Body, Mind, Spirit

Sally Bishop
BA Environmental Science, Principia College
ACE-certified personal trainer, former NCAA college athlete and team captain, professional trick rider

Regardless of your particular equine discipline, we all regard our horses as athletes, but do you hold yourself to the same regime of conditioning? Or do you regard saddle-time as enough physical activity? In today’s society, fitness is revered as a very important part of general aesthetics, or looking good. But as riders, its importance goes above and beyond this.

 Sally Bishop is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified personal trainer. She is also a third generation trick rider and wild west performer and has performed at numerous rodeos including the Calgary Stampede, the Dixie Stampede theatre in Branson MO, Excalibur in Vegas and for the Saudi Royal Family in Dubai to name a few. She has just finished an 8-month tour with the Cirque-style equestrian production "Cavalia" and here in Alberta does stunt work for film as well as writing a monthly fitness column in Northern Horse Review.

I will discuss two major areas for which rider fitness are essential; INJURY PREVENTION and PERFORMANCE and then recommendations on how to get started toward your fitness goals.

Good horsemanship is a balance of suppleness or flexibility, stamina and strength. These three things help with proper body alignment and awareness and better posture on and off the horse. The demands of your particular equine sport or recreation will determine which one is the most important, but inevitably a balance is necessary. For example a person fit for show jumping has different fitness demands than a rider fit for a 100-mile endurance race or the strength required of a professional tie-down roper.

Flexibility, or suppleness, increases physical efficiency and performance as well as increasing the range of motion of the joints, thereby decreasing the likelihood of injury during the activity by having more freedom of movement. The importance of warming up is essential to protection from injury. Warming up increases kinesthetic awareness, which prepares our bodies for activity so that we gain a certain amount of psychological readiness necessary for reducing potential injuries. Don’t underestimate the power of psychological preparedness, which goes hand-in-hand with physical preparation and tends to put the mind at ease and in-synch. Warm-up can be used to prepare muscles for the flexibility necessary for any particular activity.

Stamina, or endurance is important to injury prevention as fatigue leads to failure of skill and capacity for decision-making. When injuries do occur, it is often at this point.

Strength, is essential in numerous ways as a rider. Being strong helps to prevent injury when out of the saddle and lugging heavy things around the barn. Having strong core muscles help to stabilize your spine and protect your lower back from torque in sudden stops or turns. Having strong legs and core help the stability of your seat and general balance.

“It’s never a case of too much horse, just not enough rider.” This was an offhand statement made to me by a local trainer and self-proclaimed ‘wild horser”. I thought it good enough to repeat. This is where attention to your state of fitness can take you from passenger to driver. As a person, think about what being fit does for your state of mind. Sticking to a plan and accomplishing your fitness goals, whether simply getting stronger, or losing weight or running a 10 km, earns you a new level of self-confidence and accomplishment. This carries over to riding. Your fitness increases your mind/body awareness and discipline and translates into crisp, clear decisions in the saddle. It is proven that physical fitness improves sleep patterns and mental alertness as well as energy. This can only optimize your performance as you make conscious decisions, responding moment to moment to your horses’ feedback. Stabilizing the core through sport-specific exercises helps achieve independence of seat and hands enabling horse and rider to achieve harmony.

There are negative impacts to being an unfit rider beside aesthetics. Early fatigue leads to failure of skill and excessive weight leads to unnecessary burden on a horse. A horse can only be as good as its rider.

Not to be ignored here either, is the importance of warming up. Scientists agree that by imitating an exercise activity for a period of 5 to 15 minutes before high-intensity involvement, overall performance will be heightened. This technique gradually warms tissues, increasing blood flow and nutrients to active structures.

An interesting example to me is the method of training that they use at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. According to Andreas Hausberger, the school’s riding teacher and coach for the South African National Dressage team, the first few years of training at the school are on a longe-line, working on rider fitness. The students spend two years of training without stirrups or reins, in order to gain leg strength. With this strength is believed to come increased suppleness and looseness in the saddle, leading to increased effectiveness with aids, or cues. They begin each session with a warm-up and loosening period and also include vaulting at all three gaits, as well as scissor kicks, sitting sideways and backwards. This is felt to improve co-ordination, agility and balance; necessary tools for all riders. Sounds like trick riding training to me, and as a professional trick rider, these sort of exercises have always got a place when I am teaching a new rider.

So you agree that fitness has a positive affect on your riding? So now what do you do? Riding around your arena backwards doesn’t appeal? Here are some basic guidelines for anyone wanting to get started down the road to fitness.

The answer is all of the above. For general fitness it is important to have a well-rounded fitness routine that encompasses all three. If training for a specific equine sport, the focus will of course vary. A dressage rider may benefit more from the Pilates method of strengthening and focusing on the core, while the tie-down roper may benefit more from an explosive form of strength training such as plyometrics, which involves hops, bounds and sprints.

For general fitness the American College of Sports Medicine suggests working out 3-5 days a week. As a beginner, it is a good idea to work out every other day in order to give your body a well-deserved rest. The duration of your workout should be 15-45 minutes for people in a lower standard of conditioning and 30-60 minutes for those in a higher standard of conditioning. This should be a combination of both strength and cardiovascular training. If you are not a gym person, go power-walking for 20 minutes and then return to the TV and do sit-ups and push-ups for a start. Fitness does not need to revolve around a gym. Get out and go skiing or hiking or whatever activity you enjoy, as long as you are moving. Incorporate a warm-up and cool-down and some strength training and you are set. As you progress and want to push yourself harder, try using a heart-rate monitor during your walks or runs. It is recommended that you workout at 60-90 % of your Maximal Heart Rate (MHR). In order to figure out what your heart rate should be for effective results, use this formula:

Training Heart Rate
The formula is 220 minus your age multiplied by the percentage of your maximal heart rate at which you would like to work. If you have low fitness, start with 60% or lower. If you have good cardiovascular fitness, start at 70% or higher.

Here’s an example for a 40 year-old woman with a desired 70% exercise intensity.

220 - 40 = 180 (predicted max HR) x 70% (percent exercise intensity) = 126 (exercise heart rate)

If you decide to take your fitness to the next level, have a consultation with a personal trainer to assist you with achieving your goals and give you a specific plan that is tailored to your equine sport or recreation. Even if your intent is simply general fitness or to lose a few pounds, guidance from a professional is invaluable. We are all ears when it comes to the professional trainers in the horse industry, so apply the same standard to yourself.

It is important to first consult your doctor before embarking on any major change to your physical activity. Once you have the OK to go ahead, make some fitness goals and keep them realistic to your lifestyle. As you reach your objectives, your confidence will soar and you will likely find your connection to your horse will increase as a result of this. You’ll be happier, healthier and your horse will thank you.

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