Shelby O’Leary has been riding horses for more than 20 years, training young horses and off-the-track Thoroughbreds, competing in the jumpers, and working as the head rider at a dressage barn. It wasn’t until after she returned back from three years spent riding in Germany that she shifted her focus to helping riders from outside of the saddle.
“The only reason I even got into fitness at all is because of riding,” O’Leary admitted. “I just wanted to be better, and I wanted to feel better. At one point I had a revelation that I could help many more people this way than from the back of a horse. I’ve been riding all my life, and after returning from Germany in 2016, I had only been riding professionally in the U.S. for a little over three years. But I can always ride, and I think for now there is something greater to do.”
“Like many riders, I have dealt with my share of major injuries, and I put a lot of time and energy into my rehab,” O’Leary shared. “That then led to going to the gym in the pursuit of optimizing my body, so that I not only felt good in the saddle when riding 10 horses a day, but could do my job pain-free, effectively, and have a way to almost ‘bulletproof’ my body from further unnecessary injury.”
This led O’Leary to found Train with Shelby, where she works with riders using equestrian-specific training methods outside the saddle to help improve their performance in the saddle. “To be honest, I don’t really label myself as a person in the fitness industry,” she said. “I see myself more as a part of the equestrian community and the equine industry – but maybe that’s just because it is where my heart is.”
In her experience training riders for performance in the saddle, O’Leary observed that consistency of any fitness regime is where her clients have seen success. “Consistency is key,” she said. “I always recommend that my clients be committed to at least three days a week, though four to five is preferred (and some are over-achievers and do more). What is planned within those days can vary from one rider to the next, but we tend to focus highly on the activation of very specific muscles that are important for the rider.”
For O’Leary, there is no “one-size-fits-all” and every rider needs different exercises to train their specific strengths and weaknesses. “Some riders (like eventers, especially at higher levels) need to be a lot more cardiovascularly fit and have better muscle endurance,” she said. “But a dressage rider needs to focus on having a strong back as well as very good balance of the muscles surrounding the pelvis. Some beneficial exercises would be variations of hip abduction (I like to use bands), hip extension (think donkey kicks), rotational core exercises (I say that because with core most only think crunches), and row variations are a favorite of mine.”
“Unless there is very minimal time and days of the week to work with, I prefer to split up the muscle groups being worked into different days of the week,” O’Leary advised. “Stretching is paired accordingly to keep a balance between the muscles that need to be activated and strengthened, and the others that are simply too ‘overactive’ to begin with.”
“Working in partnership with another living being is no simple task - our sport is hard,” O’Leary observed. “I know firsthand that this sport can be filled with many extreme highs and lows, and sometimes there is only so much that you can control. It is always important though to focus on the things that are in your control. And one of those things is your own fitness and health as an athlete. We put so much of ourselves and resources into our horses and the sport, why would we not want to get the most out of it by being the most capable and able partner to our horses – our athletic partners? We can become so obsessed with their proper training, feeding, and veterinarian care, but forget about our own bodies. It is just a piece of the puzzle, but one that can’t be forgotten.”
Her advice for those wanting to add a little out-of-the-saddle fitness to their regime? “Take it one day at a time. Just like the training of your horse, you are not going to get results overnight. Just like your commitment to your horse and the sport, this is something you do for the long haul – not for the aesthetics, but so that you can do the thing you love for as long as possible, and in a way that makes you proud, confident, and happy! Leveling up your rider fitness can give you the confidence boost you didn’t even know you needed. Besides helping you perform more effectively, it can positively affect so many other aspects of your life as well!”
If you have a unique fitness routine, the USEA wants to hear from you! Email Jessica Duffy at [email protected] with your fitness routines, stories, or advice. To read other articles about rider fitness, click here.
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