Along with regular riding practice, equestrians require additional physical conditioning to remain competitive, say exercise physiologists M. F. Devienne and C. Y. Guezennec of the University of Paris in an August 2000 study published in the “European Journal of Applied Physiology.” They concluded that the equestrian athlete needs the flexibility, cardiovascular conditioning and strength required of other competitive athletes, and typically must look outside of the riding arena to find it.
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General Conditioning Program
Equestrians should include aerobic workouts at least three days a week to increase the cardiovascular and muscular conditioning necessary to ride competently and safely. The American Medical Equestrian Association recommends that you combine running, swimming or biking into your regular riding routine for variety. Start your program at low intensity levels for a short duration, and increase the intensity and length of time as your body changes and adapts. Begin every exercise program with a good flexibility warm-up and end with a stretching cool-down.
The discipline of Pilates focuses an equestrian’s body on “powerhouse” fitness -- those core muscles between the sternum and the hips. This allows a rider to balance in the saddle, keep heels, hips, shoulders and ears in a straight line, and relax their arms and legs so they don’t interfere with the horse’s movement -- the signs of good horsemanship, says U.S. Dressage Team rider Betsy Steiner in “A Gymnastic Riding System.” To widen the range of movement within the hip socket and relax your thighs around your horse, she suggests performing femur circles. Lie on your back with both knees bent over your hips, engage your core muscles and place your hands on your knees. Slowly circle your knees away from each other and then back together keeping your pelvis on the floor. Repeat the exercise in the opposite direction.
Tai chi – the ancient Chinese philosophy and martial art – improves an equestrian’s balance in the saddle, increases the body’s range of motion and heightens the rider’s sensitivity to the horse’s body movements. It also retrains the rider’s breathing and allows her to feel a mind-body connection so that she senses what her horse is going to do before it happens, writes James Shaw in “Ride From Within.” To direct your conscious breathing while on horseback, have a friend longe your horse at a walk while you sit in the saddle with your hands at your side. As the horse moves forward, form a “diamond” with your hands, placing your thumbs on your belly button with your palms lying against your abdomen. Focus your mind on the space enclosed by your hands and direct your breath down into this “diamond.” Feel your belly push against your hands as you inhale and pull away when you exhale. Repeat this exercise as you make three circles on the longe line.
In a series of exercises she calls “Physiocise,” exercise physiotherapist Anna-Louise Bouvier teaches equestrians how to support core muscles, balance the spine for good riding posture, stretch and gain control of tight muscles, and strengthen the arms and legs. If you are a rider who leans to one side while in the saddle, you can stretch your piriformis muscles -- those muscles deep in your hips -- that allow your legs to drop down and reach around your horse’s sides. Sit in a chair with your chest up and shoulders relaxed. Cross your left leg over the right with your left ankle resting on your right knee. Gently press down on your left knee for a count of 10. Relax and repeat three times. Switch your legs and repeat the exercise. You may need to work more on your leaning -- or weaker -- side than the other.
To determine your level of conditioning, the AMEA developed a fitness test geared specifically for competitive equestrians. Based upon either a 12-minute race or a 1.5-mile run, the test sets parameters for both males and females 13 to 29 years of age. In the 12-minute race, males between the ages of 13 and 18 must cover 1.6 miles to over 1.73 miles to be considered in good to excellent physical condition. Females of the same age group need to run 1.16 miles to over 1.27 miles to be deemed in the same shape. In the same race for 19- to 29-year-olds, men must cover 1.75 miles to over 2 miles, while women run 1.35 miles to over 1.65 miles to be considered in good to excellent shape. The 1.5-mile run is a timed event decided along similar guidelines.