Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Rider, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today.?EquiFITT.com offers rider fitness clinics & workshops, Centered Riding? instruction, and convenient distance eCoaching for riders anywhere.? Subscribe to receive free monthly Equestrian Fittips, and download rider fitness eBooks at:??www.equifitt.com/resources.html
No doubt about it: it’s a busy time of year if you are a rider. If you are wondering when you are going to squeeze your own conditioning into your week, you are not alone.
I often hear riders say they will take their own athletic training seriously when the show season is over. Usually those who say this, also find a reason in the fall to postpone to winter, and a reason in the winter to postpone to spring and so on. It’s definitely true that the middle of competitive season is probably not the best time to launch an aggressive fitness plan, any more than it would be the right time to add new demands to your horse’s training.
However, show season is demanding on the body with the long days and often hot weather. Hours spent preparing and getting ready, trailering and other associated activities put more strain on your body than you experience the rest of the year and right at a time when you need to be able to perform at your peak.
Most athletes in other sports periodize their training plan to take the peak competitive seasons into account. There are times of the year when it is appropriate to train more aggressively, times you shift into maintenance mode and recovery segments after particularly grueling competitive periods. If you’re thinking this is starting to sound familiar, you’re right. You probably have your horse’s training organized similarly.
Ideally, you would have wanted to be more aggressive in your fitness plan about five to six months before your first horse show of the season. The goal would be to correct problems, and develop strength reserves and cardiovascular stamina in excess of what you need to ride normally, so that your body is prepared to perform at its best when conditions are not favorable.
If your ride is at 4pm, you’ve been on the show grounds since early morning, you’ve ridden once already that day and it’s hot enough to melt an ice cream before you can finish it, then the physical conditioning you need to handle a normal ride on a normal weekday in your regular off-season schedule is not going to be adequate for the moment. However, you have too much invested in that moment to just let yourself fail. Failure due to fatigue could be easily prevented through a little attention to your training–attention your competitors might not have paid.
Since you’re already in the middle of your show season, look to take your training more seriously when the peak season is over. Keep in mind, if you are thinking of ceasing your fitness plan altogether that will be even more detrimental, resulting in less strength, core tone and cardio-vascular stamina, therefore reducing your endurance and accuracy right about when the championships are run. However, maintaining strength in your posture and performance will help you be your best when it counts, and will also reduce your risk of strain or injury. Having your season cut short by an injury, or your full potential reduced by a strain you are protecting would be a big disappointment.
Women in particular should pay attention to shoulder and back strength. Female dressage riders do not usually have the same strength as men, so maintaining a solid frame while working a 1,000-pound, big moving dressage horse creates a lot of repeated loading on the back and shoulder area. When you have adequate muscle size, this loading can be managed by your body. When you don’t, it results in your body tightening up, and excessive load on shoulder area ligaments.
Riding and not building strength in your back and shoulders is the equivalent of asking your horse to repeat a movement over and over when he is not sufficiently strengthened to bear weight where he needs to. If you need to take pain relievers after you ride because of strain in hips, back, shoulders or any other area, it is a sign that you need to build strength in that area to take negative load off of your ligaments and joints. Even if a rider does not create a repetitive strain injury in shoulders or back through lack of adequate physical training, tension and tightness in shoulders and back will of course be counterproductive to your training goals, and tend to be mirrored by your horse.
Where your body is strong, it can afford to relax and be supple. Where it is weak, it will tighten up to try and create stability not provided by your muscles. Very often injuries that appear to have happened suddenly, were actually a while in the making and could have been prevented.
Since riding is one of the rare sports where we can actively compete well into our senior years, riders have a particular interest in finding ways to maintain longevity throughout their riding career, and of course, the show season.
Through the show season, I encourage riders to make their workout more interesting and efficient with very short lists of exercises which meet several goals simultaneously while maintaining strength in key areas. A shorter, more efficient workout with multi-joint, multi-muscle exercises is easier to fit into your day and week, so the chances you’ll actually do it are improved. As a rule of thumb for dressage riders, maintain your hip, core and shoulder strength.
Three great exercises are the standing T pose, rear leg raise with rotation, and plank on the ball. A handful of repetitions on a daily basis would be a light routine you could keep up in just a few minutes.
Start by standing up tall and straight with your arms up overhead and a slight bend in your knees. Keep a straight line from your hands to your foot as you gradually tip forward until you are parallel with the floor–or as close to it as you can get. This exercise strengthens your back and shoulders, but it is especially good for core muscles involved in hip alignment, and hip stabilizing muscles. Make sure your pelvis does not tilt. You will find the standing leg is working quite hard, and that you need to focus on maintaining your pelvis “squared” to the floor.
Rear Leg Raise
This exercise works your postural muscles–as long as you maintain upright posture. Engage your abdominals very strongly (press your belly back to your spine) so that you can support your lower back. You do not want to create a hollowing in your lower back. Raise your leg backwards with the toe and knee pointing out (try and keep your foot parallel to the floor). This exercise is also a great workout for the muscles that help narrow your hips at the back to open them at the front.
Doing the plank on the ball forces your whole torso to engage to stabilize your position. Doing it on your elbows on the ball engages muscles in your shoulder girdle, and therefore helps to keep your shoulders strong at the same time. Using a ball is preferable since the ball creates an element of instability, and will give you immediate feedback on your symmetry. If you do not have access to a ball such as when you are at the show grounds, planks on the ground or other unstable surfaces such as little stack of hay will work.
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