Strength and Conditioning for Competitive Equestrians
by Kori Lyn Angers
I grew up riding competitively and being physically active in a variety of sports. I always knew that riding was truly a sport by how it felt in my body. As a rider you have to be fit, sharp, and in control of your body at all times. Riders must practice often to be competitive at any level. As a kid, I remember the feeling of going heading out to see my trainer after a few weeks or months off. Getting back into the saddle always resulted in extreme soreness and working to “get back that edge you had at the end of last season.” If you’ve ever experienced this, you know it’s frustrating for everyone involved – rider, horse, trainer, and sponsor!
As life would have it, I became an expert in the field of exercise science and earned my certification as a strength and conditioning specialist. I now understand the science of human physiology – why and how this situation of mal-adaptation occurs in the body. When you take time away from your sport, your body breaks down both physically and chemically, and you essentially become unfit for your sport.
At the other end of the spectrum, mal-adaptation can occur by over-training, or doing too much of the same thing. In this case, your get fatigued, then injured, and spend the majority of your remaining career in your orthopedic surgeon’s office. (I know he’s probably a good guy – and great with the cortisone needle – but you are not solely responsible for putting all his kids through college.)
I have worked with athletes at all levels over the past decade, concentrating on injury rehab and performance enhancement. Every day, I see how the application of physiology, biomechanics, and nutrition can help the body be stronger, faster, more balanced. It’s not about “kicking someone’s butt” in the gym. It’s about balancing the body, recognizing the weak link, and making each muscle and joint show up on the playing field each day and be happy to go to work.
Finally, nearly every sport has recognized the importance of strength training . These days, competitors in nearly every sport – even the Olympic curling team – work with a strength coach, separate from their skills coach, to achieve their peak performance in their sport.
Equestrians have lagged behind somewhat in the realization that strength training is as essential for peak performance in our sport as in any other. We give so much attention to our equine counterparts: conditioning , recovery, training . . . it’s about time we riders give ourselves this same “leg up” in our sport. I want to give this opportunity to both professional and amateur equestrians.
The Most Common Issues for Equestrians
As in any sport, individual riders have specific needs, but in general, there are some common areas where two major equestrian groups can benefit from strength training:
Professional riders tend to have natural talent and feel, and are very athletic from the start. They have been in the game for years before they go pro, and can ride six to ten (or more) horses per day.
Even with these advantages, pro riders still have to deal with “unnatural movement on a natural base.” The base of good movement is present, but the amount of repetitive motion the athlete must do is not natural for the human body. This happens to any pro athlete regardless of the sport.
Think of the shoulder mechanics of a baseball pitcher, but then consider how many pitches he throws per season. Professional equestrians are in the same situation: when riding, they must stay in the same position and use the same muscles over and over. If a pro is injured or tired, they have no choice but to keep going. Joints tend to become weak and sloppy or stiff and tight as their body tries to compensate for fatigue or injury. This can lead to overuse injuries down the line. The most common injuries I see in riders are lumbar vertebrae issues, shoulder mobility issues (e.g., impingement), and injuries of the head, neck and knee.
When a professional equestrian is in the gym, we do not train the movements they do on horseback. Instead, we concentrate on balancing movement and realigning the joints through muscular tone. We mostly work the opposing muscle groups. By addressing their weak links, we work on the mobility and stability of the appropriate joints. Then, we integrate the central nervous system in an attempt to make correct movement reflexive when on horseback.
Pros generally cannot spend a lot of time in the gym – they can’t be sore or too fatigued to get their primary job done. We keep sessions short and sweet and be sure to maximize movement potential. During the off-season is when we can fully focus on conditioning, ensuring that athletes are performing at their peak during competition.
The opposite side of this coin is amateur or weekend riders. These guys are the struggling with a separate set of issues. Because they do not ride all the time, their bodies cannot adapt at a neuro-muscular level to the movement necessary for riding. The body adapts to specific systemic overload. So, if the amateur only rides once or twice a week, they do not have the volume of movement and conditioning required to ride well. If a person has a specific morphological limitation (i.e., a movement limitation specific to one’s own body), there is no way they can accomplish a movement by mere suggestion, harassment, or exasperation by their trainer. These mobility or stability issues must be specifically addressed joint by joint in a closed environment before being transferred back to riding.
When training a recreational equestrian in the gym, we concentrate on specific exercises for gaining quality movement necessary at each joint. We then add in agility and quickness of reaction time for the entire kinetic chain. This increases re-activity and transfers to any situation while on horseback. Now when they show up to ride, they can trust their body and conditioning level. This will maximize their time in the tack, expedite success and progress in their skill as a rider, and even prevent injuries.
Riders Prep: Come Train with me!
My goal is to provide strength and conditioning to equine athletes to the same level as any other professional athlete has access to. It is a way of combining all of my passions. I am currently working with some world class professionals, as well as competitive amateurs and juniors. It makes my day when I see these basic principles of human movement make a difference in the ring.
National Show Hunter Hall of Famer Susan Hutchinson saw the value in addressing the strength and conditioning needs of riders and produced a DVD series with me called Riders Prep. The exercises in this DVD is a great way to start the process of addressing your needs out of the saddle, to make your cues more effective and protect yourself from injury.
Have you overcome some of your riding challenges through strength training and conditioning out of the saddle? Write to me and tell me your story, or share it in the comments!