Today was my first day back in the gym after a fairly long period of illness. Although not a very serious illness it was certainly debilitating and I was at a very low ebb physically for months. The first stage of recovery was to be out of bed for increasingly long periods, getting back to my normal household routines. When I felt strong enough to go out for walks I felt that my recovery had truly begun. Now that I am able to start training I am truly happy! It is a great boost for my state of mind and level of motivation. I am riding again, but only to do quiet suppling work in walk. I have been helping warm up and cool down horses but that is really all I plan to do for the next few weeks. I cannot wait to start riding more actively, but I know the impact that this level of unfitness can have on me as a rider; I have been here before a couple of times over the years.
A rider’s seat is not a thing which, once acquired, never changes. It would be so nice if that were true! The knowledge and habit of how to sit correctly is always with us but how well our body functions on horseback is a totally different matter. I believe that physical fitness plays a big part in the functional quality of our seat. A horse in motion exerts a lot of power; when it’s hooves hit the ground impact comes up through the horse’s body and ours. Learning how best to quietly absorb these forces is a huge part of becoming a good rider. Recently I watched Charles de Kunnfy teaching and he made the point that abdominal tone in the rider is vital to good riding. He mentioned the old cavalry exercise of raising our heels and touching them together above the neck of the horse. Ironically, the day before I became ill I decided to demonstrate that move to some students. We put the pad saddle on a quiet horse and devoted a session to good old fashioned seat and balance exercises. It was really a lot of fun!
When I look back over my life as a rider there is definitely a correlation between how fit I was and how well I rode; for me there have been several peak periods of fitness and ability. The times when I was physically fit and strong coincide perfectly with the times when my riding was most elegant and effective. I know that I can take a short break from riding, so long as I stay fit, and it is quite easy to come back into form. If I lose fitness to a significant level it is a much longer and mentally tougher process. The memories of those peaks are simultaneously encouraging and torturous. There was a time when my coach used to routinely run me through FEI level tests with no stirrups on the saddle. I can close my eyes and replay the sensations of movement after movement on the various different horses we worked with. It really motivates me to get fit enough to experience those things again.
Whatever level you ride, and in whichever discipline, there is so much to gain from thinking of yourself as an athlete. When you think that way you take better care of yourself in many ways. Most event riders I have known, particularly those at elite level, do a lot of training to keep themselves at a high level of fitness. The extra stability and stamina provided by fitness actually helps keep the rider safer. Dressage riders are increasingly getting onboard with the idea too. Here are some of the ways in which I have found that fitness or the lack of it affects me as a rider:
Strength is balance and balance is essential to a good seat. I also trained to a moderately high level in ballet and I know very well how losing muscle tone impacts body balance. That is true for dressage horses and for dressage riders as well.
Stamina is needed to ride well because we have to make hundreds of thousands of micro adjustments to remain with the horse in motion. The higher level we ride, the more frequent and dramatic those little body adjustments will be. That is under normal circumstances! When faced with volatile or violent behaviour from a horse our ability to sit it out and stay calm is much greater if we are fit. Those people I know who specialise in backing and producing young horses are usually pretty fit individuals!
Suppleness must go hand in hand with strength for us, as much as for our horses. As I discussed in Better Dressage – Suppling Exercises, there is always an optimal balance to strike between strength and flexibility for our horses and this is very true for us as riders. Tension in us is tension in the horse.
Co-ordination is better when we are not overly exerted. It suffers greatly when we tire and the precision of our aid application can deteriorate. Balance impacts this too. If you are a balanced rider because you are physically strong then your aid application will be refined, your training messages will be clear and your test riding will be of a higher standard.
Decision making is much better when we are not tired. I find that if tiredness is combined with heightened adrenaline levels my decision making can become very bad indeed. If you have stamina then you will be clear minded and patient. It also means you will be less likely to give in to emotional impulses when you ride and that has to be a good thing for the horse.
How to become a fitter rider.
This is really individual to each of us but there are two things which I think are very important. One is to check with your doctor that you are in the right state of health to begin a fitness program. The second is to seriously consider having at least a few sessions of personal training to start off with. If you do then you can be more confident that –
- You are exercising correctly and constructively – and in my case the key word is progressively!
- You will benefit from greater variety in your training and work your body more evenly.
- Personal training helps you to avoid getting stuck on a plateau and staying there because it feels comfortable. I always work harder if I am working with a trainer and the result is always better.
Aside from that, how we set out to improve our fitness level is mainly a question of personal preference. What we enjoy, we tend to do more consistently.
It is worth bearing in mind that dressage calls for whole body fitness with a particular emphasis on core strength. Swimming and rowing are my preferred ‘whole body’ exercises. I never used to work out with weights, but a couple of years ago I booked a personal training session to learn about using free weights. I found they had a quick and positive impact on my physique. I also discovered that I really enjoy training with them, perhaps in part because I could see and feel changes right from the start; I am sadly not a patient person! With free weights I would definitely recommend getting professional help to ensure that your form is correct.
There are plenty of things you can do around the stable yard to build strength and stamina. Working in the stables and grooming helps. When I was training as a working student in a very cold climate I found that strapping horses properly not only forced me to get rid of my cocoon layers but usually caused me to break a sweat too!
Cross training between equestrian disciplines can really help as well. Roads and tracks with work in a light seat can be the ultimate ‘leg day’! Show jumping builds leg strength and core strength. Grid jumping (even if the fences are really small) is very beneficial for dressage horses because it builds the muscles that increase lifting power and elevation, as well as strengthening the hind quarters. Grid jumping is just as good for the rider’s fitness as the horses’.
However you decide to approach fitness, in or out of the saddle, you stand to gain from every effort you make. For me it about getting back to my best. I know that, at my best, I can be a quiet, elegant, and powerful rider. I also know that from the depths of a trough to the peak it can be a matter of many months, but that is O.K. I know that there is no skipping to the end of that process. I will put in the time in the gym, the time in a light seat out on the roads and tracks, I will strap the horses till they shine and I’ll take the stirrups off my saddle more often.
If this situation resonates with you on any level remember you are still the rider that you were at your best, even if you are not quite there right now. Your mind remembers and your muscles remember; all you need to do is strengthen them both!