you need right from the beginning.

Before you begin any exercise regimen or change your diet, talk to your doctor to make sure you’re in good enough health to tackle these changes.

Lightening the load: Shed those extra pounds

Weight can be a touchy subject, and most people have struggled with it at some point in their lives. Although most people would rather not have to think about weight, it’s an important issue when you’re riding. Here’s why:
  • Saddle comfort: Your riding instructor probably has saddles that are made for people of standard weight. If you’re a heavy rider, you need a saddle with a larger-than-normal seat. You won’t feel comfortable or secure in a saddle that’s too small for you.
  • Strain on the horse: Many equine professionals believe that a horse shouldn’t carry more than 20 percent of her body weight. More than that can cause soreness or even injury to the horse’s back. Most horses weigh around 1,000 pounds, so if you weigh more than 200 pounds, you need a horse on the larger side. Your riding instructor may not have a horse that’s big enough for you and so may put you on a horse who isn’t comfortable carrying your weight. And although most lesson horses are troopers and will carry you anyway, that’s really not fair to the horse.
  • Ease in getting on and off the horse: If you’ve ever mounted a horse, you know that pulling yourself up into the saddle takes some upper body strength. The more weight you have to pull up, the harder it is. Very heavy riders often can’t get on without having to stand on a mounting block or something that’s very high. Using a mounting block is fine if you have one available (and is actually preferred by some because it puts less strain on the horse’s back when you mount), but if you can’t get on without one, you may find yourself stranded off your horse. You may be especially prone to long walks home if you trail ride, because trail riders frequently need to get on and off the horse, and sometime a big rock is not available.
  • Energy for riding: Riding a horse requires physical strength and endurance. If you’ve ever carried excess weight on your body, you know how much harder it is to participate in strenuous activities without getting winded. When you’re at a healthy weight, you have an easier time keeping up with your horse.
If you need to get down to as healthy a weight as possible before you start riding, the real question may be how to do it. Scores of diet books and fads can coach you through weight loss. I’ve found that eating plenty of protein and green vegetables, with a minimal amount of carbohydrates, does a great job of keeping my weight down while giving me the energy to ride. Cutting out sugar is also important if you’re a rider, because excess sugar causes weight gain and makes your energy levels fluctuate.

A calorie is a calorie, no matter which food group it comes from, so you need to choose a diet you can stick to. The key to weight loss is using more calories than you consume in a day. You do this by eating less and moving more. So set some reasonable goals and take your time. Eat a balanced diet and start using some of the activities in the following sections in your exercise routine. If you’re interested in finding out more about losing weight, check out Dieting For Dummies, 2nd Edition, by Jane Kirby, R.D., and the American Dietetic Association (Wiley).

Develop endurance with aerobic exercise

Although all riders need good stamina, endurance is particularly important if you plan to ride English and/or take up trail riding. English riders spend much of their time in the saddle posting (moving up and down in the saddle), which requires lots of stamina. Trail riders spend hours in the saddle and need endurance to hold themselves in the saddle for long periods of time.

To build up your endurance, consider walking, jogging, playing tennis, shooting baskets with your buddies, or doing some other type of aerobic exercise as often as you can. Start this new regimen at least a month before you start riding lessons.

After you start riding, continue to ride regularly to help your body maintain its aerobic conditioning. If you take lessons or ride at least twice a week — preferably more — you can build and keep your stamina.

Build strength

The muscles most necessary for riding are those in your arms, legs, and abdomen. The more strength you have in these areas, the better you can communicate to the horse with your movements and maintain your balance in the saddle. The following sections include suggestions for building muscles in these three crucial areas. For more help, check out Fitness For Dummies, 4th Edition, by Suzanne Schlosberg and Liz Neporent, M.A. (Wiley).


