Guide to rider fitness

Rider fitness guide

Author: Stephanie Bateman
Expert checked by: Gil Riley

We spend a lot of time focusing on our horse’s fitness, but tend to not pay as much attention to our own. Lucinda Green and Petplan Equine Ambassador Jack Stancombe explain the importance of rider fitness and how to achieve it.

Keeping horses fit through the winter, when the nights draw in and the weather plays havoc on our plans, is tough enough without worrying about our own physical health, too. But being fit enough to ride isn’t only good for our own wellbeing, it will also have a positive impact on how effectively we ride our horses.

Why does rider fitness matter?

‘You need to have a certain level of fitness depending on the level you are competing at,’ says six-time Badminton winner Lucinda Green. ‘If you are tired when you pull up after cross-country or a show jumping round, you probably aren’t fit enough.’

This applies no matter what level you’re riding at. Even if your aim is simply to enjoy hacking your horse for an hour or two, you want to be fit enough so that you’re not out of breath after every trot and canter, don’t ache for days afterwards, and can sit an unexpected spook or excited buck. Being able to help your horse is also important, especially when riding across country.

‘During the cross-country, you have a duty to your horse to pick them up and put them back together – you have to hold them together with your legs and hands to help them get home safely,’ says Lucinda. ‘It’s a similar situation when show jumping, because the fences come up so fast and you have to work really hard to keep the power and balance between the fences, which is very taxing.’

Stay fit and safe in the saddle

Event rider and Petplan Equine Ambassador Jack Stancombe agrees that being physically strong is vital for safe riding.

‘I struggle with back pain, which affects how I ride, especially when I spend a lot of time standing up out of my stirrups,’ he says. ‘To keep my back strong, and ensure I am effective in the saddle, I work a lot on my core and upper body strength and my balance.’

We all have our weaknesses, as do our horses. If you struggle more on one rein than the other, it’s likely that your horse will, too.

Addressing these imbalances in your rider fitness routine will help you become more effective in the saddle and, in turn, improve your horse’s balance and straightness.

Common problems

Most riders will suffer from one or two weaknesses that can affect their riding. A common issue that Jack sees when teaching his clients is riders who have a weak core, meaning they tip their upper body forwards, which means their lower leg slips back and they don’t have a secure lower leg or a strong seat.

The importance of core exercises for horse riders

‘The more core strength they have, the easier they will find it to sit up tall and keep their lower leg underneath their body,’ Jack explains.

‘To do this, I advise clients to perform daily sit-ups and leg raises, which will engage their core. Adding weights will add an element of strength training, too.’

Jack also advises pilates for riders as this will help them to engage their core muscles.

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What does an event rider fitness routine look like?

Jack goes to the gym three to four times a week, where he does spin classes and works with a personal trainer once or twice a month. His trainer gives him specific homework to help build up his cardio fitness, which can include running, cycling and rowing, plus some great core exercises for horse riders like sit-ups and leg raises, using weight machines and free weights.

‘Riding cross-country, especially if I have been riding a strong horse, can really put a lot of strain on my back, so the stronger I am, the better I can cope with that,’ he says. ‘I find that I’m not huffing and puffing so much after cross-country.’

Although Jack doesn’t have a specific warm-up routine before riding, he has usually mucked out a few stables before he gets in the saddle, which gets his heart pumping and warms up his muscles.

‘Mucking out is actually pretty good exercise,’ he says. ‘Alongside the gym work I do, I find that riding six or seven horses a day, and walking the cross-country courses really helps to keep me fit, too.’

What happens in the off-season?

While many of us try to keep our horses fit in winter, it’s usually the time when event horses and riders have a break. Jack, however, prefers to keep his horses ticking over to prevent them from getting too fresh.

‘They have an easier time, but I don’t fully turn them away because I find they get too fresh and naughty to ride when I get back on them,’ he says. ‘Being fit and supple does help my ability to stay on them if they do get a bit bright.’

During the off-season, Jack continues with his gym and personal training sessions. As the horses don’t fully have time off, he also continues to ride, albeit at a lower tempo, which helps to keep him supple and riding fit.

8 everyday exercises for equestrians

Not all riders have time to fit in the gym, but fear not as Lucinda has some great exercises that can be incorporated into everyday life:

  1. Instead of walking around the yard, try running or skipping to get your heart rate up.
  2. Don’t sit on the loo – crouch above it to work your leg muscles.
  3. Skip the lift and take the stairs! And run up them, don’t walk.
  4. Stand on the edge of a stair and push your heels down as far as you can to stretch the Achilles tendon. This will help you keep your heels down when riding.
  5. Play squash. It’s great for cardio fitness and sharpening reactions.
  6. Play bridge or snap to speed up your mental reaction times.
  7. Run for 10-20 minutes, but find obstacles to judge and jump on your route, like cracks in the pavement or drain covers. This will keep you sharp and help you make judgements faster.
  8. When brushing your teeth, stand on one leg and then up on your tiptoes. Repeat on the other leg.

Want to find out more? Check out the Petplan Equine Facebook page for more great tips and advice

Want to stay fit this winter but are worried you don’t have time? Check out these great quick-fire exercises for keeping in tip-top shape.