I am often amazed to learn just how much horses and their riders mirror each other. For example, it is not uncommon for me to learn that an area of tension in a particular horse I am massaging, is also the exact same area the rider experiences problems. Sometimes, it’s a very particular area of tension that both rider and horse share, other times it is a more general weakness (or sidedness) of one side of the body. For many years I have encouraged riders to make sure they take care of themselves as well as their horses and go for massages, chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture or physiotherapy sessions as needed.
Those treatments are a great start, but are limited in what they can accomplish without the rider’s active participation. We have known for a long time that a more fit rider, is a more effective rider, but new research shows that a more fit rider actually leads to a more sound horse! This relates particularly to core fitness. This is huge news! As riders, we will pretty much do everything our power to keep our horses as sound as possible. It is quite shocking to realize just how much of an impact we can have on animals who weigh up to 10 times our own body weight.
Straightness for riders is rooted in a strong core. We have a tendency to collapse to some degree through one side of our body. If we can’t maintain a level of self carriage as well in one direction, a horse, particularly a green or underdeveloped one, will not be able to do so under us. It is basically impossibe to correct a crooked horse for a rider who is crooked. How did we get so crooked and weak in our cores? Years of doing one sided activities such as cleaning stalls, years of sitting at a computer, and even years of sleeping on the same side of your body can lead to postural problems. It is hard to correct them overnight, but it is amazing how quickly you can notice a difference.
In this day and age there are so many resources available, that all riders can find ways to improve their riding fitness. There are specific workout programs designed for riders locally and there are fantastic online programs as well for those who would rather workout from the comfort of their own home.
I have struggled with being one sided to some degree for as long as I can remember. I have always had problems keeping even weight in my stirrups and I definitely have a tendency to collapse through my right side. I have been pretty serious about my fitness for the last 4 years which started with changing up the way I eat and losing 50 lbs. That made a pretty big difference alone and things got even better when I added in working out with kettle bells. In the last few year I also started doing some planks regularly. Unfortunately I have not been riding much the last couple of months, but the difference I have noticed in everything I do is huge. Having a physical job makes being fit and strong even more important. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone do exactly what has worked for me, but I thought I would mention what has made the biggest impact on my overall fitness and core strength as I have experimented and played around quite a bit to find exercises that are most effective in the shortest period of time. I find for me, if my workout only takes 20 minutes and is really intense, not only do I not have time to get bored, I also don’t have the excuse of not finding time for it.
The basis of most of my workouts for the last 3 years has been the kettle bell swing. Many trainers say that if they had to pick just one movement to do it would be the kettle bell swing. It improves posture to one that is upright and open, works the entire kinetic chain, strengthens the heart and burns fat. It is extremely important to make sure your form is correct for these as it is possible to hurt yourself. Over 3 years I have worked up to a 61 lb KB. The other major component is planks. I started with a forearm plank, then added a side plank, and recently began using the bosu ball for an added challenge, as well as doing leg lifts during the side planks. The added bonus with side planks for riders is that they help with internal rotation through the hips! Definitely a challenge for this rider with short femurs. My workouts also include some yoga poses (pigeon is my favourite) which are a great way to stretch and allow me some time for a break between the more intense parts of my workout. Once a week I change it up by going for a stair run or a hike. I only wish I had started doing this sooner!