Me riding my trainer's mare, Molly, during my last active show season. Even when the dressage coat diet works, I'm still unlikely to tuck my shirt into my breeches, which is a bit of a dressage fashion faux pas. I'm not alone, am I?

Photo: Courtesy Natalie Perry Dressage

The fact that I’m willing to wear white breeches—in public while being judged, no less—is proof that I love the sport of dressage.

You see, I’m what you might call an “easy keeper.” If I were a horse, I’d be the Welsh Pony on the dry lot banging on the gate at dinnertime or sadly wearing a grazing muzzle when out on pasture. And, like my metabolically challenged Hanoverian, Marathon, I require measured meals and a structured exercise program to stay dressage fit.

(I also understand Marathon’s enthusiasm when he sees green grass: The look on his face is the same one I’d wear if facing a cupcake buffet.)

During the winter I tend to curl up, hibernate, and inevitably pack on a few extra Christmas-fudge-fueled pounds. Come spring, though, I ramp up my own exercise program, eat better, and get ready for show season. That means getting back into my dressage coat before our first entries are mailed.

I don’t know if you know this, but nice dressage coats are expensive, so fitting into the one I have has long served as encouragement enough for me to my shed winter weight. Not only that, but improving my fitness improves my horse’s performance. Go figure—a fit rider is a better rider! Plus, research shows that excess rider weight affects movement and poses a welfare issue as well.

My perennial routine of yo-yo weight gain and loss was all fine and dandy until I broke my foot early last summer. Like a horse on stall rest, I got limited exercise, became antsy, and lost my previous conditioning. Boredom led to snacking, and my lost muscle tone killed my already sluggish metabolism. Needless to say, the dressage coat spent the year untouched in my closet.

My foot took a long time to heal (again, like our imagined horse on stall rest, I maybe wasn’t the most compliant patient when it came to following doctor’s orders). It’s taken nearly nine months to build up my riding fitness and regain my balance lost on the injured foot, both on the ground and in the saddle. Marathon, too, has required time to return to our previous 3rd Level schooling work, but we’re getting there one ride at a time.

Unfortunately, though, I’ve struggled to dump the weight I gained while on rest, and I have to tell you that even just a 10% increase in body mass makes riding lateral movements and extended gaits harder. I just plain feel wonky in the saddle at times, and don’t even bother expecting me to tuck my shirt into my breeches. Forget it.

So, here I am, just over a year since I broke my foot, and that dang dressage coat isn’t even close to fitting. Earlier, I wrote about creating a “Happiness Plan” for my Quarter Horse, Jack. Having a plan with set goals and strategies worked for him, and I realized I needed a plan, too. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • I’m visiting with a nutritionist. Any sign of a dull coat, weight loss, or weight gain in my horses, and I’m on the phone with an equine nutritionist. It occurred to me that I should do the same for myself, so I signed up for a series of six nutritional consultations. Now I realize those same principles we use to feed our horses on a daily basis (quality, consistency, balance, measuring/recording, plus treats only in moderation) can work for me as well.
  • I’m strength training. My regular trail riding buddy, Katie Mital, is a certified personal trainer who holds a master’s in corrective exercise. When my cast came off, she quickly spotted imbalances in my movement that affected my daily life (i.e., made my body hurt) as well as my riding. With her help, I now have a regular strength-training routine that focuses on rebuilding muscle (to help my metabolism as well as increase strength), correcting neuromuscular issues (basically retraining my brain to control my body after months of compensating for my injury), and improve my balance.
  • I move, a lot. Yes, riding is exercise, but for me it isn't enough. I have to work on my cardiovasular fitness out of the saddle to be at my best in it. Plus, after spending a summer sidelined (I call it "the lost summer”), I’m making up for my time on the sofa by not missing any chance to walk or hike. Before, a light rain might keep me from walking my Australian cattle dog . Now, I put on a hat and weather the elements. I also wear a FitBit, which tracks my daily steps (I do not wear it riding). At the end of the day, if I need a couple thousand more steps to meet my step goal of 20,000, I’ll make an extra sweep around my paddocks with the wheelbarrow or longe a horse or two. It makes me feel productive as well as successful. Win-win.
  • I’m accepting where I am, today. This has been the hardest lesson for me, but it’s bigger than just weight loss. As a goal-oriented person, I want results now: I want to ride Grand Prix now, and I want to weigh 30 pounds less yesterday. But, I’m learning that health, like dressage, is a steady journey with no finish line. You can’t rush or force it. Instead, you have to live it and practice every day.

There’s a reason the U.S. diet, exercise, and weight loss is a $20-billion-a-year industry. Have I figured it all out? Absolutely not. But by implementing a fitness and nutrition plan I can live with, I’ve shed 5% of my starting weight at a slow and steady rate. What’s more exciting is that my sitting trot feels stronger, suppler, and more balanced and coordinated than ever, and the strength I’ve added in the weight room has made my aids truly independent.

The dressage coat is still a ways from fitting well, and I’m not sure I’ll ever celebrate pulling on a pair of white breeches. But, I am appreciating the health I’ve gained through this process. And, after spending the better part of a year hobbling rather than walking, I will never again take mobility, my physical body, or the ability to ride for granted.

Do you pay as much attention to your own fitness and nutrition as your horse's and, if so, how do you stay riding fit?