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How to Become the Modern Human Equestrian Athlete

How flexible and fit are you - Well - Amanda Ross is both - and has a gorgeous range of gear that you can purchase as well

© Jenelle Christopher 

By Amanda Ross

Do you want to be the James Bond of equestrian athleticism, the supremely skilled specimen, or the physical flop, the SpongeBob SquarePants? To become the modern human equestrian athlete, you need to nurture and harness your energy, not just the horse's. So many people put the effort of a small army into their beloved hobby, yet omit what the driving force – you.

Compared with most athletes, the equestrian has a casual approach to training. We think stretching is putting your foot in the stirrup, strength training is carrying water buckets, cardio work is chasing a loose horse and balance training is not being bucked off. Physiotherapy is a case of "I’ll be right, mate, it’s not broken!'' And the recovery meal is the Maccas drive-through.

My interest in health grew as I realised that riding makes you stiff, sore, and not really fit to do much else. I have always enjoyed sport, and understand that although dedication to the elite level leaves little time for anything else, balance is required. There has to be a balance that lets you perform at your best during your competitive life and still be healthy when your riding days are over.

 If you need me to pull personal trainer rank, just pay attention to the latest slogan being hollered from the health sector: "Inactivity is as bad for you as smoking".  Research shows that physical inactivity increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity and abnormal blood cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression … still sitting on your butt? Get up! Like yesterday!

When at comps, for my own fitness, I  try to run the cross-country course – it’s the cheapest and easiest option away from home. It also helps to understand how a horse will cope. It’s amazing how often people tell me I’m crazy as I run past them, but how can you expect your horse to gallop over hills, on hard ground and mud, in rain and heat, if you don't know how it feels? I think most riders don't understand how to get a horse fit because they don’t have the personal experience themselves. My triathlete buddies (both the serious guns and the hobbyists) all pay for personal exercise programs, so why can’t we do the same? Is it that the horse is considered the athlete and the rider merely the pilot? I have a few theories:

1) GEOGRAPHY: Equestrians train mostly alone and out of town. There’s no daily team training, no gym, and no venue like the Australian Institute of Sport where athletes from a range of sports mingle while they train. Just being in a motivating environment opens them to what their competitors are doing.

2) SKILLS: Our sport is very much the practice of specific skill coupled with rider-horse bonding. Hours in the saddle improve our riding, and time spent with horses improves our familiarity to their responses – and that doesn't happen in a gym on a fake horse! The horse also requires skill training to reach a certain level of competency. There is some that can be done by a skilled rider (other than the main rider), to keep a horse fit and trained, but ultimately, horse and regular need to be equally fit.

3) FITNESS REQUIREMENTS: Our bodies don't have to be at the peak of athletic fitness of say, a triathlete or a rower, where the slightest dehydration or muscular fatigue can lose a race. But we still have to be in top condition, and build muscles that are long and lean, not bulky. Exercise is needed to maintain a lean disposition and minimise injury.

4) ­­­­­­­­­ATTITUDE: Most riders consider the horse the athlete and spend vast amounts of time, money and energy on feed, supplements, stabling, water walking, magnetic boots, poultices, joint injections, physio … but don’t treat ourselves to the same. Our sport allows us to compete well into our 60s but by then, after a few falls, squashed toes, jammed backs or wrenched shoulders, we may not be in shape to keep riding or enjoy a pain-free life. Any sport that hurtles the body from a height towards a hard object has serious implications. The body’s compensatory mechanism will cope for only so long. Eventually it won’t be able to hold together a crooked frame, muscles will tighten, joints will wear, and there’s pain more often than not. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, it’s about being smart, not ignorant.

To examine and understand the fitness requirements of a rider, we need to break down fitness into two components ­–-­ health and skill.

HEALTH includes:

·      Cardiovascular fitness – the efficiency of the heart, lungs and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the muscles for an extended time, ie, riding cross-country (medium requirement).

·      Muscular strength – the force a muscle can exert against a resistance, ie, pulling up a strong horse ­­(low requirement).

·      Muscular endurance – the ability to use voluntary muscles repeatedly without fatigue, ie, remaining in two-point position for an entire course/several horses (high requirement).

·      Flexibility – the range of motion of a joint, ie, hips, to elongate the leg for dressage, and ankles to keep a secure, deep heel (medium requirement).

·      Body composition – the percentage of fat/muscle/bone of your body. It is determined by genetics but can be improved by diet and exercise, ie, there aren’t many overweight elite riders, most are long-legged and lean (medium requirement).

SKILL includes:

·      Agility – controlled change of direction at speed, ie, a showjumping jump-off round (medium requirement).

·      Balance – the ability to retain centre of gravity above the base of support during stationery or dynamic conditions, ie, sitting on a horse while it moves, jumps, shies etc (high requirement).

