Sep 28, 2019

The Power of Strength Training with Shelley Thomas

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Photo courtesy of Shelley Thomas.

Shelley Thomas has been a horseback rider her whole life, and that combined with her background in physical therapy prompted her to found Intrepid Wellness and work with riders to help them recover from injuries, improve strength, and get in both physical and mental shape for riding.

“I’ve been a rider and competitor all my life and I always wanted to work with riders,” Thomas said. “I personally experienced a huge plateau in my riding. I was just in this frustrated place where you’re getting training for your horse and you’re getting a new saddle and you’re taking more riding lessons and all that kind of stuff. One day I turned to myself in the mirror and said, ‘If you were one of my clients, I’d tell you to spend more time on yourself. Go to the gym, get fit, make sure you get enough sleep, do the visualization exercises. Get your mind in a better place and realize that you’re half the partnership.’”

“I’m a physical therapist and I’ve worked on the rehab side of things, but I’d always wanted to work on the wellness side and help people prevent injuries and be better competitors. When I had that experience personally, I realized that this is what I wanted to do.”

In 2012, Thomas was in a riding accident that resulted in a fairly serious head injury that left her sidelined from riding. “We were at a competition outside of Portland, Oregon, and nobody really saw what happened but somehow my horse and I both went down,” Thomas recalled. “Coming back from that was hard – between the broken bones and the head injury I wasn’t allowed to get back on and ride. Weeks and weeks passed and when I finally got back on, I was afraid.”

“Through my fear and anxiety, I let myself get out of shape, and that magnified the whole thing,” she continued. “That’s what I tell riders – we always say mindset is everything but I actually think in the game of mindset versus physical fitness, you should go to the gym and get started with your fitness because if you get confident in your body that is going to radiate confidence into your riding which will help with your mindset. That was the path I finally had to embrace, and it helped tremendously.”

When it comes to working out outside of the saddle, Thomas is a big believer in efficiency. “I think as riders we’re just really busy people and, for the most part, we get a lot of activity. If you think of exercise as a spectrum from just strolling along to a super high intensity or long training, riders get a lot of lower intensity activity in their lives.”

Photo courtesy of Shelley Thomas.

Because riders lack high intensity exercise in their day-to-day lives, Thomas likes to focus on intense workouts kept to an efficient schedule. “In my workouts, I’m really focused four to five days a week on working out really hard for 20-30 minutes. I lift weights 2-3 days a week and I target the muscles of the core and posterior chain – those big muscle groups on the back side of the body – because I think that’s what helps keep riders balanced in the saddle and able to handle forces from the horse. And then a couple of days a week I do cardio.”

There are a few specific exercises that Thomas thinks are especially beneficial for horseback riders. “The purpose of our core is to resist motion – it’s to keep us stable and resist forces through space. There’s an exercise called the pallof press, and there are all different variations and you can either use a cable system at a gym or resistance bands if you’re working at home. Pull it tight, your core is engaged to keep you from rotating, and then you move the band through space. That’s probably one of my favorites.”

“I also think a properly done plank and all the variations of plank are really good for riders, and I think deadlifting is fantastic for us,” she continued. “It gets the hamstrings, glutes, the back extensors, and to do a proper deadlift you have to really engage the core to do it correctly. People are afraid of deadlifts, I find, because they think they’re so hard on your back, but actually it’s a hip hinge movement. It’s a matter of doing it right.”

Overall, Thomas thinks that a successful fitness program is one you like to do. So, pick a form of exercise that you like, because you’re more likely to stick with it. “Go after something that you really enjoy because that’s what you’re going to be consistent with and consistency is the most important thing,” she said. “If you like everything, I think resistance training and lifting weights is incredibly important – you get the most bang for your buck in terms of the time you spend in the gym to the outcome on a horse. But I think, right behind that, pilates and yoga are fantastic for riding.”

“The thing about riding is it doesn’t require an extreme level of fitness, and so we can get on a horse and be kind of generally fit and generally ride okay, but I think we underestimate the importance that we’re half of the athletic team with our horse, and the impact our balance and our alignment has on a horse’s performance,” Thomas concluded. “The only way you get the strength and alignment, just like with any sport, is you have to go and break it down into pieces and practice those, and that has to be done off the horse. Then, when you ride, you can do your part of the job. I think that we often miss that because we can get the job done without it, but if we are physically fit and have good body alignment, we can get the job done so much better.”

If you have a unique fitness routine, the USEA wants to hear from you! Email [email protected] with your fitness routines, stories, or advice. To read other articles about rider fitness, click here.

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Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered!

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