Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Important is Rider Fitness?

I have rode horses for a long time, and even though I do not ride as much now, as I might like to, I still think that rider fitness is very important.  I am not currently in shape for riding, but it is something that I am working on.  Of my two horses, neither one of them are in shape either.  But for me to get them in shape, I have to get myself taken care of first.  I think the rider’s fitness is just as important, if not more so, than the horse’s fitness.  I cannot get my horses in shape, if I myself cannot handle the exertion that is required to do so.  If I go out to work with one of my horses, and become too tired to continue before it is over, what have I done?  I have successfully taught the horse that if it can out last me by being hard headed or starting a fight, the work is over.  Is that what I wanted to teach the horse?  No, and my fitness level directly affects my ability to train, handle, ride and condition my horses.  I have to be able to maintain enough energy to finish what I start, and to keep my wits about doing it.  If I am winded and tired, my mind will not work as efficiently at solving problems, that if I were at a greater fitness level I would not have a problem with. 

Let me give a good example of when your fitness level directly affects your ability to train.  Let us say that your conditioning is at the lower level, and you just got a two year old colt to work with.  He is too young for riding just yet, but you are going to start with some ground work to lay the foundation for him to be backed as an early three year old.  We’ll assume that for the most part, he is willing to learn, and eager to please, but every once in a while the stallion comes out in him, and he decides that no matter what he is not going to do something that you know that he knows how to do.  He’s just being a young colt and being a little defiant.  You are asking him something simple, like stopping to face you, something that he has done several times.  But, this time he decided that he is going to stop with his rear end pointed directly at you.  You are already a little tired, and he just slapped you in the face with a challenge, “Make me turn to face you!”  So, you pull up your big boy or girl britches, and take up the task of “making” him face you, but just a few minutes into the work you are starting to wear out.  You know that you shouldn’t stop, but you just can’t keep going, your heart rate is through the roof, you can barely breathe, and you can’t even hear yourself think because all you can hear is your heart beating in your ears.  You watch the colt for a minute, and figure that he is not exactly in the “you win” mood, because his head is up in the air, and he’s trotting around like he just walked in the round pen.  This is where you have to make a decision, stop and lose or keep going and risk falling out.  Which one do you do?  The answer to that question depends greatly on your determination to train your horse.  This is just one of several ways that your fitness level can affect your training.

I’m not saying that only fit people can ride, I’m just saying that a rider’s fitness level greatly affects the horse’s balance and movement.  I don’t believe that your weight has much to do with your fitness level either, but I also don’t think that you can be 400 lbs of fat, and be fit enough to ride.  The reason that I specified 400 lbs of fat is because there are some body builders that are close to 400 lbs, and I would think that they are pretty fit, though riding would probably reveal muscles that they did not know they had. 

So, where do you start when trying to get yourself fit for riding?  I say start small, start waling more.  Get a pedometer; you will be amazed at how much more you walk when you know how many steps you are making a day.  You will find that you walk more, just to get more steps.  Set yourself a daily step goal, and gradually increase it.  I have a goal of 8,000 steps a day for a week.  I am currently on day 4.  After the week is up, I plan on increasing the goal to 10,000 steps a day.  I am also working on my balance.  I looked up exercises to improve balance, and this is what I found;  the exercises are simple, and can be completed with little or no equipment.  I love exercises that you don’t have to buy anything to complete!  If you have a friend or riding buddy that is also in the process of getting fit, use them as motivation to keep going.  Team up with them for daily exercise.  If you don’t have a friend, take your horse.  Walk with him/her, and work up to jogging or running with him/her.  It will build your bond with your horse and improve your fitness level, and his/her fitness level. 

