How Fit is Fit Enough?

Photo from

By Kim Harries

I polled 20 riders of varying ages and ability levels and asked a few questions about riding fitness:

Is the average time spent riding in lessons and hacking on your own enough? Or do you need more? Should riding alone be viewed as the “end-all” for equestrians, or, like other athletes, can you benefit from cross-training? Is riding a stand-alone event?

“Heels down. Shoulders back. Shorten your reins.” These words are certainly never heard in any gym or studio but could our shortcomings be fixed out of the saddle? Since the majority of our issues in the saddle are physical, I would tend to answer yes, but I wanted to find out first-hand, from real riders with real problems and I conducted an experiment. Here’s a look at 3 of the riders from my poll. Let’s see if they benefit from some additional work off of their horses.


• Rider A is a 32-year-old mother of 2 who began riding as a child and now works her riding in around raising her family and volunteer work. Rider A says her biggest weakness in riding is her rounded shoulders and keeping her eyes up. I met with her to go over a schedule and we decided to meet 3 days a week for 30 minutes a day to work on developing strength in her back – particularly in her trapezius muscles to help her open up her chest – as well as shoulder stretches to regain mobility that she has lost.

• Rider B is 15 years old and has ridden for 3 years with average consistency. She has decided she wants to try and qualify for a few equitation finals next year and knows she lacks the stamina required. Rider B struggles in flat lessons and has to take breaks. I met with her and we put a plan together that would work on her cardiovascular stamina and would include some Yoga classes to keep her body balanced and flexible. Since Rider B has a demanding school schedule and didn’t want her workouts to take any of her lesson time away, I recommended 2 yoga classes for her per week and gave her some “homework” to do on the weekends

• Rider C is 50 years old, began riding in her mid 30’s, and rides mostly on weekends because she works full-time. Rider C rides with knots tied in her reins because she’s constantly being reminded to shorten them. Her long reins keep her control level in the saddle average at best and she is disorganized on landing from jumps. Rider C complains of a sore back that she says she has had for years. I arranged to meet with her 3 days a week at the Pilates studio to get her body balanced and to strengthen her core and back muscles without adding any concussion to her already aching joints.

Photo from


• Rider A began a strength training program, focusing on bringing her shoulders back, creating flexibility in her shoulders, and keeping her body tall while in the saddle. After 4 weeks of regular workouts, Rider A is able to keep her eyes up and open up her chest while riding. The strength she has found in her postural muscles is allowing her horse to be more balanced on landing from jumps because the roundness in her shoulders is gone. Rider A plans to continue twice a week with the exercises I have given her and also get some hand weights and bands for home. Rider A said, “The hardest thing about it was finding the time, but it’s totally worth it!”

• Rider B is already experiencing greater cardiovascular stamina in her lessons after 3 weeks. Because she loves to run, I gave her a running schedule for her weekend mornings before going to the barn and found 2 yoga classes that fit into her schedule during the week. The days she doesn’t go to the barn she does Yoga. Rider B says, “Yoga is a great contrast to my riding. It lets me work on my focus, which helps me with my concentration when I’m riding.”

• Rider C met me 3 times a week for private Pilates sessions and also found an hour on her lunch break to walk a couple of times a week. After just 5 weeks Rider C has almost no back pain at all, she is able to keep her reins short and stay in position on her horse because her core strength is supporting her body while riding. Even though Rider C is still only riding on the weekends her lessons are more productive and she has a happier horse. “The pain I have been living with in my back is virtually gone and I’m realizing that my balance is enhanced because of my overall core strength. Everyday activities that were becoming a struggle are easy again.”

So I have to say that I’m convinced! I do think that you can get better at any level and at any age by assessing your weaknesses in the saddle and finding ways fix them. Keep up your riding absolutely! Put the time in that you need to bond with your horse and build the trust that it takes to be successful in our sport, but the next time you want to step it up to that next level don’t be afraid to “think outside the arena” and focus on how you can strengthen your half of the partnership.

Yours in health, Kim Harries

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 print edition of The Plaid Horse.