Fit Rider: Get a Stronger Core

Five exercises that will keep key riding muscles fit.

Fit Rider - Get a Stronger Core
Photo by Leslie Potter

Does your instructor constantly tell you to straighten up? If you looked at a photo of you riding straight toward the camera, would it show you constantly tilted to one side? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! In this Fit Rider column, we’ll look at how to fix that by getting a stronger core.

When I returned to riding after nearly a decade off, I quickly noticed I did not have the seat I had as a youth. Suddenly everything was harder. I was also 30 pounds heavier. The idea of getting in shape was like a light bulb going on—it made total sense.

Get With the Program

I came across Nicola Smith’s Dressage Rider Training Program and found it to be helpful. Smith is a personal trainer and a nutrition and lifestyle coach, as well as a dressage rider. She explains that your body needs to be in shape in order to not only have a good seat in the saddle, but for the horse to move properly.

“I want my horse to be able to perform without strain and prevent injury, so correct training and posture within the horse is pivotal to allow this to happen and prevent risk,” says Smith. “The same goes for me as a rider. For me to teach my body to be aligned, supple and strong, I’m asking my horse to do the same. In doing so, we can enhance the horse’s posture and strength, and at the same time, enhance our own.”

Our core—which includes our pelvic, abdominal and oblique muscles—is our strength as a rider. These core muscles need to be stronger and engaged for us to be a fit rider with an independent seat and the ability to move all our body parts independently while cuing and moving with the horse.

For example, as the horse moves, your hips go up and down. If your core is weak, your entire torso will collapse with the movement, causing you to slide to one side, throwing both you and your horse off balance.

I found the following five exercises really made a difference in my riding.

Exercise 1

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet square on the ground. Engage your core so that your back is flat against the ground (think about tilting the front of your pelvis up while activating your abs).

Keep your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and lift your legs up above your hips. Then, while keeping your core engaged so that your back stays touching the ground, lower your legs to the ground and then back up to above your hips. Make it harder by straightening your legs. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Core Exercise #1
With your knees at a 90-degree angle, slowly raise and lower your feet, keeping your core engaged and your lower back on the ground. Photo by Leslie Potter

Exercise 2

Lie on your back with your arms bent so that your fingertips are at your ears. Raise your legs up above your hips with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Curl your upper torso across your body toward the opposite knee while straightening the same leg. Do three sets of 10 reps each (one rep is a curl to each side).

Core Exercise #2
“Bicycle” your legs while twisting to touch your elbow to your opposite knee. Photo by Leslie Potter

Exercise 3

Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders. Pull your ribs up so your back is flat, not hanging down. Lift one arm up, engaging core muscles so the rest of your body remains perfectly still. Then do the other arm.
Advance to raising the opposite leg/arm combo at the same time. This one really helped me have an independent seat so I could cue with one leg without moving my entire body.

Do three sets of 10 reps each (count a rep after you have lifted each arm).

Core Exercise #3
Engage your core to keep your body still while raising one arm. To add difficulty, raise the opposite leg as well. Photo by Leslie Potter

Exercise 4

Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders. Swing your hips over to one side, dropping your hip so your it nearly touches the ground. Your hands will not move (but your elbows will bend). The leg on the side you swing to will bend down to the ground, while the other leg will lift a bit. Then swing to the other side.

To make it harder, start in a plank position on your toes instead of on your knees. Do three sets of 10 reps each.

Core Exercise #4
Starting on hands and knees, lower your hips to alternating sides. To add difficulty, begin in a plank position. Photo by Leslie Potter

Exercise 5

Lie on your side slightly bent at the waist with a 90-degree angle in your knees. Put your bottom arm out straight on the ground for support. Put your other hand to your ear and curl up and over toward your knee.

To make it harder, straighten your legs. Even harder? Bring your top leg out toward your chest while reaching toward it with your top arm (no longer on your ear). Do three sets of 10 reps on each side.

Core Exercise #5
Lie on your side with knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Put your bottom arm out for support and curl your elbow toward your knee. Photo by Leslie Potter

I have been doing these exercises, along with cardio, for the past year. I am 30 pounds lighter and feel more secure in the saddle. Best of all, my horse moves better because I’m not hindering her by being off center and inflexible.

You can learn more about Smith’s programs at

This Fit Rider article about how to get a stronger core appeared in the January 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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