4 Exercises to Help Strengthen Your Lower Leg

Are you having trouble with lower-leg strength while riding? Try these four simple exercises!

Do you find yourself having trouble keeping your heels down when riding? Maybe your lower-leg slips back when jumping, or you often lose your stirrups? Try these four exercises from top trainers for a leg-position refresher and to strengthen your all-important base of support. 

First: Are Your Stirrups the Correct Length? 

Evaluate Your Base 1. To evaluate your base of support, start by checking that your stirrups are the correct length. Take your feet out of them and allow your legs to hang down by your horse’s sides. In general, the bottoms of the stirrup irons should be about level with your ankles for flatwork. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Before beginning any leg-strengthening exercise, it’s important to ensure that your stirrup length is correct. If you constantly lose your stirrup iron, you have trouble keeping weight in your heels, your leg slips behind the girth and your upper body tips forward over a jump no matter how hard you work to stay steady, then there’s a good chance your stirrups aren’t the right length. A correct, solid lower leg is vitally important because it gives your whole position a foundation.

“Start by checking your stirrup length, which can play a major role in the stability of your support base,” says Sherry Cashman, coach of the West Point Equestrian Team. “Every rider’s conformation is slightly different, but my general rule of thumb for riding on the flat is that the irons hit your ankle bones when you sit in the saddle with your feet out of the stirrups and your legs stretched long against your horse’s sides. If you’re on a narrow horse who doesn’t have much curve in his barrel to take up your leg, you might need to shorten your stirrups a hole or two. If you’re on a wide-barreled horse, you will probably need a slightly longer stirrup in order to stretch your legs down and around his belly.”

See also: Jim Wofford’s – A Leg to Stand On

Exercise 1: Stair Stretch

Try this unmounted exercise to help stretch your legs before riding. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

“If you have trouble keeping your heels down, this exercise can make a big difference,” says Cashman. “Although Cadet Charlotte Hereford is demonstrating it here on a mounting block, it’s ideally done on stairs with a banister. Stand on the edge of a step with your heels hanging over the edge. Lightly rest one hand on the wall or railing if necessary to maintain your balance. Then, keeping your back straight, flex your ankles to allow your heels to drop below the level of the step. You should feel your calf muscles stretching. Hold this position for about 10 seconds, then step off the stairs and rest for a moment. Repeat this 10 times.”

Exercise 2: Two-Point 

Before beginning a leg-strengthening exercise, Tina Davey, Assistant Equestrian Coach at Stanford University, suggests going through a 5-point checklist to ensure your weight is evenly distributed across both sides of your body and down into both heels. Once you’ve evaluated and aligned your position, you can then try this exercise:

“With your body correctly positioned and balanced, you can begin strengthening both legs properly,” says Davey. “Work on two-point position, first at the walk. As you lift your seat out of the saddle, drop equal weight into both heels and squeeze your legs against your horse’s sides, applying even pressure from your knees to your heels. Keep your hands off your horse’s neck so that you balance only with your legs.

“As this gets easier, practice halting and then walking off without sitting in the saddle or putting your hands on the neck. If your upper body tips forward, backward or sideways, go back through the steps of checking your seat, heels and legs.

“Gradually progress to the trot and canter, doing plenty of transitions and turns in two-point position to test your balance and leg stability. Eventually, your legs will stay in position without you having to think about it.”

“Build up slowly. If you do these exercises to the point of exhaustion, your body won’t be able to maintain the correct position we’re trying to teach it. You also might make your muscles so sore that you won’t be able to ride properly in your next session. So if you feel yourself getting tired, call it a day. Over time, as the exercise becomes easier, gradually increase the duration and number of reps.”–Sherry Cashman

Riding without stirrups is a great way to solidify your position. Take it slow and easy until you feel comfortable. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Exercise 3: Posting Without Stirrups

“Your lower leg position will determine to a great extent your success or failure in the two jumping phases of modern eventing, show jumping and cross-country,” says legendary eventing coach Jim Wofford. In one of his popular training columns, Wofford highlights several exercises to strengthen your lower leg. Here is one: 

“Posting the trot without stirrups is an excellent exercise to strengthen your lower leg position,” says Wofford. “It has additional advantages: it’s an exercise that you can do without any special facilities and is something you should do before attempting my next exercise. Before you start, place your knees a little high in the saddle so that you have sufficient leverage to produce your posting motion.

“This exercise is surprisingly difficult to do, and you will find your knees slip down after a few minutes. When this happens, practice lifting your knee up in the saddle. This is the same motion you need to make when attempting to regain your stirrup after it becomes dislodged, so you are practicing something that will make you safer and more effective, as well as fitter. While posting, remember to relax your elbows as you rise, so that your hands do not move up and down with your posting motion.

Cashman also utilizes this exercise with her own students. “Maintain the exact same leg position you had with stirrups: just behind the girth with your heel lower than your toe and your lower legs closed against your horse’s sides,” she advises. “It can be tempting to dangle your toes down toward the ground and let your legs flop around, but this won’t improve your equitation skills. This is also good practice for both you and your horse in case you lose a stirrup temporarily in the show ring. While you’re recovering your stirrup, you want to be able to carry on without distracting your horse or disrupting
your performance.”

Begin your longeing session at the walk, feeling the rhythm of the horse’s steps through your swinging seat bones. Check that your lower legs are directly under your center of gravity and that your hip, knee and ankle angles are all correct as SCAD student Mariel Cooper is demonstrating here. Then, depending on your comfort level, test your balance and position with a variety of exercises. Here, Mariel is concentrating on keeping her fingers steady without changing her leg position. By keeping her eyes focused straight ahead over the horse’s ears, she is helping her upper body stay tall and centered. Photo: SCAD

Exercise 4: Longe Lessons

Another way you can solidify your foundation and improve your riding skills is with personalized longe lessons. “Longeing exercises are to riders what skills drills are for other athletes,” says Eddie Federwisch, director of the equestrian studies program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Just like track athletes work to perfect their form instead of running races every day and basketball players practice free throws instead of scrimmaging constantly, riders can isolate important body parts and focus better on technique while riding without reins on the longe line.”

Once you’ve gone through a safety checklist, ensuring you have an experienced horse and ground person to help you, as well as correct equipment and an appropriate enclosed arena, you can try this exercise:  

“Practice your two-point at the walk,” says Federwisch. “Notice how your upper body tips forward when your lower legs slip backward and tips backward when your legs slip forward. To prevent either case, concentrate on keeping your lower legs directly underneath you, regardless of what your upper body is doing. Stretch down into your heels, feeling the flexibility in your ankles, without losing the angle in your knees.

“As your confidence grows, exaggerate your two-point position by bringing your chest closer to your horse’s neck. Then try leaning to either side of his neck. The more you change your center of gravity, the more secure your lower-leg position will become. You’ll also grow much more aware of your balance through feel than you would by listening to an instructor tell you where to move your body.

One of the best longe-line exercises for strengthening and balancing your position is two-point without stirrups. Practice it plenty first with stirrups, then do your best to maintain the correct angles in your knees and ankles. Rider Kristin Stine’s relaxed shoulders and facial expression here as she rides belie the difficulty of this exercise. It’s harder than it looks! Photo: SCAD
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