Improve your hips’ strength and flexibility with simple at-home and in-the-saddle exercises.
By Kelly Altschwager, With Alexis Bennett; Photos by Nichole Chirico
Riding requires using your hips and surrounding muscles. These parts of your anatomy are responsible for driving your horse forward, controlling his gait, moving your leg for a subtle cue, and maintaining good body position. The stronger and more flexible your hips and the muscles around your pelvic girdle are, the more effective you’ll be in the saddle. You’ll also be more resilient and less prone to injuries, arthritis, or pain in your back and knees.
Here, I’ll share effective at-home and in-the-saddle exercises to improve your riding and suggest how frequently you should incorporate these exercises into your routine.
As you set out to improve the strength of your hips, consider the muscles in your pelvic girdle. This includes your glutes and hip flexors and extensors—that is, the muscles on either side of your hips. Complete bodyweight exercises, like those explained here, target those muscles. Perform these up to three times per week on non-consecutive days.
Glute bridges: Lie on your back with your feet planted on the ground hip-distance apart and your arms by your sides. Squeeze your glutes, elevating your hips so that they’re nearly level with your knees, but not so much that your shoulders come off of the ground. Hold briefly before returning to the starting position. Avoid using your hands for support.
Squats: With your feet hip-distance apart and your arms either extended in front of you or clasped at your chest, reach your glutes back as if lowering yourself into a chair until your butt is parallel with the ground. Keep your chest up. Go only as low as you can while maintaining good form. Squeeze your glutes to stand back up. You can use a box, hay bale, or bucket for a depth guide. To add a challenge, hold a dumbbell or hug a bucket or a sack of grain.
Lunges: Step backward or forward until your legs create 90-degree angles, with your leading-leg shin perpendicular to the ground. Drive your weight into the heel of your front leg as you squeeze that glute to return to standing. To add more hip-flexor work, drive your hind leg forward at the top. This will look like you’re standing in a running pose. If lowering all the way to the ground is difficult, try a high lunge, lowering to an achievable depth. Remember to keep your front shin perpendicular to the ground, with your knee in line with your ankle.
Side lunges or Cossack squats: From a standing position, step straight out to the side, and lower your glutes as if reaching back to sit in a chair. Keep your chest high and your arms either extended in front of you or clasped at your chest. Your planted leg will be straight out to the side, and the leg you stepped with will be bent with your shin perpendicular to the ground. Squeeze the glute of your straight leg as you bring your other leg back to a standing position.
For added challenge, try a Cossack squat. It’s similar to a side lunge, but when stepping in to return to standing, keep your glutes low as you transition to a side lunge with the other leg. Your head should stay level as you transition. Start at a depth where you can maintain control and position with your chest up.
Flexibility and good range of motion allow you to move your leg to precisely the right position on your horse’s side—or to open your hips slightly—to cue for a spin or lead change. Keeping flexible also improves your longevity in the saddle. Perform these stretches as you’re able, before and after each ride or exercise session.
Toe touch: With your feet hip-distance apart, bend at your waist and reach for your toes. Try to keep a flat back, even if you can only get low enough to rest your hands on your quads. This ensures that you stretch your glutes and hamstrings instead of your back. Loosening these areas can help alleviate back pain.
Figure four: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Cross one leg over the quad muscle (thigh) of your other leg for a hip-flexor stretch. If you want to move the stretch from the front of your hips (hip flexors) to your glutes, hold a beam for support as you sit back—like you’re crossing your legs while sitting in a chair.
Upward dog: Lie on the ground, face down, with your palms on either side of your shoulders. Push through your palms, and lift your chest. Your hips will touch the ground as your torso is upright. This stretches your hip flexors and the psoas muscle that connects your abs to your hips.
Standing quad stretch: With your feet hip-distance apart, bend your knee, reach back, and grab your leg with the same-side hand, holding your foot at your shoelaces. Hold a stable object with your other hand for support. This stretches your quad muscles that tie into your hip flexors and your psoas muscles.
Many riding maneuvers challenge your hips and supporting muscles if done correctly. Use these tips briefly during each ride to target your hips.
Side pass or half pass: A side pass or half pass works your adductors (inside hip girdle muscles), glutes, and your core. It’s also effective in building your horse’s lateral muscles.
Change gait with only your hips: Use your hips and glutes to drive your horse forward, opening your hips slightly side to side with the movement of his front legs. This encourages forward movement and engages your hips. Start at a walk, moving into an extended walk and even a trot. Stengthening these muscles will help you cue your horse for a large, fast circle or rundown without kicking.
Dropping your stirrups: Start by dropping your stirrups during warm-up and cool-down only. As your balance and confidence improve, drop your stirrups at faster gaits and during more advanced maneuvers to see if you have the strength and riding ability to stay centered. As you ride without stirrups, focus on the muscles you use to keep yourself upright, including the insides of your legs. Engage these same areas when you ride with stirrups to improve your general riding.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.