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"Rider fitness seems to be a hot topic at the moment but is it really an issue at the lower levels?"
Is it really an issue at any level? Is probably more of an appropriate question! What we mean by ‘fitness’ probably needs clarification before we move on. The components of fitness can be classified loosely into strength, power, agility, balance, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance and co-ordination. Without a doubt, horse-riders will require some of these fitness components in order to perform. Equestrianism can be classified as a ‘travel sport’ and has been compared with other travel sports, such as motor sports and water events (e.g. sailing, yachting). There is, however, the distinguishing factor of the horse’s involvement – an animal with its own mind. This makes it much more difficult to truly evaluate the importance of ‘fitness’ in horse-riders.
We know from current scientific literature that as a horse and rider progress through the gaits (e.g. walk, trot, canter, gallop, jump efforts) there is more physical demand on the body. It is the faster gaits and jumping that require the rider to adopt a forwards position causing weight bearing to be through the riders legs – further increasing the ‘effort’ for riders. So it’s more likely that events, such as Show-Jumping, Eventing and Racing will exert more physiological demand on the rider than seated disciplines, such as Dressage. It’s thought that this increased demand is due to increased muscle activity of the torso and thigh muscles and is suggested that strength training of these areas for the disciplines requiring faster gaits and jumping may improve rider performance.
So then, should riders at any level attempt to improve the components of fitness? Well, in my opinion, yes! The effects of increased physical fitness and the ability to offset fatigue in athletes can improve technical ability, cognitive function, balance and skill and is well documented in scientific literature. In a sport where decision making, balance, skill execution and reaction times are considered important it seems wise for equestrian athletes to adopt a training regimen designed to offset fatigue.
It is also well-known that horse-riders are asymmetric and that this can affect the horse’s asymmetry too. An un-mounted training programme can potentially improve symmetry and effectiveness of aids of both yourself and your horse. Additionally, as riding is a non-weight bearing sport (like swimming and cycling), resistance-based training programmes can help with maintaining good bone density. Cross-training (training in different modes to improve performance) is a commonly adopted method in most other sports as is known to prevent overtraining, boredom, injuries and help people stick to exercise regimes.
As a skill-based sport, having enhanced components of fitness alone won’t necessarily make you the next Olympic Gold medal winning equestrian. However, in addition to developing the necessary skills, additional ‘fitness’ training will improve performance and I would encourage riders at all levels to incorporate some sort of un-mounted training as part of their ‘equestrian’ training.
Expert Answer by: Helen Warren