California Riding Magazine • November, 2013

Why is Strength and Movement Training Important?

by Sylvie Quenneville


Getting stronger is a great way to improve your riding, but there's more to the physical aspect than strength. Body perception and awareness are crucial to becoming a better rider. It is necessary to feel where you tend to evade and how and where you have slid into too loose of a seat position. This can be obtained with strength, movement and balance training. Understanding how your body moves, regains balance, transfers weight and produces power directly affects your position and ability to communicate your intentions to your horse.

The horse is very sensitive to the basic tension of the rider. It can feel when a rider is tensed up and afraid and also recognize a competent, athletic and fit rider by their seat. The horse feels the basic tension of the rider and reacts to it. When asking a horse to trot, the rider increases the basic tension of the musculature and the horse obeys and trots on. Assuming that horse and rider are concentrating on each other when working, and the aids are applied sensitively, the horse can be expected to follow the basic tension of the rider into the requested direction.

How well do you really know your body's strength, tensions, asymmetries and imbalances?

To precisely explain how every muscle's weakness, tightness or simply lack of awareness can significantly affect your position, I will dissect the causes of two common problems with the seat: a toe-out leg position and a broken at the waist posture. These explanations will clarify why off-horse training is so important for equestrians and why gaining awareness and control through a good strength and movement training program will quickly improve your riding.

Toe-Out Leg Position

This is usually the result of contracted gluteal and inner thigh muscles. Contracting the gluteal set of muscles (medial gluteal muscle, gluteus minimis, gluteus maximus) locks the pelvis to the sacrum, turns out the toes more than is normal for human leg conformation and also restricts movements in the hip. As a consequence, the heel will dig into the horse's side and the leg and the hip will be unable to follow the movement of the horse. Riding with one or both toes out disables (locks) the whole pelvis and makes a rider unable to follow the motion of the horse's back. The rider can also clamp, which the horse may interpret as the cue (not an aid, which is a natural movement) for canter. Riders and horses become so used to this cue that the canter will fail if the rider adopts a correct, relaxed seat. Such a rider will have difficulties riding tests involving canter variations and flying changes. There is also a risk of leg injury if the toe is caught on a fence or other vertical piece of construction.

To correct the toe-out problem, you need to understand how to activate (and deactivate) your gluteal muscles. By including variations of squats, step-ups, leg presses and deadlifts in your workouts, you will gain strength and comprehension on how to control and stimulate those muscles. After just a little practice, you'll have the ability to feel this change on the horse. Your pelvis will unlock and your legs will rotate inward to the correct position. Only when we are able to feel a certain area of our body quite distinctly can we work on controlling it.

Broken At The Waist

When a rider loses balance and straightness, it's often the result of breaking at the waist. This tips the rider to one side or the other and interferes with weight aids (balance) by misaligning the rider's center of mass away from the horse's center of mass. It also pulls one leg away from the horse's side, tempting the animal to ignore a leg. The aids to rebalance (half halts) then do not "go through" or affect the whole horse.

This is usually seen when riders try to guide the horse along curved lines or in lateral work. It disturbs the seat because it unevenly loads the pelvis to one side so that the subtle alternate "dance" of the spiral seat is disabled and draws the leg and thigh away from the horse (usually the outside leg). It also produces uneven tension in the whole upper body, making the arms and hands more difficult to use. It produces tension in the muscles that control the hip joint of the overloaded seat bone, interfering with the mobility of the thigh, which, in turn, interferes with the operation of the horse's shoulder. Finally, it usually also causes the rider's weight to interfere with the diagonal pair connected to the inside hind leg, the "prime" pair for carrying the combined mass of horse and rider through turns.

Sadly, we all have our own body crookedness, whether it's from birth, injuries, or simply poor posture and bad habits. In most sports, athletes can get away with slight body asymmetry, but, unfortunately, not riders. Feeling or being aware of our position, with all its crookedness, is important to better riding. We can often observe how our upper body and lower body move against each other. We are also frequently told that we rotate or lower one hip or shoulder more than the other. These subtle imbalances and asymmetries affect what happens underneath us.

Combining a good strength and movement training program will contribute to correcting this problem. Acquiring an understanding of balance, center of gravity and awareness will aid in regaining your straightness instantly. It is essential for performing smooth, coordinated movements, and must be well developed in those aspiring to be top-class riders.

I recommend including more complex exercises, which are commonly called movement training, which enhances athlete's coordination, awareness and motor control.

What is Movement Training?

The idea of movement training is to teach your body proper pattern sequencing by focusing on the five primary movements:

1. Bend-and-lift movements (squatting)
2. Single-leg movements (lunging)
3. Pushing movements
4. Pulling movements
5. Rotational (twisting movements)

The lateral squats pictured here are an example movement training exercises. Doing specific exercises will get you physically stronger and will trigger some new instincts and greater understanding of your body's position in the saddle. It's really important to fully understand how your body works off the horse to become an effective rider. Doing some work in the gym enables riders to train the correct muscles for the sport and get stronger without having to worry about what the horse is doing underneath them.

Riding is a team sport. Why should your horse be expected to be fit and capable if you're not?

Medical Disclaimer: Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.

Author Sylvie Quenneville is an Equestrian Fitness Trainer in
Del Mar. Certified Personal Trainer, Functional Training
Specialist, International Association of Certified Equestrian Fitness Trainer (IACEFT) and United States Equestrian
Federation Member. Available for training sessions and consultations. Contact by email equestrianfitness@gmail.com.