As soon as the fixtures for the 2018 season were published on the British Eventing website I, like many event riders, sat down armed with my iPad and the 2018 calendar and began to plan my season. I begin my planning by whittling down which events are within reasonable traveling distance (anywhere within a two hour radius, however, my partner and I have differing ideas as to what is considered reasonable travelling time to spend ‘about 10 minutes in total sat on a horse!’)
I then proceed to decide out of these which dates and venues work best for us and then excitedly scribble them into the diary, complete with entry open and close and ballot dates! From here I work backwards and plan a few pre-season unaffiliated competitions to dust off those cobwebs (preferably somewhere low-key and ideally where no one knows your name, full of people you will never see again!!)
So that’s the paperwork done. Now my thoughts turn to preparation for the oncoming season and how I need to transform myself and that hairy beast stood in my field (there’s rumours this creature was once a 2* eventer but looking at him now I’m not so sure) into lean fit athletes ready to perform graceful dressage tests, faultless showjumping rounds and gallop boldly round some of the trickiest cross country courses.
Naturally we then turn our considerations to implementing a strict fitness regime for our horses and adjusting their diets accordingly. After all, the horse is the one who does all the work… right?!
WRONG!! How can you expect your horse to perform to the absolute peak of their ability when you, as the rider, are gasping for breath and bouncing around on their back because your legs are burning too much to keep yourself stood up in the stirrups? Oh…. and that fence you just missed out… well that might have something to do with your lowered brain function due to dehydration because you were far too busy plaiting, loading the lorry and getting yourself and your horse on the road to drink any water…And don’t even get me started on your plummeting energy levels, which are just so low because you didn’t even think to get yourself any breakfast this morning (maybe because you left at 4:30 and didn’t consider it ‘breakfast time’), or maybe you did but you’re body is on a sugar comedown because what you chose to have for breakfast was a bag of Haribo and a Lucozade that you grabbed from the petrol station on the way.
Sound familiar? Why do we do this to ourselves as riders? Or more to the point… why do we do it to our horses?
There’s lots of simple changes we can make to our daily routines which enable us to perform better as horse riders, and in the run up to the event season there’s no better time to start. It’s time we began to consider ourselves as athletes too. Before an event I would expect my horse’s to be comfortably able to perform at least double what they would be expected to do at an event and I think interval training is a particularly useful tool for fittening a event horse. So for example, your horse will be required to gallop for somewhere between 5-10 minutes depending on your level of competition. Therefore your horse should be doing approximately 5-10 minutes of canter work, then a short walk break and then another set or two. I would also expect my own fitness to match this. You don’t have to be Paula Radcliffe to be able to run for 10 minutes. Just build it up slowly at a pace you are comfortable with but begin with setting that as your fitness goal to hit before your first event. You will seriously thank yourself for it half way round that cross-country course where you would usually be gasping for air, and your horse will also appreciate your ability to support your own weight as they themselves begin tiring towards the end of the course.
You might also want to consider which muscle groups you use whilst riding and work on strengthening these too as well as building your cardiovascular fitness. You cannot ride effectively with a weak core so as a horse rider your biggest focus should really be working on strengthening those core muscles. When thinking about core muscles many people mistakenly believe this term refers only to the abdominal muscles when in fact the core muscles are basically any muscle included in the trunk of your body, including the muscles in your back, sides and those extending to your pelvic floor. These are the muscles that stabilise you and maintain your balance when in the saddle.
But we cannot train and build muscle with an inadequate diet and therefore we should carefully consider what we put into our bodies to fuel our new athlete’s lifestyle. It’s really not as complicated or time consuming as you might imagine, it’s all about changing your mindset towards food! See ever meal as an opportunity to nourish your body.
Firstly, start by getting your day on track by waking up and hydrating your body and having a nutritious breakfast to kick start your metabolism, provide you with energy and essential nutrients for the day ahead and also control your appetite, making you less likely to make poor food choices later in the day.
Also first thing in the morning I will take a range of supplements. Our horses tea will be full of them but who thinks about our joints? As I’m sure many people feed glucosamine to their horses as a preventative measure I also take a glucosamine, MSM and Chondroitin supplement and also cod liver oil to support my joint health as riding many horses a day takes it toll on your body. You need only visit any equestrian yard and you don’t have to look too far to find someone hobbling around when knee, hip or shoulder pain.
I will also take a multivitamin supplement as it is a real struggle to get all of the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet alone, especially as most of us do not get our 5 a day in (however realistically the health experts now are recommending we eat closer to 10 portions of fruit and veg). Lastly I will drop a vitamin C supplement into my water bottle which I take with me to the yard to sip on during the day to help my immune system fight off all those colds and bugs which are particularly prevalent at this time of year.
Don’t be afraid of carbs, they really are not the devil food that fad weight loss diets and magazines would have you believe. Carbs are a really important source of energy for your body when working aerobically, but choosing simple carbs (those found in whole-grain and vegetables etc) over complex carbs (those found in processed foods like doughnuts and white bread etc) will be easier for the body to digest and burn and therefore less likely to be stored as fat. Try overnight oats for a quick and healthy breakfast, you could also try adding peanut butter for extra protein (and flavour)!
During the day between horses, I like to grab a banana as a quick easy snack to keep my energy levels up and provide me with a source of potassium, which aids muscle contraction in the body. A small snack also keeps that metabolism going and wards of those hunger pangs until lunch.
As we’re building all this muscle we should now be thinking of adding protein to our diets. Usually for me this would be a fish or chicken for lunch but when you’re busy and on the go then why not try a plant-based protein shake. Skipping lunch will only leave you feel empty and lethargic. Protein rich snacks such as seeds, nuts and boiled eggs are also a great snack to grab on the go to fuel that muscle growth and repair.
Tea will usually consist of a protein with a salad or vegetables, such as steak and salad or roast chicken and vegetables or a stir fry. I try to keep tea fairly light as I hate the feeling of going to bed and lying down with a full stomach.
I try to keep my meals varied and keep my diet simple, and I’ll allow myself the odd cheat meal here and there (also great for boosting metabolism and preventing a plateau) and if I fancy a bit of chocolate every now and then I’m not too strict on myself (everything in moderation). The reason most diets fail is that they are unsustainable, you eat too infrequently and eventually give in to hunger or you are so limiting on what you allow yourself that you get bored and loose your will power towards junk food. At the end of the day life is too short not to enjoy your food and making healthy choices doesn’t need to be boring and food doesn’t have to be bland. It also doesn’t necessarily need to take a lot of time to prepare. Really as long as you burn more calories than you ingest then you will loose weight, it’s no more complicated than that. Find a routine that works for you and eat healthy food that you actually like. So set yourself realistic and achievable goals, be dedicated but also be patient with yourself and enjoy the journey to becoming a fitter and healthy rider… Your horse will love you for it too.
Kick on and I hope you all have a fabulous season!