While our horses’ fitness is a high priority for most riders, not all of us take our own fitness so seriously. We’ve all heard “Riding isn’t a sport. You just sit there and the horse does all the work” but watch anyone try and walk around after riding if they have been out of the saddle for a long period of time. All riders should have a strong core, good balance and good general flexibility. Lack of fitness not only results in soreness and muscle strain at a time when you need to be performing at your best, but it can contribute to lower scores or even accidents when your body doesn’t respond precisely when you need it to, or starts to collapse with fatigue throwing off your horse’s balance.
After a number of accidents in the eventing discipline, the United States Eventing Association and the United States Equestrian Federation examined rider fitness and how it was connected to horse performance at their annual safety summit. One of the speakers, Hilary Clayton, BVMs, PhD, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, said “a horse performs better with a physically fit rider who controls his or her positioning. A tired, unfit rider’s lack of balance or unpredictable movement disrupts a horse’s rhythm and balance, and it requires the horse to use more energy.” http://www.thehorse.com/articles/21323/eventing-safety-the-question-of-rider-fitness.
Rider fitness can also affect the soundness of your horse. Most people are generally asymmetrical and although this can be corrected through training programs, when we are tired we naturally revert back to old habits. Reducing uneven pressure points on the horse’s back allows the horse to work more freely through his body and achieve a longer, more reaching stride.
A study performed in 2015 examined the effects of an 8-week unmounted rider core fitness program on rider symmetry (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/uwic/ujpa/2015/00000015/00000003/art00031). Although the researchers noted that further larger scale studies were needed, there was sufficient evidence to support the development of evidence-based, sport-specific equestrian rider fitness programs.
Equine Canada is in the process of creating an Equine Long Term Athlete Development Guide, whose goal is to develop a systemic approach to maximize participants’/athletes’ potential and involvement in equestrian sport. They currently have draft guides published for the sports of dressage, eventing, and hunter/jumper and are currently working on creating guides for most of the disciplines. http://canadiansportforlife.ca/resources/equestrian-ltad-equine-canada
There are many articles out there to give you ideas on different exercises that you can do to help improve your fitness. Remember to start slow and it would be wise to consult with a doctor or fitness expert to help create a program tailored to you and your needs.
To get you started, here are a few stretching exercises that you can do prior to hopping in the saddle: http://trailridermag.com/article/three-stretches-to-prevent-horseback-riding-injuries.
“Get fit to ride, not ride to get fit.”