Take 5 Things- Rider fitness

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Welcome to this edition of Take 5 Things. This week Laura Bateman, a sports therapist talks to us about rider fitness and why it is important. We all know our horse has to be fit enough to compete a 5 minute dressage test or the course of 12 jumps, but rider fitness is often over looked.

About Laura

Hi, my name is Laura and I am a Sports therapist in Cheshire. I run my own business called Body Works Cheshire. I work with a wide range of clients, from those with physical issues, which can arise from something as simple as a desk job, to thai boxers, gymnasts and horse riders, or elderly patients struggling with mobility or arthritis. I look at the body as a whole rather than just treating the parts separately and take into consideration diet, lifestyle, daily habits and sleeping patterns when considering treatment and advice.

Why does the rider need to be fit?

Today I wanted to talk to you about rider fitness. I have ridden my whole life. I used to work with horses in a wide range of disciplines, from racing through to showjumping. I now keep two of my own and hope to be out competing again as soon as lock down allows. My passion for riding and my business has given me great insight into making sure the rider is as fit and capable as possible for the job of riding the horse. As we all know it is not just a case of sitting on top and looking pretty. We need to be able to work with the horse in harmony to produce the partnership that we all crave. It is our responsibility as riders to make sure we are fit, strong, stable and mobile enough to give our horses what they deserve. I see time and time again a huge amount of money spent on pretty saddles, blingy browbands, matchy matchy sets, but the rider has an asymmetric seat or hasn’t got the core strength to sit effectively and quietly on the horse. We owe it to our horse to be better. So I have chosen the following exercises to aid in stabilising the body whilst riding and creating a balanced effective seat. I hope you will find them useful and interesting. Always remember quality over quantity, as soon as you are tired and your form fails you are doing the exercise incorrectly. Always strive to get the exercise correct and build the strength from there.

Additional information – If you have specific neurological issues, are recovering from surgery, injury or illness please check with your health care provider before doing the following exercises. This post is for informational purposes only. Please place padding under knees if needed. An active foot is mentioned in one exercise and is explained in the pictures below.

A correct Active foot
An incorrect example of an active foot

Exercises you can do

1. Black burns – these are great for strengthening the lower and mid trapezius muscles, which help to stabilise the scapular and shoulder joint, and aid you in keeping your torso upright, your shoulders back and your hands stable. You only need a rolled up towel to rest your forehead on.

Lay down on your front, rest your forehead on the towel (this stops you squashing your nose) bring your arms down to a 45 degree angle from your sides and if you can face your thumbs towards the sky. Keep your shoulders down and breathe, now raise your hands and arms up from the floor and squeeze the muscles of your mid back.

Remember upper shoulder area stays relaxed. Hold for a count of 3 and lower. Do 8-12 repetitions take a break of 30-60 seconds. Do 3 sets in total.

Now take your arms out to a 90 degree angle and repeat the procedure, again remember to breathe throughout and don’t tense up your neck or try and raise your shoulders towards your ears. You can increase the number of repetitions and number of sets as you increase in strength. This should be quite hard work, if you are finding it easy try to remember to squeeze the mid back muscles and those between the shoulder blades.

2. Curl up – Works on the anterior core muscles - Lie on your back one leg straight, bend the knee of the other. Put hands under lower back to support the natural curve of spine. Breathe in. As you exhale lock your abdominals (from your pubic bone up) and raise head slightly off the ground. If your head was resting on a set of scales it would read zero that is all the effort needed. Hold for 8-10 secs, repeat 5 times, take 30 sec rest, repeat 3 times, 30 sec rest, repeat once. Increase number of repetitions as strength increases. Lift elbows to increase intensity. Keep shoulders relaxed and remember to breathe.

3. Side plank – creates stability and symmetry in saddle and helps if you tend to collapse to one side. Lie on side, upper body supported by elbow and an active shoulder joint (no slouching or drooping). Your upper hand rests on hip or as a progression arm straight up above you. You may have a bent knee or as a progression a straight leg. Inhale and as you exhale raise your hips using core muscles to pull you up. Hold for 10 secs - repeat x5. Rest 30 seconds. Repeat x3. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat x1. Repeat on the other side. Increase number of repetitions as strength increases. Remember to breathe and keep back, shoulders, hips and thighs in a straight line. Keep core tight.

4. Bird dog – Brilliant for stabilising lower back whilst hips and shoulders are mobile as well as creating strong connections needed for an effective position. Get on hands and knees. Make sure back and neck are in a neutral position, no excessive arch or curve. Look at the floor not ahead. Inhale and make a fist with the right hand and with an active left foot, exhale and straighten the arm out in front of you whilst simultaneously straightening your left leg out behind you, keeping arm, leg and back in a straight line. Keep core tight and don’t dip the shoulder or hip, stay square (think square halt!) Hold for 5 seconds, relax arm and leg, reset position and repeat x12. Swap to opposite leg and arm and repeat. To increase intensity increase number of repetitions. Can be increased to 50 on

each side with time. Make sure you keep core tight body square and level and remember to breathe!!

5. Calf drops and raises working the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus.

Stand with the toes on the edge of a step. Keep your core active, knees and legs straight and breathing even. Slowly drop the heel as low as you can comfortably let it so you can feel a stretch at the back of the leg and pause for 2 seconds. In a controlled manner, contract the calf until you are stood on tip toes, hold for 2 seconds and slowly drop the weight into the heels again, repeat 10 times, rest 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times in total. This works the Gastrocnemius muscle.

Now repeat the exercise but with a bent knee to work the soleus muscle. The muscle is often neglected in strength training, but is used very much in riding as we ride with a bend in our knee.

I have focused here on strength and stability. The body likes stability, for that it needs strength. If there is weakness, your body feels unstable and unsafe, so it will tighten or lock things up in order to try and create that stability. Therefore decreasing mobility. There are plenty of stretches you can do, but I like to focus on stability first, stretches second.

Other areas to look at are your breathing, mobility and pelvic floor health, these all affect how stable you are in the saddle. Some additional things to bear in mind are nutrition – fuelling your body and mind to be full of energy and alert before you ride and staying hydrated so you feel well and not sluggish. Also cardiovascular fitness. Can you ride without getting tired and out of breath? If not this should be addressed. The more tired you get, the harder work you are for your horse. If you have a particular weakness causing asymmetry when you ride, get your saddle checked to make sure the flocking in the panels is not compressed more in one side, that your stirrups are still the same length and that you tree is in good condition – you can ruin a good saddle by constantly riding unevenly. You need to bring your best game to play when you ride, your horse deserves it! I hope this helps! Now go and enjoy your riding!

If you wish to learn more about mobilisations or other health related advice for you as a rider or just in general, you can find Laura on the EquiNation App. Download the app on Android or Apple

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