Whether you are a showjumper, barrel racer, dressage rider, eventer, or polo player, the ability to control a 1,200-pound horse requires a great deal of strength, endurance, mobility, and flexibility. As a novice rider, you will develop the movement patterns required for your particular discipline, and your muscles will start to improve in strength and flexibility. As an experienced rider, you will typically have the strength required, but you may start to pick up bad habits due to muscle imbalances that begin to creep up if you don’t take your overall riding fitness seriously.
Let’s take a look at a few of the key muscle groups involved in riding and why they are important to you as an equestrian athlete. These muscle groups will be split into upper body, abdominals, and lower body components.
1. Scapular Stabilizers (Shoulder Blades):
These are the muscles that help stabilize your shoulder blades (scapulae). This includes rhomboid major and minor, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, and the trapezius group. These muscle groups are an important part of maintaining
riding posture, whether you are in full-seat or half-seat position. Strengthening these muscle groups will help prevent rounding of the shoulders as well as provide strength when dealing with a strong-willed horse.
2. Erector Spinae Group & Quadratus Lumborum (Back and Spinal Muscles):
These muscle groups create stabilization, rotation, and side flexion of the spine, which are key components for maintaining posture and position in the saddle—and allowing a quick recovery if you’re jostled out of it. They are important in aiding in the coordinated movement between the upper, abdominal, and lower body muscle groups.
3. Pectoralis Major & Minor (Chest Muscles):
These muscle groups are typically strong in most people due to habitual ‘desk-type’ posture (rounding of the shoulders or
slouching). In order for the scapular and spinal muscles to maintain posture and stability, we focus on the flexibility of the pectoralis group as opposed to the strength. Stretching the pectoralis group will aid in strengthening the opposing upper back/scapular stabilizer muscles which creates a beautiful elongated spinal posture on the flat and over fences.
Your abdominals (rectus abdominus, internal and external oblique, transversus abdominus) in coordination with the spinal muscles mentioned above help to create core stability. Riding actually requires more core stability than core strength. Why? Because the nature of riding requires our hip, pelvis, and lower back to move with the movement of our horse. These muscles all need to coordinate with each other in order to produce stability, not rigidity. Excessive rigidity through the abdominal and spinal muscles inhibit shock absorption and can create significant back pain, a common pathology in equestrian athletes.
5. Hip Adductors:
These are your inner thigh muscles (adductor magnus, longus, brevis; pectineus, gracilis), and of course, these are typically the strongest muscles in a rider. However, riders often rely too much on these muscles, which can create asymmetry or imbalance with the other important upper and lower body muscles. Excessive gripping with the adductors can create too much rotation through the hip, and can lead to excessive toeing out in the stirrup—not a good look in equitation classes or an effective position when you get into trouble!
If you find you sit in the saddle with more pressure on one side or lean to one side when jumping, you likely have an imbalance in your hip abductors.
6. Hip Abductors:
These are your outer thigh/hip muscles (gluteus maxiumus, medius, minimus, and tensor fascia latae). Generally, these are underdeveloped in riders. They have an important function in helping with the stability of the hip and pelvis and with maintaining proper alignment of the leg, which will allow for technically correct leg aids without excessive shifting in the saddle. If you find you sit in the saddle with more pressure on one side or lean to one side when jumping, you likely have an imbalance in your hip abductors.
7. Hip Extensors:
These are your posterior hip/thigh muscles (gluteus maximus, hamstrings); in other words, your power muscles. They help to create the drive and forward momentum of your horse’s movements (whether doing an extended trot or collected canter). The glute max also plays an important role in acting as a buffer between your hamstrings (which are often tight) and your lower back muscles. Without a strong glute max, the tight hamstrings will shift the pelvis, creating a pulling force through the low back, another common cause of low back pain in riders. You need to ensure you have strength as well as flexibility in your hip extensors to ward off injury.
Understanding the requirements your muscles need from a flexibility and strength perspective will enable you to train more effectively for the demands of your sport. Part 3 in this equestrian athlete series will discuss an appropriate warm-up routine you can do to prepare many of these key muscles before you mount up. Stay tuned!