Fit To Ride: Physical Fitness for Equestrian Athletes

Dec 3, 2020 | Equestrian

Different equestrian competitions require strength in different parts of the body. A 2012 research study on the biomechanical performance of equestrian athletes made these observations:

“As a horse progresses through the gaits…the rider’s heart rate and oxygen consumption increase…It is the faster gaits and jumping that require the rider to adopt a ‘forwards’ riding position that necessitates weight bearing to be through the rider’s legs, as opposed to a seated position, where weight bearing is predominantly through the pelvis. It is apparent that these ‘forward position’ modes of riding significantly increase metabolic cost.”

Training and exercise are equally important for equestrian athletes but they’re not the same thing. Working out is physical activity done either for its own sake or to improve fitness. Training is done to improve performance — planned exercises targeted toward achieving competitive goals. The process is just as important as the activity. When an athlete is training, they usually work with a coach or personal trainer over an extended period of time and expect to see continuous improvement. 

The body responds to training by adaptation. As you require more of your body, it responds to those demands by coping with the increased expectations. As you get more fit, your major muscle groups and cardio-vascular system get more efficient, allowing you to do more and replacing your previous fitness capabilities with newer, better ones.

All athletes must be brutally honest with themselves when they’re setting training goals. This is even more important for equestrian athletes because their performance is very closely linked to that of their horse. It’s important to have an objective, experienced trainer to help you evaluate your limitations and provide honest feedback about your progress. You will run into roadblocks and setbacks. Getting past them is the only way to succeed.

All equestrian competition requires an elite level of physical fitness; however, each individual sport has its own requirements. Here is a brief look at some of the specialized training that is needed for Show Jumping, Dressage, and Polo. 

Show Jumping

A show jumper’s position is the most important part of making good jumps. Good position is the result of good body control. If the rider isn’t strong enough to hold their position over the jump, the horse has to work harder. Show jumpers need to have a strong torso and strong legs (thighs, calves and ankles). They also need stamina which they can build with regular off-horse cardio workouts. Many jumpers like to run, but swimming, cycling, and rowing will also do the trick.

Dressage

Posture and balance are especially important for Dressage riders because “if you can’t control your own body on top of the horse, you won’t be able to control the horse.” Dressage riders are always trying to achieve a deep seat. Their rear end needs to be in close contact with the saddle so they can direct the horse. A deep seat requires a strong core. In addition, competitors need dressage-specific strength, particularly the upper back and shoulders which are important for posture when riding. They also need equal strength in both legs in order to make pivoting and balance easier.

Polo

Polo is a very physical sport. Polo players want to be strong, but not big. They need to be flexible and as fit as possible to reduce injuries. Because they are riding and using their upper body to move the ball, total body workouts are necessary. Their body needs to be able to make adjustments quickly as they turn and pivot. Since polo players predominantly use their right side, it’s also important that their legs are equally strong to provide a solid base for on-horse position adjustments.

In whichever sport you compete, it’s important for your physical fitness program to reflect the rhythms of the year. In the off-season, you’re maintaining your fitness level and building on it with a higher volume of exercise at lower intensity. Pilates and yoga are perfect during these months. 

As you near the opening of the season, you want to emphasize workouts that improve your capabilities in your specific sport, as determined by you and your personal trainer. Functional training and resistance training are good pre-season additions for every athlete. 

During the competitive season itself, time for off-horse training is limited so you’ll want to work in the opposite pattern of the off-season — low volume at higher intensity. Most of your in-season training happens on the horse. You don’t want to get injured or fatigued. 

Immediately after the season ends it’s important to take a mental and physical break. You want to rest and recover. Physical activity should be comfortable and enjoyable for a few weeks. Then it’s back to off-season training as the cycle renews itself for another year.

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