– about an 11 min read 🙂
In one of my Instagram stories, I asked what kind of posts you’d want to see, and I got many great ideas which I will definitely blog about! One of them was about how to stay fit for riding.
It’s a known fact that while we take great care of our horses, from perfecting their diet to formulating the perfect exercise/physiotherapy, we often fail to take equally good care of ourselves as athletes.
While I’ve always been going to the gym on and off over the past years as a way to build core strength and cardiovascular stamina (my asthma is always a struggle), it was only until this past fall that I decided to tailor my workout around my riding needs.
This decision came after suffering an injury in my abductor, iliopsoas (inner thigh and groin muscles) and lower abs during my preparation for the Greek and Balkan Championship. It was both a painful injury and a long recovery which made me realize that I needed to strategically help my body cope with the stress of riding 3 demanding horses.
In this blog post, I am teaming up with my good friend and personal trainer Laoura Martini to discuss what it takes to be fit for horse riding.
Laoura holds a bachelor in Kinesiology and a minor in Psychology from the University of Toronto. Moreover she has a masters degree in Molecular and Applied Physiology, specializing in Therapeutic Exercise from the Medical School of Athens.
Finally, she was also a competitive rider and member of the Hellenic team in both show jumping and dressage. She works with individuals with multiple backgrounds and goals, including many equestrian athletes.
So here’s a guide into staying fit for horse riding and trust me, its not what you think 😉
1. Building Strength
When working with equestrians, Laoura advises that it’s very important to maintain a balance between on-the-horse training and off-the-horse training.
More specifically, since riding is long (you need 45mins per horse), building muscle endurance, i.e. strength, is crucial.
Strength training can be done in many ways, from body weight exercises and resistance bands to free weights and machines at the gym. In my case, we do all of them and I love it.
However, Laoura argues that it is also important to be flexible since equestrians do not essentially have an ‘off-season’, you have to build a strengthening program around the competition schedule.
“You have to be careful not to plan strength sessions too close to the competitions. Doing a strengthening workout 2 days before a show will mean that the athlete will be sore during the competition and, as a result, not perform as well as he/she could have.
On the other hand, planning it right after will produce the desired results since the athlete wouldn’t have had time to recover”
Moreover, according to Laoura, “equestrians tend to have similar over-use injuries – I’m not talking about injuries that happened because they fell off the horse – I’m talking about chronic injuries that build up over time. Show jumpers tend to have a lot of issues with their arms (eg. Tendinitis in their wrist flexors) whereas dressage riders tend to have problems with their abductors and lower back. So it’s important to know what to look for and what to target, how to work around it, how to strengthen it without making it worse.”
2. Maintain Healthy Habits and a Healthy Mindset
I hate to quote the ancient Greeks because it makes me feel like my mother (kidding), but apparently, they’ve gotten EVERYTHING right.
So together with a healthy body, Laoura too stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy mindset. While handling stress and outside pressures is a topic for another post, its taming competitiveness that we are referring to here.
“You can be competitive in your sport, but you can’t always be competitive in the gym, because sometimes you have to take it easy and listen to your body. The gym is not a competition, it’s just a tool to get you to win at the competition”
Another common issue for equestrians, is that we are the only athletes that do not do a proper warm-up, cool down or recovery.
While tacking up and cleaning your horse may actually provide some minimal form of warm-up, Laoura argues that you need to strategically target the muscles you will be using during your warm up and cool down, which leads us to the 3rd point of this post.
3. Stretch it
As we said above, “Horse riders are, I think, one of the only athletes that do not warm up! they just get on the horse – that’s what I did too when I rode”.
So another part of staying fit, according to Laoura, is learning to take five extra minutes before and after for stretching.
However, warm up stretches are different to cooling down stretches.
When preparing to ride, Laoura suggests Dynamic Stretching, i.e. “stretches where the body moves, you stretch you release, stretch release. Those stretches should be focused on the muscle groups that you are going to use (forearms both sides, abductors, hip flexors, some reaches for your lower back). But it is also important to build up to it, not just reach down and flex your back when you’re cold because you might injure yourself”
Visit my IG TV account for a Dynamic Stretching Video!
On the other hand, when doing post-riding stretching, Laoura suggests to listen to your body and stretch anything that feels sore.
To do that, it’s better to do Static Stretches – i.e. when you stretch and hold for a few seconds before releasing and repeating. Using a foam roller is also very useful to help loosen any especially tight spots.
But because you’re are outside where it might be cold, and you’re most likely also sweaty, Laoura stresses to take care that you’re wearing something to stay warm and then slowly stretch out.
Finally, also some PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretches are also very useful where you utilize tension to help release certain areas. However you’d need the help of a professional to to perform them on you or teach you how to perform the stretches on you (it’s a pair-type of stretch) with some elastic bands.
4. Being Mindful 24/7 & Learning How to Use Your Muscles
You’d think that if you ride and hit the gym and stretch you’d be good to go but there is one last thing that, as riders, we all need to do.
Laoura argues that being mindful of how our bodies move, both on AND off the horse is one of the most important factors to reduce chances of injury.
The reason is that “movement patterns are the same and you need to be mindful of how you move 23 hours, not just the 1 hour that you ride in order to prevent injury.
Horse riding is a sport where you sit on the saddle and ride, you get off the saddle, you might stand off the saddle but that’s it. You don’t lean down to catch something like you would in a ball-sport.
As a result, you don’t train every day moves, so horse riders need to train their brains on how to move during the rest of their day too. How you lift things, how you sit in a chair. Bad movement patterns are often a cause of injury.”
Moreover, it’s not enough to strengthen the muscles required but also to teach riders how to properly use their bodies.
“Show jumpers for example, need to learn to put their shoulders back and use their entire back muscles instead of using only their arms if the horse starts pulling when going towards the jump.
If a Dressage rider has developed a severe lordosis, you need to correct it and teach him/her how to keep their back straight without over extending it.”
By learning how to correctly use one’s muscles, you avoid placing a high loads on the joints and ligaments which in turn, prevents their injury.
“Something I often hear from my athletes is that in the beginning they say how their back/arms hurt but then, as they become stronger, they say that they feel tired or sore in their muscles but not in their joints and bones.”
To close off, I asked Laoura, if she had a magic wand, what 4 fitness habits would she want all riders to adopt. Her answer:
“I would want them to warm up and cool down, to build their strength and to start thinking about how they move off the horse and not just on the horse.”
Most importantly though, remember to have fun! Find people that make working out enjoyable, not a burden.
A word of caution, always consult a professional when trying to improve your fitness. Even though there are tons of great workout videos all over the web, consulting an expert is the only way to prevent injury.