How Physical Fitness Impacts Riding and Confidence

Sports psychologist Jenny Susser explains this mental aspect of dressage
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Let’s talk about physical fitness—collective sigh noted. The goal for this column is to talk about physical fitness and how it contributes to—or detracts from—your riding. If you are in a healthy state of physical fitness, keep up the good work and look for how that currently supports your riding. Perhaps you already have a bit more capacity in the saddle than you realize, so notice how you can take advantage of that added strength.

If you are not completely satisfied with your level of physical fitness or are unsure of how it might benefit you, let’s look at how physical fitness translates to riding success. Riding is much more athletic than some people recognize, and even though we know this, we don’t talk about fitness related to riding nearly enough. Simply put, when you improve your physical strength, endurance and flexibility, new things become possible. While this is obvious from a physical perspective, let’s focus on how it impacts your riding mentally. 

Focus is key to any kind of performance, whether it is in the home ring, the show ring, the office, your home or the sport field. There are countless things that distract us and weaken focus, negatively impacting performance. Believe it or not, feeling as though you are unfit is one of them. It’s like a pinhole in a tire: It leaks energy and focus slowly and persistently. Confidence and focus are inextricably connected, so improvement of either of those elements will directly affect the other. As your body feels better and stronger, your focus will have better direction and your confidence naturally grows. Even tiny, little accomplishments have tremendous impact.

I know what you might be saying: You have tried to become more fit before and it didn’t work the way you would have liked. Many of us use diets as a way to fix something, but have you ever considered what fitness or health should mean for you and your body? What if you treated it as if nothing were wrong but just needed some tweaking? The world has us all convinced that we are supposed to look like Twiggy—but most bodies do not perform well looking like that. What if you went to work on finding out what helps you ride the best and leave the rest out of it?

First, start by evaluating your physical condition in terms of your riding capacity. What do you need from your body to feel strong, balanced and confident? Perhaps this shift in perspective could take some of the pressure off.

Second, try connecting your fitness to a larger goal. Most of the goals I see are incomplete, which can set you up for failure. When goals have a small or singular focus like, “fit into my jeans from college,” and are not tied to a bigger picture like, “getting my gold medal,” it is like sending a dinghy out in rough seas to rescue a ship. If your physical fitness was tied to qualifying for regionals or nationals, riding FEI or a goal like that, staying on course is easier. 

The third step is creating a plan. You might make mistakes or fail at an endeavor, experience both frustration and elation, but your plan helps you stay on track. It is the going off course that we tend to underprepare for, and a goal needs a solid plan to help you course-correct. When designing your plan, be sure to account for the very things that knock you off course. Be prepared for the things that have led to failure in the past and plan for them. Then recognize the things that have led to success in the past and exploit them. 

The biggest problem with physical fitness is the emotional baggage from the past. This is the very stuff you should ignore! Don’t analyze or look for deeper meaning. Those processes are valuable in many areas but not in terms of physical fitness. Become rational and logical like a pilot is during a preflight check—he doesn't get upset with the plane when something isn’t working. He simply calls maintenance and gets it fixed. Work methodically, slowly and persistently; this will create success. There is no greater reward than a fantastic ride. So set a goal, write a plan and begin.

Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year All-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with collegiate, professional, international and amateur athletes of all sports and ages. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African ParaDressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with the Human Performance Institute, delivering corporate trainings. She remains active out of the pool these days by running and riding her horses (JennyRSusser.com).