Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

The Third Pillar: Fitness

by Lori Albrough

The Three Pillars of Your Riding Foundation is how I describe the basic building blocks that you use to create a strong platform for your success as a rider.

  • The first pillar is Focus, and it’s all about your mindset and the power of your attention in making daily progress towards your goals.
  • The second pillar, Fundamentals, is about true mastery of the basics, for both your horse and for yourself.
  • And today’s Pillar, Fitness, covers the whole physical side of things, ensuring that you are preparing your body to be able to actually ride the way you want to.

You can see that the Three Pillars is really a Mind-Body-Spirit model for riding success. Focus is the Spirit side of things, starting with your why — or, “what drives you to do this?” — and the daily practice of keeping your attention on that. Fundamentals is the Mind side of things, or, “what things do I need to know and understand really well?” And finally Fitness is Body, or “how do I prepare myself physically to make this all happen?”

Fitness is the pillar I see the most resistance to amongst riders. I can relate, because I used to feel the same way. For years I put my concentration on the other two pillars: I had the burning desire, and I focused my efforts on doing what I thought needed to be done to improve my riding: taking lessons, practicing daily, and always working on improving the basics. I did not see physical training for riding as necessary. I thought riding was its own form of physical training, and what I needed to do in order to ride better was simply to try harder.

But Debbie Rodriguez, FEI dressage rider and judge, explains it well when she tells her own story.

“I was a young professional, riding eight to 12 horses a day. I could not conceive that I needed to do something else for my fitness, yet at the same time, I would constantly be corrected in my lessons for sitting crooked in the saddle and having rounded shoulders,” she says. “I didn’t realize that my mental focus and desire could not correct that. I always thought that if I would just try harder, I could fix it.”

Rodriguez’s outlook on fitness changed while teaching a longtime student, a Preliminary level event rider who had the same issue of riding with rounded shoulders. “One day she came for her lesson and her shoulders were back,” tells Rodriguez. The key to the amazing change: the student had begun working with a core fitness trainer. This was a pivotal moment for Rodriguez as well. “I signed up the next day and never looked back. That was a turning point in my life. I realized my shoulders weren’t back because I didn’t have the muscle structure to put them back, and riding alone was not going to give me that structure.”

If you are a rider who doesn’t compete, or just rides for pleasure, you may feel that you don’t need to do any off-horse training for the sport. You might not really feel like an athlete. But, as Rodriguez says, “all riders are athletes, whether we want to be or not, by the nature of what we do.” From your horse’s point of view, you are making things a lot harder on your equine partner if you are tight and inflexible, and don’t have the core strength to maintain your own self-carriage while navigating up and down hills, for example. And you want to have the flexibility and the balance training to allow you to ride out a spook by sinking down into your heels instead of grabbing onto your horse’s mouth through the reins.

I think a lot of us just get stuck on the word Fitness, because there are myriad images that the word can conjure up, and we kind of get overwhelmed and never get past that into taking action. Fitness can encompass everything in our minds from body builder to beach body and so much more. But the truth is, as riders, we don’t really want to spend our precious time on stuff that will give us a body builder physique if that won’t contribute to our riding success. Instead, think of the definition of fit that means “able to do the job”, and focus on functional training which will prepare your body to be able to do the job of riding well.

Rider Fitness Training Scale © by Heather Sansom

Rider Fitness Training Scale © by Heather Sansom

So, let’s take a look at the four key areas that riders should concentrate on in building their Pillar of Fitness. Equestrian fitness specialist Heather Sansom has devised a rider’s fitness training scale, analogous to the dressage training scale.

Like the training scale for horses, the fitness training scale is not linear but rather cumulative. Each level builds on the levels below, and at the same time reflects back to further develop the previous levels.

Forming the base of our training is flexibility or mobility. We want to always be thinking about gently increasing our range of motion, lengthening our muscles, and eliminating any tightness or tension. This will help us to blend in and flow with our horse’s movements, and not disturb his balance and way of going.

The next area of focus is core training. If you want your horse to have self-carriage you must first develop your own self-carriage, and that comes from a strong core. The ability to sit the trot, even through the extensions, is a function of core stability plus flexibility. The more movement your horse has, the more core strength you will need. Riders of horses with smooth gaits, like my Fjord horses, are lucky because they have trots which are easier to sit. But as we get up into medium and extended trot work, the horse still needs us to be able to carry ourself and not bounce, flop about, or hang on the reins. Some targeted training on your part in the areas of flexibility and core can make a big difference for your horse’s performance and comfort.

Above that comes strength and balance training. Training with free weights and with body weight exercises will tone your muscles, and by incorporating exercises that challenge your balance (like standing on one leg or doing your weights on a wobble board) you will teach yourself a default pattern of engaging your core to stabilize yourself.

Finally, cardiovascular fitness. This will give you the stamina and endurance to be able to train for the next level in your riding, without always having to stop and take a break. Once you reach a basic level of aerobic fitness, a very time-efficient way to train your heart and lungs is to incorporate some intervals into your training. After warming up, I will work five minutes at a steady pace then give myself a challenge, like a 20 second sprint as fast as I can go (think of being chased by a saber-toothed tiger) followed by 40 seconds at an easy pace, and repeat this 6 times altogether.

What I like about the fitness training scale is that it guides us in structuring a whole fitness plan for ourselves, as well as in day-to-day decision making. When time is short, rather than throwing your fitness for the day overboard, focus on fitting in some activities from the lower levels of the scale, and know that you are contributing to the foundation of your Pillar of Fitness.

In the comments below, tell me your thoughts, and what steps you are taking to build YOUR Pillar of Fitness.


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