Fit In and Out of the Saddle: Trainer Whitney Spicher on Why All Riders Need Endurance Training

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Whitney Shapiro, of Capstone Training in Snohomish, WA,  is passionate about training horses and riders. She is an accomplished horsewoman, having received her “A” rating in Pony Club at age 17, and has her BA in Psychology from the University of Washington. Whitney has participated in many horse sports ranging from team penning to fox hunting to combined driving, and beyond and is proud to be a well-rounded equestrian, with her heart remaining always in 3-day eventing.

How important is building rider endurance for non-eventers? Is this something that every rider should be doing?

In my opinion, all riders in all equestrian disciplines should strive to develop endurance and improve their fitness. A subject brought up in my barn is if you expect your horse to be an athlete, it’s only fair that you become an athlete yourself. Beyond helping your riding AND your horse, it just feels good to be fit! With increased endurance and strength, you’ll find you’ll have more energy to mentally focus on what you are trying to achieve with your horse, whether that is improving your dressage test, galloping cross country, show jumping, barrel racing, going down the trail, or trying to catch your horse in the pasture!

What do you suggest riders do to train when they’re not in the saddle?

There are so many ways for riders to train when they aren’t in the saddle. I am very lucky that one of my best friends and clients is a talented personal trainer. We incorporate running and strength training to support our riding. Others may find that walking, hiking, or doing more barn chores can help them start getting more fit. Most local gyms will offer great group classes that can be a great structured place to start. If a gym membership is out of the cards, there are tons of endurance and strength workouts that can easily be found online. During our ‘off-season’ from showing, our barn offers regular “Rider Fitness” classes with exercises for riders – endurance, balance, strength, and flexibility geared toward helping us in the saddle. Finding other riders to train with can be a great way to stay motivated and help each other with accountability. If running sounds better to you, I find that picking a race with a set date is a great wait to stay motivated and accountable.

For riders just starting to endurance/cross-train, what suggestions do you have for exercises they can do? What length of time should they spend in the saddle — or does this depend on the fitness level of the horse and the rider?

Just like getting a horse back in shape after downtime, we have to build up our endurance slowly and carefully to avoid injury. Something as simple as walking can really make a difference if you are just starting to work on endurance. Most structured strength training exercises can be modified with low or no weight – and body weight exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups are easy to do without equipment or a gym. Another great option if you board your horse is offering to help out at the barn! Turning horses in and out, carrying water buckets, and moving jumps are all great ways to start getting more active. Length of time spent in the saddle depends on what you might be trying to work on. I generally work my horses for about 45 minutes in the arena. When we go on trail rides, it might be a couple hours of walking. The length and type of work in the saddle absolutely depends on horse and rider fitness.

Speaking of the horse, how does endurance training benefit the horse?

Regarding the benefits of endurance training for the horse – first, we can talk about the rider again. Rider endurance training will only make them stronger, more balanced, and more mentally focused. It is always easier for your horse to carry a fit and focused rider. When your horse gets more endurance, it becomes easier for him to do the job we are asking of him and he will likely stay sounder through the work!

Should you be pushing your horse as hard as you’re pushing yourself when it comes to fitness training?

I think this question could easily be reversed. It is important to push yourself as hard as your are pushing your horse. More often than not I see riders trying to gallop or do hill work or expecting their horse to jump or perform at a certain level, when the rider has not put the effort into getting themselves fit first. Something I like to do at horse shows is try to run every cross-country course I will be riding. If I expect my horse to carry me along that terrain, I should be able to go over that terrain on my own too.

What can you do for yourself and your horse after a training session to stave off muscle soreness/tightness and to keep both you and your horse happy?

Proper warm-up and cool-down is just as important for you as it is for your horse. Stretching before and after exercising is a great place to start. To help your horse ‘stretch’ make sure you schedule plenty of time before and after a ride to let him walk and get warmed up, and after the ride to get cooled out. Moving is the best thing you can do for yourself and your horse to keep you both feeling good. If you think you might be sore, try to move! That could be walking, stretching, light yoga, or using a foam roller. I have a love/hate relationship with my foam roller – and recommend using one regularly. Our horses also get regular bodywork.

An extremely important part of rider fitness and keeping yourself feeling your best is staying well hydrated and making good nutrition choices. It can be so hard to make good choices, especially at a horse show, but consider that the food you put in your body is your fuel. You wouldn’t feed your horse cookies and sugary treats to fuel him – so why do that to yourself?

When should you skip out on an endurance training session?

Pushing yourself to build endurance is important – but rest is equally important. If you aren’t dealing with an injury, you don’t necessarily need to skip training all-together. It can be productive to do light exercise. If you are feeling particularly tired or sore it might be a good day to take a walk (take your horse for a hand-walk!) or focus on stretching or foam rolling.

As a final note, I have to mention it is so important to not beat yourself up if adding in strength exercises or running seems impossible. I personally have gone through times of being not nearly as fit as I would like to be or as my horses deserve for me to be – and it is important to keep a positive mindset and remember that endurance and fitness do not come easily or quickly. I appreciate that riders come in all shapes and sizes and hope that when riders read about being more fit they feel inspired and motivated, and not defeated. Stick with it – your body and your horse will thank you!

Nicole is a writer for Heels Down Media. If she's not writing or editing, she's either running, doing yoga, or at the barn working on becoming a better, stronger dressage rider.

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