“Horseback riding is relaxation, but it is work, too.”
“You ride on an athlete and as a horseback rider, you are also an athlete,” emphasized Kenda Pipkin, prominent judge for the American Quarter Horses Association.
“As riders, we need to think more like athletes. The rider and the horse are an athletic team, and both have to be in the best shape possible.” Pipkin insisted
“Many times, poor riding habits start with muscular weakness,” Pipkin said. “You compensate in some area of your body for that weakness, and then it becomes habit.
“Riding more increases strength, but we’re so busy,” Pipkin acknowledged. “Many riders have full-time jobs, and they can’t spend enough time in the saddle to get in shape and stay fit.”
Michael Meyers, health research scientist, is a sports physiologist who has worked extensively with horseback riders and rodeo athletes on and off the horse.
Regular gym fitness is not possible for most, so Meyers has suggested a few common exercises that can be done at home or even when on the horse.
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.
“Doing push-ups is the No. 1 exercise for equestrians,” Meyers said. “But the ultimate position for a horseman is different than a regular push-up.
“Think about what you’re doing on the horse and then put yourself in position,” Meyers explained.
“For a push-up, imagine you are sitting on your horse, elbows at your side, fists holding imaginary reins in front of you,” he continued. “Then tip yourself forward into push-up position.”
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.
“Also, get down like you’re going to do a push-up, put your elbows down, straighten your back and hold it,” Meyers detailed. “That strengthens the transverse abdominals, the girdle of the abdominals.”
Just as every horse has one side stronger than the other, so does every rider.
“You want equal strength on left and right,” Meyers contended. “You should be just as strong on each side. But we know we’re not.”
“The lunge,” Meyers said, is the No. 2 exercise for horseback riders.
“You have a push leg and a lift leg,” Meyers related “When you take off, you’re always going to lift the same leg first and push off the other.”
Lunges, done properly, will make the body use each leg equally as a push leg and lift leg and help you achieve what Meyers called bilateral symmetry, equal strength in both legs.
“A true lunge is touch and go,” said Meyers, 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,” Meyers said.
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,” Meyers explained. “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, Meyers urged horsemen to double-track, taking a wider stance than what feels natural.
“You’re not walking a tight rope,” Meyers said. “With most people, one foot goes in front of the other. You’re taught to walk like this, but there’s a horse between the legs when riding.” The lunge also works as a quad and hamstring stretch.
“You’re doing two things at once,” Meyers said. “Think quality, not quantity. You’re an equestrian. You need to get on the horse.”
“Everything starts at the core,” Meyers said. “Then we build out, down and up.”
“Strengthening your core will make it easier to practice other strength exercises, like the push-up and lunge.
“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, then all of a sudden, you’re working together a lot better,” Meyers concluded.