The only reason I feel qualified to write about this topic is that of late, I have not been fit as a fiddle. In fact, my fitness has run more closely to that of a cello. Usually the Winter months are still usable as riding months but this Winter, they were not. There is only an outdoor arena to use here at my farm, which I am not complaining about. As a kid, I rode down the side of the road because I didn't even have an outdoor arena. Needless to say, when it came time to ride 20 meter circles at horse shows, I was disadvantaged. The straight line part, however, I nailed.
Riding in the snow isn't a problem, unless that snow is thigh deep and has an asphalt-like crust on top. The cold has become more and more of a deterrent as I get more and more mature. I used to think nothing of putting on three pairs of pants, two jackets and several layers of socks to ride my pony bareback down the road. Now, if the temperature is anything with a teen in it I go slinking back into the house to huddle by the woodstove.
The point is (once again, I've taken the scenic route to get to it), that I became very much unfit this Winter. Riding is a sport, despite what some spectators may think. For those people, I challenge them to a riding lesson to see how badly their muscles ache the next day. If I had a nickel for each person that has said "Riding isn't exercise, all you do is sit there.", then I'd have about 25 cents. Still, the thought is common with people unfamiliar with horse back riding. Riding horses makes use of muscle that you will not use for anything else in your life. And then some. It takes coordination, stamina, balance and mental strength as well as physical.
It is possible to go riding without being a fit athlete. There's a good chance that an unfit person would not fall off but there is a much stronger probability that a fit rider will not only stay on, but improve the horse's performance and happiness. I'm not solely referring to a rider's weight, although that can factor into it. I have seen many a slight girl be weak and ineffective in the saddle. To the horse, a rider that carries herself in balance is easy to bear. That rider may be waif-ish, or hefty, or in between, but if the weight is evenly distributed and carried with grace then it is of no hindrance to the horse. Contrarily, a rider who bounces and bangs around like a sack of gravel, even at a supermodel approved weight, would be agonizingly annoying to a horse.
It takes a certain kind of strength to maintain body position atop a briskly trotting horse. There needs to be the right amount of resistance and flexibility to follow the horse's movement, yet not let the horse toss you about like a ping-pong ball, in order to ride successfully. Then, to try and influence the horse, there needs to be even more body control to now manipulate the horse rather than follow along with him. Imagine doing an advanced yoga pose, on a barrel, in a jacuzzi and you might come close to how difficult this can be.
There's no way to get fit for riding without riding. Cross-training is infinitely helpful but in order to build the muscle memory, you have to be on a horse. You can not learn to ride the canter by riding a stationary bike. You will not be able to sit the trot just because you can do 40 minutes on the rowing machine. Holding your jumping position over a 4'6" oxer does not come from running a half-marathon. Just as my ability to sit the trot does not allow me to finish the Tour de France. Right now, I would barely be able to finish Tour de My Driveway.
Our horses are athletes, we are athletes. Without proper conditioning we are going to end up with injuries, as will our horses. Fitness is a necessary part of being a responsible and capable rider. Even though we need to ride to get fit for riding, in order to save our horses the unpleasant task of hauling our wheezing, flopping bodies around, it is best to do fitness training in the off-saddle times too. Luckily, care of our four-footed athletes provides us with some of that activity. Moving hay bales, sweeping, raking and mucking, carrying buckets of water... it all adds to the creation of useful muscle.
In fact, I've often thought that with the craze of "reality" tv shows and weight loss programs that I should offer some sort of "Biggest Loser" type program centered around the farm. It would benefit everyone involved, the attendees would improve their health, and my barn chores would get done.