Last year, I interviewed a physiotherapist for an article about sitting straight in the saddle, and she made a very interesting point. We spend a lot of time, effort and money in getting our horses going right — supple on both reins, physically in the best shape they can be — but how much do we think about our own fitness for the job?
People come to her, saying their horse has a back problem and won’t strike off on canter on one rein — but nine times out of ten it’s a problem originating from the rider. How often do we as riders get their own back checked? Hardly ever, was her experience.
Ok, so riding burns anything between 250 and 500 calories an hour, and it uses all the main muscle groups — mucking out gives us a workout, too — but if we’re prepared to put effort into getting even fitter we’ll see results.
You see, the more physically fit we get — and I mean cardiovascular fitness, as well as muscle strength — the sharper we are mentally. Our reaction times are quicker, our stamina, balance and proprioception improves — and we will find increasingly easier to hold ourselves and thus interfere less with our horses’ gait.
I get boiling hot, out of breath and worn out after a half-hour lesson when I’m unfit and it infuriates me. I just don’t have the strength to get the horse to do what I want — even though I can hack for hours. I know, when that happens, that I would have a far more successful ride and riding lesson if I had been fitter and able to last longer!
Years ago, very few professional riders did anything other than ride. Now, most put in time in the gym. And it’s a rare jockey that doesn’t, too. They understand that this is how they can be better riders.
I know from personal experience how much increasing my fitness in recent years has benefitted things I wouldn’t have thought about before — sleep patterns, agility, concentration and even my patience.
But it’s also made me more aware of how my body works — and where it doesn’t work quite as it should, as is the case with my right arm and shoulder at the moment.
Getting fitter will ultimately not only help us, but it will help our horses, too. Particularly if (like me) you are still carrying the last excesses of the festive season around your middle.
So perhaps, as we get more and more daylight going into March, we could start thinking about getting ourselves, as well as our horses, fit for the competition season. Running a few times a week or cycling, maybe a pump class, yoga, tennis or swimming — whatever floats your boat. Just do it!