Ski fitness for equestrians? Yes!
There are many parallels (pardon the pun) between the physical and physiological demands skiing and horse riding...
Speed, power, balance, core strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, switching between energy systems depending on the activity/race/phase and of course falling. But also technique.
I've been trying to do my pony a favour by balancing myself better in the saddle. My pony is green and still learning to balance herself and build strength, so it's the least I can do for her really. I've been spoiled by previous experienced schoolmaster ponies who keep going along regardless of what happens up top. I have a tendency to put more weight on one side, and I now really see how much this effects my mount.
While riding our circles - or, as I call them, squircles (square circles) - they can get smaller and smaller until we're nearly performing pirouettes. (We'll keep that move up our sleeve for later down the track.)
(Picture is not us! But how great I imagine we look when no-one's filming.)
My riding coach has been telling me to get that weight onto the inside and make the horse balance us both. It took a bit of trust in both of us to lean in without feeling like she'd slide out. I realised this is feeling more and more like skiing.
I used to ski race and of course the weight is on the inside of the turn. You 'edge' the inside of both skis, pushing out with weight powering into the centre of the turn.
My pony is ridden with legs and weight. I can push, edge and turn with legs and balance. If I get busy with the arms or hands and fiddle with anything up front it just annoys, distracts or confuses her. And just like skiing, the best thing I can do with my upper body is keep it quiet and balanced naturally on top.
Both sports require core strength and stability but also flexibility through the spine for the adjustments to the centre of gravity. Both require 'feel' and quick reactions which start as conscious decisions in training, but, once practiced, become more instinct than decision making.
Both sports require a similar shift in weight to link turns, and some flexion at most times - unless going for pure speed. We switch between isometric muscle contractions (like in a wall squat) and isotonic (muscles shortening and lengthening while producing force). The skiing position and overcoming gravity as you glide downhill on an ever changing surface relies on similar muscles as horse riding. On the horse, we're experiencing the force of the powerful animal moving up beneath us and he adjusts his own weight in response the ground and movement with each stride. We need a flexible, strong lower body with muscular endurance to maintain repetitive contraction for the training session or event. Both sports also require the ability to perform at higher intensity intervals when required - the performance limiting factors being lactic acid accumulation in the muscle (burns!) and /or running out of energy for muscular contraction (glycogen).
(Also not me, but how I imagine I'll look when I graduate from ponies to horses!)
So whether you're heading to the slopes this winter or looking to increase your skill as a rider, don't forget your strength and conditioning can really effect how you go (and your horse). And year round training can keep you ready to perform in both sports.
A few areas of focus to train for both sports include:
- Legs; Squats - all sorts; different foot positions, one legged, with power (plyometrics - squat jumps, straight and narrow stance side to side). Lunges, again all sorts; static, dynamic / walking, one leg on a bench behind.
- Compound exercises such as burpees, caterpillars, mountain climbers.
- Core strength and endurance; back, front and sides of the core. Static planks (isometric) are great but even better is working dynamically through all angles for responsive, flexible stability, balance and of course the origin of true power for major whole body movements such as turns. Dynamic planks can involve lifting limbs, turning to the side, pulling legs in at various angles and many other variations.
- High intensity interval training; many skiing and equestrian events are only a few minutes, or are longer with explosive jumps, and will involve the anaerobic energy system (high intensity), so only training at lower intensities will not adequately prepare the human or equine athlete for these events. This is a common training trap - to only focus on the quality of movement but not necessarily the intensity at which it will need to be performed to be competitive.
- Flexibility training; whole body but especially muscles surrounding hip and knee joints and back. In particular the hip flexors and adductors, spinal extensors and knee extensors can get very tight and lead to muscle imbalance in both equestrians and skiers (adding to injury risk).
These sorts of basic exercises can be ramped up with time under tension (slow it down), power (speed it up), adding weights or other fun equipment which can help with great functional 360 degree training such as suspension trainers, viPR tubes, weight vests, sand bags or elastic resistance bands. The only limitation is your trainer's imagination!