30 Small Fitness Changes to Improve Your Riding

Make minor adjustments to your daily routine to dramatically improve your fitness results and riding.

When you make small changes to your lifestyle, you’ll notice measurable changes in your body’s fitness, strength, flexibility, and endurance. All of which makes you a better rider and healthier companion for your horse. Nichole Chirico

To prepare for your busy riding schedule, you’ve committed to getting into better shape. You start a new diet, ramp up your workout routine, and get more disciplined about riding. After a few weeks, you’re exhausted, your motivation wanes, and you find yourself back where you started—feeling defeated.

With your horse, you know that if you try to fix everything at once, nitpicking at every small mistake, he’ll get overwhelmed and not progress. Is that the approach you take when you make changes to your own lifestyle? You try to overhaul your nutrition, exercise routine, and activity level all at once and wonder why you struggle—just like your horse would. Instead, focus on one change at a time.

Here I’ll share 30 manageable adjustments you can make to your nutrition, exercise, or lifestyle habits. Choose one item from one category. Commit to it for one month, or until it becomes second-nature. After you’ve mastered one habit, choose another. Build your better-health habits one by one. Soon, you’ll shed pounds, become stronger, ride better, have more energy, and feel more capable to care for your horse.

You Are What You Eat

Good nutrition isn’t a one-time solution for weight loss; it’s a lifestyle. A balanced diet consists of lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and water.

Go for H2O. Proper hydration suppresses appetite, increases metabolism, improves complexion, and helps your body function at its best without bloat or fatigue. Aim to drink your bodyweight in ounces of water per day. Start with eight, 8-ounce servings (64 ounces) until your body adjusts.

Choose lean protein. Protein is the building block for muscle repair, helps you recover from workouts, and maintains lean mass as you shed fat. Consume 0.75 to one gram of protein per pound of body fat.

Get 25 grams of fiber per day. Fiber keeps your digestive system functioning properly, reduces cholesterol levels, improves body composition by decreasing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass, and helps manage blood-sugar levels. Eat leafy greens, vegetables, berries, fruits, and grains to reach your daily needs.

Choose vegetables at every meal. Vegetables are high in fiber and give you vitamins and minerals. But that doesn’t mean you must eat only salad. Make easy substitutions, swapping chips for baby carrots and adding tomatoes and lettuce to sandwiches.

To improve your fitness, skip your pre-ride mocha or soda; opt for water instead. Try to drink at least 64 ounces each day. Nichole Chirico

Swap out sugary, high-calorie drinks. Mocha and soda wreak havoc on your waistline, blood-sugar levels, and wallet. Choose nutrient-dense or calorie-free drinks. Add a tablespoon of chocolate protein powder to your coffee for a mocha flavor with a kick of protein. Substitute sparkling water for soda. Add fruit, cucumbers, or sugar-free flavoring to water.

Eat more whole, real foods. Fuel your body with quality, whole foods that contain the vitamins, minerals, and fiber you need. When you shop, choose items from the perimeter of the store, rather than packaged foods from the middle.

Pack a cooler to the show. Pack your own pre-cooked chicken, hardboiled eggs, fruit, vegetables, mixed nuts, or sandwiches to events. Whole foods and snacks give you the energy to perform your best.

Eat when you’re hungry. If you find you’re hungry throughout the day, even when you’re getting the proper food intake, drink a glass of water or do 25 bodyweight squats. It may be that you’re mistaking dehydration, boredom, or an energy slump for hunger.

Log your intake. Download a food-tracking application for your phone or keep a food log. It helps you monitor your eating patterns to pinpoint factors that slow progress.

Eat mindfully. After you’ve eaten, it takes 20 minutes for your body to send signals to your brain that you’re satisfied. When you slow down and eat mindfully, you have the chance to enjoy the meal and can better manage portions because you stop when you’re full. Avoid multitasking, such as eating at your desk or with a phone, which can distract you from listening to your stomach.

Move Your Body

Physical activity is good for your overall health. Having strength, endurance, and flexibility also makes you a better rider. These suggestions, coupled with an exercise routine you enjoy, will help you get the results you want in the saddle.

Stretch after you ride or exercise. A flexible muscle is a strong and healthy muscle. Add regular stretching to your post-workout regimen and riding routine to keep yourself balanced and flexible and to keep your muscles functioning properly. Stretching also helps reduces soreness!

Work your core three times per week. Your core is your stability center, whether you’re on your feet or on your horse’s back. When you have core strength, you can keep up with your horse during maneuvers while maintaining good posture. Complete three sets of 10 to 20 repetitions of Russian twists, sit-ups, planks, and superman holds to strengthen your core.

Strength train. Adequate muscle strength prevents injury and improves bone density as you age. It also improves your riding and ability to do barn chores.

