Equestrian exercises for the off-season: Part 1
We work our horses to be fit, athletic, strong, sound and flexible; why not do the same for ourselves? We can improve our personal fitness while in the saddle.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced the soreness from that first ride after a long break. Well, if you take the time and energy to maintain your fitness level while on these breaks from intense riding, you can reduce recovery time or even eliminate these aches and pains all together. Being a fit and healthy person will also reduce the risk of injury. Riders should take advantage of any opportunity to increase safety on horseback. Being an athletic, fit equestrian will enable you to respond quicker and smarter to your horse.
According to The Rider’s Fitness Program there are five basic elements to equestrian fitness:
4) Mental and physical independence
5) Cardiovascular strength
Balance and flexibility will allow you to be a more proactive rider, working with your horse’s ever-changing movements. Strength will be gained through performing an exercise, especially on a regular basis. Increased strength aides in our ability to perform more rigorous activities, ride for longer periods of time and allow us to easily maintain our posture. Mental and physical independence may not be something that first comes to mind when thinking about exercise, but it is the key to reducing the risk of injury. Often we must perform asymmetric movements that may not be instinctive. We must also master the art of multi-tasking or thinking ahead.
Lastly, each time we increase our heart rate, especially for extended periods of time, we increase our cardiovascular strength. This allows us to have increased stamina and we’ll be able to enjoy our rides for longer without tiring.
In this first part of a two-part series, we will discuss exercises that you can perform without your horse. There are several benefits to these exercises. First, there is minimal equipment needed. Clearly, if you remove the element of the horse, you remove the majority of any equipment needs. Working without a horse also allows you to exercise without seasonal limitations. Rain or shine, you’ll have no excuse to skip your exercises! Regarding safety, by eliminating the horse, you would clearly reduce the risk factor. However, you should still be aware of safety at all times. And finally, a benefit to these exercises is that they will help better prepare you for working with your horse.
Before embarking on any type of work-out, it is important for your success and comfort to properly stretch your muscles.
Here are some exercises suggested by Michigan State University Extension that you can do at home to improve your riding ability and overall fitness. This will allow you to have increased stamina and you will be able to enjoy longer rides without tiring.
The first exercise is centered on variations of the basic squat. With your feet shoulder width apart and hands at your sides, smoothly lower your body while bending naturally at the knees. Only lower your body as far as comfort allows. A simple variation of this exercise involves crossing your hands across your chest and placing them on your shoulders while standing with feet horse width apart (see photo above). You would again lower your body by bending naturally at the hips and knees. Perform exercises in set of 10 to 12, increasing the number of repetitions as your strength increases. Lower body strength will help you to actively use your legs while posting, cantering, galloping or jumping. You will be able to more easily absorb the force of these maneuvers. An additional way to work these muscles is to ride without stirrups. This is a great way to increase the level of difficulty while riding, and in turn gain more strength, but be sure you are ready to perform such activities!
You certainly do not want to ignore your upper body strength. Increased upper body strength will allow a rider to maintain their posture while riding and improve your control of the reins. A simple exercise such as the bench press will target these muscles. Lying on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, place hands shoulder width apart on the exercise bar (with or without additional weights). Push the bar up until arms straighten, pause and return the bar to your chest. Again, perform exercises in set of 10 to 12, increasing the number of repetitions as your strength increases. You can also try this exercise with your hands placed closer on the bar (10 to 12 inches), this will increase the difficulty slightly. An additional variation involves lifting your legs off the floor so that your thighs are pointing towards the ceiling with knees bent. In this position your calves will be parallel to the ground. Repetition of these exercises will be sure to improve your strength in the saddle.
Don’t forget: Horseback riding is a sport, and therefore riders are athletes! You may want to consult your doctor before beginning any such physical activity. Do not perform any exercise that you aren’t prepared for, especially if you are riding a horse.
Continue reading Equestrian exercises for the off-season: Part 2.