Health & Fitness

Get fit to sit in the saddle and enjoy the ride

Becoming a better rider starts in the gym.

Just like other athletes hone their bodies and minds away from their sport, riders need to work on specific muscle groups and skills – before they swing into the saddle. That holds true for serious equestrians in competition or causal riders hitting the trail. Even first-time riders will benefit from exercising before they get on horseback; they’re less likely to fall off.

That’s the message fitness expert Kori Lyn Angers brings to Sacramento for this week’s 16th annual Western States Horse Expo. Now the nation’s largest equestrian event of its kind, the three-day horse festival at Cal Expo is expected to draw more than 40,000 patrons. Angers hopes many of them will leave better riders, too.

“Even simple things – like putting your heel down or moving your leg back – you can’t do if physically you don’t have that range of motion,” Angers explained. “By doing little things to improve your strength and agility, you can become a better rider at any level.”

A staple of this expo has been its educational clinics, taught by a cavalry of horse experts. Among those featured at this year’s expo are 40-time world champion rider and trainer Bob Avila, Olympic silver medalist Gina Miles and Eitan Beth-Halachmy, the father of “cowboy dressage.”

“This is my first time to be part of it,” said Angers, who will present clinics each day. “I’m really excited. As a strength and conditioning specialist, I work with athletes of all sorts, but I’ve been a rider since I was 3 or 4 years old. I was a competitive rider; Western, reining, you name it. I eventually competed on the show jumping circuit.”

So, the horse expo’s audience represents herself, she noted. “I want to get riders ready for that exercise (on horseback). It not only helps you; it will help your horse.”

Still a recreational rider, Angers chose sports medicine and conditioning as a profession. “I’ve worked with all sorts of pro athletes – NFL players, hockey players, NBA and pro baseball players,” said Angers, who is based in Los Angeles. “I took what I do for other athletes and give that benefit to riders, whether professional or amateur.”

Pro and college sports stress the importance of conditioning, said Angers, who has advised the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Kings. “Every sport – even the national curling team – has a strength coach and trainer. But equestrians tend to not have that avenue.”

Her approach can work for even occasional or first-time riders. With advance preparation, they’ll have less soreness after they ride. “They also won’t fall off,” Angers said with a laugh. “A lot of that is improving your balance and coordination.”

Developing a wider range of motion automatically will help make amateurs better riders, she said. That starts with daily stretching.

“Basically, you need full mobility in your hips,” she said. “If you don’t have three-way mobility in your hip joints, it’s hard to ride. You can’t move your legs back (to control the horse). Then, your lumbar takes the hit; that’s when you get back pain (from riding).”

Flex your ankles, too. “You need that ankle mobility so you can put your heel down (in the stirrup).”

Most sports allow an athlete to have a “weak” side, she noted. For example, a basketball player may shoot more to the right than the left. But good riders need to be strong on both sides.

“You need to make each side work equally,” Angers said. “You need to be just as coordinated and strong with your left (arm or leg) as your right. That gives you a much better seat in the saddle and better control of the horse.”

That includes your hands. To train yourself to be more bi-dextrous, Angers recommends trying to become skilled with either hand in everyday activities. “Try brushing your teeth with the opposite hand. Eat with either hand. Pick up things with either hand. Use that opposite hand more.”

In addition to time on a stationary bike or elliptical trainer to condition muscles, Angers also suggests agility and balance drills. “You want to be able to balance on either foot,” she said.

“These are simple things. They’re not going to exhaust you. They’ll prepare you for the saddle. And you’ll not only be a better rider, you’ll enjoy it more, too.”