As the new years resolutions fade, and the winter blues set in, I've been doing a lot of thinking about getting back into shape. Since horses are my "real job” I spend most of my time in the barn. I muck, I feed, and groom, turn in and out, I ride, I train, and teach. Running my own horse business is a dream come true for me, but it can also be physically demanding and mentally draining. You would think being that active all day long would be enough to keep you in top riding shape. No such luck... Don't get me wrong, I do benefit from the physical work. With the way I've been eating since thanksgiving only needing to lose 10 pounds is a blessing.
The combination of cold, stress and exhaustion can make it
difficult to muster the motivation to do what I know I should. I've been procrastinating, I admit it... Even
now as I compile my latest research on rider fitness, I am sipping on a warm
cup of coffee with plenty of cream and sugar with a slight taste of chocolate
from the dipping of my delicious fudge covered toaster
pastry. The good news is most of what
I've read says admitting the problem is the first step. So, with that last
indulgence out of the way let’s get started.
Riding is an athletic sport involving two partners: a horse
and its rider, each dependent upon the other. To do well, both need to be
physically fit. But too often riders spend most of their time conditioning
their horse and neglect their own fitness. One of my favorite mantras while teaching is "You have to control yourself before you can control your horse." This could be interpreted as meaning to keep
your temper or emotional state under control, but the actual meaning is
somewhat different. If you are fully in
control of your own body - if you are strong, flexible and balanced, then you
will be able to sit correctly, stay out of your horse's way, tell him quietly
and clearly what you want.
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 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? While it is true that excess weight can interfere with self carriage, but being a fit rider is not strictly a weight issue.
That being said it is important that we take our own conformation into consideration. At my fittest I weighed in at just under 135 pounds. I was toned and defined, strong and supple. I am not a little girl, I never have been. I have curves. Thanks J-Lo for making it popular to have a little junk in the trunk, but unfortunately its not the “ideal rider’s body”. I know at least a few of you out there know what I'm talking about. You have an instructor that keeps shouting out to “pull your backside underneath you” to “straighten your lower back” to which you reply “I am.” Try as you may your body betrays you.
There are several forms of exercise that compliment riding. Some are programs in and of themselves and require lessons. Other simpler forms such as walking, hiking or swimming certainly will help you stay fit. If you pick a structured form of exercise to support your riding, please be sure to pick a sport that covers flexibility/stretching, strength training, balance, and most importantly equal use and development of both the left and right sides of the body ( ambidextrous ).
If I had to pick one form of cross training to help you get fit to ride it would definitely be Pilates. I noticed a difference in my riding after 5 workouts, and I saw changes in my body within 10 workouts. Pilate's - focuses on strengthening the 'core' of your body, which is very important in riding. Pilate’s is the only form of exercise I have ever found that truly worked my lower abdominal muscles. It attacks the dreaded pouch below the belly button that we all love to hate. Pilates not only makes you stronger and more flexible but it also allows you to work up a sweat, which I never achieved through yoga. If you can afford it, enlisting the services of a professional trainer is an excellent way to get on the right path. Consider having your barn bring in a trainer specific to equestrian riders' needs and train in a group.
This series on Pilates in The Horse Magazine for Rider is full of great exercises with detailed instructions and pictures. There are also several books written with the equestrian athlete in mind.
As riders, we all have different goals and aspirations and our fitness programs should reflect them! There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to riders or rider fitness, therefore we each need to assess our individual needs and that of our horses in order to build sound fitness programs that are as unique as we all are!