By MELONIE KESSLER – To become an equestrian athlete, one must first decide to whom are we referring? The rider or the horse. In today’s world it is an easier path to find if we are speaking of the rider. As with all sports, there are levels of athleticism. The beginner rider may call themselves an equestrian athlete to their friends. A rider that has been riding for several years may also feel they are an equestrian athlete. But if we are talking about the elite athletes of the high performance quality, the definition is within the fitness of the rider’s body. With personal trainers and proper use of high-tech gym equipment, as well as participation in yoga and pilates, riders have learned to build and strengthen their cores.
This is necessary to have more connection with their horses. Muscle strength leads to muscle control. Of course, a focused, long term commitment is necessary to turn an average body into a fine tuned machine able to feel the movements of your equine partner. Hard work with much sweat (and probably tears) has to be included in this equation.
Now, for the bigger problem. Turning a 1200 lb. horse into a strong, elastic, fit, dancing-machine that can reliably perform movements and figures with ease and grace. The high performance horse needs to perform consistently in competitions across the country and often overseas, peaking in their fitness at just the right time.
As the weather challenges are facing most of us in this country this time of year, I am reminded of the timely fable “The tortoise and the hare.” To train a horse is a very long-term commitment which requires a great deal of knowledge about both the physical and emotional states of the horse. Riders must be responsible for their horses’ well being, never rushing movements from a horse not strong or mature enough to handle the pressure. This is a very big problem in conditioning. The exercises in the national USEF test should be followed in order from training level thru 4th level. These tests allow the horse to develop in a progressive conditioning manner. Short cuts never pay off, and consequently, many times the problems which arise from them can ruin the horses’ career. As I mentioned, the weather constraints on many riders without a covered arena this time of year: mud, snow, cold wind and rain create poor footing which should never be overlooked when working your horse. I watch many riders ride their horses at a trot and canter on footing harder than a parking lot. Where is the horsemanship? Riders must take the long road with many curves (just as the tortoise did) and preserve their partner’s health for the many months ahead when the conditions for riding will be more conducive for success.
For me, the answer to what makes an equestrian athlete is simple. #1 Proper horsemanship, where the physical and mental abilities and limitations of the horse are understood. #2. Taking your time to build his core muscles as you have built your own. #3 Never being motivated by the finish line, but enjoying every day with the most extraordinary animal, the horse.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR MELONIE KESSLER