Why Riders Need Fitness Training


Barn choresI’m a professional, so I stay fit by riding all day.

Between feeding, cleaning stalls, turning out horses, blanketing, grooming, bucking hay & shavings, and working around the farm all day, I stay plenty fit.

I take lessons to ride better and get more fit.

I play recreational sports on the weekends, and that keeps me plenty fit for riding.

These are just a few of the reasons I hear regularly for why people don’t cross-train for fitness off their horses to improve their riding. They all sound really logical and rational on the surface. So the question becomes, “why should I cross-train if I’m doing all this other physical activity?” This is a common question that I’d like to examine with you, today.

In nearly every other sport, the athletes cross-train their bodies. Think about it, football players don’t just do ball handling drills and run plays, they do tons of cross-training; wind sprints, agility drills, and weight training. Cyclists don’t just ride their bicycles, they run, lift weights, and work on coordination exercises off the bike. Swimmers don’t just swim, they train their bodies for optimum cardiovascular, strength and flexibility out of the pool in order to give their best performances in the pool. No matter the sport, no matter the level of play, if it’s organized and competitive, athletes have cross-training routines that enhance their performances when they are on the court, field or mound.

I could go on and on with all the various sports, but you get the picture. And yet, we riders as a whole, continue to believe that it’s not really necessary for us to do the same. Or, even if we do believe it’s important to our overall health and well-being, we don’t necessarily prioritize it as part of our riding training. Why is that?

Perhaps the reason riders are quick to dismiss athletic training off the horse is because riding is such a coordinative, proprioceptive activity. Many of the best riders seem to be naturally gifted with an incredible sense of balance and coordination, and because of that seem to spend very little physical effort in effectively riding many horses. They don’t really see the need for a lot of additional fitness training to stay at a high level of skill, so they don’t tend to promote that to the riders who follow their training methods or take lessons from them.

This, however, is a very important point to understand, because the vast majority of us are NOT gifted in that way. Yet we are basing our need for fitness cross-training on the advice of riders who are far more physically capable than we are, by the luck of the draw (genetics). For the average rider, that is about as effective at helping us achieve our goals as taking lessons from a “gifted” rider who has never had to develop a full awareness of their body on the horse, and just does things instinctively, while we struggle with figuring out what body part to use to elicit the same responses from our own horses. The results are frustrating for both rider and trainer, at best!

The danger in not cross-training, for even a very gifted rider, is that none of us are actually perfectly balanced or perfectly symmetrical. Just like our horses are fundamentally crooked from birth requiring us to train them to be evenly developed from left to right, we are also all just a little crooked… to varying degrees. We don’t think twice about the fact that we have to cross-train our horses, to develop ever more stable balance, strength, cardiovascular fitness, and even emotional stability. But many of us never think to do the same for ourselves.

To understand why this puts riders at such a disadvantage, we must first understand what cross-training provides. There are a few very key things cross training does for athletes:

It gives us a “fitness cushion” to draw on.

A fitness cushion means we have physical reserves – more strength, more cardiovascular capacity and more flexibility than we may actually need in order to perform at our optimum level in our chosen sport. This is very important for several reasons:

It gives our bodies protection from injury, since it is conditioned to greater stresses than it would typically experience in the course of normal play. This allows for longevity in physical endeavors – it allows the athlete to “play” at a high level without breaking down.

Second, it allows for a higher level of precision. A body that is quickly fatigued loses fine motor control – something critical for riders. A body that is conditioned beyond what it needs to perform optimally can maintain that high degree of precision for longer – the whole game instead of just half of it, or the warmup and two classes instead of being pooped after the first 10 minutes of the warmup…

When the chips are down and we need to push ourselves to our limits, we can! If you have prepared for a competition all year, and when you get to the show grounds and come down with a terrible cold or don’t get a full night’s sleep, your performance is NOT going to be what it would if you were healthy. However, if your body is conditioned and in optimum shape, you WILL be able to put in a better effort than you would otherwise, because you have physical reserves to draw on that you otherwise simply would not have. Not to mention, if you are in top physical condition, you are less likely to contract that cold in the first place…

Cross training balances out our asymmetries.

Over time with repetitive movements of any type, our natural asymmetries, strength and flexibility imbalances tend to become exaggerated until they become real barriers to our continued improvement or advancement in our chosen sports. Cross-training not only can make us aware of those asymmetries, but helps to even them out so that we aren’t having to constantly fight against our natural tendencies.

Cross-training counteracts accumulated injuries and aging…

The reality is, not one of us can trick time. Over time our bodies’ repair mechanism, which is powerful when we are young, inevitably slows down. Every small strain, fall, yank by a naughty horse, misstep on uneven ground, and ache of the back from lifting hay, adds up to eventually substantial loss of function. Scar tissue builds up, which limits mobility and range of motion. Aches and pains result in guarding and spasming muscles, causing undue tension in joints and corresponding restriction of our horse’s movement. This is just how our bodies work, and though we think we can ignore the signs when we are young, we all inevitably pay the price in the end…

Anytime we do sustain strains, injuries, or just over time with age, wear and tear, our bodies need more support, conditioning, and frequently rehabilitation, to stay strong, supple, and fully functional. All of these things lead me to the following conclusion: Not cross training is the worst thing a rider can do for the sake of his/her long-term riding capability – especially since we tend to do much more than riding that is hard on our body, such as the above mentioned hard physical labor involved in keeping and managing horses.

What is a rider to do?

Over the past 20 years or so, we have started to see a positive trend towards training for high level athletic performance at the top levels of our equestrian sports. Many countries have started requiring riders who qualify for their national teams to engage in fitness training to stay at their peak riding levels for as long as possible. However, this training is not just your normal CrossFit or Pilates training. This training involves specialized endurance, balance and coordination training, along with mental performance training, developed with the unique requirements of riding sports in mind. Countries like Great Britain and Germany have developed really targeted programs based on extensive biomechanical study of the rider’s body in movement with the horse. They have made it easy for the top riders to train their bodies AND minds for peak performance.

Unfortunately, in the United States, as is the case in many of our riding related endeavors, we have stayed behind the curve in the area of rider fitness. Many of our top riders do cross-train, but they have either developed their own personal programs, or they are using several fitness program modalities to accomplish their goals, such as pilates, weight training, running and yoga. They know, without a shadow of doubt, that in order to stay at the top of their game, they MUST keep their bodies in top shape off the horse.

The degree of importance and priority these top riders have placed on keeping their bodies in peak physical condition has yet to really trickle down to the masses of riders that are not competing at that international level in this country, and so it has been very slow to catch on. There simply has not been the kind of national effort to educate riders about the need for fitness cross-training, nor the programs developed so specifically for riders, like other countries have developed.

That is the purpose of the Ridefit program, however. We have developed, and continue to refine and improve our fitness programs to address the fitness needs that are unique to riders. We are taking a great interest in the research coming from our European counterparts, and are very excited to start making this high-performance rider training available to the average rider, at affordable prices, and with convenient options that can fit into almost anyone’s super-busy schedule, no matter where in the country you are.

Whether you are an amateur simply struggling to sit your horse’s trot or find your balance over fences, or a professional with international competitive sights, a rider-targeted physical cross-training program is going to help you get there faster, with greater ease, and with reduced risk of injury. Barn chores aren’t going to do it for you. Specialized fitness training will!

Until next time, ride fit!

~Tammy Prevo, creator of the Ridefit program

If you’d like more information about the Ridefit program, and program options, feel free to e-mail us at info@ridefitnow.com, or call us at 206-713-6761.

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