Improving your dressage rider's leg strength will help you to have good control of our legs and thereby develop a better ability to establish good clear communication with our horse. The ability to apply the leg press whenever we need it and how we want it requires good body control, coordination, stability and balance in the saddle. Creating that balance and stability is now about understanding our own body and its biomechanics so you can optimize your performance in the saddle. In this article I will share why and how you can improve your dressage rider's leg strength and improve your ability to communicate clearly with your horse.
Leg strength of the dressage rider
Like humans, horses tend to have a weaker side and as we train them through the stages we work on their symmetry and straightness to balance them and allow them good posture when riding. This is said to allow them to properly build strength, which will help protect joints and ligaments when the demands of the job intensify. Poor posture and muscle development can create excessive forces and imbalances that can lead to problems later.
Well, when it comes to us as riders, the same principles apply. When you step into the saddle you want to have good posture and alignment. This helps your joints swing properly and allows for even pressure and work through both sides of your body. We all tend to have a weak or more dominant side and over time our daily environment and habits can create imbalances in our bodies. This can lead to certain twists and turns that throw our posture out of alignment. All of this, when applied to the horse's saddle and forces, can create excessive forces through our body and make it more difficult to establish clear communication with our horse through independent leg aids.
As a dressage rider, it makes sense that as hard as you work on training your horses to ensure they build strength evenly and symmetrically, you'll want to do the same for yourself. Equine training isn't about lifting huge heavy weights or running marathons. Instead, it's about making sure your body is optimized through good posture and alignment. This is about creating a foundation of good strength and alignment so your joints and ligaments function smoothly and correctly so you can continue to do what you love over time and not be held back from riding by avoidable injuries. This requires the use of exercises that will help improve your posture and balance so that it is even on both sides of the body and will help you perform at your best in the saddle.
How to build leg strength for horseback riding
When it comes to our leg strength as a dressage rider, we want to build symmetry through both sides of our body so our legs can work independently while our body remains stable. One of the best places to start is to focus on our pelvis and the supporting muscles around it. If we have good control of our legs, we can establish better communication with the horse. If we have weak legs or are one sided you will find that you have to reach through one side while trying to use the other and that your pelvis will twist and shift as you try to give the horse an assist.
The ability to create a stable and steady leg begins in our pelvis and hips. Our hip joints have a large pattern of movement and the muscles that support this movement are what we need to focus on first. These exercises will help activate these fundamental muscles that help support and control our legs and our stability in the saddle.
Use these 6 leg exercises to improve your dressage rider's leg strength and stability. These exercises work each side independently, making them great for raising awareness of specific areas that may be tight and/or weak and helping you bring more balance into your body.
Side leg raises
Ideal for strengthening the legs and stabilizing muscles of the hips and spine. You may notice that one side is harder than the other, this is normal. However, by doing this you will help eliminate this imbalance and improve rider posture.
1. Lie on your side and imagine your feet are flat on the floor, so push into your heels and keep your feet parallel.
2. First, lift the top leg off the bottom leg and lower it back down.
3. Continue this movement by lifting both feet off the floor and then lifting the top leg away from the bottom leg.
4. If necessary, support yourself with the other hand on the floor or make it heavier by lifting it as well. If this is too much, keep the bottom leg on the floor.
5. Try to keep your whole body still without rocking forward or backward. Only the top leg moving.
Bridges are a great way to strengthen your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Really important areas to stabilize the pelvis and hips.
1. Start with your heels under your knees and simply raise your hips by squeezing your buttocks (glutes) and lower your back back down.
2. Provide more stability by crossing your hands in front of your chest. This makes it a little more challenging.
Aim to repeat 12-15 times
Single leg bridges
This is a progression from the previous exercise and is great for stabilizing the pelvis and hips. Through these one leg bridges we can really highlight any areas that may be tight or weak.
1. Starting with your heels under your knees, lift one leg and raise your hips by squeezing and then lowering your butt (glutes).
2. If that's too much for you, stay with the double bridges.
Aim to repeat 12-15 times
Single Leg Toe Taps
One leg toe taps are great for showing how balanced and stable we are. Often we have one side stronger or weaker than the other and this can be accentuated in a horse by sitting more in a sit bone. This way you gain a better awareness of what is going on in your body and improve these imbalances.
1. Stand tall with a neutral spine.
2. Then, tilt forward from your hips and touch your toes and stand upright with both feet on the floor to sit back.
3. Let one leg go behind you. For a greater challenge, lift the leg off the floor.
4. Try to move at the speed of your breath and focus on a smooth, controlled movement rather than speed.
Try to do 12-15 reps on each side.
This exercise will help you locate the gluteus minimus muscle and the front fibers of your glute medius on the side of your buttocks, which will help lift your legs off the horse and rotate them inward. It also improves your ability to give light, precise leg assists as you gain better control of your leg. Clams are a great way to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of our glutes, which support our pelvis and hips. Often we may have one side weaker than the other. Doing this will help highlight this and increase awareness of what's going on inside your body and improve hip stabilization.
1. Lie on your side and engage your core so you are stable through your back.
2. Then, keep feet together but open knee by using glutes to pull knee back.
3. While doing so, keep everything else really stable.
Aim to do 12-15 reps per leg.
Here's a great leg exercise to help improve your rider's balance and stability. Great for raising awareness of your straightness and specific areas that may be tight and/or weak. Great for helping you bring more balance to your body.
1. First establish a strong neutral spine, then step back without twisting or leaning forward.
2. Lower your back knee to the floor while holding itneutral spineand step forward again.
3. Take your time with each rep and focus on stable, controlled movement, not speed.
Aim to do 12-15 reps per leg.
Here's a short video that brings them all together. Start working as a circuit. Do each exercise for 12-15 reps on each side, then move on to the next exercise. Aim for doing the circuit twice, and do it three times a week. Notice what this does to improve your dressage rider's leg strength and balance in your lower body. Combine that with that5 stretches every dressage rider should doand you're off to a great start.
Remember that dressage is all about alignment and balance, so it makes sense that we put the work into our own bodies to do the same. You are a team effort, so give your body as much attention as your horses and together you can both shine!
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You might enjoy these other articles here on how to improve your rider's leg strength and balance, including exercises you can do at home.
6 dressage exercises to improve your riding posture
Lower body dressage exercises for strength and balance
This is how you create a stable and steady leg