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Are Your Riding ‘Tires’ Out of Alignment?

In this excerpt from her book Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks! certified fitness trainer and riding coach Heather Sansom of explains why we have to address our physical fitness if we want to be successful eventers.

Image courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

Why rider fitness? The body that dominates your riding effectiveness is the one you carry to the saddle. A body that is not as responsive as needed gets tired and starts to “collapse” while riding, or has tension patterns that create repetitive asymmetrical strain on the horse.

Imagine learning to drive your car around an obstacle course. Now imagine that your tires are out of alignment. You can focus all you want on the course, but you will not be able to drive it with finesse and lightness if you have to haul on the wheel sometimes to compensate for a “pull” to the left. You might also miss some cones on the course and knock them over. There would be uneven wear patterns on your tires, especially if you drove more and more with these misaligned wheels in the hope that more “practice makes perfect.” But no amount of driving the car with increased mindfulness and focus, or new compensatory patterns of movement, will make things go better until the physical problem is fixed.

Straightness, suppleness, and stamina for riding are like the Holy Grail. In all disciplines, the goals are to enable your horse to understand what you ask and be physically fit to perform it, and then for you to stay out of his way so that he can move in ways his body is designed to move to perform the task. While it is certainly true that the surest way to ride better is through good riding and good riding instruction, we have achieved understanding in sport science that we must also engage in deliberate acts of self-tuning. A not-supple, not-straight, weak person does not suddenly become an accomplished rider any more than she could suddenly become an accomplished skier.

Sometimes rider fitness means training your body with exercises that cannot be done in the saddle; if they mimicked riding all the time, they would merely reinforce the tightness patterns that riding develops. Here’s one example of an exercise that greatly benefits your riding, despite the fact that it may appear to have very little to do with dressage, cross-country, or show jumping!

Bird Dog—Single Limb (All Fours)

Goal: 6-10 reps.

Muscles Worked: Transverse abdominis, gluteus maximus, shoulder rotators, latissimus dorsi, deltoids.

The Bird Dog variations are intended to introduce asymmetrical loading to your back. These exercises also train muscle memory and muscle-firing patterns for the chain of muscles that stabilize your torso laterally and that help you control the placement of your shoulders and hips.

The goal of all the variations is to keep your spine neutral, using the floor under you to make sure your shoulders and hips are straight or square to the floor even when you raise a limb. Training your body off the floor while still using the floor to help you achieve straightness prepares you for later freestanding work by training proprioception for true alignment.

1 | Start by positioning yourself on all fours so that you feel even pressure between both knees and both hands. Achieve a neutral spine by hollowing and raising your back repeatedly with gradually smaller movement until you can feel that mid-point where you are neither rounding your back, nor allowing it to sag.

2 | Once you are in a spine-neutral position, raise an arm and hold it for three seconds before resting and repeating (the same arm) 6 to 10 times.

3 | Do this exercise with the other arm.

4 | Repeat with each leg. With the legs, pay special attention to not allowing your lower back to hollow. The goal is not to raise your leg high in the air, but to use your gluteals, hamstrings, and back while maintaining a neutral spine.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Done correctly, you should feel the need to increase your abdominal use the higher you lift an arm or leg, in order to maintain spine neutrality. The “top” of the movement is the point at which you still have a neutral spine, but you feel as if your body is having an internal tug of war between your core and the muscles used to raise the limb.

This excerpt from Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks! by certified fitness trainer Heather Sansom is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (