This article serves as a basic introduction to fitness training for the dressage rider. Future articles will will expand on the concepts introduced below. They will include stretches, mobilizations and exercises designed to improve performance.
We all want to perform in that seemingly effortless way that we see when watching a ride at the highest level of our discipline.
What does that take? Along with years of study and endless hours in the saddle, it requires some extracurricular activity.
I propose that it is almost impossible to be a really great rider, or even a pretty good one without some training outside the barn. My purpose is to provide some direction to those who would like to maximize their efforts in the saddle by doing a little “homework”.
Let us first break down the qualities we need as riders to achieve our goals for our horses.
We define those goals as the elements of the Training Pyramid: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection.
If we are to expect our horses to master these elements, we must also master them ourselves. As their athletic partners and guides, we need to work as hard on developing our own physical abilities as we do on theirs. Think of it this way: if you were part of a competitive dance team, would you expect your partner to do all the rehearsing?
In a wonderful article on the Dressage Academy website, http://www.dressage-academy.com/dressage-riders-seat.php , the essentials of a good seat are broken into three factors: Balance, Relaxation, and Following the Horse’s Movement. Remind you of the Training Pyramid?
All three of these factors depend on certain physical abilities. Some of us are gifted with more or less of these abilities, but we all need to work on and refine them to become better riders. Let’s create a Rider’s Training Pyramid.
I have put Flexibility at the bottom, because without it, range of motion is limited and proper musculoskeletal development depends on freedom of movement. Muscles work by pulling two bones together across a joint. If a muscle cannot contract and stretch according to its design, then the function of the joint it influences will be limited.
Core engagement is next, as its essential to stability during movement. Not only does this create harmony with the horse’s movement, but it provides security in the saddle and allows us to use our legs and arms independently. More on developing the core later.
Muscular stamina is a general term to define basic fitness, or the ability to sustain the effort of riding long enough without fatigue to accomplish our daily goals. This requires a certain amount of cardiovascular conditioning, but also some attention to basic strength. Strength can be achieved with a good weight training program, with particular attention to exercises in multiple planes. All our movements can be broken down into six “Primal Patterns”: Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Twist, and Bend. Sometimes we need to isolate weaker muscle groups that need strengthening before we can practice these patterns correctly. Learning new movements should be done with little or only body weight first.
Posture and balance are achieved by developing the first three elements mindfully. The proper alignment of the spine should be foremost when working on flexibility, the core and strength through movement patterns. When in good alignment, the practice of balance exercises will be gratifying and contribute greatly to one’s ability to follow the horse’s movement.
Now that we are optimizing our muscle’s stretching potential, learning to engage our core (rather than relying on gripping hands or legs for stability), and we have developed rudimentary strength and stamina throughout our gross muscles through movement skills. This should make our saddle time much more under our control and hence more pleasurable. Wouldn’t that make you more relaxed? You are not wasting energy using the wrong muscles for the job! After all, you watch your horse stretching into the contact, you feel him relax as he finds his rhythm and bend, maybe chewing on the bit. The same quality that enhances his performance does the same for yours.
At this point, our bodies are functioning at the best of their current ability because we are attentive to our own physical training, and we are able to relax because we have reduced stress by assigning the appropriate tasks to each supple, engaged body part. That leaves us free to focus on the training of our horses. Moment to moment, we can be precise about our aids, responsive to our horses’ responses, and clear about what we are asking of our partners. Our minds are available to communicate our intent.
When we are able to work in all stages of the Rider’s Training Pyramid, we will continue to refine all those elements as we ride. In fact, the pyramid turns into a circle.
In future articles, I will go into detail on each of the elements, breaking them down and offering some stretches and exercises to get you started. Try them and enjoy the process of getting fitter. Your horses will thank you!