Horse riding is an underestimated sport. Riders need to have strong quads and a stable core to ride for long periods of time without tiring. Along with fitness comes the importance of bodyweight as well, which has an effect on one’s performance. So let’s take a look at fitness and diet tips from the UK’s top horse riders that riders of any level should consider.
With more riders taking part in competitions, they need to stay constantly active and in top shape. Equestrian Lizzie Kelly told The Guardian how she exercises frequently in order to keep on top of her weight. In describing her daily routine, she says, “I work[out] 7am until 1pm and 4pm to 6pm every day when I’m not racing, I’m very active and that always helps as you are constantly burning whatever you are eating.” Her training routine is what helped Kelly become one of the world’s best riders. As a result, Lizzie Kelly is now considered one of the UK’s most iconic sports stars due to being the first female jockey to win a Grade 1 National Hunt race in Britain. She understands that in order to win, you need to put in the hours outside horse riding. A typical high-intensity interval training session could involve box jumps, kettle bells or dumbbell swings, bear crawls, and skipping. Incorporating a few repetitions of these kinds of exercises will improve your fitness and stamina levels, which will have a positive impact on your riding ability.
Diet and weight
Horse riders these days control their dietary intake to perform at their very best. Dr. Sue Dyson of the Animal Health Trust discussed the potential risks to horses when their riders are too heavy, such as lameness and discomfort. However, keeping yourself at a healthy weight is often as simple as being aware of the quality and quantity of the food you eat.
Charlotte Dujardin is a three-time Olympic gold medallist in dressage. She's known for winning the gold in both the single and team dressage events in the 2012 Olympics. In a separate interview with The Guardian, she said that she works with a trainer to get the right amounts of protein, carbs, and fats, making sure her diet is attuned to her activity for the day. She often has an egg omelette on wholemeal toast for breakfast, a chicken wrap and a salad for lunch, and a healthy meal consisting of meat and vegetables for dinner. Any rider can improve their diet by eating more fruit, vegetables, and grains for low calorie alternatives that don’t compromise your health. By having a healthy weight you will be able to rider for longer without causing discomfort to your horse.
The importance of days off
Just being right or left handed makes us develop more muscle on one side and repetitive chores like mucking out where we often only twist one way can exaggerate our physical imbalance even more.
We spend a lot of time and money on training and bodywork to help promote straightness, suppleness and balance in our horses. We get saddle, bit and vet checks done to ensure our horses are comfortable and happy with their workload, but how many of us look at ourselves as the potential cause to our horse’s stiffness or lack of impulsion on a particular rein?
Of course it’s really helpful to have a set of extra eyes from the ground to see if you are riding straight at all times, but often this isn’t possible and so can create a significant barrier to your schooling progression. So here's a few easy steps you can take to check your own balance and see what effect it may be having on your horse.
Firstly stand in front of a full length mirror in your underwear with your eyes shut and try to stand straight. Then open them and see if one shoulder is higher than the other. Next put a flat hand on the edge of each hip bone and see if one is higher than the other there too. Take a good hard look at any differences from one side of your body to the other.
Note the pressure points on left and extra movement on right. This is a rider I know sits heavily to the off-side!
Don’t underestimate the usefulness of a dirty numnah! As annoying as it is to untack, carry our saddle back to the tack room and get a forearm full of sticky scurf, this could be a great eye opener as to how your horse is building up his muscle. Unattach the numnah and lie it flat on the floor scurf up. Now look at the patches and ask yourself 'are they symmetrical?' Ideally you want to see complete scurf symmetry either side of the middle stitching that runs down the horses spine. If one side has significantly more scurf than the other, then you will find that this is the side you are bearing more weight through, riding stronger through and consequently have a horse which has a bad rein.
Learn to assess your horse’s symmetry and let him be your mirror. Tie your horse up on an even surface, untacked and unrugged. Then having got him or her to stand as square as possible. If they find it hard to stand square then this is the first indicator that they are uncomfortably one-sided. Then stand directly behind your horse and look towards the wither (you may need to stand on a mounting block to get high enough). Now look down both sides of the wither, is the muscle symmetrical down both sides of the wither travelling down towards the shoulder. You will find if the horse is weaker on one side, the muscle will not be as pronounced and will not mirror the other side. Equally while we are in this position we can check the symmetry of the muscle build up of the hind quarter and by placing our hands on the hip bones, as we did with ourselves,we can see if they are the same height or if one is in advance of the other.
Now, relate this back to the assessment you made of yourself in the mirror.
Good old fashioned no-stirrup work is a great way to highlight your imbalance as you will find that you slip more so to one side than the other. Closing your eyes in walk and really concentrating on the tension you hold through your seat and other parts of your body is also worth doing while without stirrups. You should have relaxed buttocks on both sides and you should feel the same amount of contact with the saddle on the right and left seat bone. And like your horse, feel if one seat bone feels in advance of the other. If you feel confident to do so, bareback work is even greater for highlighting this.
Of course horse and rider imbalance, can be a bit of a chicken and egg scenario and it can be hard to tell who is affecting who but like I said at the beginning, very few riders are truly symmetrical, so if you believe that you may be having an effect through the saddle, then a simple trip to a human bodyworker or physio will help straighten you out and give you some valuable exercises to do at home.
And, if you’re short on cash I really recommend some home yoga as well as lots of bareback or no stirrups riding as they will certainly aid your symmetrical strength and posture for future happy schooling.
At this time of year there are endless articles popping up on my news feed about “how to change your life” and “how to make this year your year“. I eventually succumbed to the pressure of Facebook’s advertising and clicked on a link which boldly suggested it would provide lifestyle habits that would make me healthier. I was then pleasantly surprised (and rather smug) to see that nearly all of these habits are part of my daily life thanks to horses. So that you too can all feel justified about the small fortune you spend on your horses here’s the magic list…
1. Find a form of exercise that you love doing. Easy. Done. Next.
2. Use meditation and ‘mindful’ exercise in your daily life. When I’m schooling Archie I don’t have enough brain space to work him properly and stress about life. To get the best from your horse you have to give them your absolute focus. This is my version of mediation and it’s very effective. On top of that a blue-sky day out hacking is equally as cathartic and a fast gallop up a grassy track really blows your cares away.
3. Rising early. Impossible not to when you have horses, even if they are on full livery! Eventing days result in alarm times that are simply criminal for a Sunday morning.
4. Have a good bedtime routine. I’m usually so knackered after a day at work, a long commute and then an evening ride that a bedtime routine is unnecessary. Sleep is never a problem.
5. Find friends who identify with your challenges. Fellow equestrians are the only ones who really understand the highs and lows of horses. It’s through horses that I have made true friends for life.
6. Find a passion or creative outlet. Whether you love dressage, showing, or eventing, what with all the amazing shows throughout the year and the never-ending stream of social media the options are endless. We are spoilt for choice!