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Riding Exercises to Sharpen Your Riding Skills – with Maryah Cugno & Torey Roderick

Are you feeling rusty in the new year? Industry experts share exercises to help refresh and sharpen your riding skills for the 2024 show season.

Planning a new year of horse shows requires refreshing and sharpening the physical and mental game. Flipping the calendar pages to a new year and a clean slate is the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate physical and mental routines that prepare horses and riders alike for the upcoming show season.

As New Year’s resolutions are in full swing – or perhaps waning already – going back to the basics of getting horse and rider “legged up” and mentally focused can be the building blocks of a great year ahead. Trainers Maryah Cugno and Torey Roderick share their favorite exercises for refreshing and sharpening both skills and mindsets.

Focus on your own fitness
Perhaps your horse is turned out to “be a horse” in the winter months, or you live in a climate that doesn’t offer much opportunity for riding this time of year; either way, and even if neither of those apply, now is a great opportunity to focus on rider fitness.

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When a rider has good strength and endurance, the table is set for success: position in the saddle can be easier held, increased core strength helps build a strong seat and line in the saddle, plus overall fitness enables the rider to “keep up” with their horses’ exercise needs.

“It’s really important to be fit and to strengthen yourself out of the saddle and then translate that into the saddle. If you can incorporate some sort of yoga or stretching into your daily routine at home, I find that makes it easier on your body when asking for certain positions in the saddle,” Cugno says.

“I also think cardio is really important; this is just as much of a sport as anything else. I have a lot of showmanshipers that will come to the barn and just run in the sand without their horse to really find their balance and maintain stamina. If you can do that two to three times a week, that will really help – running in deep sand is not easy!”

Roderick agrees, explaining that competitors who run at home seem to have an advantage. “I notice a difference in those riders. But, I think any type of walking or running can really help with both showmanship and riding, especially for amateurs who may have desk jobs or less active daily routines.”

Horseback exercises for the rider
Riding without stirrups tops many trainers’ suggestions on how to improve both a rider’s fitness and leg strength, as well as their seat and positioning in the saddle. Posting without stirrups is the typical go-to, but stretching that to include a sustained two-point position or a hand-gallop without stirrups will challenge even the most fit riders.

“Nothing makes a solid equitation rider like a lot of no stirrups and two points. It can be daunting, so set a timer and increase the minutes each session, even if it’s only incremental increases each time. If you’re alone, set a timer to hold yourself accountable,” Roderick says. “No stirrup work is great for Hunt Seat Equitation or Horsemanship, but whatever class you show, you want to be strong and balanced and present the best picture, so it’s really for everyone.”

Exercises for the horse
Depending on the horse’s level of fitness, it’s always wise to start slow. Medium and long trotting are tried and true methods to get a horse back in shape, whether they are horses that are asked to move out in the show pen or not.

Sometimes I’ll do 20 minutes of posting trot on my Western horses. It’s great to get them fit, and it’s easy for almost anyone to do. You don’t have to worry about disrupting quality of movement and usually when you’re ready to work on third gear, it will be better because of the trot work,” Roderick explains.

Once a horse has some level of fitness, adding poles to the long trotting sessions can prove beneficial in strengthening top lines and making them attend to their footfalls and cadence.

Most of the horses in Cugno’s program do Trail or are at least started in it, so she is constantly employing poles in her daily routine.

“Pole work, in general has a lot of physical benefits for the horse. I also have a lot of Western Riders, so a lot of times I’ll set cones and lope down through the line without changing, or wall-to-wall across the arena without changing, just to work on getting a consistent pace and top line, while also teaching and reminding them to wait on me,” she explains. When it comes to Horsemanship horses, she recommends square corners and straight lines to make sure they’re attuned to being square to the rider’s body.

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Roderick sets up single stride trotting poles for her Trail horses. “I’ll set up two lines of six or so poles and just trot both lines on a circle. Sometimes that might be the only thing I do that day. Twenty to 25 minutes of raised single stride trots is a pretty good workout. I always find when I drill a few days like this, they get more careful and physical everywhere else, so this is an exercise I return to often.”

Finding mental focus and sharpness
Perhaps nothing is more important when it comes to a new year than your mental game, which includes goal setting. It’s the time of year when most competitors are planning their show schedules and figuring out how to best peak at the shows most important to them. Without setting goals and strategies to get there, the plan is bound to fail.

Cugno sets goals each year for each horse. “You have to have something to work toward or else you have no motivation. You can have a goal of going to your local horse show or the world show, but whatever it is, you have to be willing to and want to work for it,” she says. “Along with that, be honest with yourself and be honest with your trainer if you have one. Decide what you truly want, big or small, because that is when you’ll enjoy it the most.”

Roderick agrees, explaining that when it comes to horses and the show pen, “The mental game is just as important as the physical.” She is often reading or listening to audiobooks that focus on the concepts of mental toughness, goal setting, attitude or confidence, and she loves to suggest titles to her clients. “Making small changes can add up to big results, and I like to remind people of these types of resources as it can help them stay motivated at times when progress feels slow,” Roderick says. One book she loves to suggest is Atomic Habits by James Clear.

When all the conditioning is done, and it’s finally time to go show, Cugno reminds customers of the value of manifesting their results and visualizing their success. “And I’m always sure to tell them to have fun when they step into the pen, because that’s what we’re here for!”


About the Author – Megan Sacia Ulrich earned her Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin. She currently teaches high school English and enjoys showing in all around events.
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