Rider Fitness: Groundwork Core Exercises

Try these unmounted exercises to get fit for riding.


Most riders would be surprised to get Linda Denniston’s take on what keeps them in the saddle. “Your legs are not what keep you on the horse,” she says. “It’s your upper body that’s going to fall; not your legs. Without a strong core, you can’t balance your body.” And even though most people think of crunches, they’re not the only way to build up abdominals and other muscles in the torso.

The Woodchopper

The Woodchopper

One of Denniston’s recommended exercises, “the woodchopper,” works the abs and obliques, and has a cardio benefit, too.

Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees soft. Hold a medicine ball or light dumbbell with both hands above your right shoulder. Then with your arms extended in front of your torso, pull the ball or weight across your body until you reach a point just outside of your left hip. Reverse the movement along the same path until you reach the starting position above the right shoulder. Complete 15 repetitions, then switch sides.

The Plank

The Plank

When it comes to cultivating core strength, McAllister calls for “the plank.” Lie face down on the floor and support your weight on your forearms. Slowly lift your torso and legs off the ground until only your forearms and the balls of your feet touch the floor. Keep your back straight and squeeze your abs. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, then relax. Do eight to 12 repetitions.

The Cat Up/Down

Cat Up/Down

Equestrian Pilates co-founder Elizabeth Hanson says core muscles mean more than abs. Muscles that support the spine need work, too. So she recommends the “cat up/down” exercise to stretch and relax lower back muscles.

Get down on all fours with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders with a neutral spine. Inhale through your nose, then exhale and engage the core abdominal muscles. Round your spine upward and lower your head to your chest, keeping your shoulders down. Inhale as you arch in the other direction — head up, chest up and tailbone up. Repeat seven more times.

Read on for more groundwork exercises.
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Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who covers a range of equestrian lifestyle topics. When she’s not working, Raia unwinds with her Tennessee Walking Horse, Santino.


  1. When doing the plank, you shouldn’t look up. Face the ground and leave your neck aligned to your body as you would if you were standing up straight.

  2. Fantastic!!! I’ve been letting myself go a bit lately, eating too much junk food, not exercising other than riding. I’d become extremely frustrated because I couldn’t ride for more than a few minutes without getting exhausted. Went “googling” for tips on nutrition for riders and look what I found! Ground exercises too. Hopefully this will get me back on track. Thank you for putting these together for us all!

  3. A strong core is essential but the lower leg is the anchor and this is what will keep a rider falling off. The stronger the core the stronger the lower leg.


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