Includes 7-day exercise and fitness plan!
Horse riding requires a level of fitness specific to the sport itself and often even the fittest of individuals struggle when it comes to getting on horseback. It’s all very well being able to run 5 miles a day without stopping and attending all the latest fitness classes, but without taking part in the correct exercises you are likely to find horse riding challenging.
Getting enough hours in the saddle itself is a massive help towards correct rider fitness, but there are many ways to improve this when out of the saddle too. Many riders choose to attend weekly lessons or ride their horses daily and it is fair to say hours in the saddle do definitely matter however sticking to a specific rider fitness programme can help improve, not only your overall riding ability but your general health too.
Let’s take a look a bit deeper into why a rider fitness programme is beneficial and how you can help yourself become a better rider.
What is Rider Fitness?
Riding a horse may look like a walk in the park, but as many of us know, it is an extremely tough sport. It not only requires dedication, passion, confidence and having the patience of a saint, but calls for a level of fitness that can only be achieved by sufficient time in the saddle and committing to the right fitness plan on the ground.
Riding a horse is physically demanding and the level of fitness required usually depends heavily on the discipline you choose to take part in. Eventing and Racing can take a huge toll on your body and there is a need to be both mentally and physically rider fit for these disciplines. Even as a once-a-week rider, it is a wise idea to take fitness seriously for the benefit of both you and your horse.
There are many areas associated with rider fitness that fall into 4 key categories.
Areas of Rider Fitness
- Cardiovascular Fitness
Increasing the amount of aerobic exercise you take part in can be extremely helpful for rider fitness. Cardiovascular exercise helps to increase heart and lung capacity which is responsible for delivering oxygen to the muscles. The more oxygen that reaches these muscles, the more work they can do, putting less pressure on your heart.
Some great ways of increasing your cardiovascular fitness are through running, cycling, interval training (either outside or with cardio machines), or high energy classes such as circuit training.
2. Muscular Strength
As a rider, you want to direct some of your fitness training towards developing long and lean muscles. This doesn’t mean you need to start lifting heavy weights with the fear of looking like the Incredible Hulk by the end of it, but it does mean you should aim to build your muscles as strong as possible.
Strong, lean muscles allow you the ability to be able to sit still during dressage training whilst still providing clear concise aids. Trying to hold a strong, difficult horse together can be challenging and the strength of your muscles may be the difference between being able to manage that horse sufficiently or becoming completely over horsed.
Remaining balanced whilst in the saddle is not an easy task. It takes a great level of rider fitness to achieve a completely independent seat whilst still being effective.
Core stability is a key component of this and many of us have heard time and time again instructors shouting at the top of their lungs ‘use your core muscles!’ Yes, it’s not just you, I can assure you!
Your core muscles consist of the Diaphragm, Pelvic Floor, Abdominal Muscles, Multifidus, and muscles on either side of the spine. Effectively the whole of your mid-section should be a solid base in which your other muscles can work from.
One of the goals when trying to improve your core muscles is to get your pelvis acting as a shock absorber which in turn allows the top half of your body to remain still. This will allow you to move in harmony with your horse, following the movement, and will massively improve your horse’s balance and way of going.
Suppleness for both horse and rider is a necessity. It allows you to move effectively with your horse, following the movement whilst still remaining soft and relaxed regardless of which discipline you are taking part in. Often we associate flexibility with suppleness, but flexibility plays only a small part.
Pilates and Yoga is an absolute godsend for rider fitness and if I had a penny for every time a professional equestrian told me to take part in these classes to improve my riding I would be very rich by now. Regular stretching classes are key for improving suppleness and flexibility, in particular the hips, back, hamstrings, thighs, shoulders, and ankles.
Why is Rider Fitness Important?
Despite what the clueless know it all’s may tell you, riding is first and foremost a sport in its own right. Both you and your horse are athletes and must be treated as such. You wouldn’t catch a runner doing a marathon without prior training or a boxer going into a fight unfit and overweight and therefore you should treat horse riding in the same manner.
Many riders concentrate hard on the fitness levels of their horse, which truth be told, is a very important aspect, however, you and your horse should be viewed as a team. It’s quite possible if you are not paying any attention to your own fitness, it could be you that is letting the team down.
Riders that can carry and manage their body weight make life much easier for their horse. Carrying a deadweight is not helpful to your horse and does not allow them to move freely underneath you. There will always be an element of restriction and too much movement on your part.
An unfit rider can put themselves in more danger. A rider that loses strength or tires easily is more likely to fall off in a difficult situation than a rider that is fit, strong, balanced, and can hold their body weight. A rider that gets tired out easily is also less likely to be able to help their horse out if they were to find themselves in trouble or have become tired out.
Does eating the right foods contribute to rider fitness?
Eating the correct foods can contribute highly to your overall rider fitness plan. It’s all very well taking part in the right type of exercise daily, but food plays a massive part in your fitness goals. Thinking about this logically and truthfully if riders spent the same amount of time looking at their own diet as they do their horses they would be well on the way to achieving rider fitness.
