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What Skills Do You Need For Horse Riding?

Are you looking to start horse riding? Maybe you have started lessons and are now looking to take your horse-riding career further. Horse riding can be an incredibly fun hobby or a serious career. Whatever your choice, the basic skills for horse riding remain the same. You also need to be prepared for the financial aspect of it as well, because as great as it is, it is expensive to ride and care for horses. So what skills do you need for horse riding?

There are three main skill categories that you need to have for horse riding: physical, mental, and horsemanship skills. These skills include core strength, cardiovascular fitness, overall muscle strength, balance, coordination, toughness, discipline, emotional awareness, assertiveness, patience, perseverance and resilience, and problem-solving skills.

Horse riding is a unique sport, and it is also an acquired taste. You will either fall completely in love with riding, or you won’t like it. When speaking to most equestrians, you will undoubtedly see their love and enthusiasm for their horse riding. It is a good sport to try for anyone and everyone. Some of the physical skills do not apply to para-riders; these riders are an inspiration to all of us with their resilience and love for the sport.

Physical Skills

Physical skills are all about your muscle, balance, and coordination. Horseback riding can be very beneficial to help you learn some skills, but it also requires these skills. Some of these physical skills you can develop through riding, or you will need them when you consider riding.

Core strength

This might be the most difficult and yet most important skill that you will need as a rider. Core strength comes from your stomach muscles. You will need proper strength in your core for horse riding, as that is where you will find your balance and seat.

You will need to use your core to keep your back up straight. Your shoulders need to be in line with your pelvis and heels because when riding, to balance yourself; you tend to lean forward or back with your legs in front of you.

This is what we call a chair seat. Even though it feels secure and comfortable, after a couple of lessons, you will start to struggle to move with the horse and keep your balance. Sitting upright and keeping your hips under yourself will need a lot of core strength and engagement.

When asking for canter and later on when you go up the levels in your flatwork and dressage, sitting trot will become important. Sitting trot, for every horse rider, is not only important but hard to get right. Sitting trot will require you to engage your core while keeping your hips relaxed and not gripping with your legs.

Controlling your core is important because when you keep your core too tight, you will start to bounce on the horse, making it uncomfortable for you and your horse as well as unbalancing you. Keep your core not engaged enough, and you will start to lean or relax too deep in the saddle. This will unbalance you and the horse and will cause the horse to slow down or stop.

Core strength and adjustability can be learned while riding, and you will be able to get stronger in your core in no time with regular riding. Doing some exercises at home or at the gym that involves core training can be greatly beneficial, and it will ensure that you progress in your riding quicker.

Exercises you can do to increase your core strength:

  • Plank for at least 2 minutes (including plank variations)
  • Sit-ups
  • Crunches and reverse crunches
  • Leg raises
  • Twisting sit-ups/crunches
  • Alternating leg and arm raises
  • Heel taps
  • Seated rotations
  • Mountain climbers

Cardiovascular fitness

Riding horses is no small feat, and it requires a certain level of fitness. Cardiovascular fitness is important because horse riding requires a lot of energy, and your heart rate goes up very quickly, causing you to become out of breath and tire quickly.

The good thing is that horse riding – when done regularly – increases your fitness quickly, and you will quickly adjust to riding. Because you use so many muscles in your body at once, you will need a lot of oxygen to be transported to your muscles for a prolonged period of time. This is why horse riding is quite hard and tiring.

A person of average fitness that has not ridden a horse can struggle as the body and the cardiovascular system adjusts to the type of exercise you are used to. For example, if you are used to doing fast and short sprints over a period of time, you will find horse riding tiring as your heart rate slows down quickly after elevating for short periods of time.

And with horse riding, you will need your heart rate to elevate over a longer period of time and recover quickly within a short period of time.

Cardiovascular fitness and endurance can be built up through regular exercise. This can be done through horse riding and doing other exercises like jogging, going to the gym, swimming, and many other ways.

Overall muscle strength

Core strength and cardiovascular fitness are not enough to ride a horse in the long run; you need to have physical strength overall as well.

