Best Rider Fitness Tips

Six fit riders share their best habits for staying strong and healthy while still making time to ride.

In a perfect world, we’d have a gourmet chef to cook us delicious and nutritious meals, a personal trainer to keep us motivated, and all the time we need to exercise and ride to our heart’s content. Life doesn’t work like that for most of us, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on balancing fitness, life, and horses.

We talked to six successful, fit riders who also happen to prioritize their own health with that of their horse. Here’s how they do it—and how you can too.

[READ: How to Be Equestrian Fit]

Courtesy of Lauren Wolfe

Lauren Wolfe, Bryan, Texas

Lauren is a project manager, mother to a 19-month-old child, riding instructor, and former all-around competitor. She rides for pleasure and to prepare her horses for her young charges. She’s also completing training to be a Fit 4 Mom fitness instructor.

Favorite ways to exercise: Yoga, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and running.

“I love doing yoga because it improves my posture, opens up my hips, and strengthens my core and back,” Lauren says. “Poses such as downward dog really lengthen my leg muscles, which is great for keeping my heels down as I ride. Warrior poses and triangle poses open up my hips, making for a more comfortable ride and increased flexibility.”

For strength training, she turns to high-intensity interval training, which involves max effort in a series of exercises using bodyweight or minimal equipment. She says moves such as plié squats—squats with your toes pointed outward—sitting band rows, supermans, and burpees are all great exercises for riders.

“To be able to fit in a workout that’s productive, high-intensity interval training is something you can do in 20 minutes,” Lauren says. “There are so many options with videos online, you don’t even need to go to the gym. Most barn aisleways are concrete and have lots of space!”

Lauren loves running, and says it’s a great cardio exercise for riders.

“Running clears my mind, and I love to be out in nature. I think a lot of horse people enjoy hiking and being outside,” Lauren says.

Diet: Lauren stays hydrated with plenty of water throughout the day and focuses on eating whole fruits and vegetables as possible. She avoids complex carbs that can drain her energy.

Fitting it in: Lauren exercises early in the morning or after her toddler is in bed. Having options for exercise—indoor and outdoor, long and short routines—means she’s always able to find something to get her moving in the time she has available.

Fit tip: Make a habit of stretching before and after you ride your horse to avoid any injuries.

“Try to be active two or three times a week, in whatever form of fitness you choose, so you can enjoy your riding without being as prone to injury,” Lauren says.

Photo by Waltenberry

Sheley Brien, Scottsdale, Arizona

Sheley is a Scottsdale Donut Bar franchise owner, a mother of two, shows Quarter Horse reiners, and owns (an online platform for the reining community). One year ago, she began competing in bikini fitness competitions. But her recent fitness journey started two years ago, with a pair of too-tight chaps.

“When my chaps got tight, I considered buying another pair or getting extensions, but I thought ‘this isn’t happening. I’m not doing it. Something’s got to change,’ ” Sheley says. “I made major lifestyle changes, and it’s the best feeling when you go to put on your chaps and you’re able to zip them up—with room.”

Favorite ways to exercise: Cardio and strength training 5 to 7 days a week, depending on her goals and whether or not she has a horse show coming up.

“I love to train legs,” Sheley says. “I’ve been showing horses since I was 5 years old. My legs have always had a lot of muscle, and I love having that strength. And it’s good for the horses—I can be there to support them when necessary because my legs don’t get weak. I love to do a lot of squats and deadlifts.”

Sheley also loves training her shoulders and back for balance, strength, and flexibility when riding one-handed.

Her cardio training has helped her keep up with her horse in the reining patterns. She enjoys running the 2-mile stretch of road in front of her home every day.

“Over the last couple of years, my show mare and I have been successful, and I think a lot of it is the fact that I’ve gotten stronger,” Sheley says. “I am not winded, I’m not exhausted, and this last year I’ve felt a lot better.”

Diet: Sheley eats a diet based on macros and carb cycling year-round, which she considers a healthy lifestyle, not a quick fix. She eats healthy whole foods in a ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that fits her body’s needs.

Fitting it in: Sheley says committing to improving your health may mean shifting priorities, but it’s worth it.

“Are you willing to give up getting on Facebook in the morning for 20 minutes so you can go run?” Sheley says. “There are times when I don’t get on social media at all because I’ve made a different choice [with my time].”

Fit tip: Just as you hire a horse trainer to achieve goals in the saddle, Sheley says finding a trainer to help you with your health in some capacity may help boost your fitness journey.

Courtesy of Brittany Morgan

Brittany Morgan, Brawley, California

With a background in dancing and riding, Brittany got serious about fitness around age 20 when she found herself living on the other side of the country from her horses that she continued to show in all-around competition. Her sporadic riding schedule meant she needed to keep up her strength and endurance in between events.

Today, Brittany is a certified health coach and certified yoga teacher.

Favorite ways to exercise: Yoga every day, bodyweight training five or more times a week, and spin class twice a week.

