Most of us agree that riding is a sport. There are dozens of Facebook pages saying it’s so. While we’re often concerned with our horses’ conditioning (critical for horses that event or do competitive trail riding), fewer of us pay as much attention to our own fitness as it relates to riding. Just as you condition your horse to prevent injury and help him excel at his discipline – you should put some planning and effort into conditioning yourself for the same reasons. You and your horse will both benefit if you follow a few guidelines and get yourself in shape to ride.

In order to improve your effectiveness as a rider, your workout routine should contain aerobic, strength and stretching exercises. When you’re juggling a job, family, barn chores and riding – it seems like riding should be exercise enough; however, you’re likely to notice an improvement to your riding (and your enjoyment of your time in the saddle) if you spend some time out of the saddle getting fit.

Aerobic exercise is what most of us think of when we think of exercise – it gets the heart pumping and the sweat glands working (although most of us will notice an increase in heart rate  – and sweating – when we do strength training as well). This is the kind of exercise that enables you to breathe all the way round your jumping course or through your entire lesson. Think running, biking or using an elliptical or stair climbing machine. If you have knee or back issues, you’ll want to choose a lower impact form of aerobics, like swimming or walking – and you should always check with your doctor before you start a new exercise program. (OK – official disclaimer taken care of).

The next part of your fitness regime is strength training – this helps build your muscles by stressing them to the point where micro-tears are created. When the tears are repaired, the muscle is strengthened. You can use free weights, weight machines, bands or tubes for weight training, but there are also great exercises which use your own body as resistance. These are especially handy if you’re traveling or can’t get to the gym. Be sure to give each group of muscles a day of rest in between training sessions to allow that healing to take place.

The third component of a good fitness program is flexibility. Riding stresses joints and muscles in different ways than most other activities, so being sure you pay attention to your flexibility, especially in your hips, will payoff in increased comfort and may help prevent injury. If you belong to a gym or have a personal trainer, ask for a class on just stretching. Explain that you ride and ask for some stretches for your hips and lower back.

A few types of exercise which are very beneficial to riders and encompass more than one component of your big three are yoga and Pilates. There are several types of yoga to choose from, ranging from very gentle practice of seated poses to much more rigorous training. Yoga emphasizes the mind body connection, and can be a relaxing way to end a stressful day or a refreshing start to your morning. Although there are hundreds (I’m guessing at the number here) of videos available and at least one book on Yoga for equestrians, you may find it helpful to take at least a few classes to get some instruction on correct form in the poses. Yoga is generally very good at stretching, which tends to be the most overlook esction of an exercise plan.

Pilates is a form of exercise developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900’s. It focuses on control of the body – many movements are small and precise – and it helps build a strong “core” (the muscles of your abdomen, hips and small of your back). As a strong core is essential for riding, Pilates has become very popular among equestrians. Again, books and videos abound, but classes may be helpful.

There are also numerous exercise books and videos geared toward riders which include integrated exercises. One I’ve found particularly helpful is Success in the Saddle. This is a DVD series created by Debbie Rodriguez. Debbie is a dressage and eventing judge, a USDF Gold Medalist and an Certified Personal Fitness Trainer. She’s also a rider and competitor. The set is comprised of 6 workouts on 3 DVD’s, each workout only 20 minutes – and we’ve all got 20 minutes, right? That’s one of the beauties (and terrible excuse-breakers) of this program – you DO have time. You will not feel cheated at the end of one of Debbie’s 20 minutes sessions. Never once did I say “How much good can it be if it’s only 20 minutes?” – more like “How much harder can I possibly work in only 20 minutes?”You will notice that you’ve done these exercises when, the next day,  you attempt to walk up stairs or bend over – muscles un-accessed for years will start chiming in with the fact that they’re awake – don’t worry – they get much less cranky as the days and weeks progress.

So – tomorrow (I know it’s a bit last tonight) take the first step toward becoming more fit. Stick a video in, get a good exercise book, join a class, take a walk – just take that first step – trust me it gets easier once the movement starts (it’s the whole physics thing – the body at rest tends to stay at rest – but a body in motion tends to stay in motion) So, if not for your own sake –  at least consider your horse. He’ll appreciate having a fit, balanced and effective rider on board. Become a body in motion! Live well, my friends.