We expect a lot from our horses. We climb on their back and want them to remain in balance with our added weight while going down the trail, jumping fences, performing the movements of dressage, or working a cow.
As riders, when we increase our own fitness, we can balance and move better, making the horse’s job easier. Our communication improves as our aids become clearer and more consistent.
Plus, when we feel stronger and more stable, our confidence increases.
The largest demographic of riders in the United States today are those who are starting or returning to riding later in life. Many initially see riding as a way to get fit, but the reality is that riding should be an incentive for fitness, not the only method to obtain it.
But what is the best way to work out as a rider? What kind of exercise can you do that will make a real difference in your riding?
Three “Tracks” of Rider Fitness
Riding requires a unique combination of physical skills. Riding is about organized movement, getting our whole bodies working better, not focusing only on strengthening certain muscles.
Think of your fitness as a rider progressing in three tracks: general cardiovascular fitness, balance and stabilizing, then body awareness.
Cardiovascular fitness is your body’s ability to process oxygen into energy. If, for example, you find yourself out of breath after just a few minutes of trotting, you may need to increase your cardiovascular fitness. While you don’t need the stamina of a marathoner, riding does take energy and activates muscle groups, especially at the higher gaits of trot and canter.
You want to be fit enough that you can ride at your current level without getting winded. Maintaining even breath goes a long way in promoting good, rhythmic movement from our horses. Keep in mind that there are other causes of feeling out of breath in the saddle – being nervous or out of balance can cause you to hold your breath, but we will discuss improving balance in the next section.
There are many ways to develop cardiovascular fitness. Basically, it’s about getting your heart rate up.
Pick a form of exercise you can enjoy. Walking, running, spin class, weight training, jumping jacks, even taking a dance class can all get your heart pumping. When doing any of these exercises, remember that interval training has been shown to be more effective than steady rate cardio.
Interval training simply means alternating high intensity exercise with low intensity recovery. Think running hard for a minute and then walking to recover. As with any form of growth if you want to improve you need to push past where you are comfortable.
If you groan at the idea of “traditional” exercise, think of other creative ideas. Go for a walk leading your horse, run around and play with your dog, take the stairs instead of the elevator, go hiking at a local park.
Balance and Stability
Balance is obviously a very important skill for riding. When riding, we are off our own two feet and need to keep our weight centered over the quick moving animal underneath us.
The process of balance starts with our vestibular system, or inner ear, our organ of balance. Vision also plays a role in helping our brain determine where we need to be and how we need to
move, then our postural, or stabilizing, muscles, do the work of making the necessary adjustments to keep us upright within the field of gravity.
Stabilizing muscles lie deeper in the body, and are generally “slow-twitch” muscles, meaning they are designed for longer periods of activation.
We use our stabilizing muscles every day to move, stand, or sit. However – riding, and any exercise that requires balance, is going to use more of these muscles, and they can be strengthened just as any other muscle.
When our balance systems are not regularly challenged, they weaken. The good news is there are many exercises to improve balance that you can do off your horse.
Yoga and pilates are two very good exercise programs that focus on developing stabilizing muscle systems and improving balance.
There are also many simple ways to work on your balance throughout the day – stand on one leg as you are brushing your teeth, sit on an exercise ball at your desk, do some heel to toe walking around your house.
Our third track of rider fitness is body awareness, an essential skill for effective riding. Body awareness means knowing where you are in space. We all have habits in our stance and movement, such as leaning to one side, rounding our shoulders forward, pulling harder with one arm, etc.
Increasing body awareness helps us become more aware of these often unconscious patterns, so we can better manage our bodies and posture while riding, know how much pressure we are (or are not) using, and be more consistent in how we apply riding aids.
These aren’t the exercises that are going to raise your heart rate, these are the exercises that will help you become more aware of how you are moving, so you can adjust and change.
Here are three examples of body awareness exercises that are also rider specific.
Pelvic clock: To do pelvic clock sit on a chair or exercise ball. Imagine that you were sitting on the face of a clock, with the hour of six o’clock behind you and twelve in front of you. Three is to your right and nine is to your left.
First, think about moving the top of your pelvis forward towards twelve, and then back towards six. Now move the top of your pelvis towards three o’clock on the right, then nine o’clock on the left.
Next, begin moving towards each number on the clock, starting by going forward toward twelve, and then the positions of one, two, and three on your right. Continue from there and then repeat on your left side.
You will likely find that moving to some numbers is very easy and others are more difficult. Close your eyes and feel the small isolated movement. Notice any other changes in your body – your breathing, feet on the floor, chest, etc. With a little practice, you will be able to reach each number on the clock and will have improved your awareness of the movement in your pelvis, which leads to clearer weight aids for your horse. (Pelvic Clock Exercise & Image courtesy of Wendy Murdoch)
Hula hooping: Pelvic mobility is big deal in riding. Many riders complain that their hips must be stiff, but physical range of motion is rarely the problem, rather it’s the awareness of movement that could be improved. Hula hooping is a great exercise to free up the movement in your hip joints and the many muscles that connect to the pelvis.
Before you roll your eyes and complain that you couldn’t even hula hoop when you were 14, try a weighted hoop. Larger, weighted hoops are much easier to use as they take less movement to keep them swinging around.
Start with just keeping the hoop going for one or two rotations and as you get more comfortable you can increase from there.
Roll Out Your Shoulders: This exercise improves movement through your elbows and shoulders. It is good for any rider, but especially helpful for improving your release in jump position.
Find a surface that is about level with your hips when sitting, such as in the picture below. Place your forearms on the foam roller, and slowly roll out and in. Feel the movement in your shoulders, but also your hip joints and back.
This exercise allows you to practice maintaining a flat back as well as feeling the mobility in your shoulders and hips.
Making it a Habit
The key to making real progress in your fitness is consistency. You will need to create new habits to keep you moving.
Start with one.
Consider the three tracks I mentioned previously and decide which is currently your weak point.
Which one (cardio, balance, or body awareness) if improved, do you feel could help you most in your riding and likely make those other two areas easier to work on?
When you have your answer, think about an easy way to start fitting this into your life. For example, if you decided that your best starting place is simply getting a bit more awareness of your body, you could make a little note that says “pelvic clock”, and put it on your computer at work. The note will serve as a cue to remind you to do this simple exercise when you sit down.
If you are feeling inspired to improve your fitness as a rider after reading this article, act now to get your new habit in place. Create that note from the previous example, set out your running shoes for the morning, pick up the phone and book a spot in a yoga class.
With consistent effort you can get fit and feel at home in the saddle!