top of page
  • Alison Lincoln

Why your dressage horse and your show jumper need different strength training exercises

It’s important to train in a sport specific way which is why your dressage horse needs different strength training exercises to your show jumper.

Taking off over a fence requires an explosive burst of muscular power and that ability to push off the ground becomes even more important as the fences get bigger. Over a small fence of under 1 metre, your horse primarily clears it by folding the front legs. However, as the height increases the horse must use the strength in their hindquarters to project their body into the air and over the jump. This greatly increases the effort required and ideally needs the left and right hind legs to be pushing equally off the ground. If your horse has a tendency to jump, or land, to the left or the right it may be that one of their hind legs is stronger than the other. Just like humans, horses are often right or left handed (or perhaps hooved!). Our job then is to provide the right strength training exercises to ensure both sides are able to perform evenly.

In contrast, your dressage horse needs to be able to carry its weight on the hindquarters for a sustained period of time, particularly during collection and this requires muscular endurance. Piaffe and canter pirouettes are good examples of muscular endurance but don’t underestimate the amount of strength needed to perform any of the lateral movements (shoulder in, travers, half pass) or indeed lengthening. Interestingly research has found that the increase in stride length from collected to extended in both trot and canter is almost entirely due to an increase in the distance covered during the airborne phase of the stride. What this means is that the dressage horse, rather than increasing the forward energy, is using its strength to propel their body higher into the air to achieve ground covering extensions. If you think about it when you’re asking your horse to lengthen, just like the show jumper, you’re asking them to push off the ground with their hind legs and that’s where strength training can help.

Hill work is the foundation for all equine strength training programmes but how you use the hills determines the effect it has. Walking up steep gradients develops the power in the hindquarters for jumping and galloping. Walking straight down gradual gradients is a good exercise for developing collection because the effort required to establish and maintain collection on a slope is greater than working on the flat. Working across a hill is perfect for horses who have one hind leg stronger than the other. The weaker leg, if positioned on the uphill side of the slope bears more weight in a flexed position than the leg on the downhill side. Alternatively riding a wide zigzag up and down the slope helps to strengthen both legs equally.

Gridwork is another useful way to strength train, particularly when based on an interval training (IT) format. Interval training splits the exercise into work periods and recovery periods. In this case, jumping through the grid is the work and the return to the start of the exercise in walk or trot is the recovery period. For your dressage horse use small fences of 1.5 – 2 foot set at a bounce or one stride distance. During each landing and take off the joints of the hind limb flex and then extend in a similar way to the weight bearing of collection. For your show jumper use fewer fences with larger dimensions in the grid to develop muscular power in the hindquarters. Aim to go down the grid no more than 4-5 times at each session particularly if these are new exercises for your horse as muscles tire very easily.

An IT format can also be used for school movements. Multiple repetitions of collection, shoulder in, lengthening or transitions between paces can be used to improve muscular endurance. For example, working on a circle of at least 20m ask for collected steps for ¼ of the circle then return to the working pace for the remaining ¾ of the circle. Repeat for 2 or 3 circles before giving the horse a break and switching to the other rein.

The more specific you can be in your training exercises the greater the impact on your performance come competition day. However, before you head out to the arena, jumping field or nearest hill it’s worth considering the following general principles (they apply equally to horses and humans!):

  • Complete 4-6 weeks of initial fitness work before adding in any strength training sessions.

  • Initially, add in simple strength training sessions twice a week allowing several days between each session to give the muscles time to recover.

To maintain the level of muscular power / endurance a weekly strength training session is sufficient.

Interested in learning more? For the science minded among you try Conditioning Sport Horses by Hilary Clayton. If you prefer something a bit less theory and a bit more practical try Jec Aristotle Ballou’s 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses or visit


bottom of page