How to Be Equestrian Fit

A horse is only as good as the rider who pilots him. If you aren’t physically prepared to be the best pilot you can be, your horse can’t reach his full potential. Learn how to be equestrian fit and achieve success in the saddle.
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Your ability to condition your horse, challenge him each day you ride, and perform well the day of an event is determined by your physical fitness. If your own health isn’t motivation enough to be equestrian fit; do it for your horse. When you take the time outside of the barn to improve your overall strength, your stamina, and endurance, you give your horse the best chance possible to live a long, healthy life and perform at his best.

[READ: Best Rider Fitness Tips]

Why Be Equestrian Fit

Equestrian Fit Benefits

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Improved posture. Horseback riding develops your lower body more than the upper; weight training evens things out. "Upper-body work with free weights, in particular, works wonders," notes Sharpe. "When your shoulder and back muscles are properly developed, good posture comes naturally." No more slumping, slouching, or collapsed hips--especially important in horsemanship classes.

More secure seat. "Strong back and abdominal muscles and increased balance make it easier to sit gracefully at the lope, or to stay in position over jumps," says Sharpe. Bonus: No more getting pulled forward by that overeager colt in a snaffle.

Better cueing. Weight training makes you more aware of your muscles and how they work. "It teaches you to isolate and use specific muscle groups," explains Sharpe. "Then, when you need to call upon those same muscles for riding, your increased 'muscle savvy' enables you to be more subtle and precise." The result: quieter, more effective legs; softer, more "feeling" hands. Plus, you're better able to use your seat to shorten or lengthen your horse's stride.

Enhanced relaxation. Working out dissipates tension--in your muscles and your mind. "And when you're relaxed," notes Sharpe, "you're able to focus fully on your riding and competing, and to use your body more effectively."

Improved endurance, discipline. Especially important for busy amateur riders who often find themselves too tired to ride. "Sports psychology tells you that fatigue sabotages effort," says Sharpe. "Strong, fit riders don't tire as easily, and the discipline of working out makes you tougher mentally, too." You'll find yourself sticking to your riding schedule.

Injury protection. Strong, elastic muscles, tendons and ligaments are much less prone to injury. "Plus, not only are you less likely to fall," notes Sharpe, "but if you do fall, enhanced coordination will help you to land safely." Bonus: Chronic back pain, a problem for many riders, can be eliminated with judicious weight training.

Other benefits. A confidence boost (knowing your body is strong and fit will lessen any riding-related anxieties you may have); enhanced overall health and happiness (you'll sleep better, and find yourself in a cheery mood more often); improved empathy with your horse (you'll understand why, for example, a proper warm-up is so important to him, now that you know first-hand why it's important to you); and, if you have children, the setting of a good example for lifelong health and fitness.

[READ: Ride With Confidence]

Set Goals for Fitness

As a rider, you’re familiar with goal setting. You regularly set goals for yourself and your horse to win year-end awards, enjoy more time on the trail, or master a specific maneuver. Applied to your own health and fitness, that can feel more difficult even if it’s not. Just like horseback riding is a lifestyle, so is wellness. It requires the same disciplines of routine, and consistent goal setting as horsemanship.

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S.M.A.R.T Goal Setting

The first step to reaching a goal is setting it in the first place. If you plan to invest the time to make the end result happen, it’s also worth taking the time to clearly define the goal itself. This ensures that your effort is directly focused, and competing priorities don’t derail you along your journey.

Specific. Your goal should be specific enough that you can direct your path to it. General fitness improvement can mean anything, whereas weight loss or increased riding endurance are goals you can plan toward.

Measurable. If the goal isn’t value-based, it becomes difficult to track progress. Again, if the goal is to improve your endurance for riding, then define an actual amount of time you want to be able to ride such as, all day on the trail or make it through a one-hour lesson with your trainer.

Actionable. You must be able to take actions toward your goal over time. To improve your ability to ride for longer periods, you’ll need to ride more, of course; you’ll likely also need to commit more time to your conditioning outside of the saddle through running, walking, or biking for example.

Realistic. Your goal should be reasonable given your time and resources. Be sure you can commit a certain number of hours each day or week to your goal before you start. Also be sure you have the resources to do the work. For example, if you plan to run more, invest in a pair of good shoes!

