Horse Rider Fitness Guide Dressage

Horse Rider Fitness Guide

The aim of the RiderCise® Horse Rider Fitness Guide is to provide you information on common rider challenges within specific disciplines along with a workout specifically designed to help improve those common issues. 

There is a huge misconception that Rider Fitness means lifting big weights or hours in the gym but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst lifting weights, running, cycling etc are hugely beneficial for general fitness, there are situations where it can actually hinder your ability to move with your horse, something that Clare, Founder of RiderCise, knows first hand.

  1. Introduction
  2. Horse Rider Fitness Guide Part 1 – Dressage / Flatwork
    1. Exercise 1 – Single Leg Swing – Flexion / Extension
    2. Exercise 2 – Stationary Lateral Lunge & Leg Lift
    3. Stretch 1 – RiderCise® Seated Piriformis
    4. Exercise Adaptations Option 2

1. Introduction 

A Personal Trainer and Soft Tissue therapist who was, and still is, incredibly fit, Clare always struggled to ride her Friesian mare, Annick, who has a big powerful high stepping movement despite having ridden avidly for over 20yrs.

Inevitably, Clare suffered a bad fall from Annick but she walked away with just concussion, which she knows is the result of her physical training which gave her joints, tendons and ligaments the strength they needed to deal with the impact she suffered. Whilst this was fantastic the fall had shattered her confidence and belief in her ability to ride and move with Annick to stay in the saddle.

The RiderCise Online Programmes have been designed specifically, by Clare, to develop and improve the strength and mobility of the muscles and joints needed when riding and today she works with riders of all levels in multiple disciplines from the everyday leisure rider to the Tevis Cup and Mongolian Derby competitors across the world, helping riders become more aware and in control of their bodies to improve the way that they move with their horses and competition success.

This Horse Rider Fitness Guide will be divided into disciplines and for each one, we will explore the common challenges riders experience and how you can overcome them with easy simple exercises that you can do at home.


The Rider Fitness Guide will look at specific disciplines:

Part 1 – Dressage / Flatwork

Part 2 – Showjumping 

Part 3 – Eventing

Part 4 – Western Riding

Part 5 – Vaulting

Part 6 – Side Saddle

There will, of course, be some overlap in the disciplines with Part 1 – Dressage/Flatwork forming the base as being able to ride in harmony with your horse and communicate effectively will enhance your ability to perform within specific disciplines and improve your horses’ athleticism.

The exercises are simple and easy to do and it doesn’t matter if you are exercising already of not, because they are structured sport-specific exercises they will help you become a better, more effective rider.


Horse Rider Fitness Guide Part 1 – Dressage / Flatwork

Dressage ultimately is about riding in harmony with your horse and is an ‘art’ but due to the skill and athleticism needed from both the horse and rider, it is also a sport.

A horse should feel comfortable, be competent and willing to respond to the riders discreet and minimalist aids as they perform movements with balance, confidence, and grace. Whilst many of us may never make it, or have the desire to, compete at Grand Prix level but there are so many benefits to practising dressage, for both the horse and rider.

Dressage or flatwork can teach us to listen more to each other, how to work together, to feel, to understand how the horse travels and moves, to develop suppleness, strength, balance, and confidence. You don’t need to practise advanced movements or compete at a high level to benefit but you must be willing to work as hard as your horse, as your horse can only perform as well as you can communicate.

For dressage/flatwork to be productive and effective it is essential that the rider is able to contribute to the partnership through effective use of their bodies with control and balance. 

As I like to say, you can’t help your horse develop correctly, both physically and mentally, if you are not able to sit balanced and provide clear effective aids.

Below are some of the most common challenges riders experience with dressage/flatwork and the usual reasons behind them, although there can always be other reasons (not always black and white), which can only be determined through individual assessment.


Common Issues

Usual Reason

Correction/Development Movement

Difficulty performing lateral movements to a particular side
  • The weak opposite side to the direction of travel
    • Usually travelling right is harder making the left side weaker or inactive.
Leaning to one side, feeling of slipping or that they sit to one side stirrups uneven, or that the saddle slips


  • Weak opposite to the side you feel you slip to (most people sit more right)
Uneven rein contact
  • Unbalanced seat causing your arms to act as a counterbalance
  • Tight chest, rounding shoulders can result in ‘giving away’ the contact.
Difficulty getting the correct lead canter
  • Lack of stability and fluidity in the pelvis to provide a clear seat aid
  • Rider holding on through their seat blocking the horse
Sitting behind the movement
  • Lack of core engagement to stabilise the pelvis yet allow fluidity and natural spine absorption through the facilitation of movement (going with it) Stabilisation doesn’t mean bracing.
Collapsing through transitions
  • Lack of core engagement as above
  • Gripping with the knees, creating a pivot point.


You will see from the table the suggested RiderCise® Exercises will help you improve a range of the common challenges identified. The reason is that exercises have been chosen for the RiderCise programmes because they focus on developing the muscles used in a similar movement pattern to when you ride.

This is what makes the RiderCise® Programmes unique – they are Sport Specific, specific for horse riding. 

As there are so many exercises that can help you with the listed challenges I have chosen the RiderCise® Single Leg Flexion/Extension (Level 1) and the RiderCise® Stationary Lateral Lunge & Leg Lift (Level 2) to create a workout along with the RiderCise® Seated Piriformis Stretch.

Do not underestimate these exercises. They are simple and fairly easy to do however, to perform each correctly, they must be done with good technique, form and with full control. You need to feel the movements, not just go through the motions. 