·      Coordination – the ability to use body parts in sync, ie, using the leg, seat and hand aids together to ride half-pass (high requirement).

·      Power – strength x speed. A quick burst of maximum strength (low requirement).

·      Reaction time – the time taken to react to a stimulus, ie, a horse slipping and losing its line to a fence, and the rider regaining balance and line to the fence (high requirement).

·      Speed – how quickly you can perform a movement, ie, riding through a series of bounces or tight grids (low requirement).


What happens if you’re unfit in one or more of these categories? Fatigue reduces ability to perform, and if you lose strength you are less able to balance; you concentrate harder just to stay on board, which leaves less brain space for thinking and decision-making. This is why riders forget their dressage tests when horses play up, but the professionals go into autopilot when something goes wrong. The fitter you are, the better decisions you make, the better aids you deliver and the faster you recover.

How fit should a rider be? I conducted my own experiment at Melbourne CCI* in 2011. By wearing a heart-rate monitor on both myself, and my horse Loxley throughout all three phases, I wanted to investigate (a) the physical workrate during each phase, and (b) any correlation between horse and rider’s heart rates.

Case Study: Horse: Loxley, seven year-old Warmblood gelding, 16.1h, 550kg, athletic, light frame.

Rider: Amanda Ross, 38-year-old elite equestrian athlete, fit condition/6 days/week exercise (cardio/gym).

A basic calculation of maximal heart rate (HR) beats per minute (bpm) can be done by subtracting your age from 220: HR 220-38 = 182

Of the eight minutes I spent riding the cross-country course (we finished a few seconds under time, clear, no major stresses or incidents), my HR remained around 187bpm the entire time.  I spent eight minutes in the red zone above my maximum HR, a zone reserved only for the very fit, and then only for a few minutes.  So why didn't I pass out, get dizzy or fill up with lactic acid? When running on a treadmill at 187bpm, I could go no longer than 45 seconds, so I eased off until my breathing matched that of when I was riding the XC course. Simulated breathing/perceived rate of effort = 172bpm. Where did the extra 15bpm come from? In riding the XC, it can come from adrenalin, the body’s natural preparation for fight or flight, and from the voluntary and involuntary shifts made by the body to remain in place. The stress of making rapid decisions and specific movements such as holding a hard-puller or negotiating a combination of fences will all also increase HR.


Nutrition and hydration on comp day are crucial. Foods high in sugar will give you energy spikes, which, along with adrenalin, will just have you yo-yoing up and down all day and crashing in a heap at night. Your horse doesn’t need your nervousness to be compounded by a sugar spike! ?Hot chips, doughnuts, fizzy drinks – or nothing at all – are not suitable foods in general, let alone at competition. Bring your own food. Planning will save you from starvation. You will have gone to the effort of packing your horse's food, tack, comp clothing and so on. Not a chef in the kitchen? I bet you can chop horse carrots! Make room for an Esky and a picnic basket, and spend a few minutes in the kitchen before you leave. If you get nervous pre-comp and the thought of a meal makes you want to barf during sitting trot, consider power-packed snacks. I now make my own protein balls, which are small, nutritious and easy to digest. Other easy snacks are fresh fruit, boiled eggs, chopped vegies, dips, tinned tuna, nuts, berries and yoghurt, or a mug of porridge or warm soup in winter. These are not going to make you feel crappy by the end of the day or stretch your tight riding clothes!


Pleeeease do me a favour and stop guzzling soft drink just because it's sold at the food van! Hydration = water. Dehydration can increase heart rate by 7.5%, and just a 2% body weight reduction from fluid loss can decrease performance 20%. Hydration is imperative - we need our brain to operate our body, so when dehydration can raise the heart rate, impair aerobic capacity, reduce concentration and decision-making and slow reaction times, these become serious issues in the heat of competition. Sip water through the day, limit caffeine, which is dehydrating, and don’t scoff sports drinks, which are full of sugar. Walk your horse early morning or evening to avoid the heatof the day, and wear a good hat.

Given all the time, money and effort we dedicate to our equestrian pursuits, weigh up these options –

·      Spend $300 on sticky-bum breeches? Or $300 on a gym membership and program? Gain a stronger body and you’ll stay on board better than with sticky breeches alone!

·      Sleep properly. Plan ahead to ensure you have a comfortable place to sleep at the comp, and don't sit up to midnight chatting when you have an 8am dressage session the next day.

·      Instead of Googling how to ride better, spend time actually exercising and doing something about it!

·      For every grain of feed/electrolytes/joint supps you methodically mix into your horse’s feeds, consider how you can do the equivalent in your own diet.

·      Your horse needs to work long and low? Well, so do you – stretch! Relate your horse's training needs your own … you’ll probably find some scary similarities!

 This article first appeared in a previous edition of Equestrian Life magazine. For more information or to subscribe, visit our home page here.



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