The importance of rider fitness
How many of us came out of confinement feeling fit, healthy and in good shape? For many, rider fitness significantly declined – activity levels reduced (rider and horse) and consumption increased! It’s understandable, right? We couldn’t ride for weeks, couldn’t do much outside of the house in fact, and many of us had an additional workload such as homeschool.
When lockdown was lifted we were gagging at the bit to get back to the yard, drag our horses out of the field and hit the bridlepath. Perhaps in some way that was okay. Rider fitness and horse fitness levels were on more of a par than usual. So many riders expect their horses to be fit but don’t take the time to build their own physical rider fitness. Or worse, expect their horses to be in good shape but carry extra rider weight themselves. Add to that poor rider posture and your horse is going to have a tough job to perform.
This blog looks at the benefits of rider fitness to improve your riding and your horse’s performance.
Move in harmony with your horse
Riding demands physical fitness from both the rider and the horse. Watching a horse and rider move in harmony, you might be forgiven for assuming that the rider isn’t working very hard. After all, the best riders make it look effortless. In fact, riding, like any other sport, requires a specific kind of physical strength as well as suppleness, flexibility, balance and co-ordination. So it’s well worth embarking on a sensible regime to build and improve these in yourself, if you want to get more out of your riding.
Your own fitness level affects the way your horse performs. That’s because a horse will mirror its rider. Disciplines such as eventing, polo, and classical dressage demand very high levels of fitness in order to improve performance. And being superbly fit and well balanced won’t just improve the quality of your horse riding. It will also give you confidence. Having confidence in your abilities means you’re able develop the mental strength to control and direct your horse more skilfully. Ultimately, that will make you a safer rider too.
Fitness to ride starts before you get on a horse
Mucking out, filling the hay net, and filling the water buckets – even a good spring clean – will all help to give you upper body strength. But these activities alone won’t maximise your fitness for riding. Moreover they may develop muscle strength only on your dominant side, leaving you unbalanced. You spend hours exercising your horse to get it into the best condition and if you want to be a good rider, you need to do the same with yourself. This process is best started in the gym, before you ever get on a horse, or before you go back to riding after any kind of break.
Developing strength and flexibility
Core strength (tone in the lower abdominals) is key to riding well, especially in dressage, where it enables you to communicate with and control the horse. Upper body strength especially in the shoulders, biceps, and triceps, improves the lightness of your hands. And flexibility in the hip, knee and ankle joints is essential. Hips need to be flexible for mounting, and ankles have to be particularly supple in order to maintain the correct position, and to absorb shock, when jumping. General aerobic fitness also wards off tiredness. And it’s when a rider is tired that they’re most likely to make mistakes.
Ways to tone up
Pilates is an excellent, targeted way to build core strength without developing the kind of ‘muscle-bound’ physique which will restrict your flexibility. Stretches of all kinds, but especially those designed for ankles and calves will enable you to keep the correct foot position when jumping. And inner thigh exercises (on the hip adductor at the gym if necessary) together with abdominal strength will give you a more secure seat.
It’s a marathon not a race
The key to staying in good shape for riding is to build up slowly, with exercises designed specifically for you. Ask your trainer for exercises that develop strength in your lower back and stomach. You should also find stretches that increase suppleness in your thighs and calves, and increase flexibility in your joints. Little and often is better, and enables you to establish good habits. 20 minutes of core strength exercises plus weights, two or three times a week, is a great start. Plus some cardio work on static bicycle or a rowing machine to give your heart a work-out and increase endurance. If you can’t get to a gym, there are many exercises which you can do at home, such as sit-ups, which will still target all the right areas.
Let the two of you shine
Getting fit may seem like a lot of work before you even get on your horse. But doing it will mean your horse can give you its best, as well as giving you more endurance. And that means more long runs, in the long run…
If you need a little inspiration to get you going, take a look at equestrian pilates expert Julie Driver’s YouTube channel here.