“It’s important to have endurance as a rider; those three styles fit my body well,” Brittany says. “Yoga is my one go-to. I get the benefits of strength training, cardio endurance training, and stretching. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of limber muscles while riding, and yoga gives me balance and control over all the muscles in my body.”

Diet: Brittany strives for balance and native-style eating, meaning fewer processed foods.

“I try to keep my diet as close to nature as possible,” Brittany says. “Animal proteins and fats make up most of my diet, also superfood shakes.”

Fitting it in: “Ten minutes a day, every day, will make a difference,” Brittany says. “I try to fit in squats, planks, push-ups, core exercise, and stretching every day.”

Fit tip: Discover what works for you.

“Finding what you enjoy makes it that much easier to find time for it on a busy day,” Brittany says. “That doesn’t mean everything is easy and comfy, it just means that what you do should fuel your fire, so when the going gets tough, you can push through.”

Kirstie Marie Photography

Shelly Mattson, Austin, Texas

Shelly is an all-around competitor and the global director of sales for a cosmetics company. She rides on the weekends and works out with a personal trainer two to three times a week and does as much cardio as possible. She has back and hip issues she manages with daily stretching and regular exercise.

Favorite ways to exercise: A combination of weight training, cardio, and HIIT workouts to keep her endurance up—particularly for running in showmanship. She loves doing squats, lunges, and leg presses to strengthen her legs for horsemanship. HIIT helps her build a strong core.

Diet: Shelly avoids gluten, sugar, and dairy, incorporating protein and healthy fats with every meal.

“I travel with my all my own snacks and shakes, and I limit eating out, whether at horse shows or for my work travel,” Shelly says. “During our hot summers, I add electrolytes to my water when I’m showing. I try to maintain the same routine, even at horse shows, and the occasional glass of wine—or two—does sneak in.”

Fitting it in: Shelly sets working out as an appointment on the calendar and tries to go no matter what else comes up.

Fit tip: Just like your horse took time to get in shape and tuned-up, think of your fitness as part of a journey.

“Never underestimate the benefits of weight training, and think of working out not as something you have to do but as something you get to do, ” Shelly says. “Make it a part of your everyday life, and schedule it in each day, just like an important meeting.”

Courtesy of Jackie Marlow

Jackie Marlow, Boerne, Texas

All-around competitor Jackie was a fitness instructor for 28 years until two years ago. After having back surgery at age 29, she knew she needed to exercise to avoid stiffness and encourage her body to work properly. She rides four to five times a week.

Favorite ways to exercise: Jackie runs or power-walks four to five times a week and does Pilates twice a week.

“I love Pilates because you work on so many things while keeping your core strong, and your core is what helps so much with riding,” Jackie says.

Diet: Despite frequent travel, Jackie tries to eat healthy anywhere she goes. This includes lean protein, fruits, and whole grains.

“I always bring fruit, cheese, and pretzels,” Jackie says. “It’s hard to eat healthy at horse shows, but if you can bring your own food, you can do it. I try not to follow the crowd, and I know what works for me.”

Fitting it in: Jackie brings her exercise clothes and shoes with her wherever she goes.

“There’s always somewhere to walk, and you can always do abdominal exercises and stretches in any hotel room,” Jackie says.

Fit tip: If there’s only one area of exercise you focus on, Jackie says your core muscles (back, abdominals) should be it.

“Your core muscles help so much with riding,” she says. “Any form of exercise that keeps your core strong is great for riding.”

Courtesy ofHope Ellis-Ashburn

Hope Ellis-Ashburn, Whitwell, Tennessee

A full-time high school teacher, Hope rides English and Western, competing in hunter classes and trail riding when she’s not riding in the arena. She rides six days a week.

Favorite ways to exercise: Hope exercises for 30 minutes every morning, seven days a week. She has a library of secondhand fitness DVDs and a small collection of fitness equipment.

“The DVDs do a good job of blending cardio and weight training, and easily fit into my busy schedule,” Hope says.

Diet: More than a decade ago, Hope started Weight Watchers.

“It changed how I eat,” Hope says. “I make different choices in the meats I consume, I eat many more vegetables, include some fruits, eat more whole grains. Any dairy I eat is fat-free. My sugar intake has greatly decreased. I probably eat more often than I used to, but I watch my portions and I’m eating foods that are better for me.”

Hope has lost 50 pounds and continues to follow the maintenance plan for the program, which helps keep the weight off and keeps her energy level up for riding.

Fitting it in: Hope wakes up at 5:15 a.m. on weekdays to exercise before breakfast and getting ready for school. She works out after morning coffee on the weekends.

“The key, for me, has been to make exercise a priority and set aside a time to do it every day,” Hope says.

Fit tip: Start your fitness program when you’re ready.

“Only you can decide when [you’re ready],” Hope says. “Once you decide to go for it, truly decide. Be a warrior in terms of self-discipline, and stick with your goals. Don’t let small setbacks keep you down. Just as with riding, get back up and go at it again.” 

Courtesy of Lari Shea
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