June 12, 2013
A few simple exercises can make you a better horse-showing athlete.
“Riding takes work. This is a sport; it’s called a sport because you’re an athlete. You ride on an athlete, and you, as an equestrian, are an athlete. As riders, we need to think more like athletes, instead of thinking of this as a hobby and we are passengers on the horse who is the athlete. The rider and the horse are an athletic team, and to be effective as a horse-rider team, you both have to be in the best shape possible.” – Kenda Pipkin
Sit up straight. Pull your shoulders back. Steady your lower leg. Quiet your middle. Have you heard these commands shouted from the center of the arena, as your trainer assesses your equitation? You probably have, and probably repeatedly. They are tell-tale signs of a weak link in your physical fitness.
As an AQHA judge since 1993, Kenda Pipkin of Canyon, Texas, has seen her share of bad habits, from distracting over-active free arms in horsemanship to “chicken necks” jutting out from the shoulders of hunter riders. They’re caused by your physical weaknesses; they carry over into the show pen; and they reflect in your placings and points.
“Many times, those habits start with a muscular weakness,” Kenda says. “You compensate in some area of your body for that weakness, and then it becomes habit.”
Kenda says the best way to become a stronger rider is, of course, to ride more. But can we ride enough to become the strongest rider we can be?
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“We’re so busy,” Kenda says. “Many riders have full-time jobs. They’re riding their horses in the evenings or on the weekends, their one horse, that’s all they can afford, and they can’t spend enough time in the saddle to get in shape and stay fit as a horseman.”
Michael C. Meyers, a senior research scientist in health at Montana State University in Bozeman, is a sports physiologist who has worked extensively with equestrian and rodeo athletes on and off the horse.
He has known enough riders to know that most don’t have time to spend an hour in the weight room three to five days a week. He showed us a few common exercises that can be done at home or even in the barn, and how to alter them to target muscle groups when you’re on your horse.
Upper Body: The Push-Up and Plank
While it might stir up repressed memories of grade-school gym class, the most efficient upper body exercise is none other than the push-up.
“It is the No. 1 exercise for equestrians,” Michael says.
By adjusting the placement of your hands, the push-up can be altered to work different muscle groups. From the standard push-up position, on all fours, with your abdominals stabilizing your core and your body parallel to the ground, taking a wide stance with your hands will focus the workout on your chest muscles. Bringing your hands closer to your body will redirect the focus to your triceps.
But the ultimate position for an equestrian is different still.
“A regular push-up builds wide shoulders,” Michael says. “Is that what you need for equestrian? No.”
To make the most out of an exercise, Michael says, think in terms of the sport you are participating in and make changes to create a sport-specific version of a classic exercise.
“Think about what you’re doing on the horse ad then put yourself in position,” Michael says. For a push-up, imagine you are sitting on your horse, elbows at your side, fists holding imaginary reins in front of you.
“Then tip yourself forward into push-up position,” Michael says. Doing push-ups from this position, pushing off your fists rather than a flat hand, elbows low and by your side, mimics the force of transfer from the bit through the hand, arm and shoulder. The plank can be performed from a similar position, focusing on the abdominals, the protectors of your back, which is a rider’s most common source of pain.
“Get down like you’re going to do a push-up, put your elbows down, straighten your back and hold it,” Michael explains. “That strengthens the transverse abdominals, the girdle of the abdominals.”
While it won’t develop the coveted “six-pack,” as an abdominal workout, the plan is superior to the bulk-building crunch for equestrians for its tightening and stabilizing effect on the core.
Lower Body: The Lunge
Just as every horse has one side stronger than the other, so does every rider.
“You want equal strength on left and right,” Michael says. “You should be just as strong on each side. But we know we’re not.”
The lunge, says Michael, is the No. 2 exercise for equestrians.
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“You have a push leg and a lift leg,” Michael says. “When you take off, you’re always going to lift the same leg first and push off the other.”
Lunges, done properly, will make your body use each leg equally as a push leg and lift leg and help you achieve what Michael calls bilateral symmetry, equal strength in both legs.
“A true lunge is touch and go,” Michael says, cautioning against moving lunges, a popular variation of the exercise. In a moving lunge, you’re constantly moving forward with each lunge as if you were going down a track. But most people don’t have equal stride lengths, causing one leg to work harder than the other and perpetuating the inequality of strength between left and right.
“You should lunge, and then push back,” Michael explains. “If you keep going forward, you don’t get the reverse movement. You want to be able to touch and go with no hands. Again, this is about core strength. If you need something to hold onto, you’re not controlling your body.”
To make sure your lunge is sport-specific, Michael says to double-track, taking a wider stance than what feels natural.
“You’re not walking a tight rope,” Michael says. “With most people, one foot goes in front of the other. You’re taught to walk like this. But isn’t there a horse between your legs?
The lunge also works as a quad and hamstring stretch.
“You’re doing two things at once,” Michael says. “Think quality, not quantity. You don’t need an hour in the weight room. You’re an equestrian. You need to get on the horse.”
“Everything starts at the core,” Michael says. “Then we build out, down and up. Equestrians can’t spend a lot of time in the weight room. That’s the complaint I always get. You’ve got an hour with your horse; you don’t want to spend it on yourself.”
Strengthening your core, with exercises like the plank, will make it easier to practice other strength exercises, like the push-up and lunge. And ultimately, the strength you gain from a few minutes devoted to your own muscular strength will allow you to communicate more effectively with your horse.
“If you take care of your fitness level and you take care of your horse’s performance level,” Michael says, “then all of a sudden, you’re working together a lot better.”
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