Being a Fit Rider is Important for Your Horse's Health

Being a Fit Rider is Important for Your Horse's Health

Regular off-horse fitness training can help you become more symmetrical and strong in the saddle.

Photo: Courtesy Thalia Edwards

There are many reasons why you as a rider should also train off of the horse: to concentrate on your own weaknesses and asymmetries without impacting your horse; to add a bit of excitement to your riding program; and to prevent mental or physical staleness. Specific benefits include adding weight-bearing to your training and offsetting psychoemotional strain (the fitter you are, the better your body can cope with heart rate spikes in response to excitement or nerves). Your mental and physical performance will benefit from a program out of the saddle, and you will be more effective at making decisions under fatigue.

Let’s take a look at the first reason: Horse-rider asymmetries are well-documented. The asymmetrical loading inherent to the equestrian lifestyle includes movements during which you rotate only one way (e.g., sweeping, mucking). These are not “exercises” that many other athletes endure! We naturally have a dominant and/or preferred side of rotation, but few riders try to offset it. Functional movement screens, which we use to document movement patterns and identify limitations and asymmetries, have demonstrated that right-handed riders have enhanced right shoulder mobility but are limited in their left hip movement. This asymmetry places a lot of strain on a rider’s lower back and makes them susceptible to injury. 

Also consider how your symmetry and overall strength and conditioning affect your horse’s welfare and performance. In one study we demonstrated that when asked to apply what they consider even rein tensions, riders were placing 34-45% greater tensions in their dominant hand. These unseen asymmetries could be confusing to horses in training, diminishing aid effectiveness and even causing welfare problems. 

There is also research that explicitly states that crooked riders can affect the forces transmitted via the saddle to the horse’s back, and that an unmounted core fitness training program can level out pressure asymmetries applied while riding. Riders need to consider how, in addition to asymmetries, factors such as their body weight, cardiovascular conditioning, and response to physical stress affect not only their performance and health but also their horses’.

As a rider, think of yourself and your horse as an athletic dyad, where both athletes need peak physical conditioning to perform at their best, to prevent and offset injuries and to improve health and welfare. This can be as simple as doing unmounted mobilization warmups (e.g., runners’ lunges, pigeon stretches, etc.) before getting on your horse or committing to regular off-horse training. If you are not sure where to start, seek out a fitness professional’s advice. Many commercial gyms might not have access to staff that specialize in rider fitness, but you can share the following three points with them to help you in your fit rider journey:

1. Riders need to be able to stabilize their core in response to unexpected stimuli. This is tricky (but not impossible) to replicate off the horse. You might start with stabilization and balance work and progress to partnered resistance band work where you cannot predict where or when the destabilization will occur. This is commonly called perturbation training or reactive core training. 

2. Riders need to be as symmetric as possible for their own health, their horse’s back function, and the tensions transmitted through the reins. They need to be able to move their limbs independently from their core. Riders should work bi- and unilaterally with resistance to discover and develop their weaker areas. 

3. In some equestrian sports, riders must make risky decisions when fatigued, so incorporate cognitive challenges after being subjected to high levels of exertion. Some riders could experience “joint freezing,” where they can only concentrate when tense (common in dressage, particularly for eventers). In more advanced stages of off-horse training, riders can try memory recall when completing challenging tasks. 

Rider fitness, as you can see, is more than just running and doing situps. There are some great online communities and resources that specialize in rider fitness programs. I, too, would be pleased to hear from you if you have any questions:

Editor's note: This column was originally published in the December 2015 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care

About the Author

Jenni Douglas, MSc

Jenni Douglass, MSc, is a visiting associate principal lecturer at Hartpury College, in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, who currently lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. She is in the write-up stages of her PhD from the University of Worcester’s Institute of Sport and Exercise Science on the physiological and neuromuscular demands of eventing.

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