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Why Every Equestrian Needs a Cross-Training Program: A Deep Dive into Rider Fitness

Updated: Feb 12

As horse riders, it's easy to forget about our own fitness. We spend hours schooling and conditioning our horses to make sure they are prepped for the performance we expect of them. But many horse riders don’t realize just how much their own fitness can make or break their horse’s performance. 

Girl sitting on the back of a horse.

It’s so important to incorporate a strategic cross-training program for you as the rider if you want to be able to improve your riding performance and be able to ride for the rest of your life. We’re going to go over why this is important, how your fitness affects your horse, and what modalities you should focus on in your own cross-training routines. 

Why Riders Should Increase their Overall Fitness OFF the Horse

It’s a well-known fact that riding alone can cause asymmetries in our bodies which eventually create riding limitations vs increasing our riding ability. There have been studies showing how higher-level riders are actually prone to higher asymmetries which lead to increased instances of back pain. This demonstrates the importance of cross-training for riders in limiting the effects of riding-associated pain and discomfort across all levels of riding.

It can be easy to dismiss our own fitness in sacrifice for our horses’ needs, but let’s talk about how that truly affects our horses.

A rider who doesn’t have the strength or endurance to be able to hold their bodies in a proper position for the entirety of their riding session can cause detrimental effects to their horses, including; soft tissue damage, poor carriage, poor muscling, not to mention how our own riding can impede the horse’s ability to perform. As riders, we owe it to our horses to be fit enough to support them with whatever we’re asking them to do!

Not sure where to start? I’ve created a RIDE Fitness Guide to help you get started! Just click HERE to have it sent straight to your email!

Should the Focus be on Flexibility or Strength?

There are so many differing opinions when it comes to training in general, but even more when it comes to training for increased rider performance. 

I see a lot of programs and trainers who glorify flexibility as the best and only modality that truly increases riding performance, but I’m skeptical of this belief.

As a trainer who specializes in helping horsewomen increase riding performance through training, mindset, and nutrition while making their horses a part of the process. I have found many cases where increased flexibility was a hindrance in my riders’ abilities to be able to stay with their horses when they spooked, bucked, or acted like horses act. 

Indeed, a 2019 study investigated the association between the fitness of the rider and their riding performance. They measured the effects of flexibility, strength, and strength-endurance along with a few other modalities to see how they affected the rider’s overall performance on the horse. 

They took 115 riders of different levels and disciplines and had them complete preliminary measurements for each modality before performing specific riding tests with two equestrian judges. 

They found that the overall endurance and strength of the riders increased their riding performance, while flexibility “had a negative association” with riding performance. 

I do think there needs to be more studies done overall when it comes to fitness and riding performance, but I believe that a rider, no matter the level, should participate in a fitness program that increases their strength and endurance while also improving their overall mobility over hyper-focusing on flexibility. 

Now let’s talk about how to evaluate your own riding fitness!

Using My RIDE Method to Evaluate Rider Fitness

Each new client I take on at MaK Athletes completes a Rider Assessment. This allows me to assess their level of fitness, as well as their horsemanship,  so we have a clear view of what needs to be worked on the ground and in the saddle to improve the way they ride and connect with their horse. This is something that I suggest every rider do whether you’re working with a coach or not. So, let’s talk about how to set one up for yourself. 

Maneuvers and Speeds

Not every rider is at the same level so it’s important to know you and your horse’s level and not to push past that. So, if that means all you’ll do is walk in the video that’s okay! Do NOT put yourself or your horse in a bad position just to try and get a good video. 

If you and your horse are able, you’ll want to shoot yourself at the walk, trot, and canter/lope going both directions. These will help to pinpoint any weaknesses coming form you or your equine partner. If you are able to do more advanced movements such as half-pass, leg yields, side passing, and more then shoot those as well. These will give you even more information on weaknesses you or your horse may be dealing with. 

Camera Angles

Unless you have a Pivo-Tripod or someone out there to video for you, it can be a little overwhelming trying to get this done. What I always tell clients, keep it simple! It doesn’t have to be perfect, I can make most things work when it comes to videos but what I for sure want to see is:

  • Straight on the camera: riding toward and away from the camera.

  • And riding with the camera to your left and right sides.

If you get those in, there’s so much you’re going to be able to see even if the video itself isn’t perfect. 

What to Watch For

Here are a few things I’ll be on the lookout for when focusing on the rider alone:

1. Do they move well with the horse with no space between their butt and saddle at the different gates?

  • Are you bouncing in and out of your seat?

  • Are you able to keep your seat when your horse transitions gates?

  • When you’re posting are you being thrown out of the saddle and then falling back into it, or are you able to rise and fall in a controlled manner?

2. Can they hold their upper body still while the horse transitions from gate to gate?

  • Do you fall forward or backward when the speed or gates change?

  • Are you able to hold your body in the correct position for a little while but fall out of it the longer you go? 

3. Can they hold their legs and arms still while the horse moves?

  • Do your legs bounce as you move or do they glide with you?

  • Do you balance on the reins or look like a bird that’s trying to take flight?

  • Do your arms stay stick straight?

4. Are they in the correct riding position so they aren’t getting in their horse’s way?

  • Is your horse able to perform to the best of their ability and utilize their muscles without being hindered by you?

  • Are you pushing back into the saddle so your body weight ends up too far back?

  • In the same light, are you leaning too far forward and placing your weight on the front end of your horse?

5. How is their posture? Are they leaning forward with their shoulders or over-arching their back?

  • Is their back a straight line down to a point you can’t tell where your hips begin?

  • Is your back arched where there’s a steep S curve and you complain about back pain?

  • Do your shoulders roll forward?

  • Do your hips fall to one side or the other?

  • Do you slouch your back? 

There’s always more we can look into but this will give you a solid start! If you notice that you struggle with any of these areas, don’t worry! There’s so much you can do both in and out of the saddle to improve! 

Taking Action

Off the Horse

No matter what you see in your videos you’ll want to start incorporating 2-3+ days of strength training to help balance out any asymmetries and get your body strong and mobile! 

You’ll want to have a program that works all the major movement patterns (squat, lunge, hinge, push/pull) so all of your major muscle groups are being worked.  I have created my RIDE Fitness Guide to get you started, it’s completely FREE, just click the link and have it sent straight to your inbox. 

On the Horse Work

Then I would suggest spending your time at the walk while you focus on holding yourself in the correct positions for the next couple of weeks. I know this isn’t the most fun thing to do, but if you’re patient you’ll see your riding increase greatly! My FREE RIDE Fitness Guide also includes videos to help walk you through the correct positions. 

Video yourself!

As uncomfortable as this can be at first this is probably the most important piece if you truly want to improve your strength in the saddle. Use the guidelines above to learn to critique yourself and see what areas you need to improve each session. Doing this will more than double your progress!

If you’re unsure what you’re seeing or confused feel free to reach out to me! Just click HERE I’ll be happy to talk with you about what you’re seeing! Just put "riding assessment" in the subject line.

FREE Rider Fitness Masterclass!

If you're ready to learn more about how to maximize your riding performance and how to fit it all into your busy schedule join me for a FREE live masterclass held on Thursday, February 22nd, 2024! Just click HERE to sign up!

If you are ready to take the guesswork out of this whole process and be part of a program that makes your horse a part of the process, apply to work with me at MaK Athletes, where I’ll show you how to optimize your time and training so you can achieve life long results! Just click HERE to get started!

And, as always, thanks for reading! make sure to subscribe to the Blog so you never miss a post!

What would you like to learn next? What questions do you have on Rider Fitness?

let me know in the comments!


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