Equestrian Fitness : Strength or Cardio?

Rider Fitness: Cardio or Strength Training for Riders?

Within the fitness industry in general there is a plethora of, often contradictory information that guarantees we will lose fat, become a better rider and a healthier person. Yet, you on the end of all this information are left questioning which advice is right, should you be doing cardiovascular conditioning, or strength training?

Training an individual is actually quite complicated and very precise, there is no right or wrong answer as to whether as a rider you should be doing more fitness or more strength work or the ratio between them. That advise is quite individual and specific. My generic answer and recommendation however, would be that riders ideally should be doing both.

As an equestrian, our sport is our lifestyle! Often, we are in the barn caring for our horse perhaps in time opportunities where others would be in the gym. This cannot be our excuse however, because it is important to take some time off of your horse and commit to fitness training.

Here’s why!

Horse riding, regardless of the discipline does generate a high heart rate demand, often near maximal, however like other sports, heart rate is elevated compared to other physiological markers. There are multiple reasons for this, one being adrenaline (takes a certain sort of person to sit on half a tonne of animal!) the other is a response to certain muscle recruitment required during riding a horse. Unlike many sports, horse riding requires that the athlete remain as stable as possible, so the idea is to move as little as conceivable (or overt movements anyway). That does not mean the muscles are not working! When we ride, there is tension in a muscle, but where there is limited movement at the joint, a certain type of muscle work occurs. This type of muscle work is known as isometric muscle activity. This type of muscle activity increases blood pressure and thus also heart rate, but not overall energy requirements such as demand for oxygen. This will explain why your heart rate elevates, perhaps as high as when you go out jogging, but doesn’t ‘feel the same’. Regardless of causal mechanism, heart rates are high when we ride and thus to ensure we are effectively prepared we should ‘train’ our bodies by ensuring we replicate this demand off of the horse.

So, cardiovascular conditioning is beneficial to riders to offset any fatigue that will occur if not accounted for off of the horse. I recommend all individuals complete some training that elevates their heart rate for general health and wellness and will then tailor that to the individual and their goals.

So, where does strength training benefit riders then? Research reports that riders are asymmetric, crooked in both posture and strength, which becomes worsened and more noticeable with years spent riding and training level.

If you are one of those people that states ‘horse riding and yard duties keep me fit’, I hope this article gives you a more holistic approach to your off-horse fitness! The yard duties many equestrians are involved with over-work the front of the body, resulting in typically a tight chest and shoulders and a weak back. The seated nature of riding, in addition to studying, sitting on the sofa, in the car, during work etc leads to very tight (but often also weak) hip flexors and results in pain within the lower back and often knees. Then we throw the unevenness sideways as well, with riders being uneven in rotation and in strength between left and right limbs and it’s really no surprise that we riders are a bunch of hardy, lame and sore humans!

Strength training is your friend. Many riders are put of scared they will get too ‘bulky’, worried about the time, social and financial obligations that come with attending the gym. However, strength training can be in the form of structured bodyweight training, targeted mobility, Yoga and Pilates, working with free weights or resistance bands and certainly for beginners (and most people) can absolutely be conducted effectively at home with minimal equipment.

Fitness training, both strength and cardiovascular conditioning should be specific to each individual, related and targeted to their goals, current fitness status, access to time, equipment, riding level and discipline etc. It’s complicated to choose whether conditioning or strength should be the focus to meet your rider fitness goals, when the nature of our lifestyles are very busy. This is where strength based circuits, also often referred to as cardio interference or cardio acceleration is useful! This way all the muscles of your body, including your heart get a good workout. Multitasking at its finest!

In all honesty, fitness training is not a one size fits all approach and its always a good idea to seek help from a fitness professional. That said there are some areas or patterns that all the riders I have worked with display and so focussing on these areas would be advantageous to all riders.

  • Improving strength in the upper back, specifically stabilisation of the scapular e.g pulling movements like rows.
  • Improving isometric core strength e.g. planks and plank variations.
  • Regular mobility work on hips and chest e.g. stretching, foam rolling, yoga.
  • Activation and strength of the glutes e.g. squats, hip bridges, step ups and lunges.
  • Strength and flexibility of the hamstring group e.g. deadlift variations, stretching, hamstring curls on stability balls.

Here is a sample workout that you may consider. This workout uses only bodyweight or objects you may find at the yard or a local park. It considers upper body and lower body, single leg and cardio based movements to get a total body workout in a short amount of time. Beginners may perform 2 circuits and lower impact if required by not jumping in specific movements. Intermediate exercises may complete 3 rounds and riders that incorporate strength and fitness into their life regularly may consider 4 rounds and also the addition of resistance.

I hope that this article helps inspire you to maintain or start your rider fitness journey. I think my main take home point of this article is that off horse training is going to correct and hopefully for some prevent the onset of chronic injuries caused by poor posture that are worsened by the asymmetric nature of riding and yard duties. I personally believe it should be a part of all riders (and all people’s!) lifestyles and the focus should be on enjoyment, but also some exercises that work on the highlighted areas within this article that are common within the equestrian community.

If you are looking to get started perhaps try out my FREE Event Fit RiderStrong 30-Day Challenge?

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Jenn x