***This post is NOT an attempt to bash riders about their weight, it is only to suggest the importance of fitness in the competitive sport***
I believe most of us that compete aspire to be fit riders, however that is much easier said than done. It’s only been in the past year that I have begun to realize how important it is to be a fit partner.
We have to remember that riding is a partnership. Just as an out-of-shape dancer would struggle to keep up with a fit partner, an out-of-shape rider cannot expect to be a proper partner to a fit horse. The most important aspect of rider fitness has to do with weight. In general, a rider should follow the 20% rule which suggests that a rider AND his tack should not weigh more than twenty percent of his horse’s weight. This means if your horse is 1,000 pounds, the combination of your weight and the weight of the tack should not weigh more than 200 pounds.
A rider must also have quite a bit of muscle-mass to ride properly, and needs to develop stamina. Upper-level Dressage tests run between 5 and 6 minutes, and the top-level Eventers are on the cross country course for over 10 minutes. Jimmy Wofford’s guideline is: you should be able to two-point at the canter for twice the length of your cross country course (at least). I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Dressage riders to be able to do the same thing. Remember though, cantering in two-point does not build as much strength for you or the horse as trotting in two-point does. And although conditioning your horse will help you build strength and stamina, it is not the only thing you should do.
For most of us, riding one or two horses a day is not enough exercise to stay fit. It is important to workout outside the barn too. Charlotte Dujardin works with a personal trainer three to four days a week to help her maintain a strong core. She also does cardio twice a week and sees a chiropractor to make sure her body is correctly aligned. Anky Van Grunsven incorporates running into her fitness regime, and Matthias Alexander Rath has a physical therapist that provides him with un-mounted exercises. Laura Bechtolsheimer prefers to take Pilates classes twice a week. Keep in mind, the riders discussed above ride many horses every day in addition to their chosen form of un-mounted exercise. For those that only ride one or two horses per day, you may find that you need to exercise more than the professionals do. I run four days per week and bike six days, and spend a lot of time doing strength and balance training as well. If I rode six horses per day instead of one or two, I may not need to do as much outside the barn.
The amount of exercise a rider does to stay in shape will certainly vary from person to person. Some of us are strong, but have a weakness in stamina and need more cardio and interval training. Others have a slow metabolism and have to work harder to keep weight off. There is no set rule for the length of time a rider should exercise, as it is entirely dependent on their body type. The type of exercise will vary too: if you struggle with weight loss, you may want to pursue more cardio, but if you need to gain muscle mass, you should consider strength-focused workouts.
If you work on your own fitness, you will certainly become a better rider, and your partnership with your horse will only improve.
Keep working hard!