Fitness for the Female Equestrian
A Controversial Topic
The world of amateur equestrian sport is full of women in their 30's to 50's who are fulfilling a lifetime dream of owning and competing with their horses. Many of these women have built successful careers and raised (or are raising) their children. Middle aged female equestrians often tend to be driven, goal-oriented, high achievers who approach their chosen sport with the same determination that made them successful in their careers. One common problem among middle aged riders who are fulfilling their childhood dream of horse ownership is that while they feel like they're 12 years old again, blissfully happy on the back of a horse, their bodies have aged and they don't have the natural balance or athletic ability they once did.
Learning to ride a horse (really ride a horse, not just amble along on a dead-broke trail gelding) is a fantastically difficult endeavor. Muscles are used in equestrian sports that are rarely used in normal day to day activities. Riding well requires a tremendous amount of core strength, both to balance one's upper body and to influence the horse subtly through shifts in weight that are imperceptible to the observer on the ground. A rider has to learn to isolate various body parts; for example, keeping the hands still and quiet while the pelvis moves with the motion of the horse. Riding well demands balance, strength and agility. It is by no means as easy as the good riders make it look.
Many people who begin riding or come back to riding in middle age find progress slow and daunting. Often this is because the rider has adopted a sedentary lifestyle (sitting in the car and then at a desk for hours) or maybe had children and found it difficult to shed the baby weight. Perhaps health problems contributed to weight gain and loss of fitness, but whatever the cause, a task that is already difficult becomes more so thanks to the rider's low level of athleticism. Riding is hard enough without the added problem of being out of shape!
Please hear me when I say that I am not passing judgement on middle aged riders, and specifically on women. (After all, I am one!) I would simply like to advocate for viewing equestrian activities like any other sport. Marathon runners, triathletes, boxers, basketball and soccer players all train hard for their sports and change their diets to reflect their self-identification as athletes. I believe that if riders approached learning to ride the same way they would approach training for a marathon, they would obtain more success in a shorter time frame.
When viewed as an athletic undertaking rather than a leisure activity, riding takes on a new level of significance. For example, most beginning dressage riders find it difficult to sit the trot. It's not easy to sit still when the thing underneath you is bouncing. Many people practice and practice, but never really excel at the sitting trot because they lack the muscle control necessary to follow the horse's motion quietly without getting bounced around. Instead of thinking, "I'll practice my sitting trot for 5 minutes every ride," a better approach would be to do core exercises while off the horse so that the 5 minutes of trot work at the next ride is building on a better established foundation of muscle strength. Riding is definitely a workout, but for the average rider who is unable to ride every day, the off days should be filled with an exercise program that continues to build athleticism. Becoming a better athlete will no doubt result in becoming a better rider.
Most riders' primary concern is the health and happiness of the horse. We all want our horses to enjoy their work; we want them to know that they have done well. This is why after every clear round or every well performed dressage test, the rider pats the horse, rubs his neck and says loudly for everyone to hear, "Good boy!" A fit rider understands that her level of athleticism makes the horse's job exponentially easier. The rider who has balance and finesse in the saddle frees up the horse to move well, jump higher, stretch long and low, or whatever is the goal of his particular discipline. A rider who is tired, huffing and puffing and pinching with her knees because the muscles in her thighs and calves have worn out is forcing the horse to compensate for her lack of ability. She is asking the horse to perform his best when she has not prepared to do hers. It's not fair to the horse.
I understand that rider fitness is a controversial topic. Practical Horseman magazine ran an article last year on ways to improve fitness through simple, common chores around the barn. The magazine received quite a bit of negative feedback from readers saying that if they wanted to read about working out, they would have bought Women's Health instead. I suppose I understand the sentiment that some readers want a magazine chock full of tips and instructions, but the underlying tone of some readers was that of being offended. If they could have said it plainly, I think they would have said, "How dare you imply that I'm too fat to ride?"
I am sympathetic to the fact that women undergo constant judgement for their physical appearance and that fat is a shameful thing in our society. It is perfectly understandable that some women take refuge in horses who don't judge them on their ability to fit into a size 2. When I talk about rider fitness, I'm not simply talking about fat or thin. I'm talking about athletic ability, muscle tone, core strength, balance, reaction time, and cardiovascular health. A fit woman with muscle tone may weigh more than a skinny woman with flab and no muscle, but the fit woman will no doubt be the better rider. She will learn faster, build muscle memory more quickly, isolate her body parts and learn to make subtle changes in her seat and weight more easily than a woman who is out of shape.
In closing, please do not feel that I look disdainfully at women riders who are out of shape and doing their best to ride well. In fact, I'm sure there are plenty of women in worse physical shape than me who still ride better than me because they've been at it longer! My point is simply that increased athleticism will make a good rider better, and put frustrated riders on a faster track to success. Cheers to the sport we love and to doing our best to excel!