Eliminate Knee Pain

Use these exercises to help strengthen your leg muscles so you’re not left sore after a ride.

By Kelly Altschwager, With Nichole Chirico; Photos by Nichole Chirico

Foam rolling loosens sore and/or tight muscles. Take 10 minutes before you ride to roll out your quads, hip flexors, and glutes.

Knee soreness isn’t uncommon after a ride, but if your knee pain keeps you out of the saddle, you might need to adjust your workout routine to include a few stretches and exercises to help build overall leg strength.

Knee pain often comes from tight or weak quadriceps muscles. Riding involves more abductor and hamstring strength, so your quads don’t get much of a workout in the saddle. Your quads tie into your shin via your patella (kneecap) where the quadriceps tendon becomes the patellar ligament. If you struggle with tight quads and bend your knee for a long period of time, your quads will pull on the patellar ligament and cause irritation.

A few simple stretches and exercises can strengthen these muscles and minimize knee pain. If you’ve had a severe knee injury in the past, it’s important to consult a doctor beforehand.

Pre-Ride Warm Up

It’s important to warm up before you get in the saddle. Try these stretches. 

Avoid tight quadriceps by doing this standing quad stretch before you get in the saddle.

Foam roll: Find a clean, flat area in the barn and roll over your quads with a foam roller (see middle photo). Listen to your body as you roll; it’ll tell you what feels good and what’s sore or tight, and help gauge how much time you need to spend on each muscle. If you’re sore from a previous ride, a foam roller helps release lactic acid build up.

Standing quad stretch: Before you get in the saddle, stretch your quads (see top photo). Keep your chest and chin up, and your bent knee in line with your anchor leg. For a deeper stretch that reaches your upper quads, push your hips forward.

Bodyweight squats: Incorporate 15 to 25 bodyweight squats into your warm-up. Stay on the balls of your feet, and drop down until your knees and butt are parallel. As you go back up, drive through your heels into your hamstrings and squeeze your glutes at the top. Don’t let your knees cave in as you go up; keep them in line with your toes. These will also help align your hip bones so they’re even when it comes time to get in the saddle.

Daily Exercise Routines

Riding is a great source of exercise, but  it shouldn’t be your only activity. Include additional exercises to strengthen non-riding muscles. 

Weighted squats: Add weights to the same squats you do pre-ride to build strength. Use a dumbbell or kettlebell or something around the barn, like a feed bag or salt block. 

This seated leg lift strengthens your quad and glute muscles so they can hold your knees in place in the saddle.

Seated leg lifts: Sit on the edge of a chair, keep your chest tall and your chin up, and your bellybutton to your spine. With one foot on the ground, flex your other one and lift your flexed foot up, keeping your leg straight. Be sure to squeeze your quad. Lower your flexed foot down, but don’t touch the ground. Instead, immediately drive your leg back up. Once you finish your set, move on to the other leg.

Step-ups. Find a stable object and put your entire foot, including the heel, on the step. Drive through your heel, squeezing your quad when you reach the top. When you step down, you’ll step all the way down (don’t keep your foot on the step) and then squeeze your glutes. Do 15 to 25 reps before switching to the other leg. 


Kelly Altschwager

Kelly Altschwager, Wellington, Colorado, is an ACE-certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist; PiYo instructor; fitness expert at Fitness1 Club Wellington; and owns and operates Western Workouts, a personal-training service geared toward helping the busy horseperson. Learn more at  westernworkouts.com.