Anyone that’s already had their first horse riding experience will tell you how much they wobbled around in the saddle, how trotting felt like galloping, and how off-balance they felt every time the horse moved unexpectedly (which is a lot, when you have no idea what to expect!). They’ll probably also tell you that the next day they were ‘walking like John Wayne’, that they had achy legs and a sore behind. Yet, when you see professional horse riders on TV, it looks easy – like the horse is doing all the work. It looks like the rider is sitting there and just enjoying life.
Well, that’s probably got something to do with the fact that these riders – not just the horses – are trained athletes. They are strong and fit, and able to send signals to the horse or readjust their balance using the slightest muscle movements, with pinpoint accuracy. Whilst you might not be intending to become a world-class equestrian or an Olympic medallist, there are a lot of levels before you get to that point, and it does beg the question – do you have to be fit to ride a horse?
Often, when people start horse riding, they have a lesson or two at a riding school. They ride a very well-trained horse, with someone on the ground guiding them with a lead rope and making sure nothing untoward happens. If this is the limit of your foray into the sport, then no – you don’t need to be particularly fit to ride a horse. A reasonable level of general fitness and being in a healthy weight category will be sufficient. However, if you want to start being able to go faster, learn how to control the horse yourself, or try different disciplines like schooling or jumping, you’re going to need an appropriate level of fitness. You’ll need muscle tone and muscle control to give the horse clear signals, stamina and cardio fitness to ride at pace, and core strength for maintaining good balance. The extent that you need to work on each area will vary according to what type of horse riding you are doing.
If you plan to take a lesson once a week and you have a good level of general fitness, then you probably don’t need too much more. The aches and pains you experience after your first few sessions will fade as those muscles get used to being used. However, if you want to improve your technique in the saddle, it certainly won’t harm you to complement your riding with some exercises out of the saddle as well.
Any exercise which works your core will be a great help for overall balance and good balance is essential for lots of elements of horse riding.
Firstly, if you are balanced well, the chances are your horse will be too. It’s easy to forget that it’s a big ask for us to get on their backs and put them through their paces – especially when we are still learning how to communicate with them. Horses are big, top-heavy animals with lots of legs to co-ordinate, so the quieter we can sit in the saddle, the easier we make the job for them.
Secondly, good balance will make you confident and able to concentrate on improving your technique rather than clinging on for dear life. This brings about a third benefit, which is that you won’t be diluting your intentional movements with unintentional ones, making it nice and easy for the horse to understand what you want him to do.
Try out our 10 minute core workout on YouTube and subscribe for more!
Schooling and Dressage
Schooling is just another word for training and dressage is the art of horse and rider mastering a series of movements, together. If you are lucky enough to have seen any dressage live, you’ll know just how impressive it can be.
But dressage doesn’t just look good; even at a basic level, learning movements with your horse and practicing them is a great way to deepen the bond between the two of you. Over time, you discover how one another behaves and responds when faced with different challenges, and this can help in other disciplines and situations.
Effective dressage schooling requires the great balance we have mentioned previously, but also the ability to give very precise signals to the horse. Your legs need to hug your horse’s sides without gripping, your arms and hands to have good contact on the reins but not to use them as a balancing aid.
As you advance, you need to be able to move each limb independently whilst maintaining a steady seat position – and this takes time, practice, strength, and fitness. Moving your lower leg in one direction, for example, will initiate a different response from your horse than moving it in the other direction. You need complete control over which you choose, and the extent and pressure with which you apply the movement.
A half-pass is a good example of a common dressage maneuver. It requires a complex combination of rider movements for the horse to understand his job. The following video from Matt Hicks talks through the process, giving you an interesting insight into what the rider is doing.
In the video, Matt refers to ‘bending the horse’ around the leg. This means the rider is applying pressure in one direction with the leg and another direction with the reins, whilst also keeping the horse moving forwards. It looks almost effortless but takes a lot of strength and precision. By working on muscle tone and strength, you can start to develop the control you need to work on this kind of schooling exercise.
Here is a basic workout for legs, hips and glutes to get you started
Riding out is such an adventure; there’s nothing like the feeling of freedom when you’re meandering along, admiring the landscape from horseback. But it goes without saying that if you’re going to be out riding for long periods, then you need to be prepared.
You might take practical items such as food and water, a first aid kit and spare clothes in case it gets wet or cold. But you also need to be prepared as a rider. The horses used for trail riding are fit and agile, and you need to be too. As a minimum, you should to be able to dismount and mount with ease, but you also might need to open gates, move obstacles or even lead another horse from atop your horse if a fellow rider gets injured.
General fitness and stamina are important for this type of riding as well as agility, so don’t forget to stretch!
All horse riding involves an element of danger, but cross-country riding – with its jumps, tricks, twists, and turns – can be a bit more extreme. Being at the peak of fitness will help you to stay as safe as possible by keeping you comfortable and allowing you to focus on the task ahead.
Balance, strength, and agility all play an important part – but you’re also going to need an excellent level of cardio fitness to survive a couple of miles of galloping, jumping solid fences, and negotiating water obstacles.
Any kind of interval training will help you to achieve better cardiovascular fitness and prepare you for the challenges of cross country riding. We love cycling and jogging in summer and swimming and skiing in winter.
Riding is only a small part of life with horses. If you go for lessons at a riding school, you may not be exposed to all the work that goes on behind the scenes.
Lots of establishments, however, offer the opportunity for you to spend a half or a full day with them, to learn more about stable management. If you get the chance, get involved. Not only is it beneficial to your riding as you get a more holistic understanding of the horse and his needs, but it can also help you to gain strength and fitness. It’s not for the faint-hearted – there are buckets of water to carry, hay nets to fill, feed buckets to lift, wheelbarrows to push and mucking out to be done – and when it rains or snows, all of those jobs get ten times harder. It’s very rewarding though, and it builds character as well as fitness!
To be an effective stable hand, you will need strong legs and a strong back, for lifting and carrying, good cardio fitness for tasks like grooming and pushing wheelbarrows full of wet poo, and agility for bending to pick out a horse’s hooves and jumping out of the way when he decides to move suddenly! If you don’t have these already then don’t worry – you soon will!
Beyond your first lesson, fitness plays a key part in becoming an effective horse rider. The type and level of fitness that you need very much depend on the type and level of riding you will be doing. Like any sport, you can build that fitness gradually as you improve your skill level – or you can go out and make a very deliberate effort to work on specific areas to help you achieve particular goals. Whichever approach you take – one thing is for sure; you’ll never look at a professional again and think it looks easy!
If you want to work on your fitness to get more out of your time in the saddle, subscribe to our YouTube channel where we are posting workouts targeted to equestrians and our specific goals and needs.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, or any type of medical advice for humans or horses. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.