Strong arms help you pull your body weight into the saddle. Arm strength is also valuable if you’re riding in the English discipline, because you need to maintain contact with the horse’s mouth through the reins. You don’t need arm strength to pull on the horse’s mouth (a major no-no), but you do need it to hold your arms in position for extended lengths of time while putting some tension on the reins.

The following exercises, which use free weights and the weight of your body, can help build arm strength. By using light weights and more repetitions, you can build lean muscle mass instead of bulking up. Men may want to use 15-pound weights and build up to 20 repetitions for each exercise; women may want to start with 5-pound weights and build to 20 repetitions. When you’re ready to make the exercises more challenging, increase the weight or repetitions, do several sets of repetitions, or slow down your movements.

  • Arm curl: This exercise helps build your biceps. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Have a weight in each hand, and let your hands hang at your sides. Alternating arms, slowly bring the weight toward your shoulder while keeping your elbow at your side. After you lift each arm all the way up, hold the weight at the top, and then slowly lower it the starting position.
  • Triceps extension: To work out the triceps, which lie on the back of your upper arms, lie down with a weight in one hand. Straighten your arm so it’s standing straight up, perpendicular to your body; then bend at the elbow, lowering the weight toward your shoulder. Slowly extend the arm upward again. Switch to the other arm after you’ve finished your repetitions.
  • Shoulder press: This move strengthens the muscles between your shoulders. Sit on a chair with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the weights at shoulder height, with elbows bent and palms facing forward. Extend your hands upward above your head without completely straightening your elbow. Then lower your arms back to the starting position.
  • Push-ups: This good, old-fashioned exercise helps build your upper body strength, particularly in your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Start with five and build up to ten or more. Don’t cheat! Hold your back straight and keep the movements slow and smooth.


Leg strength is one of the most important physical attributes for a rider. When on the horse, you use pressure from your legs to impart instructions. You also use them to balance in the saddle. And of course, your legs need to be strong enough to help you launch yourself into the saddle when you mount.

The more you ride, the more strength you develop in your legs. To further this process along, try the following activities:

  • Knee bends: This exercise helps strengthen your quadriceps, which run along the front of the thighs. Stand with your back against a wall and slide down slightly until your knees are bent at about a 135-degree angle. Let your arms dangle at your sides. Hold this position for 30 seconds, and do this exercise three times a day. After it becomes easy, you can deepen the bend, working up to a 90-degree angle.
  • Leg lifts: This move can strengthen and stretch your adductors (at the inner thigh) and abductors (at the outer thigh). Lie on your side and support your head with your lower arm. Put your other hand on your hip, and lift your leg into the air as far as you can without pain. Hold it here for two seconds, and then slowly lower it to the ground. Start with ten repetitions on each side.
  • Hamstring curls: This exercise strengthens your calf muscles and the backs of your thighs. Face the back of a chair and hold on for balance. Lift your leg and try to bring your heel all the way to your buttocks; then bring your foot back to the floor. Repeat 20 times for each leg.


Your abdominal muscles serve as the core of your balance when you’re sitting in the saddle. Strong abs help you maintain the proper position when you’re riding and keep you stable while the horse moves. Use the following exercises to tone your abdominals and keep them in shape for riding. Remember to keep breathing as you’re working:
  • Crunches: Lie on the floor on your back with your hands behind your head and knees bent, with feet flat on the ground. Keep your head straight and lift your shoulders off the floor. Push your ribs toward your hips and hold this position for two seconds. Slowly lower your shoulders back to the floor. Repeat 5 times to start and build up to 20.
  • Reverse curls: Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent toward your chest as far as they go comfortably. Contract your stomach muscles and lift your hips up off the floor, bringing your knees toward your chin. Hold for two seconds and then lower your hips. Repeat 5 times to start and build up to 20.
  • Diagonal (oblique) crunches: Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Put your hands behind your head and raise your shoulders, turning your torso to touch your elbow to your opposite knee. Start with 5 repetitions on one side and then switch to the other elbow and knee. Build up to 20 reps.

