Fitness for Equestrians

By Erica Curtis, ’19 

St. Andrews University Gym
St. Andrews University Gym

As equestrians, we expect a lot from the massive, majestic, four-legged wonders we call horses.  We require horses be able to maintain proper frame and movement in a dressage test, execute sliding stops in a reining pattern, or jump a course of jumps, all with the additional weight of the tack and a rider on the horse’s back.  Thus, it is only fair to the horse that we, as equestrians, maintain proper fitness.  By doing so, we can be a help and not a hindrance to the horse during our rides.

At the St. Andrews University Equestrian Program, students are encouraged to maintain good physical fitness practices. St. Andrews Equestrian Team members often meet up to work out together, not only increase physical fitness, but to bond together as a team. Students at St. Andrews University have access to a gym, running trails, and open swim days, if they wish to get fit more on their own.

When riding, one can burn around a couple hundred calories, depending on the duration and intensity of the ride.  Riding, therefore, can be seen as a form of exercise in itself.  But, riding alone is not enough to be an equestrian athlete.  For example, volleyball, soccer, and basketball are all considered sports and a form of exercise, however, many athletes who participate or compete in those sports still train at the gym, or engage in some other form of physical activity, to help better themselves in their sport.  In the same manner, equestrians should create their own fitness routine.  As an equestrian, creating a customized fitness routine can benefit an individual by providing that person with better strength, balance, flexibility, breathing, endurance, and mental stamina.  In turn, these benefits will help one to become a well-rounded rider and will make one’s time spent in the saddle more enjoyable.

So, how does one obtain all these benefits? What does one have to do become mentally and physically fit?  The answer to these questions can be as involved or as simple as you want it to be. Depending on your desired level of fitness, you can cater your activity to your own equine program.  For example, an endurance rider or an eventer may need to be in a better physical condition than a western pleasure rider might, due to the more extreme nature of endurance and eventing.  It is important to note, however, that all three disciplines require proper fitness. In short, your fitness program will depend on the goals you have as a rider, along with any precautions or restrictions you may need to take into consideration, as stated by your doctor or physician.

Items that you may want to include in your equestrian fitness routine are:

  • Stretching
  • Cardio activities
  • Weight-lifting
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Ballet
  • Gymnastics
  • At home workouts

Stretching is important before every ride.  All too many riders forget to get their own selves ready to ride even though they are concerned about getting their horses properly warmed up. Stretching before every ride helps to prevent injury and allows you to make an assessment of your body for the day such as if any part of your body is more stiff or sore than usual.  When stretching, you should start out with active stretching. Do not go as deep into the stretch as you know you are capable of, because at this point you are not fully warmed up. If you start out with a deep stretch, you might injure yourself.  It is also good to pulse up and down in a stretch during the active stretching phase or to switch back and forth between stretches. Once you have finished riding it is important to stretch as well.  Since you have been fully warmed up from your riding, you can go a little deeper into your stretches than you did before your ride.

Working Out at St. Andrews
Dressage rider Pamela Denton running on the treadmill as a cardio exercise.

Cardio (also known as aerobic) activities are great to build up your endurance, and, as the name implies, benefits your cardiovascular health.  Cardio exercises increase your heart rate, get your blood circulating better, and help to burn fat.  Some examples of cardio exercises you can do are running, walking, hiking, cycling, jump-roping, or swimming. You can also create your own cardio routines with moves such as burpees, high knees, or jumping jacks.  Once you have implemented cardio into your fitness plan, you may notice that you are not so out of breath after doing canter sets with your horse!

Weightlifting increases the strength of your muscles as well as your tendons and ligaments and bones.  Weightlifting works through resistance. When you increase the amount of weight that you are moving, you increase the amount of resistance that you have to work against. This helps to activate your muscles. When weightlifting, some areas you can focus on are your biceps, triceps, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, back, abdominals, and chest. You do not necessarily have to go to a gym for weight training. You can purchase a couple dumbbells or kettle bells for your home. Or, you can use your own body-weight for exercises such as push ups, lunges, or crunches. However, there is some benefit to going to a gym or enlisting the help of a trainer, especially if you are just starting weightlifting.  When done with improper form, you can injure yourself while weight training.  Also, make sure to take it slow, and do not sacrifice form for more repetitions or increased weight. Weightlifting can give you a greater awareness of how you use your muscles and increase your ability to engage or isolate certain muscles while riding.