Time-bound. Set your goal far enough into the future that it can be reasonably achieved, but not so far that you lose focus. If you’d like to increase your endurance to enjoy a two-day end-of-summer trail ride with your friends, give yourself more than one week’s lead-time to reasonably prepare for the challenge.

Plan Your Goals

After you’ve identified your S.M.A.R.T. goal, make it visible to yourself. Write it on a piece of paper and post or write it on your fridge, your bathroom mirror, your workday computer, or wherever you’re sure you’ll see it every day. Each day you make a decision to move closer to your goal, and it’s much easier to stay committed with a constant reminder in front of you.

Set micro-goals. If your goal is to lose a certain amount of weight or be fit enough to go on a summer trail ride, set small goals that’ll get you to that ultimate weighty accomplishment. A macro-goal can feel daunting and unattainable, but if you take it one small achievement at a time, it seems more manageable.

Commit to a calendar. If it’s important to you, you make the time for it. Treat your wellness like an important project. Schedule a 30-minute workout, or meeting, into your day, and set a calendar reminder. This avoids the risk that you let the day get away from you without working toward your goal, and keeps people from scheduling over the top of your work-on-me project time. Without your health, you can’t enjoy your hobby, your work, or your lifestyle the way you’d like. This meeting with yourself is one you shouldn’t want to miss.

Find an accountability buddy. Solidarity is effective for goal achievement. Don’t feel like riding? Too bad, your friend is already at the barn. Don’t feel like going to the gym? How will your running buddy feel if you skip out again? It’s okay not to be intrinsically motivated to hit the gym, eat healthier, or ride more often; we’ve all been there. When you’re busy, you don’t want to worry about one more thing. But, if you find someone else to do it with you, you’ll be more committed because you’ll have a friend to motivate you and whom you can encourage in turn.

[READ: Goal Setting Tips for Riders]

Equestrian Workout Routines

Lifting Workout -

Do this workout two to three times per week, with at least one day's rest between sessions to allow your muscles to heal and strengthen. Follow the recommendations for beginning weights (often none to start), and perform the movements very slowly. In the beginning, do only as many repetitions ("reps") as you can while maintaining the proper form. As soon as your form starts to deteriorate, stop and give yourself a 30-second rest, then begin again for one more set.

[READ: Fit for the Long Ride]

Kelly Tricep Kickback Fitness riding

Squat:

Strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs), gluteals (buttocks) and, to a lesser extent, abdominals. Enhances your overall base of support in the saddle, and improves your leg control and coordination for effective cueing and security in the saddle. If you ride hunt seat, it will help you hold a two-point position.

A. Stand straight with your feet horse-width apart, toes turned out slightly as in stirrups, knees slightly bent. Position dumbbells on top of shoulders, with your head up and eyes forward.

B. Moving very slowly, lower yourself as if you were going to sit on a chair, keeping your weight on your heels. When you're halfway to the floor, pause, and then slowly come back up, keeping your knees pointed out slightly to stay over your feet. Return to the starting position, keeping your knees slightly bent (don't "lock" your legs).

Weights, reps, sets: Begin without weights, keeping hands on shoulders. When you've mastered the proper form, add 3-pound, and later 5-pound, weights. Build to four sets of 15 repetitions each.

Split Lunge: 

Strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs), gluteals (buttocks), hamstrings (back of thighs) and calves; increases hip joint's range of motion. Improves the strength, control and coordination of your leg cues. This means you can get that drive-from-behind collection and overall body control you need for pleasure events, and the lateral movements (sidepassing an obstacle, pivot turns) you need for trail and horsemanship. Properly conditioned hamstrings also enable you to keep your feet positioned under your center of gravity (in line with your shoulders and hips).

A. Stand straight with your feet together, knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by sides, palms facing in.

B. Take a big step forward with your left foot so that your right heel is lifted and your torso is balanced between your legs, upper body directly over your pelvis. Slowly bend your knees so your left knee is directly over your left ankle, and your right knee approaches the floor; keep your knee, hip and shoulder in a straight line. Bring your left foot back to the starting position, and do reps; then switch leg positions.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin without weights, keeping hands on hips. When you've mastered the proper form, gradually work your way from 3-pound to 10-pound weights. Build to two sets of 10 reps on each leg.

Triceps Kickback:

Strengthens triceps (back of upper arm) while stabilizing lower body. Improves the control and coordination of your arm movements, enhancing your ability to communicate clearly through the reins.

