The first EquiKneads Intro to Rider Fitness class took place last week at Krystal Creek Riding. Since approximately 4 years ago, health and fitness have become almost as much of a passion of mine as horses. Not only do I want to be strong and able to perform my physically demanding job, I want to be able to help my horse by being as straight and stable through the core as I can when I’m riding. Finally, I want to stay fit way down the road so I can keep riding for as long as possible. I mean really, who doesn’t want to celebrate their 90th birthday by going for a hack? Gaining muscle mass and bone density now is a good way to help make it happen. It is quite hard to describe just how much of an impact becoming much more fit has had on my life, but suffice it to say that everything I do has become more enjoyable and I can’t believe how much more energy I have. I love sharing what I have learned through a lot of research as well as trial and error with others.
We all have some muscle imbalance issues as well as being one side dominant. Years of performing one sided activities (cleaning stalls, sweeping, etc), as well as hours of sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of the car, and even sleeping on one side of our body, all have a negative impact on our posture and muscle balance.
Contrary to popular belief, a good workout which targets many muscle groups and increases cardio fitness, does not need to take extreme amounts of time. My fitness level has increased more than I could have ever imagined with just a 20 minutes workout a day. It is pretty intense and I do workout daily, but that still adds up to only 2 hours and 20 minutes a week. It is possible to see some very solid results with 20 minutes 3 times a week. The class itself lasts about an hour because there is some explanation time, demos, working on correct form, but keeping up with the workouts at home will not take this long.
We started the clinic with a couple of exercises using a balance ball. These are great tools for riders because they help us mimic the feeling of needing to balance on a moving horse. There are a few simple, but very helpful, balance ball exercises which help riders to become aware and target some issues we face while riding. Performing some basic leg raises on a balance ball can help to demonstrate which side we are dominant on as well as allowing us to improve our weaker (and less coordinated) side. Another important part of riding is making sure we have good mobility through the pelvis. Playing around with tilting the pelvis forward and back on a balance ball helps to find the strong neutral position that’s needed to ride effectively.
Another extremely important aspect of rider fitness is core strength. Recent studies prove that as riders increased their fitness in terms of core strength, their horses became more sound (their stride length actually increased noticeably). I have tried some different exercises for increasing my core strength, but planks have made the biggest difference by far. There are different variations of forearm planks – the muscles targeted vary slightly as does the difficulty. Many trainers believe that anyone with a strong core should be able to hold a 2 minute plank. This doesn’t happen overnight for most of us, it took me a while to work up from a measly 30 seconds. Eventually you can play around with using a bosu ball or balance ball, bringing your feet closer together and adding movement to increase difficulty.
Side planks are also fantastic for riders. They not only help strengthen the core, but also the hips. Many riders complain about tight hips. There are stretches to help combat the tension, but if it keeps returning it could be because the area is actually weak and no amount of stretching will strengthen it. Side planks are also great at helping with inside rotation of the hips, many riders struggle with toes which point out too much and working on side planks can help with that. To add to the challenge once side planks become easy, there are variations such as using a bosu ball to balance on and doing leg lifts.
The last part of the workout is trying out some kettle bell swings. This is an excellent exercise for building muscle as well as increasing cardio fitness in one. I am all for efficiency! Kettle bell swings help to improve posture by opening up the chest and they activate the entire posterior chain. The kettle bell swing is a movement that does take a bit of practice to really get the feel of it. It is important to start out with a bell you can swing comfortably at least 20 times and work on correct form before moving up to heavier weights.
We did finish the class by timing everyone doing forearm planks, side planks as well as counting how many kettle bell swings everyone did with whichever weight they chose. Becoming more fit is certainly not a competition with anyone else, but it is good to track yourself so you can measure your own progress. It really is amazing to see how quickly fitness improves when you work on it consistently and within a matter of weeks it’s possible to notice a difference in the saddle too!