Yoga at St. Andrews
The St. Andrews campus has some scenic areas that are perfect for yoga and meditation.

Yoga can be a very rewarding practice. Yoga helps with your breathing, awareness of your body, and flexibility.  Yoga can range from being very relaxing, to power yoga, which may be a little more demanding. You can practice yoga from the comfort of your home through yoga tutorials or participate in yoga classes to better improve your practice. Yoga is not only beneficial for your physical wellbeing but also your mental fitness. Yoga allows you to take time to look within yourself as well as to mentally connect about how your body is moving.

Pilates was created by Joseph Pilates. Pilates has many benefits such as reducing stress, increasing body awareness, improving body alignment, promoting flexibility and strength, and preventing injuries. Pilates is a great form of exercise to integrate into your fitness program because it is gentle on your body but is also challenging.

When ballet comes to mind, one often thinks of little girls twirling around in pink tutus. But, ballet has so much more to offer. Ballet was created in France in the 15th and 16th centuries and was popularized by King Luis XIV. Originally women were not allowed to participate in ballet, but now many people primarily think of women when the sport is mentioned.  Ballet was used to increase the athleticism of and provide entertainment for court members. Ballet can increase strength and flexibility through adages and barre work and provides aerobic exercise through petit and grand allegro. Ballet also helps with body control and endurance and provides mental exercise through learning choreographed sequences.

Gymnastics is a form of exercise for those who are looking for an activity that is a bit more challenging.  Gymnastics builds great strength and flexibility and requires immense body control. Gymnastics can also be paired with vaulting, which is gymnastics on horseback, for those who want to add some spice to their life. While the maneuvers performed in gymnastics such as leaps, splits, and back walkovers may seem to have nothing in common with regular horseback riding, it can give you an edge in your riding by the increased physical fitness that you will have because of it. Gymnastics will give you a full body work out and your balance will be greatly improved by doing exercises on the balance beam. Balance is extremely important for equestrians, because if we are not in balance with the horse we can negatively impact the horse’s movement and make the horse’s job harder than necessary.

Last of all, at home workouts are great for those who do not want to leave the comfort of their home. With the technology of educational websites, plethora of fitness videos on YouTube as well as fitness DVD’s, one can easily create an at home fitness program. This can be especially helpful for people with busy schedules who might not have time to go to the gym as much as they would like to, but still want to work out. You can do any sort of physical fitness routines at home such as stretching, yoga, strengthening, or cardio.  Please do be careful when working out on your own, as improper form can cause injury. When in doubt, seek information from a professional fitness trainer or your physician.

For your own personal work out program you can choose a combination of any of these activities. The United States Dressage Federation recommends a basic work out program composed of three 30 minute aerobic exercise sessions each week, combined with strengthening, flexibility, and relaxation programs. You can adapt this schedule to fit your own needs or work with a fitness trainer to set up your own fitness program. You should develop and write down a weekly fitness schedule to plan out your fitness routine. Keeping a fitness journal can also help you through your journey to improve your athletic abilities as an equestrian. If you need motivation to work out, find a supportive buddy who will exercise with you, or find some music that gets you motivated to get moving.

For more information about St. Andrews Equestrian program, you can visit And, for more information about facilities offered to students at St. Andrews University you can check out

For further information on fitness for equestrians, check out the following sites:

Good luck on your fitness and equestrian endeavors!

Erica Curtis

Class of ‘19

St. Andrews Equestrian Program is dedicated to the development of future leaders in the equine industry. The program is home to the 2016 and 2017 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) National Champions in Western Horsemanship. The Hunter Seat team is regularly represented at IHSA Nationals and the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) team has sent riders to the National Championships nearly every year since 2002. Students also ride at USHJA and USEF rated shows as well as attending schooling shows.

A small liberal arts and sciences university, St. Andrews majors include Business, Biology and Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Click here to request more information about St. Andrews University and the Equestrian program.




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