In this excerpt from her new book Ultimate Exercise Routines for Riders, certified personal trainer and horsewoman Laura Crump Anderson explains why strength is important for equestrians and what we must push through to get it.
No matter how much muscle you build, you will never be strong enough to overpower your horse. The success of your partnership depends on your aptitude when it comes to nonverbal communication, and improving your strength can make you a more effective communicator, enabling more precise application and timing of the aids needed to make clear your commands. And the stronger you are, the easier it will be to lock into a methodical, independent seat, which is in constant communication with your horse about the correct rhythm, suppleness, connection, and impulsion.
Strength training out of the tack will also help you overcome two of the most common barriers to a healthy body and crystal-clear connection with your horse: pain and muscular asymmetry. When muscles are allowed to atrophy, the body becomes weaker, stiffer, and more likely to experience pain in general. And when we’re in pain, we tend to compensate, often without knowing that we’re doing it. Even seemingly minor adjustments made because you’re hurting can scramble the signals between you and your horse.
Muscular asymmetry, whether due to pain or another cause, is a problem that crops up in a lot of riders. Both pain and muscular imbalances can interrupt your ability to communicate effectively with your horse and can even cause problems from efforts to compensate or work around deficiencies or discomfort. But building a stronger, more balanced body is within your reach. A big bonus is that increased muscular strength means you’re less likely to experience pain in general.
Increased muscular strength also improves your metabolism and insulin sensitivity. High insulin sensitivity allows for the cells in your body to use blood glucose more effectively, reducing blood sugar. This leads to a healthier metabolism that is more able to fuel your body with the energy that it needs to be successful in the saddle.
Working to strengthen your body is a great way to defend yourself from injury in the first place. Muscle protects you in several ways. First, stronger bodies can react more quickly to dangerous circumstances—an unexpected spook or a stop at a fence, for example—in some cases averting disaster or at least minimizing the damage. We rarely know when danger is coming in our sport, so this is an important line of defense. More importantly, increased muscle mass actually acts as “armor,” making your body more adept at withstanding the forces that cause injury.
Thankfully, falls are fairly rare, but in the unfortunate case that you do part ways with your horse, a strong, fit body will fare better than a weaker one. (Learning how to fall correctly is a skill all its own, but that’s a discussion for another book.) That’s because muscle is much more resilient to trauma.
Strength training also improves bone density. This is because more muscle increases the amount of force placed on your bones every time you move. This triggers an increase in osteoblast activity, or the building up of new bone cells, and a decrease in osteoclast activity, or the process by which cells break down bone density. Increased bone density means stronger bones that are less prone to breaking, making the likelihood of walking away from an accident with minimal damage much greater.
Finally, building muscle tends to reduce recovery time when you do get injured. There is no way to avoid the atrophy or muscle loss that comes with an extended period of recuperation. But when you are stronger prior to an accident, the body has a greater ability to supply oxygen to the areas that need to recover, and improved circulation means healing faster and getting back in the saddle sooner. I have known riders who have sustained some pretty serious falls. The ones who were incredibly strong before their falls were in much better shape afterward. The road back from a significant injury will always be long and arduous, but many riders at the highest level of the sport find their way back onto a horse, and many return to competitive sport successfully—because they are strong.
While it is incredibly rare, there is always the scenario of finding yourself in the hospital, fighting for your life. Should such a thing come to pass, you want as much muscular strength on your body as possible. This enables the doctors to give you every chance—going into major surgery as strong as possible ensures they can use all the tools in their tool belt.
The benefits of strength training for riders are clear and compelling. Stronger muscles translate to less pain, reduced muscular asymmetry, improved communication with your horse, stronger
bones, greater protection against injury, and the resilience to bounce back if an accident does occur. Think of building muscle as preparing you for battle: You want to make sure your body is as strong as possible to defend against negative outcomes. But you will only realize these benefits under the right conditions.
Working to Failure
Momentary muscle failure sounds scary but reaching this point—the place at which you can no longer perform an exercise because you have fatigued your muscle so deeply—is actually the goal of strength training and a key feature of this exercise program. This state gives your body the opportunity to adapt and build more muscle in response to hitting its limit.
Momentary muscle failure is a simple concept to grasp. However, it is hard to achieve. In practice, it requires working through the burning sensation of muscle fatigue and really pushing yourself to the point at which you hit true failure, when your body is unable to continue. Plank is a great exercise for introducing yourself to this sensation:
- Start on your hands and knees, then bend your arms and come down to rest on your elbows.
- Extend both legs back so you are on your toes, maintaining a straight line from your head to your heels
- Hold the position for as long as you can. Your body will begin to shake but keep holding.
- When you feel yourself reaching your limit and are just about to stop, count down from 10, holding the plank for just a little longer until you
- Release the pose and allow your body to drop to the floor.
This sensation, when you are holding the position despite your body telling you to stop, is what I want you to push for when doing exercise routines. Although it sounds (and is) intense, momentary muscle failure can be achieved safely through extremely focused exercises. Think of failure as a stepping stone on the way to success — you need to fail in order to get stronger.
This excerpt from Ultimate Exercise Routines for Riders by Laura Crump Anderson is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).