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Resistance training for horse riders

Text: Christie Wolhuter

Many people are confused by the need for resistance training for equestrians. To me, it is the most important work you can do to keep up with your horse. First of all, we need to remember that horse riding is a sport, and riders should consider themselves athletes. Few top-level equestrians are not supplementing their riding with one or other form of cross-training. I hypothesise that those who don’t and are still successful ride between 10 -15 horses a day, so are getting plenty of exercise in this way.

The irony lies in the fact that we don’t expect our horses to improve without training, and yet we seem to believe we will magically improve with little to no additional effort. Now, of course, as a rider, our physical effort over a fence, for example, is different to that of our horses, but the importance of having sufficient strength, endurance, range of motion, and stability cannot be underestimated. Secondly, training load results in a series of responses in the body that lead to adaptive changes and these adaptive changes result in progression.

Benefits of resistance training

Gaining strength minimises your chance of getting hurt. It increases bone density, strengthens tendons and ligaments, and thereby not only allows you to simply lift more weight but also builds resistance to injury.

Furthermore, training results in a process called Hormesis. Hormesis is the process by which a physiological stressor (i.e exercise) signals cellular and molecular processes that repair and restore our cells. The body clears up the ‘damage’ that is caused by exercise during the rest period.

How often do I need to train?

There is a common misconception that you need to resistance train at maximum effort every day of the week to see improvements in your strength, range of motion and endurance. This is not the case for many people, and training at this high frequency can have a negative impact on progress, as the musculoskeletal system is designed to adapt with exercise load, followed by sufficient rest. Other factors that influence adaption are adequate sleep, good nutrition, and stress management, to name just a few. Studies have, in fact, shown that two sessions per week done at sufficient intensity are just as beneficial as training 3 – 5 times per week.

Now, an important caveat for less frequent training is that the sessions performed must be challenging. Exercise done less frequently, without sufficient intensity, will likely lead to few adaptions and improvements. If you’re pressed for time, skip the foam roller and prolonged static stretching. In terms of injury prevention, strength is more protective than mobility. Good quality strength training done in positions where the muscle is lengthened can influence your flexibility anyway. Throw in a bit of dynamic mobility if you enjoy it, and you have a well-rounded program.

Note

Reduced capacity due to a previous lack of exercise should be the first thing we blame for injuries, not the exercise itself. No exercise is inherently bad. No, not even a deadlift!

Adaptation

Due to humans being incredibly unique (thanks to genetics), what is challenging for you may be easy for someone else. The only real way to measure your current capacity is to test it. You need to know your starting point and then allow progression from there.  You may find out (as many of us do!) that your starting point is lower than you had thought!

Exercise needs to increase in difficulty over time due to the wonderful adaption of the body to exercise. For example, when jogging, you will notice that over time it starts to get easier.

This is progression. Now to continue progressing, the intensity or volume of the work needs to increase i.e. running further or running faster. In the gym it can be adding on weight, increasing the number of reps and sets or increasing the difficulty of the exercise.

Individuals more advanced in training should train more frequently, as their progress plateaus much quicker, leading to stagnation.

Take home message

I have said this before, and I will say it again; it is important to note that your muscles getting stronger will not impair your range of motion or your ability to relax and contract your muscles at the right time. Our muscles are designed to work, and good training only improves the coordination of muscle contraction and benefits mobility. There is no excuse; start training today!

References

  1. Radack et al (2008) Exercise, oxidative stress and hormesis, Ageing Res Rev, 7(1).