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Laura Crump Anderson

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How 20 Minutes Per Week Can Improve Your Performance In the Saddle

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN's fitness columnist and returns this week with a new exercise for event riders.

Photos by Tylir Penton

To be successful in eventing you must be able to navigate a dressage test with accuracy and precision, breathe and jump around a quick but demanding show jumping course, and withstand the endurance component as well as the technicality of cross country. So why is it that, unlike in many other sports, most equestrians do not cross train?

Intermediate Event rider Haley Carspecken cross trains at least once a week, she knows that her fitness is just as important as her horse.

Cross Training

What do I mean by cross training? I mean exercise outside of the saddle to improve overall performance in the tack, not just at shows, but also in training rides. Exercise is essential for the athletes performing at the top level of this sport but it is just as important for those looking to become a better rider. If you are not looking to improve, I would ask why are you still riding?

I will be the first person to admit that the best way to get better at riding is with time spent in tack. There is no substitute for sitting on a real live horse and riding as many different horses as possible. This will train your body to respond to the specific needs of each horse. It requires a lot of skill, as well as, fitness for a rider to look like they are barely doing anything at all.

However, times are changing and you will notice that more professionals are addressing their strength, flexibility and endurance outside of the tack to improve their ability to be effective when it matters while riding a horse.

Fiona Coulter riding in a clinic with Lars Petersen. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

Every Day is Pay Day

A few weeks back I had the privilege to audit a clinic with Olympic dressage rider Lars Petersen. He said something that stuck with me: “In riding, every day is pay day. You get paid for how you rode the day before.”

Our goal should be to put the best foot forward each day and ride to the top of our ability. Our horses are out there each day and working just as hard as we are. We need to respect our horses by treating ourselves like the athletes that we expect them to be.

The Struggle Is Real

All horse and rider pairs are learning each time they work together, with or without a coach on the ground. It is a fact that a rider struggling with their own fitness will be less successful than when they are fresh. You may feel this in your own riding when you are in the tack struggling to get your seat plugged in correctly but when you take a walk break and come back to it feels more doable and in turn the movement goes better.

DO NOT feel discouraged by this. It is amazing working through the struggle and achieving success,. This is also what makes good riders great. Plus, if it was easy, I imagine many eventers would find themselves quite bored!

Strength training is an essential piece to success in the saddle. The number one excuse I hear eventers say is that they do not have time. If that is you, watch the amazing time management lecture above from the late renowned Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch.

Everyone can find 20 minutes in their week to improve their health, increase energy, reduce pain and improve core strength. It is worth finding the time to exercise, especially when it is only 20 minutes once or twice a week.

The second most frequent response I get from eventers — and this one makes me a little crazy — is: “I know so many other riders that really need to work on their fitness, but I do not need too because … (insert excuse here).”

Any excuse is just that, whether you are a working student, a trainer, an amateur or have an amazing horse. These are all excuses. I am aware there is a lot of work that goes into maintaining a barn. However, if you are going to sit on a horse, your fitness is important and this is a fact. Exercising regularly, at least once a week, will improve your riding.

Kaitlin Spurlock of Clasing Equestrian demonstrates a wall sit. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

The Wall Sit

Making things overly complicated is going to greatly reduce the consistency and stickability of any exercise program. So I present to you a great exercise to safely learn the sensation of momentary muscle failure, which should be the goal each time you exercise.

  • Stand with your back against a flat wall with your feet out in front.
  • Let your back slide down the wall so your legs are at a 90-degree angle (like you are sitting in a chair).
  • Keep your back straight and your arms by your side or in your lap. Do not push on the wall to try to hold yourself up. Never sacrifice form to increase time!
  • Hold this position for as long as you can. This is when momentary muscle failure occurs.
  • When you can do longer hold your form, slide down the wall gently until you are sitting on the floor.

