Let’s Discuss: Rider Fitness

While I am temporarily riding two horses, I can’t help but hope that the added exercise will make me a more fit rider. Equestrians are athletes, whether or not the general public believes it, and as such, a certain level of athleticism is required. We may not always be shaped like Usain Bolt, or Simone Biles, but we are still athletes nonetheless.

All different sizes and riders represented, except if you're a German male showjumper, then you must be the size of an NBA player

All different sizes and riders represented in the showjumping medal ceremony, except if you’re a German male showjumper, then you must be the relative size of an NBA player

Now, I’m not here to talk about body type or body-shaming (hell, I just watched a video of myself and was lamenting that oh-so visible cellulite through my jods. Ugh), but I do think it’s worth noting one trend that I saw at the Olympics. And that is that those riders looked fit. It made me wonder- is this the result of their likely riding multiple horses a day? Do they supplement with working out at a gym, or running, or other non-riding cardio activities? What part of their routines make them look so damn tough?

Boyd Martin and Remington, Rolex 2012

Boyd Martin and Remington, Rolex 2012

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not work out regularly. I go through spurts of attempts to get to the gym, and recently I started doing an ab routine at home, and hopefully that won’t fizzle out like it has before. But truthfully, after a day at the office, and a trip to the barn, all I’m really thinking about is peeling off my disgusting sports bra and wondering if we’re out of red wine at home.

In my heart I know that I could really benefit as a rider from being a stronger, more fit person. Especially as the questions ramp up, whether that be on the flat or in the jump tack, I definitely think being in better shape makes me a better partner to my horse. And maybe it’s still as important on a greenie. Or is my level of comfort with that skill set (ie, bringing along greenies) sufficient? All things I am currently pondering.

So I want to hear from you- do you supplement riding with other physical activities? What demands do you place on yourself as an athlete and rider? Do you think that the riders at the upper levels are so fit due to riding alone, or do you know if they are potentially also lethal in the Zumba classroom? (Boyd Martin doing Zumba, now there’s an image for ya)

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19 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: Rider Fitness

  1. You sound like me after a day at the office and an evening at the barn! (Although in the summer, I prefer to kick my feet up w/ a glass of white). I’m pretty sure the pros hit the gym in addition to riding multiple horses a day. I heard either Boyd Martin or Clark Montgomery make a comment about how cool it was to watch all the other athletes in the gym in Rio while on the elliptical. I also (try to) supplement riding with working out 3-4x/week (running/strength training/yoga). I used to have problems with lower back pain, esp when jumping, but the more time I put into my core, the better it got. I can definitely tell when I’m losing some fitness in that area and the pain/stiffness starts to come back. I don’t think it is fair of me to expect my horse to be in fantastic shape without trying to work on myself as well, but it is so hard to find the time/motivation to hit the gym with balancing everything else!

  2. Since we have our own farm, there are fun things like mucking stalls and bucking bales on my daily agenda, along with riding. I do also strive to hit the gym at least 4x a week, and I have a yoga DVD in my player that I need to get better about doing regularly! I also just started a 30 day push-up challenge that is probably going to kick my butt….

    I can’t speak for any upper level riders (since I don’t know any, haha), but I imagine lots of them incorporate non-riding exercise? Cross training is just as important for horses as riders (IMHO).

  3. I love this topic! I am a strong believer that if we want to ride like athletes, we have to treat ourselves like athletes. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not so good at living that, but I think it’s so true that being strong and fit is a necessity especially as you reach the upper levels of the sport. I used to cross-train in high school by practicing with the swim team, and it was amazing for my strength and flexibility.
    With work and adulting responsibilities, it’s hard to find time for the gym or really any other activity with any sort of regularity. Taking the stirrups off my saddle during my flatwork is my “crosstraining” right now haha

  4. We also own our own small farm so daily mucking stalls, hauling water buckets and hay bales, walking the pasture in search of fly mask definitely helps keep me in riding shape. I also do a daily routine at home of crunches & pushups.

    I would love to read about how upper level riders keep in top shape!

  5. Yeah, I think this is worsened for me since I work full time and own the farm, so I don’t just show up to ride a horse, I do all the chores too (often I don’t ride the horse because of this actually…). I desperately need to lose weight/become more fit, and I know that it will help my ability to deal with the bull my horse occasionally gives me. Wanting the change and making it happen are two different things, and between balancing working full time, managing a boarding stable, taking care of my dogs and maintaining my marriage/outside relationships, it can be next to impossible. :/

  6. This just reminds me I need to do more yoga. Or any yoga. It really made such a difference in my riding.

    I think if you ride multiple horses a day, you would stay more fit than if just riding one, but the sense I get from interviews of people at the top of the sport is they are doing more than just riding to stay fit.

