How to improve Horse Rider Fitness with Personal Trainer Nickie Maddaford

In this blog, we have thrown questions to Nickie Maddaford PT from Equercise. As horse riders, we have probably all at some point had someone say to us “Horse riding’s not exercise you just sit there!”. Whilst resisting the urge to thump that person, we all know better and how strong and fit we have to be to be able to perform at our best when riding our horses. Nickie is ambitious and fun-loving and has an infectious passion and enthusiasm for all things horses and fitness, you can’t help but feel motivated to get up and moving after spending time in her presence. 

She is an advanced dressage rider herself, so, she understands the challenges our bodies have to endure as we ride our horses. When she fractured her neck in a riding accident the recovery was tough both mentally and physically and made her realise how vulnerable we can be, plus, how being as fit and strong as possible helps to reduce that vulnerability. We train our horses and our bodies but often neglect the best asset we have, our mindset. 

As a Personal Trainer, she thrives on creating exercises and situations which recreate and improve what our body has to do when we ride. The journey started for Nickie when she couldn’t find a Personal Trainer for her own training that understood horse riding. Nickie’s aim with Equercise is to help riders get the very best out of themselves and their horses. 

Why is Horse Rider Fitness so important?

Rider fitness is so important. I once wore a heart monitor to do a 45 minute HIIT class, I then wore it to school my horse dressage for 45 minutes. My heart rate riding was higher than the HIIT class even though I hardly broke a sweat.

We all prioritise the well-being of our horses without a second thought and yet when we experience issues with them, whether this is mentally or physically, we go through a huge checklist to determine the possible root and the cause. And we put ourselves way down that list! 

Regardless of the level, discipline, age, gender or ability every single one of us has one thing in common…….that is that our body impacts our horse’s body and therefore, the horses’ performance! Our horses have to massively accommodate our bodies in order to operate their own to perform at their best, even when we are in perfect balance. So imagine the challenge when this doesn’t happen!

Horse Rider fitness
Horse rider fitness with Equercise

Why is core strength so important for Horse riding?

Horse Rider Fitness
Improving Core strength will help massively with horse rider fitness

So what is the core? It is the entire area between the armpits and knees! Good core strength is important for everyone but in particular horse riders.  Many people train/have partially strong core muscles but the core should be trained as a whole. Training or strengthening only part of your core may create tightness or instability in the low back area, which will have significant impacts on the performance of horse and rider. Instability in the core means that the horses’ movement can not be absorbed effectively.

Riders that are not stable in the core need to grip with their hands and knees for balance when in the saddle resulting in a tight, tense and short striding horse. Moving WITH the horse in harmony is what gives the appearance of elegance, being totally still and the horse moving freely underneath its rider, whether that be in the dressage arena or around a course of show jumps.

Every movement in your body starts at the core, therefore, unless you have a balanced, stable, and strong core it will be impossible to move your arms and legs independently from your seat!  Being an effective rider is not just about cardio fitness (although this does play an important role.) We need good posture, balance, effective reflexes, eye to body co-ordination with good core strength and stability

Why is horse rider position and posture important? 

Posture is the most effective communication tool a rider has, any change in posture is a cue or an aid to our horse. Unless we have a balanced, stable and strong core it will be impossible to move our arms and legs independently from our seat! Only when this is achieved will we move WITH our horse in harmony.

How can strength imbalances affect our riding, and how can we improve them?

Imbalances in a riders strength and balance affect the horses more seriously than you might think. It is true that a crooked horse will make a rider crooked BUT, it is also true that a crooked rider will make a horse crooked!

So many of our horses continue to compensate and perform regardless of their rider through their own talent, sound temperament and the love of their job, but, how long can our horses sustain this happily and WILLINGLY without pain and long-term negative effects? 

There is no need for our horses to do this if we as riders train our bodies to be even and to maintain balance with good riding posture. Working on your bodies weaknesses and training your muscles to respond as they would when on a horse is an invaluable asset as a rider. 

Horse Rider Fitness
Straightness and good posture is an essential part of horse rider fitness

How can off horse exercise and workouts affect performance in the saddle?

Exercises off your horse can be invaluable and make all the difference to the level of performance when on board. By making ourselves as riders balanced, strong and cardiovascularly fit we can work with our horses to perform at our absolute best. Working with each other in harmony rather than compensating for each other. Our horses will always try to accommodate a riders weakness regardless of the detriment to themselves. Schooling a horse for 45 minutes is equivalent physically to skipping for that duration, jumping or cross country is like holding a squat for the duration of that course…….who does this in everyday life and training and yet we expect that our bodies can do this when we require.

Do fitness programs vary depending on our chosen horse riding discipline?

Regardless of the riding discipline, we have chosen, our bodies responses to being on half a ton of immobility and unpredictability are the same. Improving those neurological pathways to ensure our body fires in that moment of a spook, a long stride, or a run-out or unbalanced landing from a jump is an invaluable tool as a horse rider. All disciplines surprisingly need the same good cardiovascular fitness, balance and core stability.

Horse Rider fitness
Horse rider fitness

Why is rider fitness and balance so important regardless of the discipline? 

Horse riding is demanding on the body, major muscle groups are used in order to maintain a balanced position for long periods of time. Rider position has an enormous effect on your horse’s movement, with core strength and stability being key to keeping you in the saddle.

Cardio fitness gives you adequate energy, stamina and endurance. It allows you to perform better, recover quicker and experience less fatigue. Developing lean strong muscles helps to make a quick alteration jumping or allows us to sit still and balanced on the flat whilst still giving clear and effective aids. Add all this together and you will have fewer injuries and greater control of your horse. The body is an amazing thing and the easiest thing to train so don’t be afraid to try! 

Generally, we train our horses at home to work at a higher level than we perform at competitions so why do we not expect the same from ourselves as riders? A tired rider on a tired horse is a dangerous combination, a fit rider on a tired horse less so but a fit rider on a fit horse is a winning combination.

Go check out the Equercise website or the Facebook page if you would like any further information.


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