Ashley Eve is a long-time dressage rider turned eventer and a certified personal training with a passion to help riders and their horses through fitness and health coaching. She coaches riders with at-home workouts that use minimal equipment and is developing a YouTube channel with full workouts for riders looking to get fit, improve their riding and help their horse.
If you are unstable in the saddle, or lack balance, what is the first thing someone tells you? Strengthen your core. Yes, the abs are important. Most people have lost the ability to move from their “center,” therefore teaching someone how to work the core, not just do crunches, is very important.
However, there is one major muscle group that has proven time and time again that they are actually more important to functional movement than the abdominals: the glutes. The glutes consist of 3 major muscles:
- The gluteus maximus, which does external rotation and extension of the hip joint (moving the leg backwards).
- The gluteus minimus, which does abduction of the hip (moving the leg away from the body).
- The gluteus medius, which also does abduction of the hip (moving the leg away from the body).
These muscles are important mover and stabilizers of the hip joint. The glutes assist us in walking, sitting, standing, climbing stairs, getting out of bed and literally every lower body movement.
The problem these days, is that we SIT on the glutes all day long, rendering them weak and useless. Without the proper use of the glutes, the hamstrings and lower back muscles end up taking over far more work than they should. The abdominals are strong and can support a weak lower back, but if the lower back keeps having to compensate for sleepy glutes, then the abs will never be able to keep up. This will result in poor posture, back pain and a less than ideal position in the saddle. Trying to ride without strong, active glutes is akin to trying to build a house without a foundation.
So, how does this relate to you? Without strong glutes, your lower back and hamstrings will take over as primary movers and stabilizers. This provides a very unstable base of support for your upper body, which can show as bracing in the upper body and tension in the reins, as well as an unstable lower leg. You will also find the rider clings with their legs, as the pelvis is unable to stabilize the body.
Weak glutes also leads to poor posture, as the abs are only able to compensate to a point. This is where the dreaded “shoulders back” battle begins. You will also see this manifested in riders that can’t seem to sit up straight and always tend to lean forward. The weak glutes lead to tight hip flexors and a weak upper body making it nearly impossible to sit up straight. This isn’t something that can be fixed in the saddle.
Think of the pelvis and hips as the foundation of a house. Without a strong foundation, everything is weak and unstable. This applies to your riding as well. Without a strong pelvis, which is stabilized by your glutes, you are going to lack the ability to maintain a proper position, which leads to unclear aids, poor posture, imbalances in your body due to compensation and a whole host of other issues, just like a bad foundation does for a house.
And here is the truth: Your imbalances become your horse’s imbalances, which become your horse’s lameness.
Further, by allowing your lower back and hamstrings to take over while riding, you are setting yourself up for back pain, knee pain and ankle pain as you compensate for the weakness. Often I hear “I am just old; I get knee pain when I ride.” While degenerative conditions, such as arthritis, can lead to pain, strengthening the proper muscles and lengthening the tight tissue is one of the best ways to not only combat chronic pain but prevent future pain.
But riders are soooo busy! Now, I know riders are busy between working to pay for the horses and actually riding, but it is crucial to make time for your own fitness out of the saddle. And, no, mucking stalls doesn’t count.
Sinead Halpin said it best in her recent interview with the USEA: “If you’re competitive, if you don’t want to have chronic low-grade pain, if you want to be kind to your horse by riding well, you will find it important to find an exercise routine that works to keep you supple and strong,” Halpin concluded. “Just do it. I have 23 horses on the farm, an 8-month-old, and a mortgage to pay without a major sponsor and I find the time, so just do it.”
Riding will feed into your imbalances. If you are weak on the left and therefore lean into the right, you will lean more into the right stirrup as you get more exhausted in the saddle. Especially out on cross country, it becomes dangerous to have a rider’s imbalances being magnified when the horse may be getting tired as well.
If you sit at a desk all day and therefore have weak glutes and tight shoulders, causing you to slouch into a chair seat in the saddle, no amount of yelling “shoulders back” and no amount of custom saddles will fix your issues.
Further, if you continue to get on the horse with the same issues, it doesn’t matter how much money you dump into their massage, therapy blankets, chiropractic, acupuncture, etc. You will continue to cause the same imbalances in the horse until it causes a lameness.
We are all adults, right? So I can be a straight-shooter, right? You are an athlete. Start training like it! Not only does improving as a rider depend on it, but your horse depends on you to show up as your best self every day.
To help you get started, I am developing a YouTube channel with free workouts for riders looking to get fit. The video at the top of the post is a quick booty blast to help kick off your new fitness plan and strengthen those glutes. For more videos and tips make sure to follow me on Facebook and join the free The Equestrians Advantage community.
As a former sport horse vet tech, eventer and certified personal trainer, I am passionate about starting a movement towards rider fitness out of the saddle to improve not only riders, but also improve soundness in the horse.