Caring for a horse is not lightweight either. From carrying saddles to brushing winter hair out to hauling hay bales, equestrians do it all. When riding horses, the muscles in your legs, back, and core do the most work, but horses’ caring also requires upper body strength.

Horse riding is used to improve low muscle tone, imbalances, and muscle atrophy in therapeutic riding. The horse’s walking gate mimics the movements of a person walking. This allows for relaxation and confidence. The rider’s leg and back muscles tend to relax more when a horse walks, which also aids in hypertonia cases.


To ride horses is like riding bikes; you need proper balance to stay on top and right side up. To balance yourself on your horse, you will need your core, legs, shoulders, back, neck, and a sense of balance overall. Many of us feel like we have sufficient balance when not riding a bike or riding a horse, but when another animal is walking and moving underneath you, it makes things a bit tricky.

The way a horse moves tend to throw the riders of balance as the horse has a lot of movement throughout their body while moving. The 4 legs of the horse move in their own rhythm and pattern. As the one back leg moves forward, the front leg on the same side needs to move out of the way. While this is happening, the horse’s rump, back, and neck move side by side and up and down.

This is enough to make some people dizzy. That is why one needs to be able to manipulate their body in a way to move with the horse and stay in the middle of the saddle.

Horses are also prey animals. Thus they have a flight reaction. When a horse spooks, it is a sudden and quick movement into another direction, either left or right, back or forwards, and sometimes upwards. This sudden movement in another direction will throw any rider, no matter how good they are, off-balance because we simply cannot predict the horse’s movements, and we do not have the strength to keep ourselves in the saddle the whole time.

When you have good balance, a minor spook, turn out, or disobedience from the horse should not be enough to throw you off.


Coordination, even though we all have it, can be quite difficult while riding a horse. Coordination comes when you need to know which rein to apply pressure on, which leg to use when to stand or sit in the saddle, where to move your seat bones in correlation with the rest of your body, and the list goes on. While in the walk, it might be easy, but once you ask your horse to trot, canter, or do more intricate movements, it is quite hard to coordinate your whole body while staying in balance and moving with the horse.

Horse riding is greatly beneficial in developing better muscle coordination, especially in younger riders or therapeutic riders. Because you need to use your muscles and each body part separately, but also in harmony and unison as to not be too floppy in the saddle. This type of skill takes a long time to develop and comes with regular riding and exercising.

Some exercises you can do to improve your muscle coordination:

  • Hamstring and quadriceps stretch
  • Upper body stretches – triceps, chest, shoulders, and back
  • Moving your limbs together on each side, then on opposite sides – cross crawl
  • Balancing on one leg for 30 seconds
  • Walking on a balance beam
  • Using a balance ball – sitting on it and moving weight from one seat bone onto the other
  • Planking with an exercise ball
  • Planking with alternating your legs and arms, stretching them out and lifting them up
  • Jumping jacks and jump twists
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Horse riding


Mental and physical toughness is a must, especially around very unpredictable horses. Horses are overall gentle and kind animals, but many things can go wrong with such big animals.

Falling off the horse is something all equestrians are accustomed to. Injuries like bruising, sprains, strains, and concussions are a normal part of our sport, and equestrians are tough as nails! Even if instructed not to, we tend to get up and get back on and continue our ride. We worry about the injuries and the pain after the adrenaline has worn off.

There is a reason to horse-riding being one of the most dangerous sports in the world, but we equestrians love our horses and would give up anything to be in the saddle. Feel free to check out our article on the dangers of showjumping and how to prevent them here.

Leg, leg, and even more leg!

You definitely do not want to skip leg day with horses around! Riding horses require a lot of leg because we use our legs as an aid to communicate with the horse. We use our legs to ‘kick’ or ‘squeeze’ the horse forward, asking for an upwards transition and keeping the horse in the same rhythm.

You also use your legs to slow the horse down and ask for a downwards transition by ‘closing’ your leg in the saddle and pushing your knees into the saddle. This applies pressures to the side of the horse other than where your knees are, and that signals the horse to slow down, transition to a slower gait, or to stop. You can ask any equestrian what the answer is to basically anything related to horses, and the answer is always more leg!

