Originally published on HorseAndRider.com
Take rider fitness seriously to keep your horse healthy and able to perform his best.
A horse is only as good as the rider who pilots him. If you aren’t physically prepared to be the best pilot you can be, your horse can’t reach his full potential. Your ability to condition your horse, challenge him each day you ride, and perform well the day of an event is determined by your physical strength and stamina.
If your own health isn’t motivation enough to improve your lifestyle; do it for your horse. When you take the time outside of the barn to improve your overall strength, your stamina, and endurance, you give your horse the best chance possible to live a long, healthy life and perform at his best.
Fit to Meet his Needs
You take special care to ensure that your horse’s health is accounted for. You trim and vaccinate regularly, take care that he’s fed according to his needs, and that he has access to shelter, water, and other amenities. You also longe and ride him regularly to ensure that he’s fit, and well conditioned so that when it’s time to hit the trail or head to a show, he’s prepared for the task. Unfortunately, you can only provide as much care as your fitness allows.
Kelly Altschwager, who instructs in Saddle Strong, demonstrates a great exercise for improving your muscle strength: Hyperextensions.
It takes effort to stack hay, carry full water buckets or empty troughs needing to be cleaned, and it also takes strength to lift and carry your saddle from the tack room as you get ready to ride. When you make regular exercise a part of your routine, you ensure that you have the strength needed to care for your horse’s immediate needs whether that’s loading hay or cleaning your horse’s stall.
Similarly, if you don’t increase your muscular strength and conditioning, riding your horse to keep him in condition becomes more difficult. You can’t ride as long, as frequently, or as actively as you should. If you can only trot, lope, or canter a few circles at a time before you’re winded and have to take a break, you inhibit your horse’s ability to increase his lung capacity and muscle strength. He’ll need both to sustain the demands of a trail ride and to make it through a long show weekend. A well-conditioned horse is also less likely to experience the aches and pains that come with age.
Build leg, core, and upper body strength to improve your ability to cue correctly, sit up tall and carry yourself well in the saddle, and encourage forward movement in your horse. Muscular endurance allows you to sustain positions for long periods of time so you can improve your horse’s fitness.
Fit to Train
We’ve all watched, awe-struck as a trainer or gritty rider schools a horse, and wonder, how do they do it? You have a difficult enough time cueing your horse through a flying lead change; your legs feel out of place, and your body leans forward. The difference between a rider who can ride aggressively, sit prettily, and show or ride multiple horses in a day, and one who can’t, comes down to physical preparedness.
To train your horse effectively, you must be conditioned to give him the best ride possible.
If you don’t have enough strength to cue where you need to and with the correct pressure, you send your horse weak or mixed signals, and rather than encourage the behavior you want, he gets away with incorrect movement that in time becomes habit. Similarly, if you get tired mid-way through a ride because you don’t have enough core endurance to sit up and drive your horse forward, you inhibit his self-carriage. How you ride each day is how you’ll be able to show up to a competition or event. If you’re unable to do what it takes to get your horse ready, then he’ll perform half-ready when it’s time for him to shine.
Fit to Perform
Imagine this: you saddle up for a long trail ride. Your horse is slicked out, muscled, and conditioned; he’s ready to go. You’re anxious, he’s anxious. You set out on the trail with your friends but an hour into the ride you’re worn out, yet your horse has hardly broken a sweat. You quickly realize that even though you’d like to take your horse up the hill your friends say leads to the best view you’ve seen all day, you know you can’t make it. What now? You decide to wait. You watch them traverse the stream and head up the hill. Your horse stands patiently until they get back, and then you head home. Riders have horses so they can enjoy them, and so horses can do what they’re best at, whether that’s on the trail or in the show pen. If you lose steam halfway through a ride because you don’t have the energy to ride all day, then you limit your horse. Even if he’s fit and ready to go, he needs you to pilot him. If you can brace your core, and stay tight, your horse will be better able to carry you; when you can’t handle your own weight because you’re not strong enough, or can’t sustain a flexed position, you make your horse’s job more difficult.
It’s not just on the trail that your physical fitness inhibits your horse’s performance. When you aren’t physically able to keep up with your horse in the show pen you affect your horse’s ability to show his talents (and your hard work you’ve put in to get him there). Though your horse may be capable to plus a stop, or a make a tough turn in a cow horse run, if you’re concerned in your ability to sit the maneuver, then you’re less likely to take the risk and ask for the turn, or speed up and cue for a plus-earning stop. You may put in the work during your training sessions, take lessons with a trainer, and ride every day, but the show pen is where you showcase that hard work. Give yourself and your horse the best advantage possible by becoming stronger and increasing your stamina for riding.
Going through Saddle Strong is a great way to do this. The 6-week rider fitness program is designed for equestrians who need that extra edge to ride longer and better by becoming more fit. Come join the Saddle Strong nation and be the best you can be, for your horse.