Get in shape: The perfect fit

Get in shape: The perfect fit

Getting in the best shape to ride your horse can be easier said than done, but with the right guidance it can make a huge difference to performance. We introduce three riders to an equestrian fitness guru to help them achieve more

Whenever equestrian fitness expert Nicola Stuart (above, far left) watches any level of horse competition, her eyes automatically go to the same place. The rider.

It’s an immediate reaction as Nicola’s brain begins to study a rider’s movement, posture and stability, working out how her advice could help the partnership she’s watching improve their performance and avoid injury. And she feels she’s got her eye for a successful diagnosis down to a tee. “I’m constantly watching riders and seeing what I think they can improve,” Nicola explains. “Even when I’m watching the Olympics when the riders are so good and much better than me, I can be sat there going, ‘I’d work on this or that’. If this person walked into me tomorrow, I know where I’d start. “Even if it was a rider who’s won all these gold medals, working on specific equestrian exercises tailored to them absolutely can still help them.

“I’m constantly watching for that. It might be very subtle, but it’s how much of an impact that might have on their horse by landing a little bit better – it could save them some time, which could be a marginal gain at that level.”

Lisa’s training sessions with Nicola have helped to improve her positioning in the saddle. Photo: Adam Fanthorpe

Seeking the benefits

While the benefits of rider fitness may provide the elite with an edge on their competition, the influence of doing equestrian-specific drills only becomes more important the further down the levels you go.
To demonstrate that, Nicola is putting three riders through their paces at a specially organised session at Chiltern Cross Country in Oxfordshire.

International riders Kate Honey and Melissa Joannides are relative novices to anything like this before, while amateur rider Lisa Farrell has worked with Nicola since the first Covid lockdown in a bid to find an answer to a chronic back injury.

Nicola says it’s not uncommon for riders to approach her Equestrian Fitness business with issues like Lisa’s and she uses her Equipilates and biomechanics training to pinpoint the cause.

“I always say the victim screams louder than the perpetrator – the pain may be in one hip but when you assess them it’s not even that hip, it’s the shoulder or the other hip. It’s important to look at that whole picture,” says Nicola.

“Whenever I’m working with someone, it looks like regular exercise at first. But I’m not necessarily concerned about adding weight – although I do with some riders if that’s their personal goal – because I’m more about the asymmetry; why you’re doing it and how that affects your riding. “If we’re doing a squat, for example, it’s having equal weight in your right and left foot. It’s surprising that we normally don’t have equal weight in a squat and nine times out of 10 that’s what we’ll do when we ride. So when you’re squatting up and down it might look alright, but if there’s a bit of a hip shift on the way, I’ll have logged that hip. As you go along, there’s a pattern. Then I’ll ask about their riding and there’s a pattern there too.”

This is where the difference between riders practising equestrian fitness and a general workout can differ. Riders have always understood that being fit and strong is a huge benefit, but those regimes don’t always focus on key muscle groups that make the biggest impact on riders and their horses.

It’s interesting to find exercises to help with your riding. It highlighted where our weaknesses were and the difference between our stronger and weaker legs. I definitely believe in it, it’s just about making it a higher priority.” MELISSA JOANNIDES

I’d had physio, seen a chiropractor and been to acupuncture, which all helped, but my injury kept coming back until I started working with Nicola. After years of waking up with back pain every morning, it’s not difficult to stay motivated when you know it works” LISA FARRELL

I’ve been told by physios to do some work on core strength and flexibility, but I find it really hard to do when I go home after a long day, so it’s finding that extra motivation – especially when there are entries and paperwork to do and bills to pay” KATE HONEY

The two-point seat, squat, jump and land (see end of article). Photo: Adam Fanthorpe

Stay stable

As Nicola starts working with our riders, the stability in the exercises becomes apparent. Having already worked with Nicola, Lisa’s familiarity with working previously underused muscles means she doesn’t have the same quivers Kate and Melissa do while trying the poses – despite them spending more time in the saddle throughout an average week.

“We start with some basic movement, then on to Lisa’s training sessions with Nicola have helped to improve her positioning in the saddle Equipilates-based gym ball work, which is movement transferred to a ball. This encourages you to feel for yourself how your body is moving,” Nicola says. “Those patterns tie back into what we do on the floor, so there’s an understanding of left- and right-foot placement and what your hips and shoulders are doing. That’s the reason why when a rider is on the horse it doesn’t go quite left or right as the problem is normally the rider and if it isn’t, a rider has to be strong enough to correct it.