Because you use your legs to balance yourself, hold yourself in the saddle, lift yourself and use it as an aid means that you will need a lot of leg strength, flexibility, symmetry, and the ability to use them separately as well.

It might sound confusing, especially when you work your way up the levels and need to ask for specific movements. Equestrians never skip leg day, especially when we have No Stirrup November!

Mental Skills

The mental skills that are needed and learned through horse riding are sometimes harder than the physical skills. Controlling your emotions, fear, and having discipline are extremely hard for most of us.


To be a good horse rider, you will need proper discipline. You will need to ride your horse daily or weekly and ensure that you get regular schooling and lessons. Discipline is also needed because you need to groom your horse before and after riding, warm them up, cool them down properly, and pack away your tack.

Your tack needs to be cleaned every week to two weeks and your saddle pads as well. Being active, especially after school or work, can be quite tedious, especially when you need to ride as well still. That is where self-discipline will come into play.

Many children and young riders learn self-discipline when they start having regular lessons and start taking care of their horses, which will greatly benefit them in their adult lives.

Emotional Awareness

An essential skill to have (and can be developed through horse riding) is Emotional awareness. This means that you are in touch with your emotions, you understand them, and, to a degree, you can control them and know how to deal with them. Horses are overly sensitive to your body language, emotional state, and heart rate.

Because horses are flight animals in a herd environment, they rely on each other’s body language and emotional state to know what the situation is like. This means that horses will then respond to your emotional state and body language.

Emotional awareness and control are important because, when a horse picks up fear or stress in you, your horse might also start getting scared and panicked. A scared or panicked horse is more unpredictable and less controlled. Learning how to cope with your emotions and staying calm is definitely a must-have skill when working with and riding horses.


Working with large animals needs a certain amount of assertiveness and, at the same time, gentleness. Horses are herd animals; thus, they follow the dominant mare in the herd. They respect that mare and follow her without question. Horses need an assertive body, especially while in work because you do not want your horse to be the dominant one.

But submission and trust are not the same as fear. One cannot use fear to get a horse to trust you. You need to be a leader, set clear boundaries, and build a relationship with your horse. There are many ways to create a good relationship with your horse. Lunging, riding, grooming, and groundwork are some active ways to build a good relationship with your horse.


Like us, horses need time to adapt to new situations or environments, workloads, exercise, tack, lessons, etc. Riding horses and learning how to do so properly also takes a lot of time, sweat, and patience. It is best to be patient with yourself and your horse, which decreases some of the pressure on yourself and your horse, allowing both of you to learn and train properly.

Usually, when taking shortcuts, one misses many of the basics needed to produce good horses and good riders. These riders and horses tend to get stuck at one level because some basic training was not established.

Perseverance and resilience

Equestrians know the importance of perseverance and resilience. We know that we cannot give up, and it does not matter if something happens or if we get stuck, that we keep going and working even harder. Horse riding is not only a sport but a passion for many.

Falling off and getting back on requires dedication, commitment, bravery, and perseverance because we know it will most likely happen again. Perseverance also comes in when working with a difficult horse. Horses respond well to routine and daily training. Having the discipline and perseverance to work with a difficult horse every day is a special skill to have.

Problem solving skills

The last on our list of skills that you will need and develop a lot in the horse world is problem-solving skills. Horse riding and working with horses require you to solve problems and find solutions quickly. It can be solving a simple problem like getting the horse to pick up his head while grazing and walking with you, or more intricate problems like going into a jump and the stride is wrong and fixing it.

Sometimes tack can break, and you will need to have quick thinking and good problem-solving skills to address anything, no matter the situation.

Horsemanship skills

What is horsemanship?

Horsemanship is the art or practice of riding and caring for horses. Horsemanship is essential for every equestrian to have and learn when working with horses. This skill is learned and developed through continuous work with horses and following the guidance of a professional.

