Commonly we talk about ‘working’ our horses and getting them fit for our discipline, whatever that may be. We spend hours and invest lots of money in training our horses to use their muscles correctly and perform at their best. Having said that, not all riders consider their own physical fitness and how it can enhance their riding performance. Many people assume that because riding itself is physical exercise, keeps us fit and burns around 300 calories a session, we don’t need to do other forms of exercise. Fortunately, equine scientists have found a link between rider fitness and improved riding, raising awareness of the issue. Rider fitness is paramount when taking to the saddle, and we owe it to our horses to stay in the best shape we reasonably can. So, why is it so important?
Let’s see it from the horse’s perspective. An eleven stone (70kg) rider, on a 550kg horse represents 13% of that horse’s bodyweight. If that same rider were to go for a run with a rucksack weighing 13% of their bodyweight, they would be carrying 1.4 stone (9kg). It wouldn’t take very long for the individual to tire. If the weight in the rucksack were slightly off-centre (as most riders’ weight is), the individual’s back could become quite sore very quickly. Using this analogy to empathise with the horse, we can see that to benefit the horse and improve performance, riders should control their weight and improve their straightness by a mixture of cardiovascular activities (eg running, swimming), and Pilates. These exercises will also increase endurance and stamina.
Horse riding works a number of muscles including abdominal muscles, hip flexors, adductors (thigh) and calves. These muscles are not necessarily used in every-day life and therefore need to be trained separately, to keep strong and effective throughout a riding session. Riding is a very demanding sport, and as the rider becomes tired, their aids are less clear because it is more difficult to move the arms and legs independently of the seat. A rider with good stamina will be able to bring out the best in their horses, either in the dressage arena or cross country. Stamina is especially important in the cross country phase to ensure safety of the horse and rider, because the rider needs to be fit enough to remain focused on the horse and the fences, rather than working hard to simply remain up out of the saddle.
A good rider is a well-balanced rider. The rider’s centre of gravity should be directly over the horse’s to allow the aids (seat, leg, hand) to be independent of each other. Apart from the effect on performance, good balance is important, so that if the horse spooks, or misses a stride at a jump, the rider can maintain their balance with the horse, and avoid an accident. Balance exercises used in both yoga and Pilates can help improve the balance, as well as mounted exercises on the horse.
Whilst strength and stamina are very important to keep the rider upright and effective in the saddle, flexibility is of equal importance to maintain balanced and effective. The musculature in the hips and pelvis needs to be supple to absorb the horse’s movement. In order for the lower legs to be long, loose and wrapped around the horse’s sides, the muscles of the hips, inner thighs and calves need to be loose and flexible. Again, these muscles don’t naturally get worked this way in everyday life and so need some help outside of riding.
How do you keep fit for riding? What are the best exercises you have found? Please share with others in the comments.