How 20 Minutes Per Week Can Improve Your Performance In the Saddle

“Exercise is essential for the athletes performing at the top level of this sport but it is just as important for those looking to become a better rider.” This week, we discusses the importance of cross training and ways to improve your performance.

Photos by Tylir Penton

To be successful in eventing you must be able to navigate a dressage test with accuracy and precision, breathe and jump around a quick but demanding show jumping course, and withstand the endurance component as well as the technicality of cross country. So why is it that, unlike in many other sports, most equestrians do not cross train?

Intermediate Event rider Haley Carspecken cross trains at least once a week, she knows that her fitness is just as important as her horse.

Cross Training

What do I mean by cross training? I mean exercise outside of the saddle to improve overall performance in the tack, not just at shows, but also in training rides. Exercise is essential for the athletes performing at the top level of this sport but it is just as important for those looking to become a better rider. If you are not looking to improve, I would ask why are you still riding?

I will be the first person to admit that the best way to get better at riding is with time spent in tack. There is no substitute for sitting on a real live horse and riding as many different horses as possible. This will train your body to respond to the specific needs of each horse. It requires a lot of skill, as well as, fitness for a rider to look like they are barely doing anything at all.

However, times are changing and you will notice that more professionals are addressing their strength, flexibility and endurance outside of the tack to improve their ability to be effective when it matters while riding a horse.

Fiona Coulter riding in a clinic with Lars Petersen. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

Every Day is Pay Day

A few weeks back I had the privilege to audit a clinic with Olympic dressage rider Lars Petersen. He said something that stuck with me: “In riding, every day is pay day. You get paid for how you rode the day before.”

Our goal should be to put the best foot forward each day and ride to the top of our ability. Our horses are out there each day and working just as hard as we are. We need to respect our horses by treating ourselves like the athletes that we expect them to be.

The Struggle Is Real

All horse and rider pairs are learning each time they work together, with or without a coach on the ground. It is a fact that a rider struggling with their own fitness will be less successful than when they are fresh. You may feel this in your own riding when you are in the tack struggling to get your seat plugged in correctly but when you take a walk break and come back to it feels more doable and in turn the movement goes better.

DO NOT feel discouraged by this. It is amazing working through the struggle and achieving success,. This is also what makes good riders great. Plus, if it was easy, I imagine many eventers would find themselves quite bored!

Strength training is an essential piece to success in the saddle. The number one excuse I hear eventers say is that they do not have time. If that is you, watch the amazing time management lecture above from the late renowned Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch.

Everyone can find 20 minutes in their week to improve their health, increase energy, reduce pain and improve core strength. It is worth finding the time to exercise, especially when it is only 20 minutes once or twice a week.

The second most frequent response I get from eventers — and this one makes me a little crazy — is: “I know so many other riders that really need to work on their fitness, but I do not need too because … (insert excuse here).”

Any excuse is just that, whether you are a working student, a trainer, an amateur or have an amazing horse. These are all excuses. I am aware there is a lot of work that goes into maintaining a barn. However, if you are going to sit on a horse, your fitness is important and this is a fact. Exercising regularly, at least once a week, will improve your riding.

Kaitlin Spurlock of Clasing Equestrian demonstrates a wall sit. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

The Wall Sit

Making things overly complicated is going to greatly reduce the consistency and stickability of any exercise program. So I present to you a great exercise to safely learn the sensation of momentary muscle failure, which should be the goal each time you exercise.

  • Stand with your back against a flat wall with your feet out in front.
  • Let your back slide down the wall so your legs are at a 90-degree angle (like you are sitting in a chair).
  • Keep your back straight and your arms by your side or in your lap. Do not push on the wall to try to hold yourself up. Never sacrifice form to increase time!
  • Hold this position for as long as you can. This is when momentary muscle failure occurs.
  • When you can do longer hold your form, slide down the wall gently until you are sitting on the floor.

Laura Crump Anderson is a certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and is a Registered 200 Hour Teacher with the Yoga Alliance. She specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines through her business, Hidden Heights Fitness, and is also the author of Ultimate Exercise Routines for Riders. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science, and has evented through Training level. You can read more of her fitness columns on our sister site, Eventing Nation.