Improving your dressage rider leg strength will help you to have good control of our legs and in doing so a better ability to create good clear communication with our horse. The ability to use leg pressure whenever we need and however we want requires good body control, coordination, stability and balance when in the saddle. Now in order to create this balance and stability, it’s about understanding our own body and it’s biomechanics so that you can optimize your performance in the saddle. In this article I am going to share why and how to improve your dressage rider leg strength and improve your ability to communicate clearly to your horse.
Dressage rider leg strength
Like humans, horses tend to have a weaker side and as we train them through the grades we are working on their symmetry and straightness to help even them up and allow them to have good posture when we ride. This is to allow them to build strength correctly which helps protect joints and ligaments as the work demands get greater. Poor posture and poor muscle development can create undue forces and imbalances which can lead to problems later on.
Now when it comes to us as riders, the same principles apply. When you get into the saddle you are wanting to have good posture and alignment. This helps your joints hinge correctly and allows even pressure and work through both sides of your body. We all tend to have a weak or more dominant side and over time our daily environment and habits can create imbalances in our body. This can result in certain twists and torque that pulls our posture out of correct alignment. All this then when applied to the saddle and forces of the horse can create undue forces through our body as well as making it harder to make clear communication with our horse through independent leg aids.
So as a dressage rider it makes sense that as much as you are working on your horses training to ensure they are building strength evenly and symmetrically, you would want to do the same for yourself. Training yourself off the horse isn’t about lifting huge heavy weights or running marathons. Instead, it’s about ensuring your body is optimized with good posture and alignment. This is about building a foundation of good strength and alignment to keep your joints and ligaments working smoothly and correctly so that over time you can continue to do what you love and not have any preventable injuries hold you back from riding. This requires the use of exercises that help improve your posture and balance so that it is even on both sides of the body and that helps you perform at your best when your in the saddle.
How to build leg strength for horse riding
When it comes to our leg strength as Dressage Riders, we are wanting to build the symmetry through both sides of our body, so that our legs can each work independent of each other while our body remains stable. One of the best places to start is by focusing on our pelvis and the supporting muscles around it. When we have good control of our legs we can create better communication with the horse. If we have weak legs or are one-sided you will find you have to grip through one side while you try to use the other and that your pelvis twists and shifts around as you try and give the horse an aid.
The ability to create a stable and quiet leg begins from our pelvis and hips. Our hip joints have a big movement pattern and the muscles that support this movement are what we need to be aware of, to begin with. These exercises will help you switch on this foundational muscles that help support and control our legs and our stability in the saddle.
Use these 6 leg exercises to help improve your dressage rider leg strength and stability. These exercises work on each side independently, so are great for bringing awareness to certain areas that may be tight and/or weak and helping you bring more balance into your body.
Side Leg Taps
This is a great exercise to help improve your ability to move your leg independent of your torso and by doing each side seperately building that symmetry and balance through each side uniquely. This will help with your ability to move your leg and give leg aids while keeping your body stable and centred.
Lie on your side with your legs long and aligned with your hip and shoulder, resting your head on your lower hand with a bent elbow. If you feel unstable, you can bend your lower leg slightly and rest your top hand out in front for extra support.
On an in breath, lift the top leg up and place it down in front of the lower leg and tap five times while exhaling.
Breathe in to kick the leg back up and then tap down five times behind the lower leg on an out breath.
Repeat 5 times front and back while maintaining good stability of the body.
Side Leg Lifts
Great for strengthening up the legs and stabilizer muscles of hips as well as spine. You may notice one side harder than the other, this is normal. By doing this though you are going to help remove this imbalance and improve rider posture.
Lie on your side and lift legs up straight, imagine you are standing on ground still, so feet are flat. Support yourself if you need on the floor using other hand, or make harder by lifting that up also. If this is to much keep the bottom leg down on the ground. Aim to keep entire body still, no rocking forward or back. Just the leg that moves.
Single Leg Bridges
Bridges are a great way to strengthen the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. Really important areas for helping to stabilize the pelvis and hips. By doing these single leg bridges we can really highlight any areas that may be tight or weak.
Start with your heals underneath your knees, lift one leg up and and simply lift your hips up by squeezing your bottom (glutes). If this is to much, stick to the double leg bridges.
Single Leg Toe Taps
Single leg toe taps are great for seeing how balanced and stable we are. Often we have one side stronger or weaker than the other and this can be highlighted on a horse by sitting more into one seattbone. So by doing this you will gain more awareness as to what is going on in your body and improve those imbalances.
Stand tall, with neutral spine. Then tip forward from your hips ad touch toes. Let one leg go backwards as you do this. For more of a challenge lift that leg off the floor.
This exercise will help you find the gluteus minimus muscle and the anterior fibres of your glute medius at the side of the bottom which will help you lift your legs off the horse and internally rotate them. It will also improve your ability to give light, precise leg aids as you will gain better control of your leg. Clams are a great way to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of our glutes that help support our pelvis and hips. Often we may have one side weaker than the other. So doing these will help highlight that and bring awareness to what is going on in your body and improve hip stabilization.
Lie on your side and brace your core so you are stable through your back. Then keep feet together but open knee up by using glutes to draw knee up back. Keep everything else really stable while you do this.
Bridges are a great way to strengthen the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. Really important areas for helping to stabilize the pelvis and hips.
Start with your heals underneath your knees and simply lift your hips up by squeezing your bottom (glutes). Bring in more stability by crossing hands over your chest. This will make it slightly more challenging.
Here is a great leg exercise to help improve your rider balance and stability. Great for bringing awareness to your straightness and certain areas that may be tight and/or weak. Great to help you bring more balance into your body.
Set up a strong neutral spine to begin with, then step backwards without twisting or leaning forward. Lower down back knee to the ground, while keeping neutral spine and step forward again.
Here is a short video bringing them all together. Start by doing as a circuit. Do each exercise for 10 reps each side and then move onto the next exercise. Aim to run through the circuit 2 times through and do this 3 times per week. Notice what this does to improve your dressage rider leg strength and balance in your lower body. Combine that with the 5 stretches that every dressage rider should do and you are off to a great start.
Remember Dressage is all about straightness and balance, so it makes sense that we put the work into our own body to create this also. You are a team effort, so put as much awareness into your body as you do your horses and together you can both then shine!
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