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Horse Riding - What muscles am I using?

Updated: May 11, 2022

For many of us we just jump on and what will be will be, but have you ever stopped to think about what the muscles in our body are doing? It is well documented that to ride horses a strong core is fundamental to maintaining an upright position, but have you noticed that when you finish riding very often it is not your core that hurts, it's your legs, back and arms? When you are riding it engages muscles throughout your entire body. So, in this blog we are going to give you an overview of the muscles you use and what impact it can have on you or your horse. The main muscle groups that are used are found in your core and legs, but the list below shows those and other muscle groups used:

  • Abdominals & Obliques

  • Erector Spinae Group

  • Gluteus Maximus & Medius

  • Hip Abductors & Adductors

  • Hip Extensors

  • Iliacus & Psoas

  • Pectoralis Major & Minor

  • Piriformis

  • Quadratus Lumborum

  • Scapular Stabilizers

  • Transverse Abdominis

It does not matter which discipline you do or what level you ride at, muscle control, strength training, and improving your overall fitness allows you to take your riding to the next level. Although you may have developed these muscles unknowingly, understanding where they are, what they do and if they need improving will prevent any pains, strains or aches.

`We’ll start at the top of the body and work our way down!

Scapular Stabilisers

The Scapular Stabilisers provide stability to the shoulder blades. This group includes muscles such as the rhomboid major, rhomboid minor, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, and trapezius group.

Strength in these muscles provides you with a near perfect riding posture both seated and out of the saddle (jumping position) as well as giving you the physical strength to hold a horse, especially helpful when you are dealing with a more ‘spirited’ one! It also prevents you from having rounded shoulders.

Pectoralis Major & Minor

The pectoralis major and minor muscles are typically well developed in most individuals, whether you ride or not. However, it is not until they get tight do you really notice them and the best way to check if they are is to try and put your shoulders back – if you feel tightness or a slight pulling sensation, then they are. So, although strength is not an issue, flexibility is, as tight pectoral muscles, lead to lengthening in the scapular stabiliser muscles and create rounded shoulders.

Abdominals & Obliques

The abdominal muscles include the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transversus abdominis. These muscles work together along with the muscles of the spine to create core stability. Riding actually requires more core stability than core strength. Why? Because the nature of riding requires our hip, pelvis, and lower back to move with the movement of the horse. These muscles all need to coordinate with each other in order to produce stability, not rigidity. Excessive rigidity through the abdominal and spinal muscles inhibits shock absorption and can create significant back pain.

Your obliques play a large role in aiding proper posture whilst riding. These muscles are found along the sides of your abdomen and are largely responsible for holding your body upright. Weak oblique muscles may cause the you to tip to one side causing an imbalance and compensatory issues for horse and rider.

Erector Spinae Group

Posture and positioning are important to your riding technique and the erector spinae group of muscles work to create stability and flexibility in the spine. The group includes the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles. They extend bilaterally (both sides) from the skull to the sacral region (bottom part of the spine). Ensuring these muscles are strong will not only make riding more comfortable but will also improve your technique.

Transverse Abdominis

The Transverse Abdominis plays a large role in protecting your spine, organs and stabilising your hips, ribs and pelvis which in turn enables you to maintain proper posture. Wrapping around your entire abdomen, the transverse abdominis can be thought of as a type of brace that helps you to remain upright. Having a weak transverse muscle is often one of the many reasons people may experience lower back pain when riding.

Quadratus Lumborum

Your Quadratus Lumborum is the deepest muscle in your back and attaches to the bottom rib and to your lumbar vertebrae as well as the back of your pelvis. This muscle has a major influence on how you move, stand, and ride your horse. It is a lateral flexor which means it has the control of whether you tip or rock to one side in the saddle, so any weakness could cause a major imbalance in both you and the horse.

Gluteus Maximus & Medius

The Gluteus Maximus controls the front to back balance of your hips alongside the psoas. It is a large powerful hip extensor, as an extensor muscle its contraction extends or straightens a limb or other part of the body.

Gluteus Medius is located in the upper part of your buttock laying above the glutes maximus. It controls the inward and outward movements of the hips, whilst also stabilising the joint. Crucial for helping you stay balanced in the centre of the saddle.

The squeezing of the glutes encourages the thighs to activate, when they are tight it can hinder the horses balance and can affect your balance within the saddle. For example; if your glutes are weak or not controlled, movements such as sitting trot will be difficult and will cause tension and engagement to the adductor muscles in an attempt to try and stabilise your position.


