Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Rider Fitness...Or Lack Thereof

My Rule of Thumb:
If My Tush is Smaller Than My Horse's Tush, Life Is Good!
Recently a couple of people I respect have told me that my riding would probably improve if my fitness improved. One of the more memorable moments came during a clinic I participated in. I'd been cantering my mare in circles for what seemed like forever, trying valiantly to get her to elevate more as well as engage her hind end enough to find that magical bouncy canter that would make one feel like one was capable of jumping a 5 foot vertical with no reservations.

Add strenuous work to the fact that I've been known to hold my breath when concentrating, and I was red-faced and blowing like a bellows when we were finally allowed to walk. The clinician, who happens to be someone I've worked in the past and whose dry sense of humor I greatly appreciate, mentioned that I'd do well with a little time spent on the treadmill. I burst out laughing, and told him I already spent 45 minutes at least five days a week on the treadmill. If memory serves, "Try 60, and go faster," was the response.

Similar conversations have come up during my lessons. My trainer has mentioned how my normally lazy mare had been "almost wild" off her leg during a training ride, and she attributed it her stronger leg. She went on to say how you wanted a horse to be"electric" off your leg, even though some horses were more sensitive to leg aids and others (like my phlegmatic mare and my trainer's young jumper) needed much stronger leg aids. Fair enough, I thought, thinking that the only thing that would make Sug electric off my leg is if I attached cattle prods to my paddock boots. In any case, this has gone beyond "I need to keep fit enough to keep my back from going out" to "time for boot camp."

I'm going to take a brief moment to say that this is not a post about the need to be as thin as stick insect in order to ride, or a sizist indictment of anyone who happens to wear breeches above size 2. I'm 5'6", 41 years old, and wear a size that ranges between single and low double digits, depending on the day and the manufacturer. I'm a little below the "average" size for American women, and like to think I fall somewhere between "Step away from the Tastycakes, ma'am" and Demi Moore. Let's just say common adjectives (the printable ones) used to describe me are statuesque, curvy, or voluptuous. To paraphrase my favorite mule, Fenway Bartholomule, I try not to think of it as a hay belly, but rather as insurance against famine. (Thanks, Fen!)

Again, let me be clear: This is about my desire to be a better rider, not a commentary on the size/fitness/weight issues of the American riding public or a "I wanna look good in skinny jeans" rant. The former I'll leave to George Morris, the latter we'll just leave well enough alone.

The (admittedly somewhat vague) plan, which began tonight:

# 1. Ride without spurs. Sug's a lazy beast unless she's got a fence in front of her. No spurs means I don't have my pony prods to use as a crutch. I did cheat a bit and carry a dressage whip because who are we kidding? I'm no martyr! Anyway, the point is, I really had to WORK for any impulsion we had!

#2. Warm up trotting in two point. Start off with 5 minutes and increase. I had the barn to myself tonight, so thankfully no one was there to see the inauspicious start to Boot Camp. I made it through 5 minutes of two point at the trot, although I'll admit I was clock watching from the outset and praying to my Higher Power by Minute Two. (Let's face it, I was praying to all the deities I could think of by the third minute. Buddha, Krishna, Macha; I wasn't picky.)

#3. Five minutes Up-Up-Down posting. Not so bad. Was sweating like a pig, though.

#4. Five minute trot and canter sets incorporating basic suppling work, working on getting her in front of my leg (Leg? What leg?) and maintaining a consistent rhythm. Let's just say both of us were sucking air by the end of this exercise.

Note- both horse and rider benefited from generous walk breaks between sets.

I disagree. The walk breaks were not generous, they were egregiously short. I want to speak to my union representative.

Thanks, Sug. Your opinion is always appreciated.

#5. Just for kicks and grins, I decided to see how many laps I could do while posting without stirrups. I've always entertained the fantasy of doing a month of riding without stirrups. Kind of seems like one of those Holy Grail of riding things. Let's just say this is an ambitious goal, as the last time my trainer had me post without stirrups in a lesson she offered me this feedback, "Um, your ass actually has to leave the saddle." I'm not kidding. My butt certainly left the saddle after that comment, as I laughed so hard I almost came off.

I made it around. A couple of times. With breaks. It wasn't pretty.

I agree. It wasn't pretty. At all. I peeked in the mirrors a couple of times and had to avert my eyes.

Nobody likes a smart aleck, Sug. You might want to remember who buys the carrots around here.


So, a decent enough start to the program, but I can honestly say I'm glad no one was around to see how jelly-like my legs were when I slid off. The good news is there's no where to go but up from here, and the bar is certainly set low. I won't be riding for a couple of days, so will have to do some cardio and weight work in the interim. I've been doing some, but clearly need a more ambitious program. Maybe leave the comfort of my basement and wander over to the gym to get reacquainted with the elliptical machine and the rower?

Dare I throw in some Pilates? More to come...


  1. Your post made me laugh and cringe. I'm in the same spot, my rump is getting closer to the size of my horse and we both need the exercise.

    Sounds like quite the workout I'd probably have fallen off at the trotting w/o stirrups I'm so out of shape.

    Folks just don't understand how much of a workout riding can be when you're doing it right.

  2. I will say that Pilates really helped me with my core. I say GO for it!

  3. CrossFit! It has changed my riding and overall fitness for the better.

  4. Great post. I can sure relate!

  5. What a great post! I have the lazy horse issue too, so I've started a spin class. I'm on week 3 of 1x per week, and I'm bumping up to 2x per week. I think it is helping (Max says, "I don't like this 'stronger leg' thing!), so we will see what that does. I've also started wearing a heart rate monitor during riding and spinning, so we will see what that has to say.

  6. HAHAHA! My trainer used to say I was blowing harder than the horse... *Sigh* I, too, am not fit. I am also 5'6" and by dint of fortunate genes, not large, BUT cardiovascularly-wise, I'm in pretty bad shape. If I could ride every day I'd be a whole lot better off since spending time in the gym is not my idea of fun. I've been watching my thigh muscles atrophy for the past two months of being totally grounded (my horse-owning and lending friend is tied up writing her Master's thesis and can't spare the time). I am thinking about trying Pilates as I've heard that's fab for equestrians. Will blog about it if I do!

  7. Loved your blog and can relate. I'm 43 now and also think if they say fat a*** it should be a compliment to my horse and certainly not me. You are very brave having a photo taken of you from behind. On a serious note though I do think if one wants to compete and ride seriously it does really help to be as fit as possible. I ride 5-6 times a week and gym as many times. My personal trainer's advice had been to train as hard as possible if you are a competitive athlete. I agree with the Pilates - I think the core work does wonders.

  8. @ Horse Tougt - Thanks for your comment! I wouldn't say I was brave, just happened to be where the photgrapher (my friend) was standing. LOL I'm probably braver for actually posting it. You're so right -- if you wanna be serious about this riding stuff, you have to train seriously, on and off the horse.