Recently, I feel like I've come across a barrage of stories from nearly all of dressage's top riders and trainers discussing how essential fitness is to effective riding. Debbie McDonald recommends Pilates, Charlotte Dujardin attends spin classes and focuses on core strengthening, while Steffen Peters has been quoted as saying he hits the gym several times a week and partakes in regular tennis matches with wife Shannon Peters. All in all, the take home message I'm receiving is that to ride our best, we have to work on our fitness just like our horses.
I've been talking a lot with my friend and fellow dressage rider, Amanda McDonell, about the importance of maintaining fitness for the saddle. In addition to being an avid dressage rider, she also happens to be a fitness fanatic and former kick boxer who has developed a series of exercises to benefit dressage riders. Amanda believes that cross training for horseback riding is one of the best ways to maximize riders' often limited time in the saddle - particularly for amateurs who don't have the opportunity to ride multiples horses daily. In addition, Amanda credits fitness with helping her to be confident in the saddle. With each buck, spook, and dart, our balance, strength, and coordination are put to the test, and a regular fitness program can potentially give a rider the upper hand to stay mounted.
Amanda describes rider fitness as an ongoing progression that builds on each previous step. Similar to the way horses climb the training scale as they move up the levels, riders ascend a fitness pyramid that peaks with complete physical preparedness for active riding. But just as with dressage, Amanda says riders must always start with the basics. Before refining our movement we must be able to control our own body by first establishing balance within ourselves, then focusing on flexibility, followed by strength, coordination and finally timing.
When I really think about it logically, Amanda's approach makes a lot of sense. Holes in our physical abilities will show up in our riding eventually, even if we fake it for awhile (I'm guilty!). So I invited Amanda to take us on a fitness journey and narrate each step of the Rider Fitness Pyramid along the way with exercises that you can do on your own. Today we start at the very foundation of it all - balance.
Here we go. See you at the top!
The basic tabletop exercise shown above allows you to feel even, or unevenness, through your shoulders and hips. By adding leg and arm lift you engage your core and find balance/alignment through your hands (felt in arms/shoulders) and knees (should feel through hips).
Once you feel comfortable performing the first exercise you can really put your balance to the test with the Advanced Plank. This exercise tests your alignment and balance through your shoulders, back and hips. Even distribution of weight over shoulders and hips and engagement of the core are key to finding balance in this plank. This exercise can take some time to master, be patient and try to move your hand and foot off of the ground just a little bit at a time.
The Bosu Ball shown above is a great tool for perfecting your balance. It adds and additional element of difficulty to a wide range of balance exercises.
A one legged stand on the Bosu Ball is a great low-impact, passive, balancing exercise.
While in the basic plank position on the Bosu Ball weight should be distributed evenly over both shoulders/hands with core engaged to find the proper balance to hold this position.
When you get your bearings on the Bosu Ball try a standard squat. Bosu Squats encourage you to balance evenly over both feet while doing a simple movement. It is important to be mindful of proper form and of weight shifts during this exercise so you can make balancing adjustments as necessary.
When you are comfortable performing a standard squat on the Bosu Ball you can move on to the One-Legged Squat. This advanced movement demands engagement of core and balance through the body while squatting on one leg. To start, stand on one leg, squat down as far as comfortable, then rise back to standing position. Adequate muscle development and coordination should first be developed to execute this exercise effectively.
Stability Balls are another great tool for building your balance. Sit on the Stability Ball with your legs at 90°. Find your balance over both seat bones, and check your alignment so that your back is straight with your shoulders over your hips and your core is engaged. Lift your leg up and out straight and feel the connection with the seat bones. Alternate lifting each leg while maintaining awareness of weight distribution through the seat bones and balance over the Stability Ball.
When the first step on the Stability Ball feels easy, try this exercise above. To balance on your knees on Stability Ball keep your shoulders, hips and knees aligned. This should be done by tucking your pelvis and engaging the core to find balance in this position. This exercise can be a challenge at first and you may benefit from having someone spot you, or doing it up against a wall in the beginning.