athletic equestrain vaulting onto cantering pony's back

Are You An Equestrian Athlete?

March 18, 2021

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Hi there, human!

You may have learned from my last post that I’m kinda passionate about the subject of fitness. If you want to ride fast, jump or show, getting your horse fit is one of the kindest things you can do for him. But don’t stop there!

You might transform your horse into a shiny ballerina, or a lean, mean galloping machine, but he’s still going to have a hard time unless YOU get fit, too.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a student say, “My horse just WON’T…. bend… canter on the right lead… stay on the bit… square up his knees over a jump… etc.” — without stopping to consider if the rider might be to blame. These riders re-fit their saddles, have their horses’ joints checked or put them on calming supplements, or hop from trainer to trainer, hoping for a magic cure.

Yet for many riders, the thing that is actually holding them back is their own bodies.

If you just want to enjoy your horse and ride at a lower level, being unfit won’t necessarily stop you.

Just remember that your horse is a stoic animal by nature, and he can’t easily tell you when he’s stressed or uncomfortable. If you are stiff and bouncing on his back, or pulling on his mouth because you don’t have enough muscle tone to support your own balance, he may be suffering silently.

Kind of takes the fun out of riding, doesn’t it?

If you want to ride at an intermediate or advanced level, compete, ride at high speeds or jump big fences, you’d better start thinking about horseback riding as a sport — which makes you an equestrian athlete.

An athlete knows that how she treats her body has a major impact on how well she succeeds.

In addition to practicing, reviewing video, and working on her mental game, she prioritizes time for fitness and for developing healthy habits.

Here’s a little quiz to see how your fitness habits compare — make sure to answer each question honestly!

#1 - How often do you ride?

Horseback riding can be expensive, so if you are serious about riding and can only afford one lesson a week, you may need to get creative and look for additional opportunities for saddle time.

A Almost every day. Give me an extra horse, I’ll ride it!

B Several days a week.

C Once a week.

D Maybe a couple of times a month…?

#2 - Do you practice riding without stirrups and in two-point position?

These exercises, practiced correctly, can really help you develop your balance and strength in the saddle — no matter what kind of saddle you use!

A Every single ride.

B I practice inconsistently, but I do it.

C — I’m all about it during No-Stirrup November, less so the rest of the year.

D I cry if my instructor tells me to drop my stirrups.

#3 - Do you participate in a physical activity outside of horseback riding?

School sports, dance or workout classes can all provide cross-training that complements your workout in the saddle.

A I’m playing sports, on my feet or in the gym almost every day.

B No formal sports or classes, but I’m pretty active during my free time.

C I try to get moving a couple times a week. Sometimes I even succeed.

D My life outside of the barn: desk, car, couch, bed.

line drawing of cross-training sports activities
© Rhonda Hagy
rider stretching leg before xcountry ride with helpful horse watching her
Can I help you with that?

#4 - How often do you stretch?

Practicing yoga, barre or similar exercises multiple times a week will improve your ability to follow the horse’s movement, and can help prevent injury. Stretching before and after a ride can also minimize post-ride soreness.

A I stretch for at least a few minutes every day.

B  I stretch or do yoga several days a week.

C I don’t have a consistent routine, but I try to stretch before I ride.

D The last time I stretched was when my horse dove for a tasty patch of grass.

#5 - What kind of aerobic activity do you practice?

This sustained activity improves your stamina and strengthens your heart and lungs, so you won’t be wheezing after a long posting trot! Your cardio workout might look like brisk walking, jogging, swimming, biking, dancing, or practicing exercises such as jumping jacks or jump rope.

A I get a minimum of 20-30 minutes of cardio in several days a week.

B I don’t do anything special, but I get a lot of steps in every day.

C When I’m motivated, I go for a jog or a hike.

D I get out of breath going to catch my horse in the pasture.

#6 - Do you do any kind of strength training?

Working on your muscle tone and strength can improve your posture and stability in the saddle. If gyms aren’t your thing, you can practice at-home exercises such as squats and planks without any special equipment.

A I work out so regularly that I get cranky if I miss one.

B I only practice for a few minutes at a time, but I get my exercises in several days a week.

C I occasionally commit to a workout program and stick with it for a week or two.