The Plank: One Exercise Every Eventer Should Do

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. If she had to pick one exercise to help event riders, it's the plank! Read on to learn how to incorporate the plank into your exercise routine.

One exercise every eventer should do. Photo by Laura Crump.

Imagine if there was one exercise that could help improve your sitting trotting, galloping position and take you one step closer to mastering the ideal independent seat connection with your horse. The good news is this exercise does exist, and it is a timeless one that does not require any fancy equipment, magical device, or even your horse — just your own body and a lot of persistence and determination.

Not that kind of plank …

It is the plank!

The plank is excellent because you must engage your abdominals, lower back, shoulders, arms and glutes. By the end of a properly executed plank, you are begging for a well-deserved rest. The other great thing about the plank is one can easily modify the intensity by changing their body position.

While this exercise will not turn you into a whole new rider, it will improve your ability to engage your core, which is essential for everything you do on your horse.

Kaitlin Spurlock, Advanced level eventer, demonstrates the Beginner Novice plank. Photo by Laura Crump.

Beginner Novice Plank:

  • On your knees, place your hands directly under your shoulders.
  • Hold you head in a neutral position.
  • Maintain a straight line from your knee to your shoulders.
  • If you can hold this position comfortably for two minutes, go to the Preliminary plank.

Haley Carspecken, Intermediate level eventer, demonstrates Preliminary (The Classic) Plank. Photo by Laura Crump.

Preliminary (The Classic) Plank:

  • Place your elbows underneath your shoulders.
  • Squeeze your glutes to keep your back straight and strong.
  • Remember to breathe and “embrace the burn.”
  • If you feel a sharp pain in your lower back, work on improving the Beginner Novice plank for at least six weeks, then come back to this exercise.
  • When you start to shake, that is OK. Maintain this plank until you are no longer able to keep you back straight.
  • Time yourself. When you are holding this plank for over two minutes, move up to the Advanced plank.

Kaitlin Spurlock demonstrates the Advanced Plank. Photo by Laura Crump.

Advanced Plank:

  • First, master the Beginner Novice plank and Preliminary plank positions.
  • Keep your arms straight and hands under your shoulders.
  • Squeeze your glutes and keep your back straight.
  • Keep your feet planted.
  • Slowly and controlled, move your left hand to meet the right hand. Hold for three seconds.
  • Bring your left hand back to the start position.
  • Slowly and controlled, move your right to meet the left hand. Hold for three seconds.
  • Return to start position and continue switching back and forth. Make sure the motion is in control and with intent.
  • Push yourself to a point where you feel the burn.
  • When you can no longer maintain the correct position, lower yourself back down onto your stomach.

Advanced Plank Hints:

  • Try to touch the ground as softly as possible. Don’t slam your hands down.
  • Keep your back straight and try to keep your shoulders parallel with the ground.

Push To True Muscle Fatigue:

Hold every plank for as long as you can in good form. Keep a timer near you and keep a record of these times. This way you can see concrete evidence of your improvements. The goal is to hold the plank for at least two minutes. If you can do them for longer, well done. If you can only hold them for 10 seconds, that is a great starting point!

No matter which plank you are doing, it is important that you always push yourself to that absolute point when you can no longer maintain your form.

Riders can come up with a list of reasons why they do not have time to exercise. However, studies have shown that exercise outside of the saddle can improve the functional ability of an equestrian athlete significantly.

Whether you are a professional riding 12 horses each day or a weekend warrior with one horse, the plank will help improve your core strength. Riding is very physically demanding and strength is a necessary piece of the puzzle to continue in this sport safely and effectively.

How Often?

This is the part that you may need to take a leap of faith. You should only need to do the plank once or twice per week, leaving you with more time to spend in the saddle! Rest and recovery is an essential part of any exercise program, and I promise that you will start noticing a difference if you are consistent in doing the plank every four to seven days.

The easiest way to do this is pick a day once a week: “Every Wednesday We Plank.” Put it in your calendar and do it!