A. Stand as if you're standing in your stirrups in the saddle: head up and eyes forward, upper body inclined forward from the hips, feet horse-width apart, toes turned out slightly, knees bent, chest open and shoulders back, arms bent at the elbow, holding a dumbbell in each hand at about the waist, palms facing in.

B. Keeping your head, neck and spine in a neutral position, slowly straighten both arms behind you. Pause, then slowly bend your elbows to return to the starting position.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin with 3-pound weights. When you've mastered the proper form, gradually work your way up to 8-pound weights. Build to four sets of 15 reps.

Fly:

Strengthens chest and front shoulders. Helps you achieve upper-body control, which enables you to stay centered and balanced above your horse's center of gravity (thus helping him to balance beneath you). Helps prevent leaning or tipping your body through turns and transitions, or getting ahead of your horse's motion over a jump.

A. Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or mat. Bend your knees, so that your feet are flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your hands directly above your chest (not your head), your arms almost straight, elbows slightly bent.

B. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, slowly open your arms, bringing the dumbbells out and down until your elbows almost touch the floor. Pause, then, keeping your shoulders on the floor, slowly close your arms again, as if you're hugging a big tree, and raise the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin with 3-pound weights. When you've mastered the proper form, advance to 5-pound weights. Build to four sets of 15 reps.

Saddle-Ready Routine -

Horse people are busy, and some days it’s impossible to make it to the gym. Here’s a quick and effective full-body, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout you can complete at home. Use a tack box, tractor tire, bale of hay, water tank, or any sturdy implement that can hold your bodyweight for your step-ups and dips.

Start with three rounds of the first circuit, and then three rounds of the second circuit. Rest one minute between each round and between each circuit. Complete as many repetitions of each exercise as you can in the allotted time.

Circuit One

60 Seconds: Toe Taps

Get warmed up with one minute of toe-tapping to prepare your body for exercise.

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30 Seconds: Push-Ups
Start with your hands shoulder-width apart and directly below your shoulders, legs straight out behind you, and toes tucked. Lower toward the ground until your chest touches your implement, and then push back up to start. Keep a tight, activated core and flat back (no sagged hips or poked-up butt) through the movement. If you struggle to maintain proper form, complete the same series with your knees on the ground instead.

30 Seconds: Tricep Dips
With your hands shoulder-width apart on a stable object behind you, and your legs extended in front of you, lower your rear toward the ground. The goal is to reach a depth that achieves 90-degree elbow bend, but only lower as far as your arms can push yourself up from.

30 Seconds: Spider Plank
Start in a push-up position. Hold this position as you alternate reaching your same-side knee to your elbow. Complete the exercise on an elevated object to make the movement easier.

Circuit Two

60 Seconds: Toe Taps
Start again with toe-tapping on your implement to prepare your body for exercise.

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30 Seconds: Right- and Left-Leg Step-Ups
Complete on objects of various heights. Squeeze through your glutes as you step up. To maximize the benefit of the exercise, don’t place your hands on your step-leg to pull your trail-leg up.

30 Seconds: Squats
Squat, start with your feet hip-width apart, and lower yourself as deeply into the squat as possible while in the correct position. Like riding, your heels are down (in contact with the ground) and your chest is upright.

Muscle Toning and Stretch Workout -

Crunches

Lie flat on your back (on either a soft surface or an exercise mat), spread your feet about shoulder-width apart and place your hands behind your head, so your elbows form triangles on both sides of your head. Then, tighten your tummy muscles and lift your head, shoulders and neck off the ground. Clench your abs for a second or two, then release and slowly bring your head and neck back down.

Make sure you're using your stomach muscles--not your neck muscles--to lift yourself. Lifting with your neck can easily strain those muscles; plus, you won't be working your abs effectively. Do 25 to 50 reps (depending on the strength of your abdominal muscles), rest, then do another set.

One-legged squats

Stand on a soft, even surface or an exercise mat, place your hands on your hips (for balance), maintain good posture and tuck your rear-end underneath you. Then, slightly raise one leg so that it's bent behind you at a little less than a 90-degree angle. Shifting your weight to your grounded leg, slowly bend down, then back up.

Don't bend down so far that you put too much stress on your stationary knee. Just a slight bend-and-release will effectively work your quadriceps.

