Exercises on the ground can help improve your symmetry and coordination in the saddle.
Photo: Courtesy Alexandra Beckstett
I’ve always relied on my riding to keep me in good shape. And the two-horses-a-day, five-days-a-week workout has served me pretty well. In the past year, however, I’ve gone from two horses to one, and that one is so simple she really doesn’t require much physical effort on my part to do her job.
With a wedding dress to squeeze into this coming spring and less time being spent in the saddle, I decided I needed to find another form of exercise. So six months ago I started taking barre classes on my lunch breaks. Interestingly, with all the balance and control barre exercises require, they’ve exposed some of my weaknesses and asymmetries. One side of my body is obviously stronger than the other. My legs are fit from riding, but my upper body is not.
I thought about this while covering the International Society of Equitation Science conference in August. One of the presenters, Jenni Douglas, MSc, has been studying the importance of off-horse training not just for rider fitness, but also for horse health.
She’s a visiting associate principal lecturer at Hartpury College, in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, who currently lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. She is in the write-up stages of her PhD from the University of Worcester’s Institute of Sport and Exercise Science on the physiological and neuromuscular demands of eventing.
Some of the studies she’s done have focused on rider handedness, rider position, and the importance of supplementary fitness training.
“In my opinion, building a good athletic base and developing a rider’s general physical preparation … is vital and, frankly, quite often missed,” says Jenni.
She shared the following four exercises that riders can do on their own to hopefully benefit both them and their horses. They center on strength, symmetry, and coordination.
“These five moves work your total body using simple loaded contralateral (opposite side) movements which challenge opposing upper and lower limbs at the same time to improve total body symmetry, strength, synchronization, and coordination,” Jenni explains. “This is important for horse riders!”
Photos: Courtesy Jenni Douglas
“This is just like it sounds: Crawl on the floor like a little one,” says Jenni. “This exercise trains the rotator cuff, opens up tight hips, and works the abdominal musculature. Do not underestimate this exercise!”
Start by crawling forward on your hands and knees, making sure to only lift your knees off the floor; your feet should remain in contact with the ground. “This will ensure correct pelvic coordination and hip flexor and abdominal musculature activation (the abs stabilize the pelvis and the hip flexors flex the hips and stabilize the spine).”
Once you’ve mastered this, try crawling backward and sideways.
“It is really common for horse riders to have a weak posterior chain (the muscles at the back of the body) and end up with rounded hunched asymmetric shoulders and weak scapular (shoulder blade) stabilization,” says Jenni. “The Bent-Over Row is a compound (an exercise that incorporates multiple joints and muscles) pull exercise. It works the back but also works the lower half of the posterior chain.”
Start by bending your knees slightly and bending forward at the waist, keeping your back straight. Lift the dumbells to your side, squeeze, and hold, all while keeping your torso stationary. Do this exercise first by moving both arms at the same time, and progress to alternating one arm at a time.
Farmer's Carry/Suitcase Carry
“A Farmer's carry is an often overlooked exercise,” says Jenni. “People favor more complex exercises, but this exercise is great for developing grip strength and endurance. It's great for resisting shoulder depression and roundness and is a total body exercise.”
Do this exercise by picking up the handles of dumbells or kettle bells while driving through your feet and keeping your back straight and head up. Then walk forward, taking short quick steps. Bend your knees, and keep your back straight while setting the weights back down.
“When you walk, the movement of one leg moves the kettlebell and destabilizes the core,” she explains.
Progress to the suitcase carry, where you hold one kettlebell with one arm and work to offset the pull on that side. “This move really stresses erector (the spine muscles that run the length of the back) strength, works the deep core muscles, and works the glutes on the other side,” Jenni says. “To progress this exercise, walk for a longer distance, longer time, or with heavier kettlebells.”
Contra-Lateral Weighted Carry
“This exercise works the forearm musculature and the shoulder complex, including rotator cuff and global shoulder muscles,” Jenni says. “It also works the core stabilization, working both sides of the core to different degrees. One side will compensate from the weight pulling down, and the other side will need more thoracic spine mobility.”
To perform this exercise, pick up one kettlebell as if you were about to do a farmer's carry. With a weight in your opposite hand, raise your arm to the point where the elbow forms a 90-degree angle at shoulder height. Make sure your palm faces forward and your shoulder is not depressed or overelevated. Keep the elbow close to your body as you walk forward.
Also make sure you work both sides for this exercise, says Jenni.
And, one last note: Remember to consult your physician before starting a new exercise program.
What rider fitness exercises do you do or would like to know more about?