Building your lower body strength for the saddle
Riders need a strong lower body, when we ride our legs should be moving independently to our pelvis & are responsible for giving our horse his aids. A strong lower leg will give you a good position in the saddle, security, balance & clear communication with your horse, especially important when jumping.
Often riders are confused as to what they should be doing to strengthen their legs, don't squats & lunges make your legs big? (Common thought that is indeed a myth) We first of all need to look at the movement our legs do when in the saddle & replicate these movements using the same leg muscles in our training sessions. You want to focus on building a balanced & stable lower body, often riders find they have imbalances where one side is weaker than the other, similar to your horse. If your horse is a little one-sided you work on that weakness to help strengthen & balance him out, the exact same principle applies to your own imbalances & training too.
If you are significantly stronger on one side than the other then it becomes incredibly difficult to hold good posture & alignment in the saddle which can result in you twisting & collapsing to one side when you ride & your horse becoming confused by your aids. We want to create strong independent legs that are evenly balanced helping your aids to be effective & controlled. Concentrate on the pelvis to start as this is your powerhouse of movement in the saddle; we want to ensure our hip joints are strong & mobile so focus on working the muscles surrounding the pelvis focusing on single-leg movements to create stability & build symmetry, Without a strong & mobile pelvis & hip joint, it will be incredibly difficult to build a strong, balanced & stable lower leg to transfer into the saddle so always focus on your hips & posterior muscles first.
For most riders I wouldn't ever get you straight in the squat rack heavy squatting, you don't need to be focusing on lifting heavy to improve your riding, that is not what I would call functional fitness & often overloading the body with heavy weights for riders can cause more problems as you load the spine too much leading to problems such as back pain. Remember we are training you off the horse to be more functional on the horse so your workouts must replicate this goal. Focus on having good movement, keeping good form & feeling the muscles you are working.
Your posterior chain strength (the back of your body) should be your first port of call as we use our posterior muscles constantly when we ride and these muscles are responsible for our hip stability; gluteal muscles are responsible for your leg going back, taking your leg out & your hip external rotation (knee turned outwards) & the hamstrings, also responsible for your leg going back. These muscles are our prime movers so start by strengthening these, your glutes are the most important! Without strong glutes, your lower back & hamstrings will take over which can lead to back pain & a lack of stability. If you are an office worker this is even more key as sitting on your butt all day makes for very lazy glutes & a sore lower back so focusing on glute strength is essential to offload your lower back.
Making sure you move in a variety of directions to work the hips muscle fibres is also really important to ensure you are training the hips through your full range of motion, there are a lot of muscles involved in hip movements so you want to be sure you are working all of these muscles by using different planes when you train. Try implementing these exercises into your next lower body day and see how you go. Bodyweight exercises with a resistance band are perfect for riders to get your muscles working with a level of resistance without overloading your body. Bands are also great for allowing you to feel the muscles you are working.
1) Glute Bridge. Band above your knees & bridge up through your hips and heels hold at the top then slowly lower down. 10-15 reps x 2/3 sets.
2) Clams; Band above your knees lying on your hip support your head and open the top knee pulling against the band, slowly lower down & make sure you don't roll on your hip. These can be done lying against a wall too. 10-15 reps/2-3 sets)
3) Squats; Bend your knees & slowly lower down pushing your weight into your heels. Pause and push from your heels to stand up. Keep pulling the band apart with your knees throughout to keep good form & your glutes really working. 10-12 reps/2-3 sets
4) Lying hip lifts; Similar to clams band around your ankles lift your leg until level with your hip keeping your knee straight then slowly lower down. No rolling on your hip. 10 reps/2-3 sets
5) Donkey Kicks; Band on your ankles balance on your elbows and kick your leg back against the band, control when you bring back in. Keep your abs braced and maintain a neutral spine. 10-15 reps/2-3 sets
6) Split Squat; Static lunge, standing in a lunge position lower your back knee towards the floor until both knees are at 90 degrees then push from your front heel and glute back to the top. Start with bodyweight only and build to using a band. Keep the movement slow. 10 reps/2-3 sets
7) Flamingos/SL RDL; Hip hinging movement, it is important to nail this movement as a strong hip hinge is essential for strengthening the hamstrings & glutes & making your hip extension movement strong. You must learn proper form as without good form you can overload your back & transfer the load to your spine, so go steady with this one. 10 reps/2-3 sets
8) Side Lunge; Step to the side hinging your hips back as you step & then lower down pushing your weight into one heel, keeping your chest up. Push from the heel back up to standing. 10 reps/2-3 sets
Try incorporating 4-6 of these exercises into your next lower body day aiming for 2-3 rounds depending on your ability & time. I hope they help you & you now have more clarity on how to train your lower body!