Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Shape up to make your mark

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

For the equine athlete, fitness is top of the list of criteria required for a winning performance. Be it racing, eventing, showjumping or dressage, the horse's fitness is critical to its performance.

In the racing world, terms such as form, stamina, stayer and sprinter are frequently used. A susceptibility to injury for the barely prepared or overworked horse is noted by phrases such as broken down.

There is also an understanding in the sport horse world that the horse must embark on training programmes to meet the demands of competition if there is ever to be any hope of success.

However, the other half of the equation is all too often overlooked -- the fitness of the rider. Despite the fact that the rider is an influential force over the horse in any equestrian sport, the emphasis on rider fitness is generally much lower.

Amy Fitzgerald, a riding instructor and fitness coach, has recently started teaching rider fitness in an effort to address this imbalance.

Having secured an honours degree in Equine Science at the University of Limerick, she embarked on her British Horse Society instructor exams and worked with Motions Health and Fitness Training to qualify as a fitness instructor.

She credits her variety of training with giving her an insight into physiology and exercise. However, she also walks the walk by competing in athletics, rowing, judo, showjumping and the modern pentathlon.

"Rider fitness is a relatively new concept in the world of equestrianism, but [it] always amazes me that it is," Amy admits.

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"It can increase the value of the time you spend with your coach or riding instructor as many of the problems in the saddle can stem from a need for more flexibility, strength or stamina.

"Very simply, sport and competition put stresses on the body and, through fitness training, you can build up the capacity for your body to meet the demands of your sport."

Improved fitness for the leisure rider can heighten the fun and experience of riding, while for the dedicated competitor, fitness is about sharpening the edge and improving results.

So what exactly are the benefits of being fit?

"First of all, a fit rider will gain all of the standard associated benefits of being fit, such as weight and body fat management, increased endurance, improved posture, good heart health and so on," says Amy.

"However being a fit rider also means improved body awareness, straightness, balance, a reduction of potential injury, quicker recovery from exercise and an ability to take more from coaching sessions."

The fit rider will also appreciate the effort that their equine counterpart must go through to compete with a weight on their back. Horses also have straightness issues and are expected to improve their performance -- a sympathetic trainer makes it easier to deal with any such issues.

Then there is the psychological advantage. While the riders prepare themselves with a consistent training programme, they will also gain confidence through hard work and understanding their body, reaffirm commitment, improve control and concentration.

"Basically, the whole package adds up. A fitness programme is focusing, stress relieving and rewarding," says Amy.

According to Amy, staying fit specifically for equestrian sport involves strength and suppleness conditioning (core work), with differing levels of stamina work depending on the discipline.

Strength: The body should be competent at carrying out basic strength activities, such as press-ups (box or full), pull-ups (45°), the full plank, side plank, static squats and single leg squats without wobbles.

"This is not [as] easy as it sounds," laughs Amy. "I challenge anyone to complete single leg squats in succession without shaking or losing balance."

Suppleness or flexibility refers to the capacity of the joints to move through a full range of movement.

It is highly important that riders are supple, particularly through the hip flexors and hip joint, across the chest, through the spine and lower back so the body can harmonise with the movement of the horse.

It is also important that the thighs, hamstrings and calves in your legs are flexible too.

"You can test your flexibility by trying to touch your toes or placing your palms on the floor while keeping your knees straight. Make sure you are warmed up and don't force," Amy advises.

Stamina, or endurance, is the ability to keep up the effort for a long time and you can have strength endurance or aerobic endurance.

The former refers to being able to lift low weights for many repetitions, and the latter for the heart and lungs to be able to endure full body movements for a prolonged time, such as swimming, walking, running or cycling.

According to Amy, the most common problem areas for riders are tight hip flexors and rounded shoulders.

"Tightness in front of the hip prevents us from getting a longer leg position in the saddle, the deep seat that is particularly important for dressage.

"Rounded shoulders are caused by a tightness across the chest and weakness across the back. It means that the rider can't draw his or her shoulders back," Amy adds.

Is riding alone not enough to stay fit?

"People who have the opportunity to ride many horses every day will be fit. However, everyone can gain from a training programme to improve, maintain or fine tune fitness," says the coach.

"Those who ride regularly also need to maintain a programme which prevents muscle imbalance caused by riding. Stereotypical signs of this are riders with bowed legs or rounded shoulders. To keep injury at a minimum and efficiency at a maximum, exercises to rebalance these areas should be done."

Core stability exercises, such as pilates, and balance work are particularly beneficial for the rider to keep good posture, reduce the onset of injury and fatigue and develop both sides of the body as evenly as possible.

"Core work is also thoroughly enjoyable to do, there is minimal sweat and it can actually be very relaxing, seemingly easy yet very effective," says Amy.

"A stable core foundation is particularly important in equestrian sport as the rider's limbs must move independently of one another while using the seat and weight aids and, as if that is not tricky enough, do so while balancing on a moving horse.

"If the core is unstable, balance and coordination will be poor, riding becomes very tiring quickly, muscles are strained and can often ache, all of which reflects through the horse's way of going."

What exercises can be done at home?

"If you don't already do any form of aerobic exercise, such as walking or swimming, introduce it. Including aerobic activity into your weekly routine is perfect for easing yourself into fitness in a sensible way.

"In the beginning, aim to complete a 20-minute aerobic workout three times a week and gradually increase the time," suggests Amy.

Consistency is important when you want to get fit, so commit yourself to a time slot at regular intervals. Twenty minutes, three times a week is a much more effective way to get fit than an hour on a Saturday or two hours one week and nothing the next.

"When you have filled up enough time, say 45 minutes four times per week, you can begin to increase the intensity of your workout," she says.

"You can get faster by timing your lap, add impact by going for a light jog, use ankle weights or simply become more rigorous in your stride by swinging your arms.

"For those who want to become even fitter, you can cycle or run at an incre-ased intensity. However, the principles will remain the same, stay consistent and build up gradually."

Amy is currently running fitness courses for riders. For more information, visit

Irish Independent