Horse Riding Evaluation and Improvement

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Back in the Saddle Part Two: Improvement

Coordination, Durability,
Strength, Fitness, and Endurance

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information



Coordination is a combination of balance, timing, agility, and maneuverability.

Since your nervous system is the last to respond to training, it may take years to fine-tune your neuromuscular skills. That's one of the reasons why a smooth performance is so greatly admired in top-notch riders - it takes time to develop! Once you have developed riding skills, however, they are much easier to regain. Like riding a bike, you never forget.

Practice is the most valuable way to improve your sense of timing, providing you don't practice something so many times that it makes you sore or your horse hyper-anticipatory, resentful, or sour. Imagine or anticipate the action just prior to a particular movement in order to get your muscles ready. Use quiet verbal or mental preparatory commands to help develop a sense of timing for the aids. Participation in active companion sports will also increase your coordination and timing.

Be absolutely sure that you are practicing a component correctly because it will become a habit whether it is right or wrong. If you ride incorrectly, you may be faced with a very difficult and time-intensive relearning process. Many riders have lamented, "I rode wrong for twenty years and am now trying to retrain my body to ride correctly." It is much more difficult to change deeply ingrained old habits than it is to learn correct ones the first time around.


Durability is the toughness, strength, and soundness of your joints. The best way to become a more durable rider is to ride more! As you are strengthening your knees and ankles give them an occasional break by riding at a walk with your feet out of the stirrups or get off and lead.

Glucosamine, Chondroitin, MSM - they're not just for your horse!

Vet supply and drug store shelves are packed with glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate supplements which claim the ability to repair joint cartilage and/or slow degeneration. MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is marketed as an anti-inflammatory especially helpful in pain relief of soft tissue injury. While studies on the effectiveness of these products have various conclusions, their margin of safety is high. And first-hand testimonies abound from folks with previously frozen or creaky joints who can now use their arms and knees in a full range of motion. Such nutraceuticals may be well worth a personal look and test. (Note that some folks have an allergy to shark cartilage which is the source of some MSM.)


Strength is the ability of your body or a part of your body to apply a force. You can use isometric exercises to increase strength of various muscles. Isometric exercises consist of muscular contractions performed in a fixed, non-moving fashion. Isometrics can be performed in almost any place for short periods of time, wearing everyday street clothing. You can perform isometrics as you drive your car, work at a desk, or wash dishes. An observer will probably not detect that you are exercising.

Breathing is especially important during isometrics or blood pressure can rise, decreasing the flow of blood to your heart. On the other hand, if you breathe excessively (hyperventilate) before you exercise, and then hold your breath, you may faint.

Isometrics help you target specific muscle groups and strengthen them through prolonged contractions. The abdominals, for example, which keep the lower back and buttocks deep in the saddle, need to be strong. The abdominal contraction required for riding is more of a pushing out rather than a sucking in. To learn how to contract your abdominals without hollowing your back, place your hands on your abdomen and press your muscles against your palms. Exhale as your press your abdominals out and inhale as you relax the contraction. Once you have identified the feeling of an abdominal contraction using your hands, you will be able to perform this isometric exercise anywhere, any time.

To strengthen the inner and outer thighs, find an immovable object (the wall, the side of a desk, a footstool, etc.) that you can place your knees or ankles alongside. Then push outward to strengthen the outer thigh muscles and push inward to strengthen the inner thigh muscles.

An ideal way to increase the strength of specific muscles is to follow a training program using free weights and/or weighted resistance via a weight machine. Start with minimal weights and concentrate on establishing good form before you add more weight. Three 30-minute sessions per week will show great improvement in 4-6 weeks. Monitor your body's response carefully and make weight changes accordingly.


Endurance is resistance to fatigue and the ability to recover quickly from fatigue. In order to increase either muscular endurance or cardiopulmonary endurance, you must work beyond your present level of endurance to experience the effect of progressive overloading. Long, slow distance work develops a base for more intense conditioning. Walking requires minimal equipment and is a safe form of exercise. Aim for at least 20-30 minutes of brisk walking at least 3 times a week. Other alternatives are stair stepping, aerobic exercise, treadmill, rowing machine and other companion sports (see sidebar).

To increase your fitness level so you're capable of handling high stress events, use interval training. Interval training consists of brief work periods or "works" interspersed with rest or light work. You might begin with ten minutes of standing in the stirrups or trotting (either mounted or alongside your horse) followed by a five-minute walk break, repeating for 45-60 minutes. Within two months you may have moved up to an hour-and-a-half session with fifteen-minute lope and trot works and two-minute breaks. With interval training you can increase your endurance potential by:

      • increasing the number of works
      • increasing the length of the works
      • increasing the intensity of the works
      • decreasing the number of rest periods
      • decreasing the length of the rest periods
      • performing the work in hot weather.

Riding is an athletic pursuit that requires mental preparation, conditioning and skill development. Whether you are learning to ride or getting back in the saddle, take the time to prepare yourself for it so you can enjoy riding, the best activity out there.

Read these other articles in the Back In The Saddle series:

Part One: Evaluation

Part Two: Improvement



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