It’s that time of year again. Tune-ups are popping up nationwide, bridle paths are trimmed, tack cleaned, trailers reorganized, and suits refitted. Horses coming off a long winter break are reshod and treated like royalty. The happiest ones are conditioned for the season, fed the most quality food, and exercised against the most meticulous workout plans.
Equestrians spend most of their time on horse fitness, while their own fitness tends to take a backseat. And yet, rider fitness is an essential part of riding effectively and correctly. If you know how it feels to trot on a park horse, you'll know that one rail can feel like a mini marathon. We owe it to our horses to feel confident and well-balanced in the saddle. The good news? Getting in shape for show season is as simple as being aware of our body so we can have the space to be aware of the horse.
Preparation all begins with practicing effortless (and correct) muscle movement.
“Equestrians should actively develop their mobility, cardiovascular endurance and full body strength,” said Kate Burnett of Burnett Body, an inspiring community passionate about improving lives through movement, balance and self-care.
Burnett Body’s Equestrian Cross-Training program is a popular addition to its services, providing a 90-day strength, physique, balance, mobility and nutrition program for riders. Kate and her husband, Chase, both award-winning equestrians, created the program based on what makes them feel strong and in shape in the saddle every day.
“In developing these strengths, riders everywhere will also strengthen their mind-to-muscle connection, which increases mind-body awareness on the horse,” Kate said. “This is essential to having strength, balance, fluidity and reactivity on horseback.”
So, where do you start? By seeking self-awareness and understanding what your body needs. As expected, workout plans depend on the individual; how you start a regimen should be thoughtfully considered based on personal goals.
“We move our clients through a full body mechanics and mobility assessment, and review video footage of the equestrian,” Kate said. “We often have a consultation with their trainer/instructor to fully assess a rider's strengths, weaknesses and overall needs."
Riders should have a smart, structured, progressive plan that allows them to focus on increasing upper and lower body strength to benefit their riding. Depending on the division you show, exercises and processes can differ. For equitation riders, recovery is a good place to focus.
“Because the form is paramount for equitation riders, we suggest they train similarly to a performance rider, but ensure they prioritize recovery,” Kate said. “Areas of pain and tension hinder comfort and performance capabilities (similar to their horse). Once these areas and comfort/movements are restored, equitation riders increase performance exponentially.”
Equitation riders must perform with functional ease – all while balancing strength and softness with their hands, seat and aids.
“Because posture is important for equitation riders, we encourage exercises that recruit the scapulae,” Kate said. “The scapulae are the foundation of the shoulder joint and anchor the shoulder to the torso. Any weakness in the 17 different muscles that connect to it will translate into weakness in movement.”
Kate recommends unilateral movements like reverse lunges, alternating cossack squats, single-leg box step-ups and step-downs, single-arm dumbbell rows, suitcase carries, and single-leg deadlifts. Or, buy a long resistance band and incorporate band dislocates into your routine.
“Simply performing two sets of 20 band pull-apart with maximal mind-to-muscle connection is a great way to start strengthening these muscles,” she added.
For a rider dealing with a strong-willed gaited or park horse, the exercise routine should focus on the cardiovascular. If you think about it, workouts should reflect and match the expectations of the horses themselves.
“A rider who has a strong-mouthed or game horse will benefit from improving their cardiovascular endurance and grip strength,” Kate said. “These riders need to stay with or ahead of their horse, have a surplus of available energy, and remain in control (implementing strength vs. softness at appropriate times). A great combination exercise for this athlete is the farmer’s carry.”
The farmer’s carry is an exercise where you hold heavy weights in each hand and walk for a designated distance. (Water buckets filled with water can work for this!)
“Ultimately, you have to know what your horse needs from you to perform optimally,” Kate said. “Once you pinpoint your horse's needs, it becomes easier to know what exactly you should be working on in your training for best success and a trusting relationship with your horse.”
Nutrition is also extremely important for equestrian athletes so that they feel comfortable and confident in their skin, strong on their horse, and focused in the high-stress competition environment.
“When nutrition is not prioritized, performance, energy, sleep, recovery, focus, and mood suffer,” Kate said.
The Burnetts encourage clients to aim for consistency with their diet and nutrition by prioritizing the same skills, habits, behaviors and macronutrient distribution needs they have been working on at home, during horse shows. Kate also stressed the importance of not making drastic changes in diet mid-competition.
“Hydration and supplementation (possibly with electrolytes and vitamins/minerals) are most important,” she said.
Yoga and Mindfulness
Another element to consider adding to your workout regime are mindful exercises like yoga and meditation.
“While a strong body is important, it is always the servant of the mind,” said Andrew Seifert, founder of Equinimity Wellness, a mindful rider program that offers yoga and PEMF equine services.
“Once you can relax the mind, then you can address the body,” Andrew said. “Similarly, if you have a stressed horse in perfect physical shape, it may not perform its best in the ring. We are no different.”
That said, mixing strength training with yoga and meditation can be a creative way to change things up. So, what are the best movements to incorporate?
“Plank, plank, and more plank,” Andrew said. “Stretching exercises create flexibility in the hip flexors, and forward folds help lengthen the back line of the body and create that flexibility needed to keep those heels down.”
When it comes to meditative or mindfulness practices, breathing exercises are the number one thing a rider can do before showing.
“Numerous studies have shown the link between breath work and stress reduction,” Andrew said. “Something as simple as box breathing can make a huge impact.”
Box breathing is creating a four-count pattern, where you inhale to a count of four, hold the breath for four counts, exhale to a count of four, and hold for another count of four.
At the top level of this sport, the smallest changes can make the difference between first and fourth place.
“Riding is not easy on the body,” Kate said. “If it were, riders would not have high rates of kyphosis, valgus knees, hip and knee replacements, shoulder injuries, grip strength issues, and high rates of injury. Being strong and mobile is the best way to avoid injury and chronic pain while increasing longevity as an athlete.”
When you treat your body like an athlete, you’ll experience benefits outside of the saddle, too, from mental well-being to higher energy levels. And, of course, you’ll become a better partner for your horse.
“The more cardiovascular capacity and lean muscle mass you carry on your body, the more likely you will be able to perform on the 1,000-pound-plus animal saddled underneath you,” Kate said.
And most show horse riders would agree that matching the stamina of a show trot into the arena for the first time is one of the best heart boosts, and workouts, of the season.