Eventing Safety: The Question of Rider Fitness

Could the level of physical fitness a rider brings to the saddle, considered along with the stamina and strength of the equestrian athlete, impact the way the horse moves and performs during an event or race? Equestrian trainers and researchers confirm this is true, and they recommend staying in peak physical condition as another way the rider can minimize the risk of horse falls in eventing.

The United States Eventing Association and United States Equestrian Federation approached the issue of rider physical fitness at their eventing safety summit, held June 7-8.

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.

"From the horse's point of view, a tired rider has less control over his or her position and is likely to move on the horse's back in an unpredictable manner." --Dr. Hilary Clayton
"From the horse's point of view, a tired rider has less control over his or her position and is likely to move on the horse's back in an unpredictable manner," Clayton said.

She explained that in racing and eventing, riders have a history of making physical fitness a high priority, although being physically fit is not emphasized as much in other equestrian sports.

Mike Pilato is a certified athletic trainer who has worked with equestrian athletes in several disciplines. Pilato said he views the horse-rider partnership as a single system that engages two athletes. The horse and the rider together participate in the sport as tools that must cooperate and work as a single system. He said the rider is better equipped as a tool to work in this system when he or she incorporates exercises and techniques to address the specific demands imposed by the horse.

"There is a lot we don't know about the equestrian athlete," Pilato noted. "In the overwhelming majority of other sports, we have physical data to describe the athlete at any given level."

Pilato said besides focusing on strength training, equestrian athletes need to consider working on other components of athletic ability, such as hand-eye coordination and agility. He emphasizes the benefit from strength training routines off the horse, suggesting specific exercises that include bent-knee heel raises and standing chest presses that utilize a resistance band. Cardiovascular workouts out of the saddle also benefit the rider. Pilato said because everything in riding happens in milliseconds, staying in peak physical condition could give riders an advantage when it comes to creating a defense response, such as when the horse stumbles or stops suddenly.

"If you train to improve your athletic performance, you make yourself a better tool and are better able to respond to the horse," Pilato said. "Maybe you widen the gray zone for staying on the horse, maybe there's something in training the athletic performance side that gives you another millisecond, but it's very hard to say."

Read more from the USEF/USEA Eventing Safety Summit.

About the Author

Elizabeth Troutman

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