It’s not uncommon to see trainers use groundwork to improve a horse’s under-saddle performance. In fact, it’s well-understood that specific, targeted ground exercises can increase a horse’s strength, flexibility, and coordination for under-saddle work.
If this is true for our horses, shouldn’t it be true for us as riders? In the world of sports psychology, we often talk about the concept of deliberate practice—targeting certain areas where improvement is needed and working in a focused manner to strengthen those areas.
For example, a rider who struggles with sliding stops might do some extra drills at the walk and trot, or take extra lessons when able. She might also spend some time visualizing doing sliding stops, to further reinforce correct form and technique.
But there is another, less utilized way to practice. A good fitness routine, approached with the correct mindset, can be a valuable tool to increase your skillset.
If you’re happy with your riding and your fitness level, then continue on with what you’re doing. But if you’re curious how you can put an exercise routine to work for your riding, then read on. This article is for you.
Just as targeted groundwork can help your horse gain strength and better understand certain maneuvers, targeted “groundwork” for the rider can have similar benefits.
Take a moment and think about specific issues you have with your riding. What things do your instructor or trainer constantly remind you about?
Leaning too far forward or back?
Hand or leg position or hand/seat/leg independence?
There’s a good chance that these issues stem from the lack of ability to control your body parts in an effective manner.
For many riders, using one body part to cue the horse causes compensation in other body parts, usually in the form of stiffness or tension. Moving your lower leg back to cue for the haunches to move might result in tension in the upper body, especially the shoulders.
This upper body tension creates top-heaviness in the rider, causing your horse to be unbalanced and increasing your chances for a fall. All this tension and unbalance leads to a lack of confidence in your horse as well, as he struggles to balance himself and his rider.
Any good fitness routine can make you stronger, but becoming aware of how it applies to your riding can be a game-changer. Rather than slogging through a workout just to get it done, focus on form, breathing, and technique.
Your workout time is a great time to focus on coordinating your movement and breathing. A general rule of thumb is to “exhale with effort.”
Performing functional fitness movements can help you find and engage your core while relaxing other body parts. You can focus on isolating and exercising one muscle group, while allowing other parts of your body to stay relaxed.
Working out also gives you another chance to practice proper form while being physically active. Most yoga, Pilates, and functional fitness emphasizes head, shoulder, hip, and heel alignment.
A great way to start is by talking to your riding instructor or trainer, and asking for specific input about what you need to work on. What specifically do they mean when they say you need to “relax”? Where is the tension, and when does it happen?
If possible, review videos of your rides to identify what’s going on. With this information, you can approach working out intentionally. The simple act of thinking about how your workout applies to your riding puts your subconscious mind on alert to begin making valuable connections between what you are doing and your riding.
It allows you to have another meaningful mental and physical practice session to improve your riding.
June Stevens is an online fitness coach and mindset mentor. Learn more on Facebook at Equine Sports Fitness.