Being a Fit Rider is Important for Your Horse’s Health

Find out how your mental and physical performance will benefit from a program out of the saddle.
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There are many reasons why you as a rider should also train off of the horse: to concentrate on your own weaknesses and asymmetries without impacting your horse; to add a bit of excitement to your riding program; and to prevent mental or physical staleness. Specific benefits include adding weight-bearing to your training and offsetting psychoemotional strain (the fitter you are, the better your body can cope with heart rate spikes in response to excitement or nerves). Your mental and physical performance will benefit from a program out of the saddle, and you will be more effective at making decisions under fatigue.

Let’s take a look at the first reason: Horse-rider asymmetries are well-documented. The asymmetrical loading inherent to the equestrian lifestyle includes movements during which you rotate only one way (e.g., sweeping, mucking). These are not “exercises” that many other athletes endure! We naturally have a dominant and/or preferred side of rotation, but few riders try to offset it. Functional movement screens, which we use to document movement patterns and identify limitations and asymmetries, have demonstrated that right-handed riders have enhanced right shoulder mobility but are limited in their left hip movement. This asymmetry places a lot of strain on a rider’s lower back and makes them susceptible to injury.  

Also consider how your symmetry and overall strength and conditioning affect your horse’s welfare and performance. In one study  we demonstrated that when asked to apply what they consider even rein tensions, riders were placing 34-45% greater tensions in their dominant hand. These unseen asymmetries could be confusing to horses in training, diminishing aid effectiveness and even causing welfare problems.  

There is also research that explicitly states that crooked riders can affect the forces transmitted via the saddle to the horse’s back, and that an unmounted core fitness training program can level out pressure asymmetries applied while riding. Riders need to consider how, in addition to asymmetries, factors such as their body weight, cardiovascular conditioning, and response to physical stress affect not only their performance and health but also their horses’

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Written by:

Jenni Douglass, MSc, is a visiting associate principal lecturer at Hartpury College, in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, who currently lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. She is in the write-up stages of her PhD from the University of Worcester’s Institute of Sport and Exercise Science on the physiological and neuromuscular demands of eventing.

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