“Riding is hard on the body,” says five-star eventer Sinead Halpin. “Cowboys are not bow-legged and [have] hunchbacks because it looks cool. If you ride, you will most likely be injured, you will most likely ride a difficult horse, you will most likely ride defensively. Staying strong and flexible is your best defense against chronic pain.”
Riders spend the majority of their time focused on the fitness of their equine partners while their own fitness often takes a backseat. However, rider fitness is a key component of riding effectively and correctly. Just like conditioning is an important part of a horse’s training routine, making time outside the saddle to focus on rider fitness is an important part of a rider’s performance in the saddle.
Over the years, Halpin shared that her fitness routine has evolved. What seemed to work when she was a working student has become less effective as time has passed. “The years I was a working student, the diet of coffee and candy mixed with ridiculous hours and lots of manual labor seemed to keep me trim, but I wouldn’t say it actually kept me healthy,” she admitted. “As I have gotten a little older, I have realized I can’t fix all exhaustion with a Red Bull and singing some god-awful top-20 hit at the top of my lungs. I mean, I still do use that strategy in desperate situations, but alas, we all have to grow up at some point.”
Halpin said that balancing a healthy diet and aerobic exercise has been key for her fitness, “not to mention mental sanity.” For Halpin, Orangetheory fitness classes have provided a good mix of aerobic exercise and strength training that benefits her riding. “The workout is an hour long and spread over treadmills, rowers, and the weight room. We wear a heart rate monitor and the whole program is based on interval training, just like how we get our horses fit! Currently I work out at Orangetheory in Ocala two to five times a week, depending on the show schedule.”
The exercises performed in the weight room have been particularly beneficial for her riding, Halpin said. “I use a lot of free weights and all the exercises are based around keeping good form within your ability. I have become a lot more familiar with my body and in tune with unevenness from left to right due to the work I have done on the weight room floor.”
Regardless of a rider’s level of fitness, injury is a common part of competing at the highest levels of the sport. “I have had several serious injuries that have required a lot of physical therapy,” Halpin shared. “It is so important to get your supporting muscles as strong as possible. I think a lot of the injuries I incurred were a combination of exhaustion, not living a healthy lifestyle, and mistaking thin for healthy. These are challenges we face in an industry that is passion-based instead of financially-based, but it is up to us to find the balance.”
Last September, Halpin gave birth to her son, Brooks. As she was very fit when she got pregnant and stayed active up until the last few weeks of her pregnancy, she expected to bounce back quickly after giving birth. “I was back competing in three weeks and working out on my own and felt this effort would get me back to fighting fit in no time . . . it did not,” she recalled. “The metabolism gods, who have been on my side my whole life, decided it was time for me to pay.”
“I remember about two months after Brooks was born confessing to [my husband] Tik [Maynard] I was shocked people could even talk to me without being disgusted,” Halpin admitted. “I searched for the shock or judgment in every person’s face about how heavy I was. It was a pretty terrible feeling. Body image is a different issue, but I have a wonderful husband who told me how beautiful I was every day and I still had such shame. The frustration of working hard and having nothing change was a huge struggle.”
“One day, my friend Hannah Sue [Burnett] asked me to come to Orangetheory with her and the rest is history. I got hooked because the program made sense to me. Hannah, Natalia Neneman, and Meg Kepferle became my people and I can honestly say Natalia and I went five times a week. I couldn’t even run – I power walked 20 pounds off in four months. My husband would get up and feed the baby while I was at the 6:15 a.m. class at the gym and slowly I gained ground on my metabolism. My fight back to fitness was an all-out war but I’m getting there with the help of a great program and a great support group.”
“If you’re competitive, if you don’t want to have chronic low-grade pain, if you want to be kind to your horse by riding well, you will find it important to find an exercise routine that works to keep you supple and strong,” Halpin concluded. “Just do it. I have 23 horses on the farm, an 8-month-old, and a mortgage to pay without a major sponsor and I find the time, so just do it.”
Pan Am Games team gold medalist Tamra Smith and Mai Baum and five-star pairs Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 and Frankie Thieriot Stutes and Chatwin headline a strong Advanced field when Twin Rivers begins an exciting season of eventing competition this weekend.
The USEA Future Event Horse (FEH) and Young Event Horse (YEH) programs have around 30 qualifying competitions each, and youngsters around the country are about to begin their seasons aimed at Championships.
As the season begins to turn, the temperature begins to drop, turnout time becomes more limited, schedules shift to accommodate the waning daylight and the possibility for a colicky horse increases. While the exact environmental causes of colic are not well understood, a commonly accepted theory is that any abrupt changes to a horse’s environment or schedule can increase the risk of colic.