Remember, the exercises don’t need to be complex or difficult but they must be specific to your sport, riding, to help you improve your ability in the saddle.


Exercise 1 Video – RiderCise® Single Leg Swing – Flexion / Extension

This exercise is fantastic for developing core stability, body awareness and control. It may look simple but it is more than just swinging your leg. 

Main Muscles Used:

Glutes (bum), Hamstrings (back of legs), Quadriceps (front of legs), pelvic floor, abdominal wall, back, and diaphragm muscles (core) 

Riding Translation:

One of the most important factors of core stabilisation is to breathe deeply, allowing the diaphragm to inflate and deflate fully. As riders, we often brace our ‘core’ and stop breathing but this doesn’t facilitate core stability and can cause a block to the horse giving a concussive force to the spine.

This movement will help you to improve your ability to stabilise your core through effective breathing and body movement control. 

Effective breathing will allow you to remain neutral and stable in the saddle whilst providing clear effective leg aids. 


  1. Stand with your feet together and resting one leg. Keep your standing knee soft, not locked out
  2. Hips facing forward
  3. Chest high and looking straight ahead
  4. Bring your resting leg forward into flexion, keeping the leg as straight as possible then bring your leg back into extension squeezing your bum as far as you can whilst keeping it straight and not tipping forwards 
  5. Return the leg towards the centre in a controlled manner. 
  6. This is one repetition

Perform: 10 times on each leg and repeat 


  • Remember to breathe fully as you do the exercise, imagine your diaphragm moving up and down 
  • Feel the movement, don’t rush. The technique is key. It is better to do 2 perfect leg swings that the suggested 10 per leg

Exercise Adaptions Option 1

If you struggle with your balance you can perform this movement whilst holding on to a chair or by resting your hand on a wall. 

Exercise Adaptions Option 2

If you feel particularly tight or restricted in this movement then you can bend the leg at the knee but keep the movement the same, focusing on the control of the flexion and extension.


Exercise 2 Video – RiderCise® Stationary Lateral Lunge & Leg Lift

This exercise will help identify any restrictions, imbalances and lack of strength in your body quickly. It is great for developing core stability, muscular strength and for lengthening the adductors (inside thigh muscle). 

Main Muscles Used:

Glutes (bum), Hamstrings (back of legs), Quadriceps (front of legs), iliopsoas (Hip Flexors ), pelvic floor, abdominal wall, back, and diaphragm muscles (core) 

Riding Translation:

This exercise will help you develop core stability to keep your body upright in the saddle whilst developing the mobility of the pelvis and strength of your leg unilaterally (movement produced by one limb)


  1. Stand with your feet together
  2. Chest high and facing forwards
  3. Step out to the side, shifting your body weight over the moving leg, squatting to a 90-degree angle
  4. With power in your squatting leg, push yourself back to the standing position and lift the leg so that the knee is bent at 90 degrees and in front of your body
  5. This is one repetition

Perform: 10 times on each leg and repeat 


  • The movement should be fluid but controlled
  • Remember to breathe fully during this exercise, imagine your diaphragm moving up and down
  • Only squat down as far as is comfortable, you do not need to go to or below 90 degrees if you are not able to. It is more important to focus on your breathing, correct technique and the power in the push to get you back to the standing position.

Exercise Adaptions Option 1: Break it down into separate steps, step out, squat, step back, lift a leg

Exercise 2 Adapt 1a

Exercise 2 Adapt 1b

Exercise 2 Adapt 1c

Exercise 2 Adapt 1d

Stretch 1 Video – RiderCise® Seated Piriformis Stretch

Main Muscles targeted: Piriformis (bum), Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL), lumbar (Lower Back)

Riding Translation:

Many riders are not able to activate their core due to immobility and inactivity of the glute muscles which can often result in lower back pain. 

The glutes surround the pelvis and are at the centre of your ‘core’ (over 29 muscles!) which also attach to the pelvis and relieving tightness in the glutes can often release the tension on the other tendons within the pelvis. 

 Releasing tension can allow the glutes to function and facilitate the movement of the hip and thigh. Something that all riders need!


  1. Sit on the edge of the chair with your feet flat on the floor
  2. Place one ankle on the opposite thigh above the knee and support with the opposite hand
  3. Sit up tall then bend forwards from the hip and relax into the stretch position
  4. Do no push on you bent knee
  5. Hold the stretch for 25 seconds
  6. Repeat on the other side

Perform: Hold for 25 seconds each side

Exercise Adaptions Option 1: If you are not able to put your ankle over your resting knee you can simply straighten your legs out in front of you and then put one leg on the other where it is comfortable when bending forwards from the hip. To intensify the stretch simply bring your left that is on the floor, closer to your body.


  • It is important to make sure you are bending from the hip, not collapsing through your upper body, to get the full benefit
  • You may also feel this stretch in your hamstrings, hips, lower back – this is normal. You will feel it wherever you are tightest


Seated Piriformis – Starting position

Seated Piriformis – Full Stretch

Seated Piriformis – Full Stretch – Side view








Seated Piriformis Adaption 1a

Seated Piriformis Adaption 1b

Seated Piriformis Adaption 1c









If you want to ride without the aches and pains after, feeling exhausted during a lesson, lacking in confidence when onboard, struggling to step up to the next level, collapsing in transitions, not able to give clear effective aids, struggle to sit a spook or take forever to recover from a general injury then you would benefit from a Self- Managed Rider Programmes! 

Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to learn more about the Programmes!