Fitness and lean muscle is a process, and for both horse and rider it takes a minimum of 8 weeks depending on your starting point, goal, conformation and breeding. Some horses are built for athleticism like our thoroughbreds and this is the same for humans too. Heavier breeds and those designed for slow pleasure can struggle and take longer, so it is a unique process but always allow 8 weeks as a minimum (for both horse and rider!).
I am a heavier breed haha – Just like my horse Denny a clydiex brumby. Fitness for the two of us is an extremely important part of our riding. He isn’t designed for cross country, so I am asking a lot of him to canter 350 meters a minute even though the jumps are an introductory level of 65.
Me…. I like food. No, in all honesty I am a solid build so even at my fittest and leanest I am still a Clydesdale. Lucky for me I love clydies and embrace and love who I am. However, to ride him and let him travel I need to be strong enough to stay off his back.
I want to show you what dedicated fitness can do to your team, so here is a before photo of Denny and myself after I had my first child. Read on to see the change!
Riding is an aerobic sport. “Aerobic” means “relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen” but it can also be anaerobic which is a higher intensity, higher power version of aerobic. This is where cross country, jumping, barrels, campdrafting and other explosive quick moving disciplines require a dedicated commitment to fitness, because the body needs to be efficient to break down glucose for energy without oxygen.
A rider and horse with excellent aerobic endurance will be able to perform sustained exercise without fatiguing, this will then support the further development of anaerobic fitness work. When we are fatigued and still riding our balance won’t be as great, it’s harder to be in sync with our horse and in fact we risk not being as quick to respond if our horse spooks or ducks out of a jump etc. Our horse can feel exactly the same and fatigue, resulting in stops, inconsistent contact and sometimes lameness etc.
There hasn’t been a huge amount of research that looks at riders heart rates during competition. But what we do know is that heart rates generally increase with faster speed, and increase further when riders are in two point positions. Jenni-Louise Douglas, at the University of Worcester, England has been researching the physiological demands of eventing. Dressage riding phase has been shown to require riders to work at 80% of their maximum heart rate and cross country around 90-95%. For me this is 220 minus my age (34) and 90% of that which would be a heart rate of around 170! certainly ‘puff’ territory.
The increase in heart rate for two point is because riders need more trunk control and their largest muscle groups the quadriceps and gluteus maximus need to be firing! Larger muscles need more oxygen and energy – completely why two point can cause you to ‘puff’! The out of breathe is a sign that you are pushing past your heart rate maximum and not supplying your body enough oxygen.
Fitness for both horse and rider needs to be aerobic, those in more demanding disciplines require additional training in anaerobic to ensure muscles are healthy and strong enough for what we are asking of them. I don’t run, but I know if I had to run for help or a lion chasing me (pfftt as if) I could. I love adding stairs into my routine as they are both strength and cardio with a large focus on our quadriceps and hamstrings needed for two point.
I like to talk about the why before I get into the what, so if you are still with me this is the fun part!
Cardio exercise is a great way to increase your aerobic capacity, we are training the body to increase the network of capillaries to the muscles that deliver oxygen. The more we use our body the more oxygen we need to ensure we don’t fatigue and get tired.
I don’t like running and don’t promote it for women because it can cause far more damage to our pelvic floor and core than the benefit. However swimming, cycling, walking and cross trainer machines are great! Just like walk, trot and canter are the base gaits for our horses, it’s the time spent on increasing distance in these gaits that build on aerobic fitness.
Start short building incrementally over 8-12 weeks.
Consider a trained professional – We would call a personal trainer or physiotherapist before starting more exercise, so contact an equine therapist for help with a tailored plan to ensure you incrementally build up safely and avoid soreness.
The other option is you can purchase an online guide from Equestricare who are a nationally recognised teaching organisation for horses. I trained with them and would highly recommend!
Weights and strengthening exercise can also be a cardio type of exercise depending on the amount of rest you have between exercises. The added benefit to bodyweight and weight lifting based exercise is that we are building muscle. The more muscle, the more oxygen that is pumped through the body – the result is a powerhouse for anaerobic movements like sprints, jumping and spinning etc.
Strengthening for our horse includes exercises like transitions engaging the hind end much like we do when we squat, raised poles for core and proprioception, grid work with poles or small jumps for gymnastics, spiraling circles and leg yield, pace work increasing distance and endurance and of course the explosive short gallops/longer gallops for cross country.
I work with both horses and riders because we can’t have a team without both! Often we focus on our horses fitness and forget our own, so if you are embarking on a goal with your horse, you need to consider yourself too. A strong two point position is tough for a rider and many low level eventers don’t train for this. The result is puffing and being out of breath at the end of a round (it’s not just because we forgot to breathe with nerves haha) This doesn’t just require aerobic fitness and the ability for your body to supply oxygen to your muscles. The quadriceps, glutes and body’s trunk muscles are engaged the whole time for 5 minutes and this is like holding a squat or plank for that same time.
The goal for riders is to build muscle and increase the muscle fibers – which then use and fire with oxygen. When muscles fatigue they get weak even with plenty of oxygen and we risk losing our balance, not being able to stick spooks or duck outs and ride heavier on our horses back which can then slow them down and impact their speed. The more muscle a rider has, the less likely they will weaken and feel fatigued, especially when oxygen is depleted.
I can tell you all this because I have been there when I was weak after having my baby Tom. Denny and I spent more time moving upwards in our canter rather than lengthening and covering more ground. But now…. see for yourself the change.
Reach out! It’s never too late to start working on your team’s fitness!
I am an everyday rider, a mum and low level eventer that loves the sport.
Trust me… fitness for both of us is still extremely important even though I am not an elite rider. The programs I promote and sell on my website are for everyday people, they are strength based for core and specific riding required muscles. These are still aerobic but low impact and can be combined with activities such as walking, cycling and a cross trainer depending on your actual riding goals. Do you want to improve your riding and get fitter?
Wish us luck for our next competition this weekend!
Jem and Den