Now, this is a really good question! And the answer?
Well, it depends.
I know that’s never a useful answer, but it really does depend on who you are, what you are doing in terms of your riding and the discipline you’re partaking in. If you’re a full-time showjumper or a professional polo player, you are going to need a much higher level of strength & aerobic fitness than somebody who just enjoys to hack out a few times a week.
Whatever your goal, the fitter and stronger, you are the more balanced you’re going to ride, the more stable you will feel, and ultimately the better your horse is going to go. Being the physically strongest and fittest you can possibly be will really boost your riding confidence as well and this is a big area I help my clients with.
For example, if you know your horse can be a bit nappy out hacking and you’re worried about things like going past big machinery or noisy places it can really dampen your confidence.
If you know in the back of your head that you have got the physical fitness and balance to be able to keep your horse going forward safely, stay balanced and ride through it you’re going to be far more confident tackling the situation.
So go back to the initial point how fit do you need to be?
I would judge this off:
How you feel when riding/competing right now. Think about the good things & the maybe not-so-good bits.
The discipline you do. Do you need a high level of aerobic fitness or do you just need to be a little bit stronger?
The reactions you need. A dressage rider for example is going to have more time to react to a situation than a racing jockey jumping a fence so think about the physical & mental reaction speed you need.
If you follow the above then it is totally personalised to you. Think about what’s currently not feeling great. Are you stopping cantering and feeling totally out of breath? Are you experiencing a lot of low back pain? Is it that you’re knackered after every time you ride?
If you're not 100% sure of what needs improving or working on but know you could be that little bit fitter & stronger or aren't feeling your best riding I'd highly suggest filming yourself training or competing, watching the videos back to analyse how you're physically moving in the saddle.
Depending on the problem you're facing that dictates what the solution will be.
For anyone who rides you need a good level of aerobic fitness. So we’re talking about your ability to go out and run a 5 km race, ride a bike, go for a three hour hike or swim. The bigger and stronger your endurance base, the fitter you’re going to be & the longer you'll be able to withstand fatigue. That's important!
Your focus from a cardiovascular point of view should be building your aerobic capacity from the ground up. What this means is a lot of slow, steady long work, building your endurance steady state base and as you get fitter you can start to work on the shorter sharp work that helps you to build power. For most riders you won’t need to actually do the powerful work it’s just simply a case of improving your aerobic fitness to support your riding better & this is often where we get a bit lost when we think we're doing the best thing by smashing ourselves in a HIIT session but we'd be far better off just focusing on the long & slow work.
The type of cardiovascular fitness you need depends on the discipline you’re doing. In both eventing and polo, for example, it would be good to have a high level of anaerobic strength alongside your aerobic fitness. What this means is that in situations where you need to react fast, for example tackling for the ball in a polo match or galloping towards goal, you have that ability to suddenly express power in a really short space of time. The same if you were coming into a combination after a long galloping stretch cross country. In my opinion for most people competing around the grassroots level, if you have a good aerobic base this will be enough to support you but ultimately if you decide you want to work on your power then that will further boost your endurance but it's not needed for most.
Strength is another really important piece of rider fitness and again my requirement here is that you are strong enough to safely control your horse. We all know the risks of horse sports and whatever discipline you do riding a horse is a risk. The better your strength and more balanced you are the more in control you are going to be which is only ever a good thing. If you’re not strong enough, you’re going to find yourself being tipped forward, losing your balance and this will hugely affect the way your horse goes. In my opinion there's way too many riders out there who are not safe when riding as they are simply not fit enough. I know most will dispute that comment but it's true.
When it comes to strength, make sure you think about any previous injuries you’ve had or comments you get consistently from dressage judges or your trainers. If you’ve had an injury to one side of your body chances are you’re probably going to have developed a bit of an imbalance to that side. If you’re overworking on one side of your body, this is going to hugely inhibit your ability to give clear, precise aids and it will show up in your horses movement. Adding in plenty of single legwork and single arm work is the answer here and really working on your core, strength and stability too.
I know it’s helpful to have numbers or data to reach for, but in terms of how much you should be able to lift, or say how many squats you should be able to in a set period of time that is very individualised to the person & the needs of the sport & for most equestrians just simply being that bit fitter & stronger will go a really long way. You don't need to be hitting 1 rep maxes!
A great way to monitor your fitness would be using things like the beep test. I know I know ever since school we all hate it, but it’s a great way to measure improvements in aerobic fitness in a controlled environment! If you're more experienced & are for example a runner you could pick your 5km loop & test your time. The more controlled the test the better as this keeps the result consistent.
Again you could set yourself a set amount of work to do in a specific time, such as squats, press ups, kettlebell rows, walking lunges, and perform a set number of sets and reps and see over time if you can do more work or lift more load. For most riders, initially working with bodyweight and minimal resistance such as resistance bands or a dumbbell will be enough, but as you get stronger and the body adapts you will need to apply different types of resistance & heavier loads to keep your body adapting & getting stronger.
One big component of being fit enough to ride is bodyweight and in my opinion it’s something that isn’t talked about enough. I know it’s a really tricky subject to talk about and if you’re overweight it’s not very nice to face the reality.
If you’re carrying more weight then you are naturally designed to you are overloading your structure & equally your horse too. You get on your horse and he has to carry more weight than he is designed to. Personally in my opinion as both a rider & a coach and a horse lover I think a lot more people could listen to the 15-20% of bodyweight rule when it comes to rider weight. I'll probably get some stick for this but it's true-would you agree?
If you are carrying more weight than you should be here you are also going to be incredibly unbalanced which is not going to help your horse. For example jumping down a drop it’s going to be easier for somebody who is lighter & carrying less extra bodyweight to push the weight down into their heels, keep their core balance and absorb the impact on landing than somebody that is carrying 20 kg plus more than they should be. I’m sure people disagree with this point but it’s common sense, have a really good think about it have you ever seen anyone hugely overweight in a professional equestrian sport at the top level?
No because ultimately it’s not sustainable and the horses aren’t going to perform well. Addressing your weight loss issues can be tricky but you must focus on long-term sustainable changes if you’re serious about getting your weight to a healthy place. Leave the fads and quick fixes at the door and focus on your habits and behaviour changes.
There are lots of elements to being fit enough for riding, and I could make this blog 1 million words but I want to keep it relatively short & simple.
Ultimately it’s keeping what you do specific to what you need. Consider your riding, what kind of fitness do you need for it? Where are you maybe struggling? If you're not sure that's perfectly valid & feel free to reach out & ask as I can certainly help you figure out what you need to be doing.
As I said earlier an event rider needs a good mix of aerobic, anaerobic fitness, and a high level of strength. For someone who rides for leisure and fun, having a good level of bodyweight strength, core strength and aerobic fitness would be a really good level of fitness to support your riding.
In reality, most riders do zero to work on themselves so a little bit of something goes alot further than a little bit of nothing & even if what you're doing isn't 100% specific to your sport it's still going to be far more beneficial than nothing. So give yourself a kick up the arse if you're one of these riders who aren't working on themselves & start to make some changes. You're 50% of the partnership remember so you need to be putting the work in your end, making sure you're as balanced, strong & agile as you can be alongside your horse.