Cross-training: Practicing yoga and Pilates for flexibility and strength

One way to get yourself in good shape for riding is to enroll in a yoga or Pilates class. These disciplines provide an excellent, low-impact body workout that stretches and strengthens the muscles you need for riding.


The ancient activity of yoga increases the body’s flexibility and helps with balance and muscle strength. Yoga also helps you figure out how to control your breathing and truly relax, something that can come in handy when riding.

Different types of yoga classes are available to the public, with Hatha yoga among the most popular. Any type of yoga can help you get fit for riding. Some yoga schools are even starting to offer yoga for equestrians, with exercises specifically designed to help riders with their work in the saddle. If you’re lucky enough to live near a yoga school that offers this class, by all means, enroll. If not, consider ordering a videotape or DVD that offers yoga for equestrians. You can also check out Yoga For Dummies by Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Larry Payne, Ph.D., and Lilias Folan (Wiley).


A type of strengthening exercise developed by Joseph H. Pilates, this type of workout is popular with riders. It strengthens and stretches the entire body, particularly the core muscles that you need for stability and balance. Designed to improve flexibility and strength without building bulk, Pilates also includes mental conditioning that can help with coordinating your brain and your body — something infinitely useful when riding. Pilates classes are available around the country, and you can also purchase DVDs at fitness centers and online. Pilates For Dummies by Ellie Herman (Wiley) is another resource to try.

Stretching yourself: Increase flexibility just before you mount

Flexibility is important when you ride. If your muscles stretch easily, you can move more freely with the horse. You’re also less likely to injure yourself during a vigorous lesson and a lot less likely to be sore afterwards.

The following exercises can help you stay flexible when riding. Leave yourself extra time before your lesson or ride (at least 5 to 10 minutes) so you have time to perform these stretches before you get on the horse. Be careful when you stretch, too. Use slow, smooth movements, and don’t stretch beyond the point where you feel more than a slight pull and mild discomfort.


To stretch your quadriceps, stand up with your back straight and bend your leg up behind you. Hold onto your ankle so your knee is bent and slowly pull your ankle so your knee points down and behind you. You should feel tension along the front of your thigh. Hold this stretch for ten seconds and then switch to the other leg. Repeat this move twice for each leg.

quad stretch Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

To stretch your quads, hold your ankle rather than your toes — pulling on the toes stretches the shin instead.


The hamstrings are a set of three muscles at the back of your upper leg. For this stretch, stand up in front of a fence; use your hand to brace yourself forward as you reach your leg up onto the fence, as high as you can go. Bend forward at the waist and hold this position for ten seconds. Do this stretch with the other leg, too, and then repeat.

hamstring exercise Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Bend forward while you hold your leg against a fence to stretch your hamstrings.

Inner thighs

To stretch out your inner thighs, sit on the ground with your knees bent out to the sides and the soles of your feet touching each other. Relax your hips and then push down gently on both knees with your hands. Do this exercise twice for ten seconds each time.

inner thigh exercise Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Put your feet together and push on your knees to stretch your inner thighs.

Lower back

This stretch is particularly important if you have lower back issues that cause your muscles to tighten up when you ride. Lie on your back with your knees to your chest. Wrap your arms around your legs just below your knees and pull your knees toward you. Hold this position for a few seconds, and then relax. Repeat three to five times.

lower back exercise Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

To loosen your back, lie down and pull your knees toward you.


To prevent tension in your neck, stretch the muscles by tilting your head slowly first to the right (your ear toward your shoulder) and then to the left. You should feel a stretch in the muscles along the side of your neck. Then tuck your chin forward into your chest and then back up toward the sky. Next, turn your head as far to the right as you can while keeping your shoulders straight. Do the same to the left. Follow this routine several times, holding each stretch for at least five seconds.

reducing neck tension Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Avoid tension in your neck by tilting your head in several directions.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

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