You take lessons, attend clinics, watch videos. You read books and magazine articles. You ride regularly, keep a riding journal, and use mental imagery to reinforce what you've learned. In other words, you're doing everything possible to be the best rider you can be, right?
Nope. If you're not also pursuing physical fitness, you're shortchanging your in-saddle efforts. A fit, well conditioned body sits a horse better, provides clearer, more consistent cues, and is less likely to be injured in the event of a fall. And weight training can transform you into a strong, flexible, more effective rider in just minutes a week.
This article will tell you what you need to know to begin pumping iron today. (It's much easier than you think, and you don't need to go to a gym.) In the story titled "Fitness 101" at the end of this article, we'll also outline the other basics of a well-rounded fitness program--aerobic conditioning, stretching, and proper nutrition. That's because once you find out what weight training can do for you, you're going to want to know how else you can improve your body. Bear in mind, though, that how you look is not the point.
"Personal fitness is all about improving the quality of your life and the level of your performance, regardless of your sport," says Jennifer Sharpe, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer and herself an avid rider. "The fact that you'll look better, too, is just a bonus."
Why Work Out
Starting and sticking with any new program takes commitment. We're going to make it easy for you--by telling you exactly how weight training will make you a better rider. Once you've seen the list of benefits, you'll be rarin' to go:
- Improved posture. Horseback riding develops your lower body more than the upper; weight training evens things out. "Upper-body work with free weights, in particular, works wonders," notes Sharpe. "When your shoulder and back muscles are properly developed, good posture comes naturally." No more slumping, slouching, or collapsed hips--especially important in horsemanship classes.
- More secure seat. "Strong back and abdominal muscles and increased balance make it easier to sit gracefully at the lope, or to stay in position over jumps," says Sharpe. Bonus: No more getting pulled forward by that overeager colt in a snaffle.
- Better cueing. Weight training makes you more aware of your muscles and how they work. "It teaches you to isolate and use specific muscle groups," explains Sharpe. "Then, when you need to call upon those same muscles for riding, your increased 'muscle savvy' enables you to be more subtle and precise." The result: quieter, more effective legs; softer, more "feeling" hands. Plus, you're better able to use your seat to shorten or lengthen your horse's stride.
- Enhanced relaxation. Working out dissipates tension--in your muscles and your mind. "And when you're relaxed," notes Sharpe, "you're able to focus fully on your riding and competing, and to use your body more effectively."
- Improved endurance, discipline. Especially important for busy amateur riders who often find themselves too tired to ride. "Sports psychology tells you that fatigue sabotages effort," says Sharpe. "Strong, fit riders don't tire as easily, and the discipline of working out makes you tougher mentally, too." You'll find yourself sticking to your riding schedule.
- Injury protection. Strong, elastic muscles, tendons and ligaments are much less prone to injury. "Plus, not only are you less likely to fall," notes Sharpe, "but if you do fall, enhanced coordination will help you to land safely." Bonus: Chronic back pain, a problem for many riders, can be eliminated with judicious weight training.
- Other benefits. A confidence boost (knowing your body is strong and fit will lessen any riding-related anxieties you may have); enhanced overall health and happiness (you'll sleep better, and find yourself in a cheery mood more often); improved empathy with your horse (you'll understand why, for example, a proper warm-up is so important to him, now that you know first-hand why it's important to you); and, if you have children, the setting of a good example for lifelong health and fitness.
A Leg Up on Lifting
Sound good? Then here's how to begin. These four basic lifts will give you a taste of the benefits of pumping iron. Faithfully executed, they'll give you noticeable improvement in the saddle, especially if you supplement them with that old standby, the basic crunch (modified sit-up). They'll also form a core that you can build on as your enthusiasm for weight training grows.