The Piriformis is a flat muscle and the most superficial (outermost) muscle of the deep gluteal muscles. It is part of the lateral rotators of the hip (obturator internus, superior and inferior gemelli, quadratus femoris, obturator externus, and gluteus maximus). The muscle itself connects your hip to your legs and together with the Psoas this muscle this helps rotate and extend your hips as well as internally rotate and flex. When riding, this muscle is highly responsible for balance whilst in the saddle but can often become shortened and tight due to a prolonged time spent in the saddle. When the muscle does shorten and tighten it can put pressure on your sciatic nerve, which most riders will have experienced. The best place to find out more about this is in our blog which came out last week – Sciatica or a Pain in the Piriformis? !!

Hip Abductors & Adductors

Adductors – squeeze your legs together or cross your leg over the midline to the other side. This group of muscles include; adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, and gracillis are they are located in the medial compartment of the thigh. The adductor magnus is the largest muscle in the medial compartment. It lies posteriorly to the other muscles, and is the most commonly injured. The adductor longus is a large, flat muscle and it partially covers the adductor brevis and magnus. It provides some medial (internal) rotation. The adductor brevis is a short muscle that lies underneath the adductor longus and finally, the gracilis is the most superficial (outermost) and medial (internal) of hip adductors. It crosses at both the hip and knee joints and adducts (movement contraction of bringing the limb over the centre line of the body) the thigh at the hip, and flexion (bending) of the leg at the knee. Commonly, in riders their adductors are one of the strongest parts of their body as they often rely too much on these muscles when rebalancing and remaining stable in the saddle. The overuse of these muscles can create asymmetry or imbalance with the other important upper & lower body muscles.

Abductors – pull or lift your leg out to the side away from the middle of your body (your midline). This group of muscles includes the gluteus Medius, gluteus minimums and tensor fascia Latae.

Weakness within the hip abductor muscles can have a knock-on effect throughout your, lower limbs and back. Having this weakness is far more common than people maybe realise. To understand further what hip abduction is in regards to movements, examples would be; stepping to the side, getting out of bed or getting out of the car. They contribute to your ability to stand, walk and rotate your legs with ease. Fundamentally they are linked to stabilising your pelvis and are closely related to the core muscles which is crucial for balance in any movements and therefore are pivotable in the contribution of remaining in a balance and in correct riding position. Many riders rely on these muscles to much which will create, pain, strain and inevitably weakness within this area will contribute to inefficient signals being sent the horse.

Hip Extensors

Hip Extensors are the group of muscles located in the posterior hip and thigh. The group includes the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings (bicep femoris, semitendinosus & semimembranosus). They are commonly called the “power muscles” for equestrians. Why? Because they create the drive and forward momentum of your horse’s movements. Think about when you are trying to encourage your horse to go forward in a collected manner whether it is on the flat or approaching a fence. Horses respond to the signals we give them through our body. Under development or tightness in the hip extensors will not only create a weak signal as a result of a poor technique but it can lead to back pain. Ensuring you have strength as well as flexibility in your hip extensors helps prevents shifting in your pelvis as well as injury.

Hip Flexors

Your hip flexors consist of 5 muscles that contribute to hip flexion: iliacus, psoas, pectineus, rectus femoris and sartorius. The two which really have an effect on posture, balance, power and stability in the saddle are the Iliacus and the Psoas. However, as a whole, the hip flexors and often get tight due to the constant rebalancing in the saddle and Riders who are tight in the hip flexors can be very stiff and tight in the saddle, or are even sometimes the opposite and look too floppy as they lack the suppleness to follow the horse correctly.

The Iliacus is found on the inner side of the hip bone and starts from the iliac fossa on the interior side of the hip bone. When riding, this muscle has huge capacity in inhibiting or releasing the movement of the horse below the rider.

Along with the Iliacus, the Psoas attaches the spinal vertebrae to the muscles of the lower body. It is responsible for allowing spinal flexing and rotation, playing a large role in your ability to control the front to back motion and absorb shock properly.


As riders we will always ensure our horses have the very best of everything and should there be any problem no matter how big or small, we will make sure it is fixed but how many of us can actually say we do that for ourselves? Aren’t horse and rider supposed to be a team and in some way in sync – how can you be when one of the team is out of kilter, in pain or constantly in an imbalanced position.

This overview really does highlight that the body does in fact work as an entire unit, everything is connected and there is a lot involved in helping to keep your body stable and balanced in the saddle. Understanding the role that the muscles play, will enable you to become more aware of any areas of weakness or tightness and maybe understand why? Or how they could be linked. By being aware and improving the areas or muscles which have weakness, aches or pains it will enable you to get the very best performance out of your body and your horse.

Our next blog is going to be about how to care for these muscles and what you can do to strengthen them. So, keep an eye out on our social media for the release announcement.

If you experience discomfort when you are riding or if you have a new or old injury which is affecting you, we can help. Having regular sports massage sessions will help your overall health, wellbeing and performance not only in riding but in everyday life to.

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