A heart at 96% capacity
Horse & Hound|March 11, 2021
How fit do you need to be to ride cross-country? Sport scientist Rosa Dakin tackles this question and what you can do to prepare yourself for the challenge
Rosa Dakin

INTEREST in rider fitness has grown over the past few years as riders become more aware of the importance of physical preparation out of the saddle to enhance performance in it. But what does rider fitness mean when it comes to the most physically demanding phase of eventing, cross-country?

Whether cross-country schooling or competing at the highest level, a series of physical events are triggered in the body when riding across country, similar to those that happen when cycling or running. These responses clearly indicate that riders, whether they recognise it or not, are athletes.

Riders must control their bodies by contracting muscle groups, such as those in their core, shifting their body weight in response to the horse’s movement to ensure they remain in balance. They must also make constant cognitive decisions.

These characteristics mean riding is a complex skill. When a rider’s muscles contract, for example during rising trot, the body responds by increasing heart and breathing rates which enable more oxygen to be transported to the working leg muscles. This reaction is similar to when a person runs up a flight of stairs as both heart and breathing rates increase.

How effectively the body responds to physical exertion will depend on the person’s fitness. A fitter rider with a well-developed cardio-respiratory system will have a larger, stronger heart that is able to pump more oxygenated blood to the working muscles.

Those who ride at least one horse daily will gain a level of fitness through the body adapting to this exercise stimulus. However, academic research has shown that riding alone is not enough to improve a rider’s fitness.

The correct physical preparation in and out of the saddle will enhance fitness levels and could provide riders with a competitive edge. In contrast, being unfit could lead to a decreased performance and increased risk of injury.

CROSS-COUNTRY is the most physically demanding part of eventing for horse and rider for numerous reasons, including its intensity and duration. Riders must maintain a fast canter or gallop for most of the round. To work in harmony with the horse and allow it to move as freely as possible underneath them, riders assume a half-seat squat position.

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