Any equestrian discipline is deceptive in terms of the physical fitness required by riders. After all, in sports such as dressage, the whole concept is that you should appear to be in harmony with your horse and doing very little, however the strength and core stability required as well as aerobic stamina is often overlooked. This is where a Personal Trainer can come in handy!
The horse's fitness is normally the top priority for most riders, and most ignore their own fitness, but in a sport of small margins, rider fitness is becoming increasingly important. This is not only in terms of performance in competitions, but for daily riding and training too, as well as general fitness for a healthy life.
Becoming sufficiently fit for riding should be an integral part of your regime, whether you are a competitive rider or not. Ultimately, you expect your horse to carry you and perform at its best, and the least you can do is to fulfill your responsibility of becoming the easiest load possible for your horse to carry. Balance, stability, lightness and flexibility will give both you and your horse the most pleasant experience and reduce the chance of injury or muscle strain to the both of you. After all, if you train your horse and expect high levels of fitness, you should aim to reach the same level of fitness. Being fit enough for whatever discipline it is that you're doing also helps to prevent common injuries, with back pain affecting a huge proportion of riders. Tight hip flexors are another common issue that can also be worked on with regular exercises in the gym.
As with any sport, the best way to become fitter and better within a sport is to practice it, but complementary work in the gym can make a much more significant difference than you may think.
What type of fitness is required for a rider?
This really is the most important aspect of fitness for a rider. If you are familiar with an equestrian sport, you will have heard the saying 'use your core' shouted at you numerous times, and you will undoubtedly know that a stronger core will help your position and control as a rider. A strong core will give you an independent seat and allow you to remain harmonious and in complete balance with your horse, no matter what it may throw at you! Your core is what will determine the quality of your general riding position, and if competing in dressage, this will improve the performance of your horse as well as your own marks for riding.
So how should you train your core?
There are many ways to train your core, but as you are cross-training for another sport, functional, full body training should be your main focus as this will enable you to work on your whole core as well as improving other areas of fitness at the same time. When looking at core training, it is much more than just your abdominals; your lower back and whole posterior chain should also be a consideration. As a PT, I would recommend offset loaded carries, partnered with rotational and single leg work. A set of barbell reverse lunges or squats with only one side of the bar loaded is wonderful for working the whole core and improving stability. Kettlebell suitcase deadlifts are another great exercise for working on this.
Flexibility in the pelvis
As a rider you will communicate with your horse through movement in the pelvis. However, modern life means that we often sit for long periods of time and we don't consider our posture, causing weak pelvic function and tight surrounding muscles. For that effortless look that you see many of the top riders have, loosening the pelvic muscles are essential to ensure you are using the pelvis effectively. A good stretching and mobility routine for the hips would do wonders to address this, but I would also recommend sessions with a PT or attending guided yoga or Pilates classes.
Balance and reaction times
Balance will greatly improve with a stronger core, however specific balancing exercises and drills can be performed with a Personal Trainer. A Bosu ball is a great piece of equipment for this and can be found in most gyms!
Improving your reaction times is a really important factor of riding, especially if you are an eventer or show jumper. Things can change in a millisecond and you must have the strength and speed to react and make quick decisions to avoid disaster. There are a number of ways to work on this, but as part of your warm up before setting off on your round, it's important to prepare your CNS with some sharp, explosive movements. These can be performed with a PT or you can create your own routine. This is such a big topic, so for more information on the CNS and its involvement in sport, visit the link below:
Any rider will know how aerobically fit you have to be to compete, although this is perhaps the simplest aspect to improve. In this case, it doesn't matter too much exactly what you do, as long as you enjoy it and are likely to continue it regularly in the long term. Working on your aerobic fitness could involve running, Crossfit, gym classes, swimming, cycling or more specific Personal Training Sessions. Although of course the best exercise to improve riding fitness it simply to ride!
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