Whatever discipline you follow, it is hugely beneficial – actually even essential – that you include cross training in your routine. This might sound counter intuitive, because obviously if you are training in a specific skill, surely you want to improve in that area and not waste time doing other things that aren’t directly going to impact on your progress. Right?
Wrong! The problem is that in being very specific in your training, you become too conditioned in one way of working, both physically and mentally. Doing the same exercise(s) day in, day out, means on a very simple level, that your joints and soft tissues only ever move through the same range; your reactions are never challenged; you are not pushed; your asymmetries become entrenched.
If you think about the main riding disciplines, we tend to keep our bodies working within very small ranges of movement. This means our joints and muscles don’t get taken through their full range; for joint health we should be exercising through the full range, and to maximise muscle strength and function we should work into end ranges. End range to when the joint or muscle is moved to the limit of its capability. It isn’t a big secret that riders commonly have tight hip flexors for example, a direct result of hours spent sitting.
Another aspect of riding is that our heart and respiratory rates don’t often get significantly raised. Hopefully everyone knows why this is important for general health…. but there are times when riding – such as when going cross-country – when theses rates will be raised. It is very difficult to recreate the same conditions in training, so unless cross training is deployed, the rider risks putting themselves in a position whereby they do not have the cardiorespiratory fitness to safely and successfully negotiate said cross-country. The result of a lack of cardiorespiratory fitness is early fatigue and the resulting weakness, lack of physical control and mental sharpness.
I’ve been doing a mini study with a heart rate monitor – it’s an ongoing work in progress because I have more that I want to test before I compile a full ‘report’. However, I can tell you that so far that the ridden activity that gets my heart rate up the most, is holding a horse together when it’s trying to take off somewhere up on the moor! But that tends to be in short bursts and not the several minutes or more required for cross country, and I don’t have the nerves linked to competition either. Watch this space for comparisons between all the different riding activities and off-horse exercise.
Another advantage of cross training is that it can give you a chance to mentally unwind if you spend much of your time on horseback in training. It is a time to perhaps just enjoy your surroundings if out for a walk or a run, be competitive against yourself without the worry of how this will impact on your horse, or just simply clear your head. For me, I find Pilates incredibly beneficial mentally. It requires a very intense focus on myself and what I am doing, but in a wholly positive way. Any external stresses disappear as I work to improve my body. I focus also on my breathing, and on relaxation in combination with movement; the latter might sound like a paradox but it is important – as mentioned before – that tension does not take over and that there is a balance between activity and relaxation/softness. I find when riding that this can sometimes (or maybe often?!) be difficult to achieve if I am faced with a challenge. To spend time reinforcing better ways of using my body is hugely beneficial.
I also love a good walk on the moor to take in the views and get really put of breath as I tackle the hills, and it is wonderful way to clear the cobwebs. I feel that I have worked my whole body through lots of different ranges, challenged my balance reactions and not got too focussed on ‘doing things correctly’.
So, whatever physical activity it is you like to do in your free time, prioritise it and embrace it for the benefit of you and your horse. Enjoy!