Get in the habit of measuring yourself on a weekly basis, because weighing yourself alone does not always tell the entire story of how your exercise is paying off, or not paying off.  I have never been what one might call a petite girl, especially if you looked at my weight alone.  I’ll give an example that doesn’t bother me to share.  When I was 19, I barrel raced every weekend, year round.  I was bigger than most of the girls/women that I competed against.  Most of them I outweighed by 30 plus pounds.  I weighed in at 180 pounds.  Sounds fat right? (Now to me it seems skinny!)  Even at that weight, my chest, waist, and hip measurements were 36 – 24 – 36, respectively.  I was not fat, by any stretch of the imagination, and I was quite fit.  I worked at a feed store for 55 hours a week, then went to an Arabian farm and worked another 40 hours in a week.  I survived on roughly 3-4 hours of sleep a night, and still had energy to burn, but I also ate like a human garbage disposal.  I was solid muscle from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet, and nothing moved.  I was extremely fit; I could work side by side with men all day, and often out work them.  I went through several other employees at the feed store, because they could not handle having to keep up with me, especially when the trucks rolled in that we had to unload.  I never had to work out then, because everything that I done for a living was a physical challenge.  I worked at the feed store from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday and on Saturdays from 7:00 am to 12:00 pm.  I went directly from the feed store to the farm, which only took about 15 minutes then worked there until usually 1:00 am or 2:00 am.  I had to be back to the farm by 6:00 am to feed and turn out the 17 horses that lived there.  As you can see, lots of work, little rest and I loved every minute of it.  Could I do the same now?  Nope, not even close to it.  Would I like to be able to do it again?  Yes ma’am or sir, you bet I would!  I miss being able to ride several horses a day, and still being able to function afterwards.  Now, I ride for an hour or so, and when I get off I can’t get on another horse, my hips won’t let me for now.  But I do plan on getting back to where I can.  That is another fine example of fitness affecting my ability to train.  I can currently train one horse a day if riding is involved.

Riding is a good form of exercise, especially is you ride in correct posture.  It will work your entire body.  But if you are overweight or obese, and think that you are riding to your fullest potential, you are sadly mistaken.  I’m not trying to be hard on overweight or obese people, as I currently fit in that last category.  I am 5’ 5” barefoot, and weight in at 229 pounds as of my last measurements.  I have at least 50 pounds to loose, and I can’t wait to lose them, plus about 15-20 more. (But honestly, right now, I would settle for the 180 that I used to weigh.)  If you are overweight, and think that you are riding to the best of your ability, I challenge you to lose 5 pounds, and see what a difference it makes.  You should be able to lose 5 pounds in a few weeks just simply by moving more, and not much else.  If those 5 pounds makes a difference, image what 10 or 20 pounds would do.

Now, do not let anyone tell you that you are “too fat” to ride, especially if you know that your horse can carry you with no problem, and if any one does tell you that stand up for yourself.  They do not know you or your horse, so what gives them the right to say what you can or cannot do, or what your horse is capable of.  If you are just starting out in horses, and you get turned down at a lesson, keep looking.  If you run into a brick wall on the lessons, look into buying your own horse, if that is something that you can reasonably afford.  Join in on horse forums, I can recommend an excellent one,  It has just about everything you can need where horses are concerned.  I love it and visit it daily.  My user name is PaintedFury, if you join, look me up and send me a friend request, I will happily accept it.  This forum even has a forum for Plus Sized Riders, which I particularly enjoy.  It’s nice to know that I’m not the only horsewoman in the world with my particular problem, and sometimes it’s nice to have someone to talk to about it.  And let me tell you, the ladies and gentlemen in that part of the forum are VERY supportive of each other.  If you are just having a bad day, they will rally around you and pick you right back up.  Big love to all of them!

Ok, to the point of all of this ranting.  Being fit is important to your riding, but it is more important to your health.  Does that make it an easy journey?  No, it doesn’t, but it is a journey worth taking and worth working for.  Do not start on this journey because Joe Blow made some snide remark about you.  Start this journey because YOU want to, for whatever reason, as long as it is a truly personal reason.  If it is because of Joe Blow up there, then it is the wrong reason.  If it is because you want to ride better, or feel better, even just so you can play longer with your kids (either two legged or four legged) those are the right reasons.  Do it for yourself first, everything else is just an added benefit.

Good luck on your journey; and God bless you and your families.