Getting the right balance of foods in your diet as with any healthy eating plan can go a long way to helping with your overall fitness levels. You will also find once you start eating healthier, more nutritional foods your energy levels will increase, making exercising easier.
Let’s look at some key nutrition basics and how you can incorporate them into your diet.
Protein is your body’s building blocks that help to build and repair tissue in the muscles, bones, blood, organs, and skin. It also allows for your body to stay chemically balanced which can highly affect your mood levels.
Try to eat a good portion of protein with every meal. Vegetables such as broccoli and mushrooms, beans, and nuts are very high in protein, as are fish, eggs, lean cuts of beef, chicken, and turkey. Try to incorporate as much protein as you can into the diet. Protein shakes in particular are very popular with gym-goers.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy, however, not all carbohydrates are needed or particularly healthy. They fall into one of two categories:
Simple carbohydrates – such as refined starches and sugar (think white bread and pastries) should ideally be kept for treats. They generally provide a quick burst of energy, but do not fuel your body for long and can leave you feeling hungry much quicker.
Complex Carbohydrates – include foods such as vegetables, brown rice, pasta, oatmeal, and fruits. These types are nutritious enough to be included in your daily diet and take much longer to break down in your body leaving you feeling much fuller for longer.
In the same way, there are good and bad carbohydrates, the same applies to fats. Fats are an essential part of the diet that helps to absorb nutrients. They provide you with much-needed energy and help to regulate your body temperature.
Saturated Fats are responsible for the clogging of arteries, restricting blood flow and preventing nutrients from getting to the rest of the body. It often presents itself in the form of non-lean fats and can be regularly found in junk foods such as donuts and potato chips. Too much saturated fat can cause heart disease and high blood pressure in the long term.
Unsaturated Fats are known as healthy fats and are vital for proper body function. They fall into a further two categories of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Both of these together reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease and improve your body’s ability to absorb all the minerals and vitamins you need. Think healthy natural fats from fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Water
Vitamins and Minerals are vital for healthy body function and eating well balanced, nutritious meals will ensure you consume enough of these. Always look for a good healthy mix of carbs, proteins, and fats to balance out your meals. Just focussing on one element will not suffice for a well-rounded diet.
Water is the source of life and many of us do not drink anywhere near enough daily. Keeping well hydrated contributes to a healthy metabolism and manages hunger. It also keeps your skin looking and feeling fresh. Always carry a bottle of water with you on the go. You can even place a bottle at the side of the school so you can take sips at intervals whilst riding to keep you fully hydrated.
Top Exercises to Improve Rider Fitness
So, back to exercise. We mentioned previously that exercise is highly important for rider fitness and many exercises be easily carried out at home if you wouldn’t consider yourself much of a gym bunny. Here we look at a few key exercises to help you along the way that will guarantee to aid in getting your body more supple and flexible and helping with your overall fitness level.
Planking is a great way for riders to build on their strength. As a rider, the aim is to stay stable and balanced in the saddle whilst still being able to sufficiently move the limbs and pelvis for aids. There are many variations of the standard plank that can help to build on specific areas of the body such as the arms, abdominals, and lower back.
Check out these great videos from DressageRiderTraining.com
Exercise Ball Training
Using an exercise ball can be a fantastic piece of equipment for rider training. These types of balls for training are great for improving balance and will help you engage your core muscles to keep yourself stable. This is also ideal for assisting with correct posture.
Exercise balls are very versatile and there are many different movements that you can incorporate when using this equipment. Try sitting on top of the ball with your feet on the ground and lifting up one knee at a time. It’s a lot trickier than you think but is a great training exercise for building core stability and balance.
Check out this great video on balance ball training.
Floor work is important for stretching and suppleness. Many of us experience tight muscles when riding and it is always a wise idea to nip this in the bud before getting in the saddle so you can concentrate fully on your riding.
Stretching can help loosen up knots or trigger points that can be responsible for restricting the range of movement. One of the key considerations is coordination and floor work can really help to lengthen and shorten those muscles successfully.
Check out this great video by Greenhawk
Ok, running isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, we get this. We can almost see the horrified look on your face right now reading this, but taking part in cardiovascular training can do wonders for your riding ability. Have you ever been out for a gallop and barely been able to breathe afterwards? Galloping can take it out of you and requires a lot of strength and fitness on your part.
Going for a run regularly or taking part in aerobic type exercises can help strengthen and improve heart function and increase your exercise capacity. You will find once you start taking part in cardio regularly that riding will become less exhausting and your breathing will improve. You won’t get out of breath so easily.
If going for a run isn’t your thing there are other ways in which you can improve your cardio fitness. Attending regular aerobics classes can get your heart rate up and equipment such as cross trainers and running machines are other great alternative options.
Check out this great podcast about cardio training for horse riders
7 Day Plan
Let’s take a look at a typical 7-day exercise and eating plan that you could follow to help you get into a solid routine.
