Weight down the thighs

When I’m working with someone on horse I will often ask them to put more weight through the thighs, perhaps imagine they are kneeling. The phrase/cue originally comes from Ride With Your Mind with Mary Wanless, however as I’m only ever focusing on how the riders body is working on the horse I don’t ever use a cue I don’t have an understanding of when and why I’m using it from an anatomy point of view. So I tested it and analysed what it did to riders (including myself) if they did it. 

The two most common reasons I use this cue are 

  • Instability 
  • Pain -often the knee but sometimes the ankle.

Now I’m not saying there shouldn’t be weight through the heel as we are originally taught  as there definitely needs to be a connection to the foot but if a rider lacks stability they will often push down quite a lot into the heel in order to try and create it; which then results in joints locking and becoming rigid instead of force absorbing. This then contributes or indeed causes a pain issue, or at best just doesn’t enable you to move with and communicate with the horse as well as you’d like to.

However if you bear weight through the thigh what you actually do is activate the muscles at the front and the back of the thigh and hopefully if done well the glutes too. So you’re instantly using some big muscle groups to help stabilise you further and in the case of joint pain give it a much bigger support system. 

A rider truly in self carriage has these muscles activated as they ride. They won’t be tensing and flexing with huge effort as if doing a workout but they will just be gently working away, supporting the body and enabling it to absorb the movement of the horse and move itself to give aids and accelerate and decelerate through transitions. 

If we expect self carriage from our horse we should expect it from ourselves.


It’s got to work together

When I ask my clients what they want to work on to improve their riding often they will say things like my legs need to be stronger or the old classic I need to improve my core. I take these things into account and design their programmes accordingly.

However a large part of what we actually do is full body movements. That’s not because I haven’t listened it’s because just working on a single part of the body in isolation is unlikely to  improve its performance on the horse. 

When you are riding the whole body has to work together synergistically in order to stabilise all the joints and enable them to absorb the movement of the horse and still be able to move limbs or your seat to apply aids. So just having stronger legs or abs won’t necessarily make it stronger on a horse if it isn’t able to work together with your back, arms etc. 

This is why when we’re training we focus on exercises that yes may appear initially as say a leg strength exercise if it were a Squat; but in fact if done well will also use your glutes, your back and abdominals, then if your were holding a weight may also use your arms and shoulders. 

An overhead press is another great example which we may do as a push press. The legs are required to drive the weight up, the back and abs are required to keep the middle stable and then obviously the shoulders and arms will kick in to finish with a stable overhead position. If these muscles don’t all activate together as a team then you won’t perform the lift correctly. 

If we are doing abdominal work it will usually involve a breathing pattern to work on incorporating the diaphragm, then there will more than likely be a movement of the arms and legs too whilst maintaining a stable torso.

This is something I want you to take into account for your own off horse exercise. If your goal for your workout is to improve your performance on horse then you should be focusing on exercises that require your whole body to work together, and leave the isolation exercises to the body builders. 


Why should riders strength train?

I’ve definitely seen some mixed messages about exercise for riders. However one of my biggest bug bears is people saying strength training won’t help your riding.

Reasons are usually things like -

  • Riding isn’t a strength based sport so it’s not relevant 
  • It will make you bulky
  • It will make you tight and therefore unable to ride effectively 


To be honest I think all of these comments are made by people who don’t understand strength training at all.

I agree that riding is not a strength based sport as if it were a case of a 60kg rider against 600kg horse of course the horse is going to win. However if the rider isn’t truly in control of their own 60kg they have even less chance of communicating what they want to their 600kg partner. 

You need to be able to fully control your own body from top to bottom, then you need to be able to control it under load. That load may be the horse underneath you or it may be a weight you are lifting. The principles of neuromuscular connection are the same.

Lifting weights is highly unlikely to make you bulky. When you see people with big muscles I can assure you that has taken a serious amount of gym work (not just 1 or 2 sessions a week) alongside a proper nutrition programme designed to optimise muscle growth. Also as most of you reading this will be female we lack enough testosterone to build a huge amount of muscle.What it will do is give you that “toned” look so many of us are after. 

It will make you tight. Well full disclosure sometimes after a training session you may be sore the next day or so. I try not to over do on this with my clients but it’s sometimes unavoidable. However if your muscles are sore the day after a workout that means they are adapting and building back stronger (they may not always be sore to be doing this). The best thing to do is just to keep moving gently through it and they will loosen off soon enough. The “tightness” is not permanent. As you keep up your training sessions the soreness should lessen. 

So What will strength training do for your riding?

As mentioned if you become a master of your own body you will be able to control it better on a horse. The horse underneath you is a load placed on your body which is required to work with. If you have no idea how to control the muscles of your hips, shoulders etc. and get them to work together on the ground with a load I.e a weight then how can you expect them to do it on a horse?

A strong, mobile body is less prone to injury as it is more robust. A body that is able to control itself under load has a better chance of controlling itself in the event of an impact. Also as injury in equestrian sport is often unavoidable, a stronger body will recover better and more quickly than a weaker one. Proper rehabilitation from injuries can prevent asymmetries, pain issues and ongoing dysfunction that so many riders often just struggle on with. It’s also never too late to do this as I’ve worked with plenty of people who sustained injuries or had surgery years ago and have managed to improve on that area with corrective work.

Strength training can help you manage asymmetry,  as working with weights can highlight asymmetry and you can then work towards correcting them with targeted training. 

What I will say is any old lifting of weights won’t necessarily get the benefits you’re after.  Of course I’m biased but I think working with or at least following and learning from a decent strength and conditioning coach will ensure you get the most out of your training. 


Changing Plans……….again!

Just as we thought we were getting some normality back we went into lockdown 2.0. 


It sucks I know but we Equestrian’s are a tough bunch so we’ll just adapt and soldier like last time.


What we aren’t going to do this time is descend into an extended holiday period of eating, drinking and general laziness are we? If you do that you’ll slide into Christmas feeling like an unhealthy slug straight into the regular festive indulgence and into 2021 probably very fat, unhealthy and miserable. 


I know everyone is trying to focus on ending 2020 and thinking that 2021 will be like turning over a new leaf but without sounding a bit doom and gloom 1st Jan isn’t going to vanish Covid so it’s really important to keep focused on the here and now. 


It is super important now more than ever to look after your health both physical and mental. 


Also I know lots of you achieved great things with your horses last lockdown as you stopped focusing on upcoming competitions etc and worked on the basics which then paid off big time when you did get back out. Remember that this time!


This weekend now you can’t really go anywhere, sit down and make a plan. 


Plan your nutrition . I’ve ordered a fruit box from a local company to stop me reaching for junk all the time. No I’m not cancelling chocolate I’m just not having as 80% of my diet!


Plan your exercise. If your gym, class etc is now closed plan your alternatives. Are they offering online options? Could your trainer write you a home programme? I know someone that has an online programme……


Write a plan for your horse.  What do you want to work on? Maybe you want to mix it up and try some groundwork or get the poles out and have some fun with that.


Get your diary out and write your weekly plan in for your training and your horses training to help to keep you on track. 


I’m planning to do a little more yoga -now in on Tuesday mornings in my schedule and with the recent purchase of a new carriage I’m going to make the most of this quieter time to get both Spotties back in the carriage working on Panda gaining confidence and Douglas perhaps paying more attention to the speed I want rather than the one he thinks is suitable!


What are your plans?