“Very often there’ll be a hip out and a corresponding shoulder out. Or you’re hollow-backed or you’re round-backed or you’re very stiff and tight or you’re wobbly. That’s fine, but you need to look at that as something that needs addressing for optimum performance.
“Rider asymmetry affects horse asymmetry. And horse asymmetry is really expensive to us as riders, so we should definitely be looking at our own asymmetry so we don’t have to look at the horse. It’s being able to be the best you can be with your body and then improving your riding.” Riders often fall into the same trap many people do when it comes to working on their fitness. They know it’s important but find it normally slips down the priority list when factors such as time and finances, in particular, come into play.

But just as Nicola points out examples of the strength of elite riders helping to correct jumps when a horse looks offline when negotiating a fence, she says weakness can be causing unnoticed problems for the horse too.

“It’s about putting the focus back towards the impact on the horse,” she adds. “As riders, we do have a responsibility to do the best we can for our horse.

“If I’m not symmetrical at all and am constantly tipping to the right or have a jabby left hand, or my legs are moving all over the place, my horse is putting up with that day in day out.

If you find that your horse has tension on the right side for example, or the left-hand side of your horse’s neck is off and you suspect you could be the cause, then it’s essential that you take action.

Our three riders didn’t expect that something called the Bird Dog could unlock their potential. Photo: Adam Fanthorpe


Shoulder retractions

Shoulder retractions
With both hands out straight in front at shoulder height, draw the shoulder blades back together without lifting the shoulders or moving the neck and chest. This sets the position for stability in the shoulders, which then gives stability to the torso – it’s harder than it looks. Once you’ve got it, you can hold the shoulder position and draw elbows towards you and away again without losing that connection. Add a band for extra resistance.

Two-point seat squat

Two-point seat squat
This exercise mimics the cross country seat and is something that can be done on or off a horse. Feet hip-width apart, both facing forward. Hinge at the hips to send your bum back, bend the knees, keeping them in line with your feet. Draw your belly button towards your spine to keep your back fat and engage the shoulder blades, as done in the previous exercise. To make it harder, do it on an unstable surface, such as balance pods, a wobbleboard or a jumping pole. You can also add a band on the shoulder retraction for a full activation of the muscles needed for a stable cross country position.

Bird dog

Bird dog
This is a classic core-control exercise while moving your limbs. Starting in a four-point kneeling position, draw your belly button towards your spine to maintain a fat back. Without moving the position of your back or hips, send opposite arms and legs away from you. If you struggle to maintain the stillness of the hips and back, make the movement smaller. This exercise can be advanced by lifting the knees, but maintain the flat back and stillness in the hips.

Gym ball balance work

Gym ball balance work
The gym ball is a great tool to use for improving balance and posture, not only teaching good stability of the hips and core but also working on the body’s ability to adapt and stay with a moving object – exactly what riders do on a horse. We asked our riders to go on to the ball on all fours, rising up on to their knees when they felt comfortable, before putting their arms out in front of them to really test their stability. You can add in additional movements, such as turns, hip lifts, or throwing and catching a soft ball.

Two-point seat, squat, jump and land

Two-point seat, squat, jump and land
This is shock-absorption training, helping a rider to maintain stability on landing, ready to ride to the next fence.

Simply get into the two-point seat squat and then jump ups and land back in the squat position – knees bent, shoulders engaged, looking straight ahead. Make sure your knees stay out over your feet as you land. The exercise can be done on the floor or off a box (or a spare cross country fence). If elevated, use the same technique but for your first attempt aim to drop off the box and land in the two-point position. Once you’ve got comfortable with the drop, you can add some height as you jump off.


This exercise focuses on asymmetry and the hip hinge. The hip hinge is part of the jumping-position mechanism and asymmetry from the rider has a huge impact on the horse. Standing on one leg, gently bend the standing knee. Hinge at the hips and send your torso and arms forward and the lifted leg back. Keep the hips level. You’re aiming for a horizontal straight line across your entire body. Once more, adding instability will make the exercise even harder.

Article first published in British Eventing Life magazine, Autumn 2021.