D I can feel my abs sometimes when I sneeze.

line drawing of horse doing push-ups
© Rhonda Hagy

#7 - How often do you pay attention to your breath?

Improving your breathing technique can have a profound impact on both your riding and your overall health. Horseback riders in general are very bad about holding their breath — and trust me, when you do, your horse knows!

A I meditate or practice breathwork exercises, and tune into my breath in the saddle.

B I pay attention to it when I am stretching or working out, but forget about it the rest of the time.

C Only when an instructor reminds me.

D Isn’t my body supposed to take care of that on its own?

tumbler with purple glitter horse decal from The Mane Monogram
Hydrate with style! — The Mane Monogram

#8 - How well do you hydrate?

You might find water boring, but it’s pretty essential —  especially when you’re riding in hot weather.

A I drink water all day long.

B I try to balance out my coffee/tea/juice habit with water, especially on riding days.

C I’m not always the greatest at hydrating, but I do okay with flavored water or sports drinks.

D Water is gross. I’m more a soft drink person, personally.

#9 - What’s your diet like?

We’re not talking about fad diets here, designed to make you lose weight; these are rarely good for you in the long run, and fit riders can come in all sizes. What IS important is that you’re eating food that gives you energy to ride and helps your body recover from exercise

A  I eat a pretty balanced diet with lots of healthy fats, lean protein and veggies.

B I don’t go out of my way to eat well, but I do try to keep sugar and fast food to a minimum.

C I go through phases. I clean up my diet, then fall off the wagon.

D At my last horse show I had a bag of potato chips for breakfast.

If you answered mostly As, you are definitely an equestrian athlete! You are likely to develop strong riding skills and enjoy consistent progress, especially if you are equally devoted to learning about your equine partner.

If you answered mostly Bs, your horse appreciates your efforts! You should be able to safely enjoy most riding disciplines, but may need to Level Up your fitness to be competitive or improve your horse’s way of moving.

If you answered mostly Cs, you can learn to ride comfortably, but your progress will seem slow. You may find some horses difficult to ride, or take a tumble if something goes wrong.

If you answered mostly Ds, your horse probably doesn’t love to carry you! You can ride recreationally, but you’ll need to make some changes to progress beyond basic riding skills — and to reduce your risk of injury when you fall.

“But Heaven,” I can hear you say, “I don’t have time to be an athlete! Unlike you, I work for more than three hours a day. I have school and family and other obligations to juggle… plus you also want me to learn more about horses! How am I supposed to get fit too?”

I get it, and I know that for a lot of you, carving out time for weekly barn visits is challenging enough. But I also know that humans are pretty good at making time for things that are really important for them.

And I know that human training is a lot like horse training: It works best when you take teeny, tiny steps, as often as possible.

So here’s my challenge to you: choose ONE thing you can do to improve your riding on a daily basis, and practice it for just five minutes a day

You may not have time for a gym membership or for hour-long walks, but you can definitely find five minutes — I’ve seen you spend much more time scrolling through your social media feeds!

Will five minutes of practice each day turn you into an equestrian athlete? Probably not.

But you’ll be a bit closer than you were, and once you’ve established the habit, you can look for another five minutes in your day to add something new. Trust the process and see what happens.

 If you need a little extra motivation, think about how much you love your horse — and how much fun you can have together when you are BOTH fit and prepared!

horse and girl walking together
Want a win-win? Exercise with your horse!

Two good resources to get you started, no matter what discipline you ride:

It's All About Me

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Fun facts about me: I’m a mounted games ambassador, part-time Dragon, and accomplished artist. Half Arabian, half Quarter Horse, with a whole lot of heart. I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.

And most importantly, I’m a veteran school pony – which means I have plenty of horsey wisdom to share with YOU.

I’ve been the star lesson horse at HorseSense Riding Academy for over a decade, beloved by many, even those who’ve tried and failed to catch me. I’m the kind of girl that prefers a little gallop and sass, so it took me a while to realize that teaching horsemanship is a special job. The way I figure it, if I can help even one student learn to think like a horse and become a good partner, I’ve made the world a better place for horses… and the humans who love them.

You can check out the video of me training my Girl on the archives page.

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