The Importance of Rider Fitness

In order to be a good partner for your equine, a certain level of fitness is required. You need to be able to maintain balance and move fluidly with your horse, whether you’re performing a dressage test, clearing a jumping round, or flying through cross country. 

Unfit riders tend to lean on the horse’s neck, grab the pommel of the saddle, or hang on the horse’s mouth. You may notice that your saddle shifts from one side to the other due to a lack of balance. You may fall back down onto your horse’s back from the two-point after a jump, slamming into the saddle. All of these actions have a negative impact on equine welfare and are signs that a rider is lacking fitness. 

Physical therapy for equestrians can help you achieve optimal performance and reach your fitness goals.

Equestrian Fit vs. General Fitness

There are many types of fitness. If you run into a muscle-bound gym rat, you may think he’s fit, but he wouldn’t be able to run four miles for time. The same goes for the hyper-flexible yogi who can contort herself into all sorts of shapes, but may not be able to bench nearly as much as the gym rat. Another example is the slightly overweight person who is surprisingly flexible and strong. Fitness comes in all shapes and sizes depending on what sport you play or the lifestyle you choose to live. 

Equestrian fit looks a little different from your average gym routine. Horseback riding uses unique muscle groups that provide riders with balance and stability more so than brute strength or hyper-flexibility. Of course, many horseback riders build significant muscle from mucking stalls and throwing hay, but the actual act of riding is more about balance and specific muscle groups. 

When riding in a two-point, you may “feel the burn” in your quad muscles, but if you’re struggling to hold the position, it could actually be because your core is weak. This is due to the relationship between stabilizer muscles and moving parts. If your core (a stabilizer muscle group) is weak, then your legs cannot support your body efficiently, leading to apparent quad weakness.  The true problem still remains in the core. 

Riding horses is not weight lifting. It’s not about just building muscle. It’s about building the appropriate muscle in the correct spots for optimal balance and performance. 

Prescribed Exercise for Fitness

If you’ve ridden horses for any length of time, you’ve seen them before: generic “Fitness for Horseback Riders” programs. These exercises don’t work for everyone. There is no one size fits all for building strength and fitness. Most of these programs focus too much on arm and length strength and ignore the core muscles. There is little to no acknowledgement or education on the importance of stabilizing muscles (your core and back). 

Every rider needs specific exercises in order to build strength in areas of biomechanical weakness. Prescribed exercises are given to you after an evaluation by a Doctor of Physical Therapy and are tailored to your goals and biomechanics. 

Optimal performance physical therapy consists of evaluations, prescribed exercises, and hands-on stretching with the help of a Doctor of a Physical Therapy. This builds fitness more efficiently than generic programs because it’s tailored to you. You won’t spend months building quad strength when in reality you needed to work on your core and back.

How to Evaluate Your Current Fitness Level

There are several simple generic fitness test that you can do easily without running to find out how fit you are and to monitor your progress. While it is not riding-specific and would not be used by a Doctor of Physical Therapy to create a prescribed exercise program, it can give you a baseline level of how fit you are. 

The step test is the simplest to do and only takes 3 minutes. All you need is a 12-inch-high step (stairs work, just don’t hold onto the railing) and a timer. Step up with your right foot and then left left so that you’re standing fully on the step, hips fully extended, and facing forward. Reverse, going down with your right foot and then left. Repeat this process at a consistent pace for three minutes. Rest in a chair for one minute. Then, take your pulse for six seconds and multiply that number by 10 to determine your heart rate for one minute. The results will vary depending on your age and gender.

For men ages 18 to 25, a 60-second pulse rate 84 or less is good to excellent, between 85 and 100 is average to above average, while 101 or higher is fair to poor. For men ages 46 to 55, a pulse rate of 93 or lower is good to excellent, while 113 or higher is fair to poor.

For women ages 18 to 25, a 60-second pulse rate of 93 or lower is good to excellent, between 94 and 110 is average to above average, while 111 or higher is fair to poor. For women ages 46 to 55, a pulse rate of 101 or less is good to excellent, while 125 or higher is fair to poor.

This will only give you some idea of your generic fitness. It is not an evaluation akin to physical therapy for equestrians and will only give you a very small idea of your current level of health. 

To discover how in shape you are for riding, ask yourself a few questions. Can you maintain a strong, balanced two-point for a stadium jumping round? How about a cross country round? How many laps can you stay balanced around the arena? How long can you post while riding? What about a seated canter? Do you lose your balance or fall off easily? Do you find yourself grabbing mane or hanging onto the horse’s mouth for support?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, or you have been struggling to complete online “rider fitness programs” then it might be time for a Doctor of Physical Therapy Rider Assessment

Reach Your Fitness Goals with
Physical Therapy for Equestrians

A Doctor of Physical Therapy who specializes in equestrians can evaluate you and your equine partner to see how your fitness level is impacting optimal performance. After that, a DPT can prescribe a custom exercise plan and help you reach your riding goals. 

Interested? Check out Dr. Shields’ equestrian evaluation here.