As winter comes to a close, many of us are preparing for spring riding. It doesn’t matter whether you are a show jumper, dressage rider, eventer or casual rider, anyone can benefit from a little dry-land training!

What is dry-land training, you ask? It is doing movements and exercises off the horse, allowing the body time to adapt, developing muscle control and balance, without having to deal with the complex aspects of the horse’s motion. Training the body this way ensures that it can develop symmetrically so the rider does not become dominant on one side.

Body dominance, or one-sidedness, is one of the many ways we create resistance in our horses. Not only is asymmetrical dominance hard on the horse’s body, but if prolonged it may lead to long-term imbalances which can cause chronic biomechanical issues in both horse and rider.

When the body is not prepared for riding, common-place injuries can occur in the neck, upper and lower back, hip, knee, and ankle.

Some under-saddle exercises such as lunging a rider on the horse will improve position, but if the rider has underlying imbalances (and most do), they need to get off the horse and work in the static or non-moving environment. Also, doing no-stirrup work usually creates more dominance on the strong side of the body rather than correcting the problem.

Getting off the horse allows the body the proper time and focus needed to correct this issue. As a rider ages, it becomes imperative that they prepare their body to reduce and avoid injury. When the body is not prepared for riding, common-place injuries can occur in the neck, upper and lower back, hip, knee, and ankle. With the right exercises, most injuries caused by trauma, strain, fatigue, or muscle imbalance can be avoided, or at the very least minimized.

As an Equine Canada coach I see a lot of riders who struggle with their posture and position. A common problem is the rider who sits with more weight on one seat bone; typically, people who tend to sit on their dominant seat bone will lengthen the dominant leg down and bear more weight on that stirrup. Ever wondered why that one stirrup seems to get longer than the other?

This can be very challenging for both horse and rider. If you were to consider the horse’s situation in human terms, it would be like carrying the weight of a bowling ball on one side of your body while trying to perform athletic feats. Other common-place anomalies are sitting slouched with a forward shoulder position or leaning shoulders to one side.

If you want to be an excellent rider and help your equine partner do the best job possible, I guarantee you will benefit from the following exercises. Give them a try to jump-start your riding into spring!

Exercise #1: Three-Point Touch Position

Begin by laying with your back on the floor in “three-point touch” position ‒ knees bent with feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart (see image above). From here, locate three points of contact with the ground; the back of your head, between your shoulder blades, and the base of your pelvis. Position your hips so that your tail bone is pointing towards your heels. Contract the base of your pelvis as if you were trying to stop the flow of urine and pull your navel lightly inward and upward toward your spine and tuck in your chin. There should be a small space of a hands-width between the small of your back and the floor. This ensures that your spine is in neutral alignment and safe to exercise. This is the same position you want to have when you are riding your horse.

A woman lying on her back with her feet in the air.

Working the oblique muscles. (Nancy Adams/Hooves Included Photography)

Exercise #2: Core Conditioning

Lie on the ground in “three-point touch” position. Place your fingers on the inside of your hips. Cough lightly and feel the lower abdominal muscles pop out. These are your oblique muscles. We want to contract those muscles and connect with the deeper layer muscles the transverse abdominals. Imagine a triangle that runs from your pubic bone up to your hips and across your abdominals, and try to make that area concave. Hold that position like you are holding 40% of a 100% contraction. Now lift your right foot off the ground without moving your pelvis. Repeat with the left leg. Now keeping both legs at 90%, lower your right leg to tap the floor and return to starting position. Repeat with the left leg. If you have a sensitive back, place both hands under your hips to help stabilize your low back. Do 8-10 reps and build up to two sets of 10.

Exercise #3: Ball Sit/Trot/Halt

The next step is to move this core position to the stability ball (a quick note: ensure that your hips are not lower than your knees when seated on the ball).

Sit on the ball in “three-point touch” with one hand on each side (below, left). Once you feel balanced, place your hands on your hips to test if you can maintain that position. If your hips slide to one side, then bring them back to the centre of the ball. Try to maintain a neutral upright position evenly on your seat bones. Now engage your core muscles while keeping your shoulders back and down, hips level, remaining tall through your torso. Keeping this position, bounce on the ball as if you were bouncing on a trampoline or trotting. Your shoulders and hips should remain level and your waist strong, pulling your bellybutton lightly inward and upward towards the spine. Stay slightly forward on your seat bones while you bounce and then ‘halt’. You will engage your core and pelvic stabilizers in order for the hips not to swing side-to-side. Try to keep as square as possible as you bounce and halt. Repeat 10-20 times.


A woman sitting on a stability ball.

(Left) the Ball Bounce; (right) the Ball March. (Nancy Adams/Hooves Included Photography)

Exercise #4: Ball March

Seated as in the previous exercise, lift one foot off of the floor (above right). Maintain square, level hips and shoulders as you do so. Your foot should be approximately 8 cm off the floor; try and hold it there for a few seconds and then lower and repeat with the other side. Then alternate your feet in a slow march, repeating 12 times. Work up to three sets.


A woman on her knees in two poses.

The Bird Dog. (Nancy Adams/Hooves Included Photography)

Exercises #5: Bird Dog

Start on hands and knees in table-top position. Ensure your core is engaged, shoulders are back and down in neutral spine/three-point touch position. Extend your right arm and your left leg, keeping back and hips level, then bring your elbow to meet your knee and return to extended position. Repeat 10 times and change sides.

A book cover.Other Ideas

If you feel that you bear weight in one stirrup more than the other, try balancing on your non-dominant leg when you’re brushing your teeth, waiting for the kettle to boil or waiting in a lineup. These exercises are sure to help you become more balanced and a more stable rider. Your horse will love you for it!

Happy riding!

Gina Allan is an Equine Canada Certified Competition Coach Specialist and author of the book Equifitness, available on Amazon.