There’s more to rider fitness than just riding.
“Riding horses is great exercise,” I say confidently to a non-equestrian friend. “It gives you really strong legs and abs and great balance.”
“I can’t even run a mile,” I wheeze at the gym, dripping sweat after a five-minute jog. Planking is agony. My thighs tremble after a ten-second wall sit.
As much as I hate to admit it, just riding alone doesn’t keep me fit enough to ride well. Sure, I can do more reps on the hip abduction machine (for anyone who hasn’t spent an hour today learning machine names at the gym: it’s the one where you start with your legs apart and push them together like you’re either preparing to give birth or posting without stirrups) than your average non-equestrian, but beyond that my fitness level is abysmal.
I ride enough during the collegiate show season that it feels natural to sit more or less correctly, but the fact that I can’t do a plank for a minute or do more than thirty sit-ups comfortably tells me that my core isn’t strong enough to really hold myself up in the saddle. I tell myself that my breathlessness after reining patterns is because I don’t remember to breathe, but my pathetic jogging attempts beg to differ: I get short of breath because I’m out of shape.
This year, during a meeting with my fellow western and hunt seat team captains, we decided that workouts should be mandatory for all team members, and that each workout would be led by two captains. I recognized the need for further exercise in my own riding, but the thought of leading a workout every week terrified me. If I couldn’t even manage to get myself in shape, how was I supposed to help other people do so?
However, after a month of team workouts, I can truthfully say that time at the gym is something I look forward to. Am I any better at wall sits? Maybe not yet, but somehow they’re less terrible with my teammates lined up along the walls of the empty dance studio at the gym, laughing at our own expressions in the mirrors on the opposite walls. People that I may never practice with, riders from the hunt seat and western teams, first-years through seniors—we bond during that hour at the gym. It may be over our sore muscles or shared hatred of running, but nevertheless we leave with a sense of something shared.
Fun workouts (is there such a thing, you ask?) are incorporated too—last week, we held a team kickball game in the outdoor arena and made plans to play flag football inside once the weather turns. Director Steve Shank has promised to teach us how to line- and square-dance (and we’re holding you to it, Steve), and we hope to go hiking as a team this fall.
My personal goal for working out is to be able to step into my class at the next show and feel strong. In the past, I’ve striven for elegance and confidence, but this time I want to add “powerful” into the mix.
Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse. Catch up on past columns by clicking the #ACADEMIC EQUESTRIAN tag at the top of the page!
Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.