Stable Solutions: A Fit Rider is a Better Rider

February 2008
Learn the Importance of Physical Fitness

Q: Why is physical fitness needed for the rider?

A: Riding is an athletic sport involving two partners, a horse and its rider, with each dependent upon the other. To do well, both need to be physically fit for the job. But too often, riders think mostly of conditioning their horse and neglect their own fitness.

Cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and flexibility all have a part in your conditioning program. The more fit and strong you are, the better (and more safely) you will ride. As well-known stadium jumping clinician Michael Page has told me many times, “Your horse will like you better if you ride better.”

Legendary eventing coach Jack LeGoff used to say, “Don’t be a passenger.” If you want to get up on a horse’s back and sit there as he carries you along the trail, that’s OK. But it’s not riding. To really “ride” a horse means to ask him, by your physical aids, to move forward, to carry himself by stepping under with his hindquarters and lightening his forehand, and to stay in balance through turns and over changes in terrain.

To “ride,” therefore, requires muscle strength in all parts of your body so that you can apply the appropriate aids effectively to your horse. You have to have enough control over those muscles so that you can use some at one time and then others a few seconds later. How can you expect your horse to be balanced underneath you if you aren’t strong enough to stay quiet, steady and balanced on top? And if you are a small rider on a big horse, you may have to use leverage at times for your aids to be effective.

Once you move out of the ring, fitness becomes critical to safety. If you are out on the trail and your horse should suddenly stumble or spook, are your seat and legs strong and tight enough to hold you on? Strong muscles will also help “protect” bones and joints when you make an unexpected or awkward movement, including falling off. And if you do fall off, are you flexible enough to remount from the ground? A regular exercise and stretching program could prevent a serious injury here, or even save your life!

Eventers and foxhunters know that cross-country galloping can be exhausting. You will spend many continuous minutes up in your two-point position. If you have a large horse who tends to get strung-out, you’ll need plenty of tensile strength and stamina so that you don’t get dragged around as you try to organize a “galloping train.” To be able to control your horse on cross-country, your fitness program doesn’t have to prepare you for an Olympic decathlon. However, riders still must be strong enough to sustain a galloping position in the saddle that is appropriate for the requirements of their sport/level and, at the same time, be able to adjust their horse’s pace and balance.

Q: How can a rider achieve the necessary level of fitness?

A: If you decide that you are unfit, or just not as strong and flexible as you would like to be, you’ve completed the first step — recognizing the problem. The next step is to formulate a plan to improve the situation.

If you have been carrying around a few extra pounds, then so has your horse. Consider making changes in your diet as you step up your exercise to help you lose that weight.

One type of plan is to increase the amount of general physical work that you do on a daily basis. In today’s society, many people aren’t used to doing this. They don’t live in rural areas where doing farm chores and yard work are a part of their daily routine. And in some cases, there is a disdain for doing manual labor. All of these trends have allowed people to become unfit, even if it’s been unconscious.

The easiest type of exercise program that anyone can take up is walking. It’s free. It can be done anywhere. You already know how to do it — no training required. And with time, you can gradually increase your speed and distance.

But you say that you can’t set aside an hour to walk every day? Do it in smaller sets. On your lunch break, walk to the park for a picnic lunch (a healthy one brought from home) instead of going to the company cafeteria. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

In the winter, icy roads do present a hazard for walking. Purchase a treadmill or elliptical machine and put it in your basement. Set up a small television on a table in front of your exercise equipment to help alleviate boredom.

Biking is a great cardiovascular fitness activity that also helps strengthen your legs. It can be done on roads or trails. Its only limiting factor is that in the cold weather, your fingers may get too “frozen” to shift the gears.

Fitness work includes any kind of manual labor or exercise that makes you sweat, pant and/or have an elevated heart rate. This certainly includes barn chores — mucking stalls, picking paddocks, carrying water buckets, moving shavings and stacking hay.

Grooming is a fabulous fitness activity for your arms and upper body. The more vigorously you curry and brush, the stronger you’ll get and the nicer your horse will look. And if you have a tall horse, just reaching up to brush his poll and hindquarters will help increase your range of motion.

Switch gears and ride bareback. It’s a fun way to put some variety into your daily rides, and it’s fabulous for improving your seat (think supple and deep) and balance. Bareback dressage requires you to develop mild tensile strength in your thighs and strong abdominal muscles as you “hold” your posture.

If you board your horse and live in a suburban home, remember that yard chores make great exercise. Mow the lawn, rake the leaves and shovel the snow yourself — they’re all great activities for building strength and endurance. The money that you save by not paying a landscape service can pay for your horse shows.

Volunteer to clear trails. You’ll bend and stretch, over and over again, using the clippers. Then you’ll have to drag the cuttings away, possibly loading them into a truck. In this case, if you’re following the “build it into your life” exercise program, you’ll have also done a good deed to help fellow riders and hikers.

The problem with doing outdoor chores for exercise in the winter is that it can get so darn cold out there that it’s painful. Workouts at the gym are beneficial year-round, but they get a whole lot more appealing in January when it’s 10 degrees outside.

Be sure to get a professional coach (a.k.a. certified personal trainer) to start out with. They will show you how to use the weights and equipment as well as help you set up an exercise routine. Aim to go 3-4 times a week. At each visit, work on only a couple of muscle groups/body parts. The goal is to work each area strenuously once a week.

Resist the temptation to jump right into hour-long sessions when you first start out; you’ll end up sore, you may burn out, and you could hurt yourself. Build your strength training routines up gradually (as you did with walking) and occasionally add in some cardio work on the treadmill or elliptical machine.

Exercising with weights—dumbbells, barbells, “free weight” machines—teaches you to mentally and physically isolate one muscle (or muscle group) and make it work. This kind of skill will transfer to your riding. An example of this would be closing just your left thigh if you want to ask your horse to yield to the right.

Lifting weights with your arms requires that you stand with slightly bent knees and your shoulders over your hips. That’s also the riding position that we all strive for! A strong back, developed from doing several kinds of weight-training lifts, will help you hold you upper body erect in the saddle with your chest “open.”

Investigate several gyms near your home, job or barn to find one with convenient hours and an experienced staff. The easier it is for you to get there (open early, short drive, etc.), the more you’ll go.

Many dressage riders find that a body conditioning technique called Pilates is helpful. Pilates is loosely defined as “strength and stretch” with control and it targets the core and trunk muscles (inner thighs, abdominals, buttocks, small lower back muscles, long upper back muscles). All of these muscles are indispensable for riding with a correct, deep seat. As with weight training, be sure to seek out a certified professional to help you get started.

Your horse is your friend and your companion. But you also expect him to be your partner in athletic competition or on long trail rides. You meticulously condition him and care for him so that he is able to do his demanding job easily and safely. The most successful riders are the ones that take their own fitness program just as seriously. You owe it to your horse to improve your own strength, flexibility and endurance. Then you will truly be a pair of athletes and will probably both live long, happy lives.


Sue Perry is a Certified Veterinary Technician and equine massage therapist. She lives in Upton, Mass., with three event horses and runs “Muscle Magic,” an equine massage service.


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