Reading and using body language effectively

All horses work according to herd dynamics. Each horse in the herd plays a role and falls into the hierarchy. There is one dominant mare, which all the horses look to for leadership. The Stallion will walk behind the herd, leading them and herding them together.

Stallions use a technique called a snaky neck, which they use to keep all the horses within acceptable parameters and herd them forward. The dominant mare would use facial expressions and body language to keep the other horses in line and keep them from passing her.

The other horses will then fall into the hierarchy. The more aggressive and dominant horses are higher up than the more submissive horses. This hierarchy is established and maintained daily through fighting and body language.

As mentioned before, horses are extremely sensitive to body language and will respond to your body language. Equestrians with good horsemanship skills can utilize their body language to work with the horses in a manner that the horses understand best.

Your body language will firstly tell your horse your emotional state. If you have a relaxed body posture, your horse will be more relaxed. Then the horse will want to establish where they stand with you in the hierarchy. When working with your horse, the one that moves the other one is the dominant one. Thus your horse may try to push or pull you.

At the early stages of the relationship, you need to establish that you are above your horse in the hierarchy and will not tolerate any bullying. Working with the horse in the stable, in hand, one the lunge can be used to build a good relationship with your horse and it will improve how the horse works with you under saddle.

Understanding what your horse is saying

Because horses cannot speak, they will rely on other ways to let you know how they feel, be it naughty, tired, in pain, or scared. The horse uses facial expressions, body language, and other ways to communicate. As you get to know your horse, you will learn to understand him better.

Some horses try and bite while you tack up. This can be an indication that your horse is in pain that is being associated with the saddle. When a horse has their nostrils flared, and the whites of their eyes show, it means that they are scared of something. A horse uses neighs, nickers, and snorts as verbal cues as well.

Feel free to check out our post on “What To Do If Your Horse Is Scared Of The Saddle?

You can use these cues to establish how your horse will or may react to certain situations or stimuli. This will also help build trust with your horse because you can help them when in pain or uncomfortable with certain situations. Your horse will then take your lead and follow how you react to different situations. If you become scared, your horse will start getting nervous and even more scared in the situation.

Basic knowledge of horses

This consists of knowing the basics of horse care and horse diseases. An equestrian needs to know what their horse needs daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.

A basic understanding of horse diseases and illnesses is also a must to recognize if something is wrong, contact the vet and have a basic understanding of what is wrong with your horse.

Some common things you need to know about:


  • Grass – as much as possible (roughage should make up at least 7.5% from the 12% of their diet – 12% of their body weight is what they need to consume)
  • For horses in work – concentrates

Farriery (hoof maintenance)

  • Every 4 to 6 weeks


  • Every 6 to 12 months

Saddle fitting

  • Every 3 to 6 months

Physiotherapy and Chirotherapy

  • Maintenance or injury


  • Equine Influenza (Annual or Semi-annual)
  • Tetanus (Annual)
  • Eastern/Western equine encephalomyelitis (Annual)
  • West Nile Virus (Annual)
  • Rabies (Annual)
  • Strangles (Annual or Semi-annual)


  • Colic 
    • The term means abdominal pain, and it has many causes
    • All colics are a case of an emergency unless deemed otherwise by a vet
    • The symptoms vary but the most common symptoms are: Rolling, pawing, looking at the abdomen, loss of appetite, and lying down
  • Wounds – open and closed
  • Puncture wounds
  • Lameness
  • Hoof abscesses
  • Soft tissue damage
    • Strains, Sprains, and tears of tendons, ligaments, and muscle
  • Phleg leg (Cellulitis)
    • Acute swelling of the legs
    • The horse will be lame
    • The area of the swelling will be hot
    • Painful to the touch and when pressure is applied there will be in indent – pitting


There are many basic life skills that one needs to work with horses and to ride horses, but horses can also teach you many of these skills as well. Horses are used in Therapy riding because of their ability to teach us so many important skills, be it physical or mental skills. Horse riding takes a lot of practice, dedication, and love from the rider. It becomes part of your lifestyle, and no other equestrian would trade it for anything.

Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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