Upper Body Conditioning For the Rider

Exercises to improve posture, balance and hand position.

Sensitive, independent hands are the goal of all classical riders. This is achieved through adequate strength that is evenly balanced as a result of a well-stabilized shoulder girdle and an upright dynamically stabilised posture. These qualities allow the upper arms to hang freely and perpendicularly from the shoulders with weighted elbows and relaxed forearms. An elastic connection to the horse’s mouth is then possible through the available freedom of movement at the elbow and shoulder joints.

In the shoulder complex, stability has been sacrificed for greater mobility, therefore healthy function and stabilisation of the shoulders relies on the correct alignment of the shoulder joints and the position and stabilisation of the shoulder blades (scapula). The shoulder blades float in a network of muscles and ligaments on the upper back ribs, attached only by the tiny sternoclavicular joint where the collar bone attaches to the breastbone. Therefore, the shoulder complex relies heavily on its musculature for function and stability. Alignment and correct posture are of paramount importance in healthy shoulder mechanics. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles are not conducive to correct shoulder function or good posture. Hunching over computers or constantly looking down at mobile phones, holding telephones between our ears and shoulders, carrying heavy bags, all combined with stress, tension and, at times, fear, can contribute to tight muscles, misalignment of the cervical spine and often a stiff immobile thoracic spine, resulting in poor alignment and a loss of integrity within the joints of the shoulder complex. 

An issue I often see is the incorrect cueing, or instruction, regarding the placement of the shoulders. Whereas we do not want elevation, the instructions to “draw your shoulders down and back” or “place your shoulders in your back pockets” more often than not results in depression of the scapula and in the former, a flaring of the ribcage as the shoulders are thrown back. Scapular depression jams and immobilises the shoulder girdle, stiffens the thoracic area and inhibits the flow of movement throughout the spine that is required to absorb the energy of the horse coming up from underneath. Continued depression or misalignment of the shoulders can also predispose you to injury or pathology. I like to cue a lengthening of the collarbones out to the sides to create width both front and back of the upper torso. With the pelvis, ribcage and head vertically stacked on top of one another creating correct alignment, and along with axial elongation and the activation of the core stabilising muscles creating positive tension, combined with the free flow of the breath, you have a dynamically stable and beautifully upright posture free of rigidity and negative tension.

An unmounted exercise program will train the movement patterns and correct muscle recruitment. Over time this conscious control of correct alignment becomes an automatic process you no longer have to think about when you are on your horse.

In Pilates we always work from the inside to the outside – the small muscles that lie deep in the body to position and stabilise the joints then on to the larger muscles that are responsible for moving the limbs. This exercise sequence will first release and stretch the often, tight muscles at the front of the shoulders, mobilise the thoracic spine, then progress to the postural and strengthening exercises. You will develop a deeper awareness of the connection between your upper back muscles and their role in influencing the horse. Correct and well-functioning upper body posture and dynamic stability doesn’t just make a rider look attractive in the saddle, it makes her more effective.

The Exercises

1. Stretch One for Pectoralis Major

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Stand facing a wall. Place your toes against the wall and gently lengthen through the crown of your head. Make sure that your ribcage stays stacked over your pelvis.

Lengthen your right arm out in line with your shoulder against the wall at a 90-degree angle. Slowly begin to walk your feet and body to the left, maintaining your neutral posture with your ribcage. Keep your head above your pelvis as you rotate.

Continue to rotate until you feel a stretch across your chest and at the front of your right shoulder. Stay here for a minimum of 30 seconds. Return to the stat position.

Repeat this sequence twice and then change to the left arm.


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2. Stretch Two for Pectoralis Minor

Begin this stretch the same as the one above, making sure that the spine and pelvis are in a neutral position.

Lengthen your right arm out in line with your shoulder against the wall at a 90  degree angle and elevate it to approximately 135 degrees.

Repeat the same movement as with the first stretch and walk your feet and body around to the left until you feel a stretch in the front of the shoulder.

Repeat this sequence twice and then change to the left arm.


3. Bow and Arrow

This exercise opens the chest and rotates the thoracic spine as it helps to further develop an awareness of the shoulder complex.

Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders stacked on top of one another and the spine lengthened in a neutral alignment. Place a comfortable pillow or towel underneath your head. Take your arms straight out in front of you in line with your shoulders.


Inhale as you run the top hand along the inside of your bottom arm, when your hand reaches your breastbone, exhale as you open the ribcage, shoulder and head towards the ceiling. Keep the hips stacked. Straighten the top arm.

Inhale here, lengthening from fingertip to fingertip, expanding the ribcage with your breath.


Exhale as you take the straight top arm back to the start position.

Repeat 5-10 times on each side.


4. Scapular Setting

This exercise develops an awareness of the placement of the shoulder blades while strengthening the middle and lower trapezius muscles for shoulder-blade stability.

Lie face down on a mat or a comfortable firm surface. Place a small towel underneath your forehead. Relax your arms down by your sides. Place your toes together and heels apart and allow the gluteal muscles to be relaxed.