Take a fitness class. Classes are an opportunity to try something new, challenge yourself, and have fun with other people as you improve your fitness. They also keep you accountable. Commit to one class per week, whether it’s yoga, Zumba, spin, kickboxing, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). These are fun, calorie-burning options that develop strength, balance, and endurance.

Ride as often as you can as part of your fitness routine. Saddle time improves your balance, boosts your horse’s fitness, and gives you time to enjoy your favorite hobby. Nichole Chirico

Try a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. These quick, effective workouts strengthen muscles, improve endurance, and burn calories when you’re short on time. Find circuits online, and incorporate them into your current routine. If you’re getting started, two to three HIIT workouts per week will improve your fitness quickly.

Do push-ups and squats morning and night. Light exercise twice daily starts and ends your day on a high note. These exercises require little space and no equipment and improve your upper- and lower-body strength for riding. Start with five or 10 repetitions; increase over time.

Find a friend. A training buddy with similar goals or someone who shares your passion for riding will keep you motivated and accountable. Set a consistent workout date and stick to it just as you would an appointment with your horse trainer or the vet.

Hire a trainer. Just as a horse trainer develops your horse’s skills, a professional physical trainer enhances your physical preparedness for riding. He or she can give you the support and advice you need to achieve your goals. Be clear about what you’re trying to do so your trainer can tailor a plan that’s appropriate for you and then follow his or her recommendations.

Keep a fitness log. Track frequency and details of every workout. It keeps you accountable and helps you see progress when you’re in a rut, which can spur you out of it. It’s easy to forget how far you’ve come without perspective of the journey.

Endurance train in intervals. Cardio training improves heart health, energy levels, and body composition. Muscle endurance allows you to sustain activity to cue your horse or stay focused at an all-day show. Intervals vary intensity of an exercise to add variety and maximize results. Try cycling at a fast pace for 20 seconds and rest for 40 seconds. Repeat for 10 to 15 minutes.

Build Your Life

A balanced lifestyle helps you feel your best as you tackle your goals. Prioritize self-care, and use daily preparedness tips to reduce stress, focus your priorities, and make it easier to stick to your plans.

Prioritize shut-eye. Sleep is an important part of workout recovery and reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which causes cravings and slows progress. You’ll feel your best with seven to eight hours of sleep; aim for one hour more than your current norm.

Be more active. Increase daily movement so you’re less sedentary overall. Take regular breaks from your work for a quick walk, choose stairs over the elevator or escalator, park farther away from the doors at the store, take your dogs for a walk, or jog with your horse when weather or time makes it difficult to ride.

Meal prep. The more decisions you have to make, the more opportunities you have to make poor choices. Prepare for success by packing a lunch and pre-cooking proteins, such as chicken breasts, lean ground beef, or turkey to quickly add to dinner recipes. Keep grab-and-go hardboiled eggs; pre-made salads; or a container of vegetables, protein, and a healthy whole-grain carbohydrate on hand.

Ride one more day per week. Extra riding time increases your activity level. Riding one additional day per week gives you an opportunity to work on your skill; improve your horse’s fitness; and enjoy time with your horse, which reduces stress and cortisol levels that stunt progress.

Plan your week. Make a goal list that includes what you want to accomplish in a given week, and what you’ll need to do it. Just like a pre-show checklist, a goal list helps you plan tasks in advance, such as riding days, exercise days, and a food-prep day.

Take plank breaks. The plank is an effective core and total-body strengthener that translates to riding. It’s also gives your body a reprieve from long hours sitting at a desk. Close your office door to take one-minute plank breaks throughout the day or encourage your co-workers to join you for group session.

Make workout appointments. Exercise is as important for your health as dental cleanings or a wellness visit. Think of workouts as appointments and commit to them accordingly.

Schedule important dates. Plan your show or trail-ride schedule ahead of time and mark important dates on a calendar. It’s easier to stay motivated if you have riding-related goals that you’re working toward.

Pack your riding or exercise gear ahead of time. Make it easy to stick with your plan by keeping a packed gym bag in your car. Sleep in your gym clothes and wake up early to get a quick workout in at the beginning of the day so you don’t procrastinate.

Keep your eye on the prize. Set a macro goal with a longer timeline and then set small, manageable goals that you can achieve more quickly. Consistent successes help you stay motivated and on track. Keep a list of your goals visible.

Kelly Altschwager, Wellington, Colorado, is an ACE-certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist; PiYo instructor; fitness expert at Fitness1 Club Wellington; and owns and operates Western Workouts, a personal-training service geared toward helping the busy horseperson. Western Workouts provides short, high-intensity routines that use everyday implements for fitness around the home. Learn more at westernworkouts.com. She’s also the lead instructor for Saddle Strong (aimequineu.com/courses/saddle-strong), an online fitness program produced by H&R’s parent company, Active Interest Media.

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