Shape Up: Cross-training for equestrian sports

Your horse may be a killer athlete, but are you holding up your end of the bargain? Inspired by her super-fit horse, Horse Nation contributor Laura Cox takes up cross-training.

From Laura:

This week will mark my horse’s 7th birthday. I can still remember the first time I saw him. He was a jet black pipsqueak of a foal, contrasted by four white socks and a star. Running laps around his pasture, with his dam finally giving up the chase, he jumped everything he could, from a pile of fence posts to water puddles from the previous night’s rain. I was smitten.

My 15-hand reason for shaping up!

Twister is a Quarter Horse/Paint with an eighth Thoroughbred tossed in for good measure. Unlike my last freak of nature Quarter Horse who stood every bit of 17 hands and was classically built, Twister barely measures 15 hands and is quite the petite boy with a metabolism I can only dream of having! Oh, and he has the athleticism of a deer.

Of his own accord, Twister has jumped several fences for carrots, grass and his girlfriend (who knows what the little rascal jumps over in the cover of darkness).

Yep, he jumped the fence in the background.... TWICE!

Even with no weight on his back, those leaps he has taken are impressive feats. Twister’s abilities have inspired me to improve my fitness level in order to help him reach his potential under saddle. But what is the best way to accomplish this challenge?

Lately I have been noticing a lot of discussion from other riders about riding fitness, especially at the top of their respective sports. These discussions include the types of alternative activities they do to improve fitness outside of their barns. The list has included gym memberships, running, hiking, biking, pole dancing classes (I’ve heard that is a serious workout), jumping rope or simply taking a walk.

"An all-in-one weight system allows you to target your arms, legs, and core muscles"

For the last few weeks, my husband and I have been checking out our local gyms to potentially join (I figured this would be my best bet with summer fast approaching, as my motivation to run in the heat is practically non-existent). However, with annual membership costs close to $700, we decided we would save money in gas and membership fees by purchasing an all-in-one weight system you know to keep the exercise bike, hand weights, ab wheel, and perfect push-up company. to add to our growing home gym.

An all-in-one weight system allows you to target your arms, legs, and core muscles. When riding, our legs serve as our foundation for the rest of our body. As with a home, a weak foundation can compromise the rest of our bodies on our horses. Therefore, supplementing our training off the horse can help us focus in on our weaker points.

Horse Nation, there are so many different equestrian disciplines, each requiring a certain degree of fitness. During the 2010 World Equestrian Games, I stumbled across a practice session with the French Vaulting Team. Their strength and flexibility along with grace and precision was beyond impressive. I can only imagine the cross-training required with all of the lifts and gymnastic stunts they perform ON A MOVING HORSE!

How many hours in a gym do you think they spend?

According to the American Vaulting Association website, “Vaulters are taught to condition their bodies with stretching and strengthening exercises, and are also taught safe mounts and dismounts at all levels. Also, most exercises are learned on a stationary apparatus, called a vaulting barrel, before they are performed on the horse.”

Personally, I believe a jockey may be the strongest physically of equestrians (please don’t throw rotten tomatoes) because of the physical demands of the sport. Not only must they keep below a certain weight, but they must maintain a strong and flexible physique in order to be effective in the saddle. When exercising horses, they may get on upwards of 20 horses per day depending on skill level and demand of the rider. Therefore, jockeys tend to spend additional time performing strength and/or cardio training.

"...they must maintain a strong and flexible physique in order to be effective in the saddle."

Are you a reiner? Have you non-reiners ever been given a chance to hop on a well-trained reining horse and tried that thing they call a sliding stop? I was given the opportunity a while back to hop on and give it a go, and let me just say, I’m thrilled I stayed in the saddle. I almost demonstrated what a human boomerang looks like. I definitely hobbled away from that ride with a new appreciation for the sport and the athletes who train in the discipline!

Rider demonstrating the sliding stop.

Regardless of what discipline you choose to participate in, there is some level of fitness required to maintain your level of competition. If you find during your training that you become fatigued faster, you may want to consider finding a cross training exercise to supplement what you do on your horse. As I mentioned, I have personally chosen to go with an all-in-one weight system along with a stationary bike, and the results are starting to show in my personal riding program. Remember, picking a training program is a personal choice, and while suggestions from friends are FANTASTIC, tailoring the program to fit your needs and abilities is completely up to you.

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