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Gently activate your lower abdominal muscles by drawing them up towards your spine as you lengthen your lower back by sending your sits bones towards your heels.

Breathing normally, have a sense of lengthening the ends of your collarbones out to the sides of your body as you pick up the shoulders from the mat, this will place the shoulder blades flat against the back of the ribcage. Your arms and head must stay heavy, and the musculature at the back of the arms must stay soft. No pinching the shoulder blades together. Focus on broadness across the upper back. You should feel this around the base of your shoulder blades and the middle of your back. With shoulder movements remember – as much as necessary and as little as possible. If you over-recruit the muscles in this awareness exercise, the outer moving muscles will take over. Be subtle.

Repeat 10-20 times.


5. Basic Back Extension

This exercise mobilizes the spine and upper back, improves upright posture and further develops awareness of the shoulder blades.

From the position for Scapular Setting, bend your arms and place them on the mat at either side of your head, slightly wider than the shoulders, with your thumbs in line with your ears. 

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Gently activate your lower abdominal muscles by drawing them up towards your spine as you lengthen your lower back by sending your sits bones towards your heels.

Lengthen your collarbones and set your shoulder position.

Inhale as you lengthen out through the crown of your head and begin to lift your head, neck and upper chest off the mat. Do not push with your arms. We want your upper-back muscles to be doing the work pulling you into extension. Imagine you have a light on your breastbone and you are shining it toward a wall in front of you.

Maintain a sense of length in your collarbones and broadness in your upper back. Do not pinch your shoulder blades together.

Exhale as you lower back to the start position.

Repeat 6-10 times.


6. Dumb Waiter

This exercise strengthens the rotator-cuff muscles responsible for internal and external rotation of the upper arm and helps with the correct placement of the shoulder joint. It also strengthens the upper back and helps to improve posture.


Stand tall with your feet hip-bone width apart and an even pressure under both feet – the base of the big toe, the base of the small toe and the centre of your heel.

Gently lengthen through the crown of your head and feel the positive tension through your body as you maintain the correct vertical alignment of your pelvis, ribcage and head.

Bend your elbows to a right angle; your upper arm should be positioned vertically and your forearm lengthened horizontally.

Turn your palms to face upward.

Keeping your elbows underneath your shoulders rotate your arms outward from the shoulder joint, reaching your forearms wide.

Return to the start position. 

Be sure that the movement comes from the shoulder joint alone – do not squeeze your shoulder blades together or depress your shoulders. Instead, feel a sense of length across your collarbones and broadness across your upper back.

This exercise can be done with or without an exercise band or small weights. If using a band the weight should be determined by your ability to maintain total control and correct placement of the shoulder blades and shoulder joints. 


7. Wall Push Ups

This exercise works the serratus anterior muscles that help to stabilise the shoulder blades in conjunction with the middle trapezius muscles, and develops an awareness of correct upper body posture.

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Stand with your hands flat on the wall, just wider than and slightly above your shoulders. Your feet should be parallel and hip-bone width apart. Lengthen through the crown of your head and be mindful of your correct alignment, head, pelvis and ribcage stacked on top of one another.

Lengthen the collarbones and feel the shoulder blades flat against the back of your ribcage. Do not squeeze the shoulder blades together or depress them.

Inhale as you lower your body towards the wall as you maintain the correct alignment of your head, ribcage and pelvis. Do not hollow your lower back.

Exhale as you push away from the wall, maintain the correct alignment of your spine and shoulders.

Repeat this exercise 10 times.


8. Row

This exercise works the stabilising muscles at the back of the shoulder.


Tie the middle of an exercise band to a sturdy doorknob, or alternatively have two bands at a distance of shoulder width apart. Tie a knot at each end to hold onto or you may attach ready-made handles.

Stand evenly on both feet and lengthen through the crown of your head in a neutral spinal alignment with your head, ribcage and pelvis stacked vertically on top of one another.

With straight arms face the palms to one another, lengthen the collarbones and find length across the front and back of your shoulder girdle. To find the correct shoulder position here you may need to lift them slightly (1cm), take them back slightly (half a cm) and then gently lower them down again (half a cm).

Breathing normally bend the elbows and slowly pull on the band to take your elbows to your sides, do not allow then to extend behind the line of your body, pause here and count for 3-5 seconds.


Slowly release the arms back to the start position without losing the position and stability of the shoulders. The emphasis here is on the controlled return to the start. This works the muscles in the eccentric phase (lengthening) of the movement and also challenges the dynamic stability of your torso. Do not allow the shoulders to elevate or round forward.

If you find you are leaning back in this exercise, take your feet a little wider and stagger the position of them, or bend your knees to simulate a riding position.

Repeat this exercise 10-20 times. 

As you become stronger you can challenge yourself with more resistance in the bands, just be sure that you do not compromise your form and the position of your shoulders, strength must not be added to faulty posture!