Riding is a sport, and every sport requires fitness. However, in riding there are added dangers to not being fit enough. An unfit rider tires easily and loses strength, which can make the difference between staying on or falling off. He is also unable to help when his horse is a little tired, or in trouble.
The three ‘S’s
Every individual sport demands its own specific type of fitness, and you use different muscles for different sports. The type of fitness you need for riding, and how fit you need to be, varies according to how strenuous the activity – for example, hacking and show jumping require far less in rider fitness than hunting and eventing.
Strength: Fitness for riding involves muscular strength to a certain extent. This doesn’t mean ‘brute force’ but, rather, the ability to use your muscles to the full, so enabling you to control the pony.
Stamina, which allows you to use the necessary muscles repeatedly and over a long period of time, is of much greater importance for the horse rider. It is achieved by a steady build up of fitness targeted at your particular activity.
Suppleness: As you become fitter, your suppleness improves, meaning you can use your muscles to their utmost. If your muscles are unfit, they ache and go into cramp which makes them stiff. By working the muscles, suppleness improves which in turn prevents stiffness occurring.
Weight and diet
A fit person carries little excess weight. Any visible fat on either a person or a horse indicates that there is an equal number of fatty deposits hidden from sight -around the heart and other internal organs. This puts a strain on these organs when they are asked to work hard.
Every sportsman needs a balanced diet with the correct vitamin and mineral intake. However, a rider’s diet is probably not as crucial in its content as that of top athletes. In riding, it is the horse who is put to the most severe test. The rider must be fit enough to help his horse, but the same effort is not demanded from him as from his horse.
The best exercise
The only way to develop proper fitness for riding, is to ride. There is no real substitute, because no other activity replaces the effort required to remain in balance and control a moving horse. You can do exercises to stretch and work some of the muscles necessary for riding, but these can’t do more than ‘tone’ them up.
How much riding is necessary depends entirely on what the rider and horse combination is aiming to do. Normally it is enough if the rider does all the work involved in preparing for the competition on his horse. By producing a fit horse, the rider is automatically making himself fit as well.
The problem of fitness arises when the rider is otherwise occupied (at work or school) and someone else is building up the horse or pony’s fitness. If you only ride occasionally, you can’t expect to become fit enough without taking some other form of exercise.
If you are unable to ride every day, or are aiming to ride competitively, it is helpful to take part in some other activity such as jogging, skipping or swimming. Riding in a competition is very hard work and can soon leave you feeling out of breath. Twenty minutes’ hard swimming, or 15 minutes of jogging or skipping, a few times a week, can make all the difference.
Other activities such as aerobics can also be of help in a fitness programme, but should be done under the supervision of a qualified teacher to avoid strain. All general stretch and bend exercises help to increase suppleness.
Non-riding exercise is also very useful for maintaining your fitness throughout the year, or if your riding tends to be ‘seasonal’ to coincide with competitions or hunting. Because slack muscles are more prone to strain and damage, keeping up year-round fitness helps avoid problems when you start riding again after a break.
There are various exercises which work your ‘riding’ muscles a little harder, so making them stronger. One way to strengthen your leg and back muscles as well as improving your balance is to stand up in the stirrups. It is a good idea to hold on to a neck strap so you don’t catch the pony in the mouth if you do lose your balance.
Stand up, then allow all the weight to drop into your heels. Keep your knees bent, and all the while think to yourself ‘knees down, heels down’. This exercise stretches your calf muscles and builds up your thighs, as well as working your back muscles. To begin with, do this for a couple of minutes, and gradually build up to 20 minutes.
Another useful exercise is riding without stirrups. This helps suppleness and works the leg muscles very hard. The length of time spent riding without stirrups should be increased gradually as with any exercise – to prevent muscle strain occurring.