Six Areas of Focus to Become a Better Athlete: The Equestrian Athlete’s Toolkit

by | Mar 8, 2019 | equestrian, fitness

At Intrepid Wellness, I help riders work off the horse so they can be better on the horse. This means working on body alignment, physical fitness, nutrition, and mindset training so you can be an equestrian athlete and good partner with your horse.

I am passionate about helping rider get physically and mentally fit to ride. My passion comes from personal experience. I’ve fallen short of meeting my goals because I failed to do the work off the horse. Skipping the workouts, not losing the weight, always feeling frantic and running late, not getting enough sleep, not following my training plan . . . I kept disappointing myself again and again. It’s hard to balance family, a career, and sport as an adult amateur rider. However, I knew I had to get my priorities straight and stop using “it’s hard” or “I don’t have time” as an excuse.

I needed to be a better version of myself or accept that I would lead an unfulfilled life. I had to face the reality that the person I kept letting down was myself.

I didn’t want to live that life or be that person. It took me time, but I learned how to think like an athlete. It felt foreign at first, but I kept at it. And eventually the description fit.

Being an athlete doesn’t mean you’re on a team, or have to gulp protein shakes after every workout, or have product endorsements.

Being an athlete means you participate in sport, set goals, and follow a training plan. Equestrians are athletes.

Being an athlete touches every area of my life and helps me stay focused, on point with my fitness and nutrition, lose 20 pounds, ride with more focus, and be a leader with my horse. Sometimes I still don’t meet my riding goals, but I can say with confidence I did the work. And that is the best feeling!

How do you start to think and train like an athlete? I like to think about having a toolkit. Inside this toolkit are strategies and exercises riders can include in their training plans to prepare their mind and body to ride.

There are six areas to work on to prepare your mind and body to be an equestrian athlete.

Physical Fitness: To be an effective rider, you must be strong enough to hold your position on a horse. In particular, rider’s need a strong core and posterior chain.

Core muscles support our spine and resist motion, which means we don’t crumble against forces from the horse. This resistance also increases the strength in our arms and legs because energy is translated efficiently.

The posterior chain are the power muscles on the backside of our body that allow us to stay upright on a horse (latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, gluteus maximus, hamstrings and calf muscles). They are also key stabilizers of the spine, hip, and knee.

Fuel: We need energy to ride, which requires good nutrition that provides sustained energy. We are also more athletic when we are a healthy body weight. Part of being an athlete is to think about how you are fueling your body, and if the food you eat is helping meet your goals. This is often one of the most overlooked pillars with riders, because our sport isn’t tied to a maximal physical effort. However, not managing your nutrition leads to low energy, body image and self-esteem issues, and lack of confidence, all which have a huge impact on your riding.

Sport Specific Practice: To be good at riding a horse, you need to practice riding a horse. And if you want to be good at a particular sport, such as dressage or show jumping or barrel racing, you’ll need to specifically practice that sport. Repetition is the mother of skill.

Organization: This area refers to organizing your mind and environment. Organizing your mind is about the neurological organization of your brain required to selectively pay attention to some information and not pay attention to other information. It’s about having an efficient brain that coordinates thoughts and actions. You can significantly help you brain out if you keep your physical space organized. Clutter is a focus and energy killer!

Interactive Metronome is also a tool that improves brain organization. This is a computer-based brain training program to helps the timing centers in our brain work together. For more information about Interactive Metronome for Equestrians, click here.

Mental Practice: This refers to visualization and rehearsal exercises. These exercises can include imagining your ride as if you were in the saddle, imagining your ride as an observer, and watching other skilled riders. Motor learning research has shown the best way to acquire a new skill is to think about doing the activity successfully, then go physically do it. To get the most out of your training in the saddle, include time in your schedule to visualize your ride and watch good riders.

Meditation: There is tons of research to support the benefits of meditation for athletes. Benefits include improved stress management, increased focus, and improved emotional response. Regular meditation causes an increase in gray matter in the brain, which means more brain cells. It also results in the right and left sides of the brain being more connected, which improves coordination and processing speed.

When you design a training plan, ideally you make time for each of these areas. However, don’t get overwhelmed by “doing all the things.” Starting to think and train like an athlete is a journey. Pick one or two items from the list and start to do them, consistently. Then add another item when you’re ready to tackle the challenge. Most importantly, enjoy the journey!


Let’s Connect

Sign up for my email list and get the Equestrian Athlete Weekly Checklist. This tool helps you track actions that support being an equestrian athlete. It’s a great tool to help you work off the horse so you can be better on your horse!


Hi, I’m Shelley!

My exercise philosophy is simple – consistency beats perfection, strength should radiate from our core outward, and short, high intensity workouts are awesome. I’ve been a physical therapist for almost 20 years and see so many people struggle with consistency, accountability, and injury. Intrepid Wellness was born out of a desire to help people gain confidence, embrace the importance of fitness, and go after their goals.