June 19, 2008

Your Horse May Be Fit – but Are You Fit to Ride It?

I t's a common misconception that riding keeps us fit," says sports scientist Jon Pitts. In truth, poor heart rates combined with the fact that riding anatomically is not so good for our bodies, it's the very opposite.

Whether you are competing at top level or enjoying a daily hack down the lane, the importance of being personally fit to ride is fundamental to better performance and most importantly it aids safety.

But read on before you boost your fitness campaign with a nine- mile run.

"It's all about focusing on balance, co-ordination and reaction," explains Jon, who is currently involved with training riders from the British Eventing team and lecturing at the British Racing School in Newmarket.

"Many riders tend to think about the horse, but never really themselves. Riding has changed over the years and lifestyles have become more sedentary and as a consequence the body functions involved in sitting astride a horse and coping with its movements are generally now under-prepared."

Rotational falls are a hot topic in the world of eventing, but Jon explains that everyday riders are falling off and getting hurt too.

"There are plenty of things we can do on a day-to-day basis. Because we sit down at a desk and drive cars, we are not as able to ride horses as we were, so we need to think about ourselves a lot more."

Jon, who is based in Devon, travels the UK working with riders from those preparing for Hong Kong and 2012 down to grassroots riders.

"Without fail, most are not particularly fit," he says. "Their balance and co-ordination and core stability are very weak and as you come down to those who ride at weekends only, you get further and further away from the ability to stay on a horse."

Naturally, every rider has an imbalance and when you ride a horse it tries to compensate for this, which in turn can lead to injuries.

"We try to address these imbalances and then straighten everybody up before looking at general reactions. Rather than just be a passenger on the back of a horse, we want riders to work and react with it," adds Jon, who stresses the first stage is to make riders more aware.

"Instead of being a deadweight on the back, we need to help the horse. We need to address the imbalances and this is where we help by using balance aids to try and tune the rider up."

He likens riding to driving, saying: "We use similar reactions and close chain muscle movements. When a horse spooks, we should be able to stay with it. One of my bug bears is that generally we ride too far over the horse's neck - when we balance, we automatically go forward because that's where our hands are and we can brace our fall and control what's going on, but we tend to rely on the reins for support.

"This is when we pull on the horse's mouth and give it mixed messages. Theoretically, we should be able to stand in the stirrups astride the horse and not touch the horse's neck and still keep our balance. It's surprising how many of the top riders still find that difficult."

So to be fit to ride, it's important to get away from the idea of fitness.

"Rather than be super-fit, we need to be asking how we can ride better, how we can improve our muscular strength and reactions."

The good news is that it doesn't mean a regular trip to the gym.

Firstly Jon suggests, while riding, to think about your balance and how much you rely on the horse's neck. A video can work well in this instance. The next step is to buy a Swiss ball to do simple exercises with.

"It's surprising how difficult it is to sit on it, kneel on it and balance on it, but the good news is that you can do it watching Eastenders. Each exercise is very simple but very effective," says Jon who through his experience has developed Fit to Ride, which aims to provide riders with easy exercises specifically developed for riding across all disciplines.

"Just being 10 per cent more aware of the physical partnership between horse and rider can be the difference between danger and enjoyment."

For more details, visit www.jonpitts.co.uk

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.