“The Horse Does All the Work…”

How often have we heard that one? Even our best friends and family members will tease us with it from time to time. Well, the horse does do a lot of the work, but non-riders underestimate the physical and mental skills demanded of equestrian sport. The effort it takes to ride well is no less than for other extreme sports, and as competitive athletes, we know that fitness matters a great deal.

Equestrians are athletes. The leg strength and aerobic fitness required by the rider to get a horse around a course is similar to the demands of cross country running.

Consider the sheer toughness it takes to compete in equestrian sport:

Our “teammate” is a half-ton animal with a mind of its own. We jump obstacles, sometimes our height or greater, frequently coming at them at speed. We cannot speak to our partner; we communicate through our body and our mind. The thin line of trust between us and our horse can be broken in an instant, with potentially disastrous results.

Giving our teammate the correct signals and keeping our posture in the saddle while moving at speed and over jumps is incredibly demanding physically. We train with our partner over days, weeks and years to hone our trust and perfect the smallest technique. If an accident or injury occurs, both ourselves and our horse can develop incapacitating fears that must be overcome through training and mental toughness. Building (or rebuilding) mutual trust for riding requires extraordinary commitment for both rider and horse.

For the competitive equestrian, fitness is not merely a desire, it’s a necessity.

Equestrians are athletes. The leg strength and aerobic fitness required by the rider to get a horse around a course well is similar to the demands of cross country running. If you’ve never viewed yourself as an athlete, consider the core strength needed to correctly enter, maintain, and exit the two-point position when jumping your horse.

Of course, most of us do not compete at the Grand Prix or Olympic levels. But good fitness is no less important. In horse sports, we are fortunate that we can start riding at almost any level of fitness. The basics of sitting on and enjoying the experience can be had without having to take to the gym. But, as with most things, there comes a point where “just” riding is no longer enough. To continue to improve, our fitness outside of the arena must be a priority.

Beautiful woman in fitness attire performing bicep curls

Cross training balances strength, cardio, and flexibility. Image by Bruce Mars via pexels.com

If you wish to become more fit and improve your riding, what kind of approach is best? The answer is the one that you will actually do, of course! While anything you enjoy doing can help, cross training is generally considered the easiest way to strengthen riding muscles while increasing endurance in the saddle. A good cross training program balances strength, cardio, and flexibility for all around fitness. Becoming more fit also brings benefits such as being more mindful about diet. (Even if that does go out the window at the horse show!)

So, if you have yet to make the commitment to yourself — and to your horse — to become more fit, saddle up! Speak to your doctor or health professional before beginning a serious exercise program, but if you’ve got the green light, go for it. You will look and feel great, your riding will improve, and the next time you hear that comment you’ll have even more reason to smile and say, “Oh, really?”

Editor’s note: this article was prepared with contributions from the following professionals:

  • Jason Oliver, health & fitness consultant
  • Kevin Yruretagoyena, USEF licensed jumper judge
  • Katherine Wade-Easley, professional rider & trainer