Updated: Mar 17, 2021
This week i have enlisted the help of the wonderful Clare Gangadeen from Ridercise. She is a soft tissue therapist and personal trainer and, most importantly, has over 20 years in the equestrian industry.
Rider fitness is something that, 5-10 years ago, was not a subject people spoke about at all. Now though, it seems that everywhere you look, new businesses are starting up offering to completely change your riding. Their methods though range from gym work to Pilates to yoga to running or swimming. But how do you know what type of exercise is actually going to make a difference to your riding. Yes, all exercise can be beneficial but what type of exercise is actually going to make me a stronger, straighter, more effective, better rider?
What is the difference between general fitness and rider fitness?
General fitness is about your wellbeing and health. Rider fitness is about using physical activity to create positive benefits to your riding. You could be physically fit because you go to the gym 5 times a week but not be rider fit because you don't work the muscles you use when you ride so you don't see any difference in your riding. Or on the other end of the scale, you could be very rider fit, by spending 10 or so minutes a day doing exercises that strengthen the muscles you want to use when you ride but aren't able to run up a hill (this is me!).
If you are wanting to exercise to improve your riding, the most important thing to remember is that we want to mimic riding as closely as possible and use the same muscles we use when we ride. We know that when we sit on a horse, we want to sit straight in the saddle, sit tall with good posture and look poised whilst having control over out leg, hand and seat aids. We also know that when we ride we are sitting on a moving animal, so we need our bodies to be prepared for spooks, jumps or the horse doing something we don't expect.
How can focussing on my rider fitness improve my riding ?
Its pretty obvious that if we spend time improving our posture off the horse, that our position on the horse will be more improved. Spending time focussing on your rider fitness will improve your posture but will also improve your hand, leg and seat aids as you will have more control over your body.
But what about your horse? When we think about the fact that our whole training sessions tend to be focussed on improving our horses; perhaps improving their straightness, or taking the contact more evenly, or not falling in or out on a circle, or not swinging their hind quarters in or out. All these (and more!) could be caused by your riding.
These are things that a lot of the time we see as training issues and spend a lot of time working to improve. Improving your straightness, posture and strength as a rider could not only improve your own riding but result in huge difference in how your horse goes too.
If it can make such a difference, why don't riders focus more on their rider fitness?
I think we can all agree that we invest A LOT of time and money on our horses. From physios to nutritionists to vets to rugs, boots or any other equipment with the latest technology that could help my horse. Anything we can do to help our horses do the work they do. So why then, is there such a struggle for riders to invest in themselves and their own fitness.
For me, i know a big part of it, honestly, is pure laziness. I am a great procrastinator when it comes to my own fitness but i would never dream of procrastinating from anything to do with my horses for fear that this could affect them negatively, physically and mentally. I always want what is best for my horses, i know how hard they work for me, and i want to make sure that they are as happy and healthy as they can possibly be. Why i don't think about that for myself, i don't know - but i think that a lot of people are like me.
Clare thinks that a part of it is that, up until now, a riders fitness has never been seen as a core part of their riding. Its only been recently that our elite riders have had access to this aspect of their training to international or Olympic level and there is still much research and experience that needs to be had to develop this area to help our elite riders.
On social media we see a snapshot of the 'behind the scenes life' and my gosh does it look good! Our elite riders don't tend to talk as much about their work off the horse as they do their training with their horses. Riders will show the videos of their horses training beautifully, riding with poise and elegance and doing a beautiful, relaxed line of tempi changes. What we don't see is the training that went in to achieving that poised, elegant riding position or how that first change was taught, and all the messy problems we all come across in our training.
Alongside this, a lot of people think that rider fitness is just for the elite. That, because they are not competing at Grand Prix or international level that it doesn't apply to them or they don't need to focus on it because they have so much they need to focus on with their horses before. These riders generally, don't understand the massive benefit that improving your rider fitness can have on your horse and your scores as well as their long term training.
What is the best type of fitness to improve my riding?
To improve our riding we need to work the muscles that we want to use when we ride. Whatever exercise we do needs to mimic riding as best we can and use the correct muscles and movement patterns. When we look at the right exercises to improve your riding, we want to look for exercises that improve our mobility. This is your own ability to move and having the strength to do that. A lot of rider focussed fitness looks at improving flexibility, whilst this can be beneficial, think about how this is achieved. If you are being pulled into a position using a person, resistant band or another piece of equipment this is not going to benefit you on the horse, after all, we never have someone or something pulling us into position when we ride. Instead, we need to be able to use our own strength to move, we need mobility.
Yoga and Pilates helps so many people with their flexibility. However, it doesn't always improve their mobility. There are lots of different Pilates styles out there but if you go to a class and you are lying on your back and you have a resistance band to pull yourself into a position; take a moment and think 'when does this happen in the saddle?'. When are you laid on your back and when do you have someone or something pulling you into a position? - hint: we don't! Try to find a class where you are spending more time standing and moving your body by yourself without bands or equipment.
If you go to the gym, think about what exercises you do. If you are sitting at a rowing machine, for example, think about the movement you are doing and the position you are in, and think about whether this is the position you want to be in when you ride. Also, its important to think about the muscles you use when you ride and find the right exercises that engage and strengthen those muscles.
Interesting fact from Clare: doing crunches is not a great way to build your core as they are normally done on your back (we don't ride on our backs, we also don't crunch when we ride) and it encourages people to use their head, neck and shoulder to pull themselves up.
Running is great for your cardiovascular fitness however so many people nowadays have bad posture and this can change the way that you run. Most people will run with their shoulders rounded and their head down, this changes the way they strike the floor when they run, and changes how the shock travels through their body.
Cycling is similar, if you are crouched forward over the bike then this isn't what we are looking for when we are in the riding saddle. we want to be tall and elegant and poised.
So, the general consensus, is that nearly all forms of exercise CAN be beneficial for your riding but we have to be careful that what we are doing when we exercise mimics the muscles we want to use when we ride. We want to encourage good posture, a strong core and an independent seat with control over our legs and hands. We also want to make sure that we don't work so hard that our muscles are too tired for us to be able to ride properly the day after,
If you want 4 exercises that will improve all this things click here to head to your exercise for this week!