To many non riders, riding is a passive sport where we just sit there and the rider doesn’t do anything whilst the horse or pony carries us around. That is until the non rider has a go, and hurts in places they never thought it possible to hurt, and realises how much their brain has to work to enable them to control the horse. At that point they realise just how physical riding a horse is, and how tiring.
As riders we like to consider ourselves fit and active, but at the same time are actually very good at ignoring our actual fitness levels. We get a little stuck in our contented rut of fitness/condition that enables us to do what we need to, but without really considering our needs to do our job as a rider correctly. Factor in age, injury and postural/work habits that need addressing but that we are good at ignoring, then in reality we are often not fit enough in terms of both cardiovascular fitness and more general ‘fitness to ride’.
So why does it matter?
In terms of ourselves, appropriate fitness enables to ride to the best of our ability. It helps also prevent injury – both on and off the horse. Fatigue is a major factor in injury because as the body tires, reaction times slow, muscles fire more slowly, the brain processes information more slowly and as a result mistakes happen. This might be as simple as not concentrating on where you are directing your horse, or it might be as serious as losing balance over a fence and having a fall. If you are schooling, fatigue will probably mean that you aren’t able to give aids as efficiently and correctly as you should. Off the horse, muscle fatigue will make you more at risk of injury when carrying out the physical tasks such as mucking out. And if you ride at the end of a long working day then you are probably more at risk because of general fatigue.
Ultimately, rider mistakes or weakness through fatigue, will also impact on the horse.
A tired rider, as mentioned above, doesn’t give the best aids. This is unfair on the horse, obviously, though it takes a good deal of honesty to acknowledge this.
A tired rider who is out of balance puts the horse at greater risk of injury by loading them incorrectly; landing too far back in the saddle can cause back pain, or tipping forward overloads the fore limbs.
A tired rider who makes poor judgements puts the horse at risk when jumping or doing fast work.
A tired rider is more likely to over use their hands as their balance decreases.
And it may seem that this is all only really relevant if you are working or competing your horse to some degree. But it isn’t . Although I compete, the majority of my time is spent hacking. I am incredibly lucky to have access to Dartmoor – when the weather permits anyway – which is incredibly beautiful and the horses and I love it, but the terrain is very challenging. The rough ground means that horse and rider need to be mentally alert the whole time, and physically agile. Once you increase speed, the intensity of mental and physical demands increase – this is something that is amplified if horse and or rider are unused to the terrain. If you then add in a keen horse that requires balancing and controlling, then for the rider it can be at times exhausting as well as exhilarating.
Having had the wonderful warm and dry weather recently I have taken advantage of the excellent going on the moor. Normally in February it is mostly wet and boggy, pouring with rain and often foggy.
Lizzie, by default, is a speed merchant. According to her, if in doubt go faster. Get her out on the moor to one of her favourite places and she starts with a good bronc and then she is off. I have to watch where we are going – rocks, patches of bog, holes, ridges and random sheep are just some of the hazards we meet. I then have to stay on through the broncs, and then not allow her to go too fast straight away; a long hill takes its toll and flying off at the bottom is not the way to make it to the top – avoiding fatigue and muscle injury in the horse are my responsibility as her excitement initially overrides her perception of what is ahead. She also has no idea how far we are going, so again it is my responsibility to pace her throughout the whole of a ride, be it a long hilly road ride or out on the moor. I also have to keep my balance as she negotiates the terrain, slipping the reins if I need to, picking them up again to steer, and try to hold her together. It is tiring. very tiring, especially as at this time of year neither of us is used to doing this sort of ride that often. We could have gone further, but neither of us was fit enough.
Baz is another kettle of fish. He is captain slow and exhausting to ride in his own way. He loves the moor – although he doesn’t get out much these days – but has a special ability to trip over his own feet or half pull off shoes miles from home. I had to ride him differently if cantering downhill in order to be ready should he trip. That was mentally and physically tiring. On the flat, he could be incredibly lazy, and it wasn’t until he was in his mid teens that I stopped doing all the hard work on his behalf, and consequently stopped being puce in the face after 20 minutes.
So it doesn’t matter what ‘sort’ or rider you are, you need to be fit to avoid fatigue and the related problems that can cause. This includes cardiovascular fitness, core strength and strength in whatever muscle groups you need for your chosen activity, as well as mental fitness. It is well worth taking stock, honestly, of how ‘fit’ you are in every aspect of your riding. If you could do with better cardiovascular fitness (most of us), target that. If your core isn’t great, try pilates. If your stamina isn’t good, build it slowly. If you tire when schooling or jumping with certain aspects of work, find a way to train for those off the horse (maybe pilates again?).
Focus on your fitness and strength and your horse will thank you.