If you improve your dressage rider's leg strength, you will have better control of our legs and consequently be able to communicate more clearly with our horse. Being able to exert leg press when and how we want requires excellent body control, coordination, stability and balance while seated. In order to achieve this balance and stability, it is necessary to understand our own body and its biomechanics in order to improve our performance in the saddle. In this post I will discuss why and how you can improve your dressage rider's leg strength and ability to communicate properly with your horse.
Leg strength of a dressage rider
Like humans, horses have a weaker side and as they progress through the classes we focus on their symmetry and straightness to help them balance and maintain proper posture while riding. This allows them to develop strength in the right way, which helps protect joints and ligaments when work demands increase. Poor posture and muscle growth can lead to excessive strength and imbalances that can cause problems in the future.
Now the same ideas apply to us as drivers. When you mount the saddle, you want to maintain proper posture and alignment. This supports the proper hinge of your joints and allows for even pressure and work on all sides of your body. Each of us has a weaker or more dominant side, and over time our everyday environment and behavior can contribute to physical imbalances. As a result, certain twists and torques can occur that throw our posture out of alignment. All of this, combined with the saddle and the horse's forces, can result in excessive forces going through our body, making it difficult to communicate clearly with our horse via independent leg aids.
As a dressage rider, it seems logical that you would want to focus on developing your own strength as much as you do on training your horse. Off-horse training isn't about lifting massive weights or running marathons. Rather, it is about optimizing your body through correct posture and alignment. This is about building a foundation of strength and alignment so your joints and ligaments are functioning smoothly and correctly all the time so you can keep doing what you love without being sidelined by preventable injuries. This requires exercises that improve your posture and balance on both sides of your body so you can perform at your best in the saddle.
How do I get stronger legs for riding?
When it comes to our leg strength as a dressage rider, we want to develop symmetry on both sides of our body so our legs can work independently while being stable. One of the most effective areas to start with is our pelvis and the supporting muscles that surround it. When we have sufficient control of our legs, we can communicate more effectively with the horse. If we have weak legs or are one sided we will find ourselves gripping with one side while trying to use the other and our pelvis will twist and move as we try to help the horse.
Our pelvis and hips give us the power to construct a stable and quiet leg. Our hip joints have a complex pattern of movement, and it's the muscles that support that pattern that we need to be aware of first. These exercises help activate the basic muscles that support and regulate our legs and saddle stability.
Use these six leg exercises to strengthen and stabilize your dressage rider's legs. These exercises work on both sides separately, making them ideal for raising awareness of areas of your body that may be tight or weak and helping you regain balance.
1. Side leg raises
Excellent for strengthening the leg and hip stabilizer muscles and the spine. You may find that one side is a little harder than the other; that's typical. However, by doing this you will help eliminate this imbalance and improve rider posture.
- Lie on your side and imagine your feet flat on the floor; Press into your heels and maintain a parallel position with your feet.
- Begin by lifting the top leg off the bottom leg and bringing it back to the bottom leg.
- To advance this movement, lift both feet off the floor, then separate the top and bottom legs.
- If necessary, support yourself with the other hand on the floor or make it more difficult by lifting it up. If this is too strenuous, place the bottom leg on the floor.
- Try to keep your entire body still without swaying forward or backward. Only the top leg moves.
Bridge exercises are great for strengthening your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. These are critical points for stabilizing the pelvis and hips.
- Start with your heels under your knees and simply push your hips up by clenching your glutes and lowering them back down.
- Add stability by crossing your hands over your chest. This increases the level of difficulty somewhat.
Aim for 12-15 reps.
3. Bridges with one leg
This is an evolution of the last exercise and is great for stabilizing the pelvis and hips. By performing these one-legged bridges, we can clearly see any areas of tension or weakness.
- Starting with your heels below your knees, raise one leg and your hips by clenching your glutes, then drop back down.
- If this is too difficult, stick to two-legged bridges.
Aim for 12-15 reps.
4. Toe taps with one leg
One-legged toe taps are great for assessing our balance and stability. Often we have one stronger or weaker side than the other, which can be demonstrated in the horse by sitting lower on a sit bone. This allows you to have a better awareness of what is happening in your body and correct any imbalances that may arise.
- Make sure your spine is straight and your body is upright.
- Then bend forward from your hips and touch your toes, then return to an upright position with both feet on the floor.
- Drop one leg backwards. Lift that leg off the ground for an extra challenge.
- Try to move at the speed of your breath and focus on controlled, steady movements rather than speed.
Aim for 12-15 repetitions on each side.
This exercise helps you locate the gluteus minimus muscle and the front fibers of your glute medius on the side of your buttocks, which helps lift your legs off the horse and rotate them inward. Additionally, as you develop control of your leg, you improve your ability to provide gentle, precise leg assists. Clams are an excellent approach to developing the stabilizing glutes that support our pelvis and hips. Often one side is weaker than the other. Therefore, performing these exercises will help emphasize this and increase awareness of what's going on in your body, as well as improve hip stability.
- Lie on your side and support your core, making sure your back is tight.
- Then, while keeping your feet together, open your knee by flexing your glutes up and back.
- Maintain absolute stability in all other areas.
Aim for 12-15 repetitions per leg.
6. Back lunge
This is an excellent leg workout to improve your rider's balance and stability. Excellent for emphasizing your straightness and any spots that may be tight or weak. Excellent for helping you restore balance to your body.
First, establish a strong, neutral spine, and then step back without twisting or leaning forward.
- Step forward again and lower your back leg to the floor while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Take your time with each rep and focus on a controlled, solid movement, not speed.
Aim for 12-15 repetitions per leg.