Mastering the fundamentals of horseback riding is an important part of becoming a good rider and skilled horseman. Believe it or not, horseback riding requires a lot of coordination – from the top of your head to the soles of your feet! When you are a beginner, horse riding exercises can help fast track you to improving your skills.
The internet can be a wonderful resource for ideas and training tips, but it’s always a good idea to begin your equestrian journey with a certified professional instructor. No matter what equestrian discipline you choose, there are many exercises that you can use to improve your equestrian skills.
These 19 exercises will get you started with some ideas you can start working on today. For more inspiration, check out the books I reference at the bottom of the post including my favorite: 101 Arena Exercises for Horse & Rider
If you’re looking for ways to shake up your riding routine, here are 19 exercises you can try whether you’re a beginner, a trainer teaching beginners – or even if you’re a more advanced student too!
Arm Exercises for Balance
With new beginners, these exercises are best attempted while the rider is on a lunge line or lead rope. Advanced riders can also try them at different gaits, or perform them in a sequence.
These exercises help improve coordination, balance, and open the rider’s sternum (keeping your chest up and open is important for good riding position).
Extend one arm out to the side. Begin to make large, slow circles in a backward motion. Switch arms and repeat. You may also try it with both arms out to the side if someone else is controlling the horse.
One Hand Behind the Back
Extend the arm out to the side, and place it behind the back – palm facing out. Switch arms and repeat.
One at a time, try extending your arms out to the side. Then, reach forward, reach up, and reach back. Keep your eyes up and forward.
Hand on Your Head
Extend the arm out to the side, and then place it on your helmet. This movement can be added to a sequence to improve coordination and focus.
When your horse is on a lunge line, extend your arms to the sides like an airplane. Twist your upper body ninety degrees so that your chest becomes parallel with your horse.
Take care not to torque your back, but once you feel secure, feel free to attempt this at the trot or canter. It’ll really test your balance!
Exercises with No Stirrups
Nothing forces your legs into the correct position quite like riding without stirrups. This can be challenging for beginners, so work your way up from a walk to faster gaits like trot or canter.
Practice Taking Your Feet in and out of the Stirrups
One at a time, take your foot out of the stirrup. Ride a few steps, and put your foot back in. Try to do this without looking, and avoid reaching down and using your hand.
Practice this exercise until you feel comfortable putting your feet in and out of the stirrups. This is an important skill for any rider, as we all lose a stirrup now and then!
Ride with No Stirrups
Start with one foot at a time, so you can maintain proper balance and feel where your leg is supposed to be. Even with your foot out of the stirrup, your leg should stay in the proper position (knee bent, your ankle in a straight line under your hip, toes up).
Try this exercise at various gaits, and work your way up to riding with no stirrups at all – or bareback!
Take your foot out of the stirrup and slowly lift your leg a few inches. Slowly move it up and down, lifting from the hip.
The stretches and strengthens your hips, and helps you sit better on your “pockets.” You can also try doing circular movements with your legs away from the saddle.
Be careful not to inadvertently kick your horse in the process, but a seasoned school pony would be a perfect partner for these sorts of exercises.
With one or both feet out of the stirrups, lift your toes and roll them in small circles. This will help improve your balance, stretch your ankles, and get you thinking about your toe position.
Lunge with No Stirrups and No Hands
As your balance and strength improve, you can combine the stirrup exercises with the arm exercises while your horse is on a lunge line. This can be quite the workout for a beginner, so start slowly to build your strength.
Exercise is fun! If you’re a trainer and you want to add some whimsy to your riding routine in a beginner group lesson, try some games to shake things up.
This exercise generally requires a helper to hold, lead, or lunge the horse. Safety is always the most important factor when attempting any riding exercises.
Begin by sitting astride your horse in a normal position. Then, swing your leg over your horse’s neck so both feet are on the same side. Swing your other leg over your horse’s rear, so now you’re sitting backward in the saddle. Continue until you reach a normal forward riding position. Try it in either direction – but be careful not to whack your horse in the head or rump!
Red Light, Green Light
This classic children’s game is perfect for practicing gait transitions and listening skills. Call out directions: “red light” means “stop” (or downward gait transition). “Green light” means “move forward”.
The last person to stop or transition is eliminated. Continue until one rider remains victorious. Just make sure your beginners aren’t yanking on their horses’ mouths!
Simon Says or Follow the Leader
This game is great for practicing arm circles, stirrup work, and listening skills. Appoint someone to call commands – you can try gait changes, transitions, arm circles, no-stirrups, etc. Eliminate riders as you catch them not heeding “Simon’s” directions.
You can also play a variation of this game as “follow the leader” instead, where riders must follow and match another rider’s movements as they make their way around the ring.
Ride a Buck
Place a dollar bill (or slip of paper) underneath the riders’ legs. Continue the lesson with regular drills or exercises.
The last rider to hold on to their dollar gets to keep it! You can place the paper underneath different points of contact for your riders, depending on their abilities and strengths.
Try these different exercises at various gaits, depending on your abilities.
Two-Point Over Poles
Even if you don’t plan on becoming an Olympic show-jumper, riding your horse over a ground pole in a two-point position is a fun way to improve balance and work on your concentration. And if you do plan on jumping in the future, it’s a great way to get an introduction to the foundations of jumping.
Set up a line of cones down one side of the arena. Practice weaving your horse through these cones. This can help you work on steering, and it’s a good way to loosen up your horse and get him paying attention as well.
Once you’ve mastered posting, shake up your trotting exercises by practicing some diagonal changes. You can try the following exercises:
- Post for three strides, sit for two strides. Repeat as necessary.
- Try changing your diagonal every two strides as you make your way around the arena.
- Consider performing a posting trot down the length of the arena, and then try a sitting trot in the corners. Work on controlling the speed of your horse with your body and legs, rather than your hands. A posting trot is often faster than a sitting trot depending on your discipline and horse, so play with variations in speed during this exercise.
Riding Exercises with Physical Reminders
Sometimes, beginners can get into bad habits that can be hard to break. Sometimes, adding a simple odd accessory can help re-train your muscles properly.
Straightening the Wrists
Are your wrists floppy, or always bent? Try adding a wide tongue depressor or popsicle stick to the inside of your wrist, and securing it with tape. As you ride, the wooden sticks will help keep your wrists straight. You can also use wrist braces or wrist guards. (source)
Taping the Reins
If you have trouble remembering how long or short your reins are supposed to be, you can mark them with colored tape. Riding programs with a lot of beginners often invest in multicolored reins to remind their students where their hands should be. (source)
When it comes to horses, there are many tools and techniques that riders can use to improve their balance as well as develop a relationship with their horse. If you are looking for more ideas, these are some of my favorite books targeted specifically for beginner riders.
- 101 Arena Exercises for Horse & Rider
- First Horse: The Complete Guide for the First-Time Horse Owner
- 40 Fundamentals of English Riding: Essential Lessons in Riding Right
- Judy Richter's Riding for Kids
Have fun, but be safe!
Regardless of what discipline you choose, these horse riding exercises can be valuable for teaching beginner students or used as part of your own exercise program to improve in areas you may be lacking.
As always, remember to consult a professional if you’re unsure – and always ride safely for the best of your abilities!
- Basic Groundwork Exercises w/FREE Printable Training Log
- 26 Fun Groundwork Exercises to Try with Your Horse
- Choosing the Right Size Horse for Your Height and Weight
- 10 Easy Horse Obstacles Under $20
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