Although good riding does not require that you weigh 125 lbs and have a perfect body, it does require a certain level of fitness, both physical and emotional. It doesn’t matter if you’re trail riding on the weekends or following a heavy competition schedule, fitness is essential to keeping your body balanced and supple. Be fair to your horse – a balanced body is easier for him to carry and allows a quicker response to that deer that just popped out of the trees or that stride adjustment before the big oxer. Remember that breathing is a form of communication to your horse. Humans tend to engage in short, shallow chest breathing when we are tired or frightened, which can send mixed messages to our horses. It’s difficult to focus in your lessons or progress to the next level if you are huffing and puffing after twenty minutes of trotting around. Steady muscle control is required to carry your hands independent of your body while your neck, shoulders, arms and elbows remain flexible. Good body control allows for more precise aids and clear communication with your horse, making both your jobs easier.
There are plenty of strength exercises that can be done at home and do not require a Bowflex gym. A few examples are: targeted exercises with a fitness ball (ball $30), yoga practice (yoga mat $25), and tai chi routines. If you need visual inspiration, try some of the fitness programs available for Wii. Working on your cardio doesn’t necessarily mean endless repetition on the treadmill or twenty laps at the pool (although both are good ways to build your stamina). Weekend day hikes, walking with a friend at lunch, or simple deep water exercises will do as long as you stick with a routine. Forms of yoga such as Bikram build your cardio as well as muscle strength and flexibility.
Emotional fitness is also equally important. Horses live in the present moment and we need to accompany them there. It’s important to be centered and present before attempting any work with your horse, whether on the ground or in the saddle. One way to focus is to have a routine of some sort to help you the shift between “work mode” and “barn mode”. A quick ten-minute technique that can transition your attention and energy before you engage with your horse is to perform a body scan. This short exercise is a great way to check in with yourself and can be performed just about anywhere, including the barn parking lot.
Begin by standing with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms hanging loosely at your sides. Bend your knees slightly and close your eyes. Take a deep breath that originates in your belly and expands upward throughout your body, then exhale the breath as it reaches your collarbones. Starting with your head and working downward through your body, literally breathe into each part of your body, sending that part oxygen and awareness. As you work your way through the exercise, the goal is to notice what is going on and gather information without altering anything that you find. Be aware that information comes in many forms; colors, shapes, song lyrics, words, pictures, poems, whatever. Even old injuries sometimes contain new information for us, so don’t ignore or skip over them. Try not to judge or question the form of the information you receive, just allow it to present itself to you in whatever way you experience it. When you have reached your feet, remain as you are with your eyes still closed. Go back to the part of your body that held the most sensation for you, the part that you noticed the most and focus your breath on it one more time. Imagine oxygen circulating throughout that place, and then ask for a message. As soon as you receive the message, open your eyes. Briefly compare this moment to how you felt before the body scan. You are now ready to go interact with your horse, who will appreciate your efforts to be on the same page with him.