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Get Fit, Ride Better

Getting into better shape can make you a better rider. Our weight-training exercises are guaranteed to work--and they take just minutes a week.

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?

Courtesy Horse & Rider

Courtesy Horse & Rider

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.

Do this workout two to three times per week, with at least one day's rest between sessions to allow your muscles to heal and strengthen. Follow the recommendations for beginning weights (often none to start), and perform the movements very slowly. "Going slow forces your muscles to do the work," observes Sharpe. "If you lift quickly, momentum does some of the work, and your ligaments and tendons wind up 'catching' the weight at the end of the move."

In the beginning, do only as many repetitions ("reps") as you can while maintaining the proper form. As soon as your form starts to deteriorate, stop and give yourself a 30-second rest, then begin again for one more set. "Eventually," notes Sharpe, "you'll be able to do all the sets and reps I recommend."

Before each weight training session, warm up with a 5- to 10-minute brisk walk. After your workout, gently stretch each major muscle group, holding each stretch for 20 seconds or more. (You'll find resources for stretching in the story titled "Fast Track to Fitness" at the end of this article.) (NOTE: Before beginning this or any workout program, consult your physician.)

SQUAT: Strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs), gluteals (buttocks) and, to a lesser extent, abdominals. Enhances your overall base of support in the saddle, and improves your leg control and coordination for effective cueing and security in the saddle. If you ride hunt seat, it will help you hold a two-point position.

A. Stand straight with your feet horse-width apart, toes turned out slightly as in stirrups, knees slightly bent. Position dumbbells on top of shoulders, with your head up and eyes forward.

B. Moving very slowly, lower yourself as if you were going to sit on a chair, keeping your weight on your heels. When you're halfway to the floor, pause, and then slowly come back up, keeping your knees pointed out slightly to stay over your feet. Return to the starting position, keeping your knees slightly bent (don't "lock" your legs).

Weights, reps, sets: Begin without weights, keeping hands on shoulders. When you've mastered the proper form, add 3-pound, and later 5-pound, weights. Build to four sets of 15 repetitions each.

SPLIT LUNGE: Strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs), gluteals (buttocks), hamstrings (back of thighs) and calves; increases hip joint's range of motion. Improves the strength, control and coordination of your leg cues. This means you can get that drive-from-behind collection and overall body control you need for pleasure events, and the lateral movements (sidepassing an obstacle, pivot turns) you need for trail and horsemanship. Properly conditioned hamstrings also enable you to keep your feet positioned under your center of gravity (in line with your shoulders and hips).

A. Stand straight with your feet together, knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by sides, palms facing in.

B. Take a big step forward with your left foot so that your right heel is lifted and your torso is balanced between your legs, upper body directly over your pelvis. Slowly bend your knees so your left knee is directly over your left ankle, and your right knee approaches the floor; keep your knee, hip and shoulder in a straight line. Bring your left foot back to the starting position, and do reps; then switch leg positions.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin without weights, keeping hands on hips. When you've mastered the proper form, gradually work your way from 3-pound to 10-pound weights. Build to two sets of 10 reps on each leg.

TRICEPS KICKBACK: Strengthens triceps (back of upper arm) while stabilizing lower body. Improves the control and coordination of your arm movements, enhancing your ability to communicate clearly through the reins.

A. Stand as if you're standing in your stirrups in the saddle: head up and eyes forward, upper body inclined forward from the hips, feet horse-width apart, toes turned out slightly, knees bent, chest open and shoulders back, arms bent at the elbow, holding a dumbbell in each hand at about the waist, palms facing in.

B. Keeping your head, neck and spine in a neutral position, slowly straighten both arms behind you. Pause, then slowly bend your elbows to return to the starting position.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin with 3-pound weights. When you've mastered the proper form, gradually work your way up to 8-pound weights. Build to four sets of 15 reps.

FLY: Strengthens chest and front shoulders. Helps you achieve upper-body control, which enables you to stay centered and balanced above your horse's center of gravity (thus helping him to balance beneath you). Helps prevent leaning or tipping your body through turns and transitions, or getting ahead of your horse's motion over a jump.

A. Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or mat. Bend your knees, so that your feet are flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your hands directly above your chest (not your head), your arms almost straight, elbows slightly bent.

B. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, slowly open your arms, bringing the dumbbells out and down until your elbows almost touch the floor. Pause, then, keeping your shoulders on the floor, slowly close your arms again, as if you're hugging a big tree, and raise the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin with 3-pound weights. When you've mastered the proper form, advance to 5-pound weights. Build to four sets of 15 reps.

This article originally appeared in Horse & Rider magazine.