Go for a run! Get your heart rate up. Start slow and build your way up. Begin with a 30 min power walk and progress to a gentle jog when you feel ready. You’ll find you over time you can exercise for longer without getting too out of breath so aim to push yourself more bit by bit. Remember to stretch your muscles out afterwards.
Treadmills, cross trainers and aerobics classes can be great alternatives if running outdoors is not your thing.
Check out this great beginner’s cardio class as a good starting point.
Breakfast: Porridge with skimmed milk, Banana and a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Egg, cucumber and tomato wholemeal sandwich
Dinner: Jacket potato with salmon or tuna (baked beans if veggie)
Snack: 4 squares of dark chocolate ad guacamole with wholemeal pitta bread
Take part in a Yoga or Pilate’s class to reach all the major muscle groups and improve stretching, balance, and flexibility. This can be as part of a class environment at a gym or studio, but can equally be carried out in the home environment. There are plenty of online videos to guide you. Try to take part in at least 30 mins, to begin with, and increase to an hour as you progress.
Check out this great Pilates video for equestrians
Breakfast: Wholegrain toast x 2 slices with scrambled egg and a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Lentil soup with a wholemeal roll
Dinner: Homemade cottage pie served with peas and carrots
Snack: Smoothie made with low-fat yoghurt, skimmed milk, and 2 chocolate digestives
It’s important to not forget strength and resistance training which helps build lean muscle. There are many different types of strength training exercises you can take part in using equipment such as dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and cable machines.
Most of these you will find in the gym environment. There are however many pieces of equipment that can be used at home easily such as resistance bands and weights. If you’re stuck for weights a tin of baked beans can always be a good ‘make do’ option.
Start your training with 30 mins of exercise and build your way up slowly to 45-60 mins if you can. You will find the more time you spend training the longer you will be able to exercise for as your muscles strengthen.
Check out this great ‘at home’ strength training video
Breakfast: Muesli with skimmed milk and fruit, a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Low-fat cheese salad
Dinner: Spaghetti Bolognese with wholemeal spaghetti (use Quorn alternative mince for veggies)
Snack: Plain scone with low-fat spread and a handful of Brazil nuts
Floor exercises are great for stretching out the muscles and building core strength. The amount of stretching exercises you can do is endless and this type of exercise is perfect for those that like to work out at home rather than the gym.
Spend 30 mins if you can on floor exercises, but if you feel like this is too much, to begin with, start with 15 mins and work your way up. As you begin to become rider fit you will notice the length of time you spend stretching will increase.
Check out this great floor exercises video to give you some tips
Breakfast: 3 egg omelette with vegetables and cheese, a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Jacket Potato with beans
Dinner: Homemade tuna pasta bake with broccoli (or a vegetable bake for veggies)
Snack: Flapjack slice and fruit
It’s time for some more cardio! Sorry! Choose what works for you best. Some people prefer a run around the park, while others prefer a session on the treadmill or cross-trainer. There are many great classes you can take part in both at the gym and from home that will be guaranteed to get your heart rate up.
Aerobics, boxing, and HITT training are all reasonably high-energy classes. Some of the Les Mills classes such as Body Attack and Body Combat are ideal for cardio-related exercise. Try to do a full hour of cardio if you can.
Check out Les Mills Body Attack here
Breakfast: Fat-free yogurt, with muesli and fruit, a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Carrot and Parsnip soup and a wholemeal roll or slice of bread
Dinner: Chicken and Vegetable traybake (replace chicken with Quorn for veggies)
Snacks: Unsalted nuts and a glass of red wine (175ml)
Balance balls sometimes known as Swiss balls are a must-have for any horse rider. They are the ideal training tool for riders to assist with balance and core strength. It’s probably one of the closest exercise tools you will find to riding without actually being in the saddle. Balance balls are pretty versatile and are ideal for home exercise.
Check out this great video showing exercises using a balance ball to help improve horse riding fitness.
Breakfast: Poached egg on wholemeal toast, a banana and a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Chicken, tomato and cucumber sandwich on wholemeal bread
Dinner: Chick Pea and Spinach Curry
Snacks: Homemade plain popcorn and a glass of red wine (175ml)
And rest! Have a day off from exercise. Give your body time to repair from all that hard work throughout the week. There is such a thing as overdoing exercise and the chances are you will be riding your horse more at the weekend.
Breakfast: Bran Flakes with skimmed milk, a banana and a glass of unsweetened Orange Juice
Lunch: Ham Salad sandwich on wholemeal bread (substitute with Quorn or Marmite for vegetarians)
Dinner: Lean pork and pak choi stir fry with noodles
Snack: Low-fat plain yoghurt, berries and pumpkin seeds and a packet of plain crisps
- For horse rider fitness to improve, exercise daily – 30 mins a day is usually a sufficient amount of time
- Split the type of exercise up: cardio day, strength training day, core work day
- Aim to eat nutritious, healthy meals that are balanced equally between proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to ensure you are receiving all the vitamins and minerals you need.
- Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated throughout the day and during exercise
- Spend as much time in the saddle as you can. Hone in on your craft. Above all ‘enjoy’ your riding.