4 Ways Strength and Conditioning Can Impact an Equestrian Athlete’s Performance
There is a scarcity of information available around physical preparation for equestrian sports. Research on the training practices of riders has identified a range of attitudes and training modalities used, but there is not a consistent approach or method.
The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of the ways in which Strength and Conditioning (S&C) can impact a rider’s performance, whilst providing clarity around the demands of the events and how to best approach physical preparation for the various disciplines.
The 4 key areas are as follows:
It is not atypical for riders to experience large weekly training volumes, often riding multiple horses in a week and training with high frequency. This may not appear to be problematic on face value, but the cumulative load that this begins creating is not insignificant.
Spinal issues in particular are common with frequent compression and flexion occurring during training. In the short term, an athlete may be able to tolerate this, but in the long term this can lead to a range of orthopaedic issues.
The muscles of the trunk (including erector spinae, rectus abdominis, obliques and transverse abdominis) contribute to spinal stiffening in order to stabilise the trunk. In turn this helps support a healthy back and minimises the risk of compression related issues.
Strength exercises for these muscles require high frequency and volume in order to achieve the desired effect. Circuit methods can be an effective means of achieving this, and exercises such as plank variations, double leg lowers and side plank pulses help develop capacity in this region.
The muscles of the trunk (including erector spinae, rectus abdominis, obliques and transverse abdominis) contribute to spinal stiffening in order to stabilise the trunk
With greater capacity comes enhanced durability, meaning a rider can withstand higher training volumes without succumbing to fatigue and injury.
One of the key elements for a rider is enhancing posture to improve riding position and overall performance. As posture contributes to point scoring, it is imperative that this is addressed in the overall training plan.
Range of motion, strength and muscle capacity can all impact posture. With that in mind, assessing these key areas is important so that there is a clear rationale for all elements of the rider’s training plan.
As posture contributes to point scoring, it is imperative that this is addressed in the overall training plan.
Mobility of the thoracic spine and hips in particular is vital to ensure that the rider’s range of motion is adequate to get into effective positions on the horse. Dynamic stretching, soft tissue therapy and strength training through full ranges can all contribute to enhanced mobility, if this is a limiting factor in a rider’s posture.
Depending on the disciplines that the rider competes in, an element of landing may well dictate performance outcomes during events.
The higher the jump, the greater the demand placed on the horse and subsequently the rider. Without well developed strength to complement technique, the rider may lose posture and position on the horse.
Strength training can contribute to all 4 areas identified in this article, but it most certainly impacts a rider’s ability to attenuate the forces experienced during landing (for example during showjumping).
Multi-joint strength exercises such as squats, hip hinges and lunges can form a foundation of strength that enhances a rider’s ability to land effectively without losing shape or position in the saddle.
In disciplines such as dressage, which are in part dictated by point scoring related to position of the rider and human-horse interaction, the rider’s symmetry is paramount.
Symmetry is related to proportion and balance, and when applied to the body we typically refer to anterior-posterior and left-right imbalances. If a rider has imbalances in their body, such as a stronger left leg than right leg, this can manifest itself in the way the horse responds to the rider’s movements.
When assessing symmetry, three key questions need to be addressed:
- Is there any asymmetry in the body?
- What is the magnitude of the asymmetry?
- Is the asymmetry causing any performance problems?
If there is no asymmetry evident, and the rider is well balanced both anteriorally-posteriorally and left-right, then S&C programmes should seek to increase the rider’s physical capacities, in order to maximise riding durability.
If a rider has imbalances in their body, such as a stronger left leg than right leg, this can manifest itself in the way the horse responds to the rider’s movements.
If asymmetry is present in the rider, the magnitude should be determined, to ascertain the overall impact on health and performance. Should this be significant enough to have a direct performance impact, then targeted interventions can be implemented to address this.
As an example, if a rider is stronger on one side than the other, they could increase the training volume on that side, use single arm/leg exercises only, and train the weaker side first in every set that they complete.
S&C can be highly impactful for a rider, by maximising their ability to train, supporting posture and minimising injury risks.
Training programmes should be informed by assessment, in order to determine a rider’s capabilities in relation to the demands of the sport. Once this has been completed, and a more comprehensive picture of the athlete’s capabilities has been generated, targeted training can be completed which increases health and performance.
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