What are some words that come to mind when you think of an athlete? Perhaps words like skill, strength, focus, commitment, passion, sacrifice, and drive. Do those words fit what you do as a rider? Do you think what you do as a rider is difficult?

How do you feel after a long day of showing? Fatigued, sore, mentally drained?

How often do you mentally prepare when you compete? Do you walk the show jumping course, visualize the route you will take, the strides you may cut out, the inside turns you may attempt? Of course you do! Do you go over your dressage patterns and tests, knowing exactly when and how you will cue your horse to ensure precise movements? Definitely! Do you practice a fast
barrel racing run in your head and visualize how close you can come to the barrel through a turn? Absolutely!

Mental preparation is a significant part of any equestrian sport, so these questions are likely no-brainers for you.

Now, what if I asked you how often you physically prepare when you are schooling or competing? Do you warm-up or go through any flexibility or mobility exercises before you get on your horse? Do you incorporate resistance and endurance training into your fitness routine to ensure you have the strength and stability to ride effectively? Do you perform a cool-down to prevent excessive muscular soreness and stiffness after a long day of showing? I would guess the response rate would be much less positive.

What about for your equestrian partner—do you ensure you warm-up your horse before you jump a course, perform an intricate dressage pattern, or race to your first barrel? Unquestionably. Why? Because you believe your horse is an athlete.

Let’s go back to those words you may use to describe an athlete. I think many equestrian riders would agree that those words also describe themselves. So, if that is the case, then why would you not prepare like an athlete for your sport?

Equestrian sports are unique as they are a partnership between two athletes: horse and rider. Ideally, both athletes need to be physically conditioned in order to withstand the stress of training and competing. You know how to condition your horse, so let’s talk about how you can start to condition yourself.

Lesson 1: Here’s Why Fitness Is Important

Being physically conditioned has many benefits when it comes to equestrian sport. Here are the top five.

1. It Decreases Your Risk of Injury

Working on and off your horse is physically demanding and requires repetitive types of movements and awkward positions (mucking out a stall, picking hooves, wrapping/bandaging, maintaining posture during no-stirrup work, etc.). Having the appropriate strength, endurance, flexibility, and mobility enables you to perform the specific movement patterns involved in riding with less imposed stress on the body, a fact that can protect you against injuries both acute and chronic.

2. It Quickens Your Recovery Time

Riding is a great sport as it caters to all ages. You may have started riding in your pre-teens or early teens, or perhaps you started in your 30s, or returned to riding in your 40s. As we age, our bodies become less efficient and somewhat less resilient. It can be much harder to recover from an intense lesson or show series than it was when you were younger. However, engaging in a consistent strength and flexibility program and increasing your overall fitness level can aid in physical recovery from soreness, stiffness, and fatigue. It can also improve your ability to withstand the short and long-term stress of the sport and its associated activities.

3. Coordination & Balance

Conditioning a 1,200-pound animal to respond to a variety of subtle cues from the rider (without the rider flailing or using distracting cues) takes an enormous amount of body awareness that comes from balance and coordination of movement patterns. Both balance and coordination are directly related to muscular strength, flexibility, and stability.

4. It Can Positively Affect Your Performance

It is well-documented that improving physical fitness can have a positive effect on performance in any sport. Of course, on show days, there are a lot of factors that come into play that can make a difference on whether you are counting ribbons and prize money or not: weather, footing, judges, the condition of your horse, whether a gremlin jumps out of the water jump or not! Your fitness level should never be one of the reasons your performance suffered.

5. It Improves Your Longevity in the Sport

You love horses! You love the sport, the training, the competition, the camaraderie, the bond between horse and rider, the lazy hack days, the smell of the barn. You love it all and want to ride and compete for as long as possible. To reiterate what I said above, your fitness level should not be the reason you have to stop riding.

Remember…YOU ARE AN ATHLETE!

Meryl Wheeler is a former equestrian athlete who has a passion for physical fitness and health. As a Certified Athletic Therapist and adult educator, she brings her knowledge of the musculoskeletal system and injury prevention to create effective online strength and conditioning programs designed to help clients realize the power, opportunity, and potential they have to reach their own health and wellness goals. To learn more, follow Meryl on Facebook and Instagram