“Riding is an athletic sport,” stated Pan American Games team gold medalist Michael Pollard. “Every single moment you’re on the horse you’re having to respond and be an athlete, and there’s no sport that uses your body that doesn’t improve substantially by training your body to be better.”
Eventing is indeed a sport that requires not only the fitness of the horse but also the fitness of the rider. For Pollard, CrossFit has been the key in the lock that opened the door to a whole other level of fitness both in and out of the saddle.
“CrossFit is constantly varied, so every day is different,” Pollard explained. “You’re basically trying to max out your effort during the time limit of the workout, so you see really quick strength and cardiovascular gains without having to spend huge amounts of time running on a treadmill or riding a bike. The other thing about CrossFit is that, because you have a lot of gymnastics like handstand pushups and work on gymnastic rings, you have a lot of muscle memory things that require basic athleticism to improve.”
“I think for bang for your buck it’s a very effective workout. If you spend an hour doing CrossFit you will have warmed up, stretched, and had a very good strength and cardiovascular workout all at the same time . . . You’ve got to have muscles that are flexible and pliable but able to be strong without moving all over the place.”
Pollard’s journey to CrossFit began by working with a high intensity interval training instructor who came to Pollard’s farm and worked with his whole team. When they traveled to Florida for the winter, they had to find something that they could do in place of the high intensity interval training they had been doing, and that’s when Pollard discovered CrossFit. “The competitive aspect of CrossFit is what I really enjoyed about it, and the other people on our team really enjoyed the community aspect of it. It’s something for everybody but the nice thing about it is that we all saw results quickly and it didn’t require a lot of thought about our training program. You do what everyone else is doing and you do it to the best of your ability and you leave exhausted and happy.”
For Pollard, CrossFit has been a game changer when it comes to his riding. “It’s all functional – it’s not like you’re isolating one specific muscle group and trying to make that particular muscle group bigger – it’s about explosive and balanced energy. All those things are really important in riding. Being able to coordinate all your parts is also really important . . . CrossFit made a huge difference in my core strength and ability to stay in one place in the saddle.”
Pollard explained that one of the things that’s kept him interested in CrossFit is the variety of the workouts, which change daily. “Since I’ve started I’ve never quit,” he said. “Everything else that I’ve done fitness-wise after some period of time got boring, but with CrossFit there are so many things you can work on and try to improve, whether it’s your balance or cardiovascular fitness or flexibility. It’s continued to be fun and worth it and exciting to go to every day.”
“I think a lot of times people go into CrossFit with a little bit too much of an ego,” Pollard observed, “and they end up trying to do too much and hurting themselves. For the first six months I went to CrossFit I don’t think I ever picked up any heavy weight. I really was focused on getting there every day and doing the workout and not being injured, and my body got stronger. Just like with horses, everything we do makes them tighter and stronger.”
Another added benefit that Pollard has experienced from CrossFit has been the elimination of back pain accumulated from years of riding multiple horses a day. “You ride a lot of horses, you fall off of them, you have compressed discs and things that happen over time if you’re a top rider and have been doing it for a long time – all those things happen. CrossFit has kept me flexible and strong and free of the same kinds of issues I had when I was younger.”
While CrossFit has been Pollard’s choice for exercise outside the saddle, he stressed the importance of choosing an activity you’ll stick with, because consistency is key. “Find something that you can do every day. That’s the biggest thing I see – they never push through the difficult part. It’s really the first 90 days, and you’ve got to find something you can do daily, even if it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. Then you really will see such a big improvement in everything you do that it’ll be hard not to continue.”
“As far as horses and riding is concerned, your exercise is probably 40 percent of the issue because you need to be fit and strong, but you have to eat well,” Pollard continued. “If you don’t eat well you aren’t going to see the kind of results. You really have to be disciplined about both things. A good eating program that is maximized to help with your exercise program isn’t always fun in the beginning but if you give it 90 days your taste buds will change and you’ll be so happy with what you’ve done. My experience is that no matter how bad somebody ate or what their life was like before, if you can get them to commit to 90 days it’s a lifechanging experience.”
“I feel like, if you’re dealing with 1,000-pound animals on a daily basis, some of which want to throw you off, that you need to take care of your body. If you’re expecting them to be an athlete, you have to be one as well.”
Ninety percent of training a horse is getting the horse to understand exactly what you want them to do. In general, horses are generous and willing creatures who want to please us; very seldom do they behave badly on purpose. Horses don’t come out and say, ‘Let’s make Mom’s (or Dad’s) life miserable today by going as poorly as possible - most prefer to do the right thing, as long as they know what that is.
Regardless of the level at which a horse is competing, its veterinary team is at the forefront of most decisions regarding its career and well-being. Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, has been working with equine athletes for over two decades. Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) in 2001, she worked in private practice with a focus on sports medicine and pre-purchase exams until joining Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center Field Service team in 2013. Situated in the heart of Area II’s eventing scene, the team provides ambulatory services to the surrounding area, which is home to multiple Olympians.
US Equestrian (USEF) announces the appointment of David O’Connor to the newly created position of Chief of Sport beginning October 3, 2022.
Aspen Farms in Yelm, Washington was host to this year’s USEA Area VII Championships on September 16-18 and put on a spectacular show where 10 horse and rider pairs celebrated victory by being awarded the title of Area VII Champion in their respective divisions. Hear about each pair’s weekend below.