By Laura Crump Anderson, Certified Personal Trainer
All too often, my clients tell me that the number one barrier to exercise is a lack of time. Between horses, competitions, family, careers, and other obligations of daily life, many riders are already overloaded. How can they possibly shift their priorities to fit yet another thing into the mix? I get it; everyone is busy. But to be frank, this mindset is horseshit.
As riders, we know it takes countless hours to develop our skills. We have no qualms about spending precious time and money on training and conditioning, having the proper equipment, and optimizing nutrition for our horses. However, our own bodies are too frequently an afterthought. Rider fitness is important for many reasons including improved safety, greater connection with your horse, and treating yourself like the athlete you expect your horse to be. Despite what the skeptics in your family might say, riding is a sport and simply by participating in it you are an athlete. It’s time to start acting like one.
If you want to ride at peak performance for as long as possible, finding an effective exercise program that fits your life can’t just be wishful thinking; it’s absolutely imperative. The longer you delay, the faster your body will start to fall apart. Trust me when I say, it happens faster than you might think.
When I was 14, I was told that I had the spine of a 90-year-old by an orthopedic surgeon. This was from not only the abuse of hitting the ground many times but also from the wear and tear of lifting heavy water buckets and wheelbarrows improperly and excessively. I was very much of the mindset of “fit it in” to make one less load to carry! This led to chronic back pain that I still live with, to this day, now more than 15 years later and is proof that you do not have to be jumping massive fences or starting young horses to get injured riding. Actually, fitness-related injuries are often incurred while mounting and dismounting, which can happen on even the most bombproof of horses.
So we need to recognize that poor rider fitness leads to injury or making costly mistakes. When you are fatigued, you are more likely to take a risk that you would not have taken otherwise—for example, going for the “long spot” when it really is not there. Not only are strong bodies less prone to breaking down and more able to withstand the impacts of riding, but also the habit of working at a high intensity out of the tack makes you more clear-headed when you have to make a quick decision in the tack because your body is used to being at a heightened state of awareness and performance.
Lack of Fitness Holds You Back from Reaching Your Full Potential
Why do we neglect our health as riders when doing so could even keep us out of the saddle for good? As I mentioned, not having enough time for exercise is the number one excuse I hear from clients. I get it—we are all busier than ever. And if we could somehow find the time, it’s hard to know which types of exercise will have the greatest impact on our abilities in the saddle and on the ground with our horses. Most fitness programs are not designed to meet the specific needs of riders, and even if you hire a personal trainer, most of them do not have experience with horses and do not understand the particular strengths and weaknesses we tend to develop in the tack. (Personal trainers are also expensive—I know because I am one!)
In our perpetual time crunch, we also tend to want to devote every spare moment we have to horse care and riding. There is always more work to do at the barn. And beyond that, it’s fun! Why else would we work so hard? Quality time with our horses is what we live for: it’s relaxing (most of the time!) and a source of great joy and fulfillment.
We’re also taught that time in the tack is paramount, that it’s the only thing that will really help us improve our skills as riders. Although nothing can replace experience in the saddle, and any rider fitness program should obviously have riding at its center, riding and caring for your horse alone will never be enough to keep you fit for a lifetime of peak riding performance. In fact, I am of the somewhat controversial opinion that while riding is obviously a physical activity, it does not actually count as exercise. Exercise is the act of moving the body in a way that is intended to build or maintain physical fitness, health, and wellness. We do not ride to stay fit, we ride because we enjoy it. You clean your barn because it must be done, not as a means to improve your physique. Although riding does provide a good aerobic workout, which is a key component of my fitness program and doing chores has some physical and mental side-benefits, in many cases, these activities can actually lead to overall degradation of the body—the exact opposite of why we exercise.
In general, I think it’s safe to say that rider fitness is undervalued as a factor in our overall performance, safety, and effectiveness at communicating with our horses. For most of us, it is an afterthought…or not even a thought at all. However, doing the right cross-training exercises out of the tack can improve connection, coordination, reflexes, precision of the aids, strength, overall energy, and stamina to make you the best rider—and partner to your horse—you can be.
Reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books, HorseandRiderBooks.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Crump Anderson
A lifelong equestrian, Anderson realized from an early age the importance of recognizing and caring for riders’ bodies as athletes. She found herself with a chronic overtraining injury to her spine without ever having set foot in a gym. Through physical therapy, she was able to continue riding.
This inspired her to get her degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science. She is now an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. She founded Hidden Heights Fitness in Lovettsville, Virginia, and has worked with equestrian athletes of all ages and levels—from weekend warriors to former Olympians in the disciplines of dressage, eventing, and show jumping.
Give This Exercise a Try
My routines are designed to be practiced at home or your barn (or anywhere) with minimal equipment. No weights are required—you use your own body weight to create resistance to strengthen your muscles—but a yoga mat might make floor exercises more comfortable. Have a timer on hand for exercises that need to be done for a certain duration.
– Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet in front of you, resting on your heels.
– Place your hands behind you under your shoulders with your fingers facing toward your body and your elbows bent. (IMAGE A)
– Straighten your arms to lift your butt off the ground. (IMAGE B)
– Lower yourself back down slowly and with control.
– Repeat for two minutes.
*This story was originally published in the February 2023 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!
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