  7. This has been on my mind a lot lately! Maybe because I’ve spent so much time watching Olympic athletes in all different sports over the last two weeks…
    Anyway, I’d been planning to invest in some good running shoes all summer and never quite got around to it – until about a week and a half ago! I decided after my last show that I needed to up my fitness level, because by the end of the second day, Drifter was totally out of gas and so was I. I couldn’t help him out and it resulted in a horrendous final o/f class.
    So I’ve committed to running at least 3 times per week in addition to my regular riding schedule. I’ve been sticking to that so far (and yes, it has been less than 2 weeks but I’m still proud of myself!). I can already feel a difference: when I run, I’m getting less fatigued less quickly (and less sore after), and I feel stronger and steadier in the saddle as well.

  8. I’m like you — it’s hard to motivate myself to add working out to my long To Do list, especially after a full day at the office and a trip to the barn. But I can’t help but wonder if my lack of fitness and strength in certain areas is holding me back from my goals… and I suppose the only way to find out is to get fitter and see if it helps.

  9. That is exactly me after work. I’m starting to get more motivated though. I want to move up and you just can’t unless you work harder yourself. I think about why sitting trot is still difficult for me and its because I have no abs. I just started “moving” as my baby start to getting fit. Yesterday that consisted of a 15 minute run (with a lot of walking haha)

  10. I’ve recently gotten into lifting and running, and wow did it help! My only rides are youngsters that can at times throw fits, so having the extra core those activities provided was helpful. Cannot recommend enough. Learn to run, learn to lift, safely and properly on both, and be rewarded!

  11. I have a friend that just moved back to the area after working with Michael Pollard for a number of years and when we were at River Glen she said “oh- this is the first time I haven’t had to run my cross country course!”- yes MP made his students not walk their course but legit RUN (though I think she did end up running her course- old habits are hard to break 😆) Plus I always heard he was really into Cross Fit and i think made his working students do it too? I’m not sure about that part!

    But that’s my only knowledge on how upper level riders stay fit (besides riding) I’m sure it depends on the person but i think a lot of them are trying other methods besides riding a million horses to keep fit.

    Oh a thought- I wonder if they are having to branch out with more fitness bc of the shorter format? Did the millions of trot sets to get your horse 4* fit keep you fit enough too? Or is it more important now bc you can compete more horses in a weekend and more weekends in a row bc each event isn’t as physically demanding as the long formats? Im totally curious what the answer would be!

  12. When I remove myself a little bit (because Lord knows I could be in better shape, even if I’m only working out and not riding right now), I think it comes down to the question of “are we athletes?” and if your answer is yes… well, that requires training like one. Soccer, tennis, football players, heck, golfers – they all cross train in the gym, on the track, in the yoga studio, so why would we be any different? I definitely noticed a difference in my riding when I was in good shape vs when I’m not – cardio-wise, strength, balance, etc. Not to mention, I think there’s a valid safety concern too – as a matter of when we come off, not if, and how our bodies are able to handle that.
    Easy for me to say, since I’m horseless and resign myself to another night of weights, but I think they’re important considerations and it’s a good topic!

  13. This is something I am so so so passionate about! We can not expect our horses to perform if we do not have the strength and cardio to keep up, and that is unfair to ask them to cart our butts around if we are not fit. There is zero excuse for not making time and just working in a barn/riding horses in not enough to keep one in riding shape. Been there done that. We must supplement with something else. In high school I lifted weights and ran track, now I do Crossfit/oly weighlifting for strength & cardio and then yoga for flexibility and strength. Crossfit has been life changing! I know Ellen Doughty also does Crossfit…it really is wonderful for riders. I could go on forever, but I shall stem my enthusiasm now, haha. Love this!

  14. From what I can tell, most of the top riders do training outside of riding their horses. Reed Kessler does a few different cross-training things, such as attending boot camps here and there and boxing, and I know Boyd Martin was at the gym almost daily before competing in Rio.

    When you do the same type of exercise on repeat, even just the same sets week after week, your body becomes accustomed to them, and you don’t benefit as much from the exercise as you once did. So even though coming back to riding after a hiatus will get you more in shape, you’re pretty likely to peak fairly quickly. Your body needs variety in the way your muscles are used in order to continue to strengthen them and burn lots of calories, which is why cross-training is important.

    That being said, it is really hard to be a working amateur who puts in time at the office, time commuting to the barn, time with the horse, and then tries to find time for an extra workout. Even when I do have time, I rarely have the motivation to go get sweaty again when I’m already gross.

  15. I definitely think nothing gets you fit to ride like… Riding! That said.. I’m also an avid hiker and runner and xc skier. But that’s mostly because I have crazy dogs that need to run…

  16. What a great topic!!

    I used to be more physically gym fit before kids… Now with 11 acres and 2 kiddos I don’t have a spare second in the day.

    BUT I’m feeding 7 horses 2-3 times a day, hewing wheele barrows after cleaning stalls, hoisting kiddos around and walking all over the place all the time- so I think I get a non traditional workout in daily.

    I think it’s so important that if we as riders are asking our horses to be competitive – that we make sure we are helping and not hindering them.

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