Once you've done a rep of 15 to 20 bends on one leg, switch to the other and repeat.

Squats

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Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, maintaining good posture--your back should be straight and tall, your shoulders square, and you're looking straight ahead. Then, slowly squat like you're sitting in a chair with your arms extending in front of you as you "sit."

Don't bend down so far that your bottom is level or below your knees. Your lowest point should be at a 45-degree angle (rear-end to knee). And keep your weight centered over both legs evenly, so you don't strain your knees. Once you've gained enough strength that it's easy for you, add small hand weights for a greater challenge.

Calf raises

Stand with your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart, place your hands on your hips. Then, slowly lift yourself up onto the balls of your feet so you feel the "burn" in your calf muscles.

Hold for one or two seconds, then slowly bring your heels back down.

Do 15 to 20 reps, rest, then repeat.

(Tip: Make sure you don't lock your knees. Your legs should be straight, but keep a slight bend in your knees.)

Plies 

Plies (as in the ballet move) are great for working your inner thigh muscles. Stand in "grande plie" position, meaning your feet are a little more than shoulder-width apart and you're turning your toes out at a 45-degree angle from a straight and forward position. Stand up straight, pushing your shoulders back, and tuck your rear-end underneath your hips (to protect your lower back).

Extending your arms out to your sides for balance, gently "plie" by bending your knees, so you feel your inner thigh muscles working. Then, slowly release the bend and stand back up straight.

When you plie, try to squeeze your inner thigh muscles for greater effect, and make sure you don't bend your knees over your toes, as this could cause injury to your knees.

Relax & breathe

If you're constantly tense, you'll never achieve ideal balance in the saddle, and proper breathing is a key ingredient of relaxation. To improve your own breathing, combine it with easy stretching.

Stand in a relaxed position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly lift your arms above your head in coordination with a slow inhale.

Hold for a few seconds; then release by slowly bringing your arms back down to your sides while exhaling.

Repeat several times.

Calf stretch

Stand with one foot 3 to 4 feet in front of the other, while slightly bending your front knee.

Place your hands on your hips for balance, and then slowly bring your back heel to the ground until you feel a stretch through your calf up to the back of your knee.

Then, slowly roll onto the ball of your back foot, hold, and stretch back down, so your heel is touching the ground again.

After several reps, reverse and stretch your other calf.

Hamstring stretch

Stand with one foot approximately 2 feet in front of the other. Keeping your back leg slightly bent at the knee, stretch down and forward until you can touch the tip of your flexed toe. (Reach down with the arm corresponding with your forward leg.)

You should feel a stretch through your hamstring--the long muscle that runs from the back of your knee up to the bottom of your pelvic bone. Hold for 30 seconds or up to one minute, then switch legs.

Repeat several times in both directions.

Triceps stretch

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping your knees slightly bent (don't lock them), and keep your back straight and tall. Stretch both arms above your head, then drop one hand down your back, while clutching your elbow with the opposite hand.

If you're holding the position correctly, you should feel a stretch through your tricep muscles and down your side. Hold for several seconds, then reverse.

Arm circles

To stretch your shoulders, rotator cuffs, and back muscles, extend both arms out from your sides and make small circles forward and back.

Then bend your elbows so your hands are resting on your shoulders and draw circles in the air, forward and back, with your elbows.

[READ: 30 Small Fitness Changes to Improve Your Riding]

Success Tips

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Make it fun. Experiment with different forms of exercise until you find something you genuinely enjoy. If you're the sociable type, working out at a gym or attending aerobics classes may be just the ticket. If you're a loner, working out at home with cardio machines and free weights may suit you best. Walking, running and cycling are terrific activities that can be done solo or in groups, as you prefer.

Be flexible—and creative. Avoid rigidity. Take each day as it comes, and if you miss a workout or two, just get back on track as quickly as you can. Being flexible also means being able to substitute one form of exercise for another at need. If rain keeps you from jogging, grab a jumprope. If travel takes you away from your regular gym, use the hotel's gym, jog in place in your room, or use the stairwell.

Keep going. Make a commitment and resolve not to quit. If you must stop for awhile, just start again. If you find you hate your rowing machine, trade it in for a bicycle. If time shortages overwhelm you, cut back on your total workout time--but don't give up.

[READ: Balanced Rider, Balanced Horse]

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