Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks by Heather Sansom
C 2016 Trafalgar Square Books, North Pomfret, VT, 199 pages
Heather Sansom’s new book, Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks, is not the type of book I would normally pick up. Over the years, I have seen a multitude of different work out plans geared towards equestrians, and I have not ever done one of them. As an instructor, though, I am always on the lookout for new ways to help riders connect with better awareness of their own bodies, as well as exercises which they can use to improve their overall suppleness, strength and muscle tone. Work out plans might not appeal to me—but they certainly do resonate with some of my students.
Sansom is a certified personal fitness trainer and an equestrian coach through Equine Canada, as well as a Level 1 Centered Riding instructor. She merges her fields of expertise to manage her business, Equifitt.com, and offers fitness and conditioning coaching to all levels of rider. In Fit to Ride, Sansom shows that she clearly understands the unique demands which equestrian sport place upon a rider, and I found her book easy to read and absorb.
Sansom leads the book off in chapter one with a short essay on the critical importance of rider fitness. She reminds readers that, “the rider influences the horse in ways beyond most people’s immediate perception, and the way a rider uses her body greatly impacts the way the horse is enabled or blocked from using his….the relationship is biomechanical. Since there are feedback loops…going in both directions (rider to horse, and horse to rider), both species can impact one another….working together with horses is a lifelong quest for harmony” (Sansom, 2016, pp 2-3). This is a theme which I frequently preach in my own teaching, and it was heartening to hear the refrain offered from the perspective of a fitness professional.
One of the challenges for the human equestrian athlete is that riding alone rarely allows us to develop sufficient straightness, suppleness and stamina, the “Holy Grail” of rider fitness, according to Sansom. Unfortunately, “the horse’s imbalances and strain issues correspond very closely to physical patterns evidenced in his most frequent rider” (Sansom, 2016, p 4). It is therefore incumbent upon the thoughtful horseman to develop sufficient body awareness as well as fitness in order to allow the horse to develop to their fullest potential. “In all disciplines, the goals are to enable your horse to understand what you ask and be physically fit to perform it, and then for you to stay out of his way so that he can move in ways his body is designed to move to perform the task” (Sansom, 2016, p 5). And according to the author, many non-equestrian fitness programs actually focus on strengthening the human body in ways which will prevent, not enhance, good riding.
Enter Sansom’s nine week fitness plan, one which she says allows “you [to] return to basics and do a physical “foundational reset” that will improve not only your enjoyment of your ride but also harmony with your horse” (Sansom, 2016, p 6). The progressive exercises all have both basic and advanced modifications to address individual rider needs, and are designed to fit into a busy equestrian’s lifestyle (the recommended timing is three 30 minute sessions per week for nine weeks). Each week’s exercises find ways to address the common needs which all riders have for balance, symmetry, suppleness, cross-body coordination and awareness, as well as stamina, core strength and flexibility. As the weeks proceed, the plan adds in additional discipline specific exercises. The entire plan is meant to meld with and be a complement to other fitness activities that the rider might already be doing.
Sansom understands that riders mostly want to ride, and that supplemental exercise activities are meant to be a chance to “get out of the ring” so to speak. She mentions that “many times, I find riders with a problem avoid fixing it” (Sansom, 2016, p 15) and that “people who need the stretching the most often have the least patience for it” (Sansom, 2016, p 81)—both things I see as an instructor on an almost daily basis. If you have tight hamstrings, locked ankles, rolled shoulders—the only person who can do the work to make the problem area better is you. “Just trying a new exercise to the best of your ability has benefits,” says Sansom (p 15). This is no different than introducing a basic suppling exercise to your mount; they might not make it to the wall in the leg yield, but the horse will no doubt still receive benefit from attempting the exercise. Sansom certainly does her best to make a persuasive case for why riders will benefit from her nine week plan.
From my perspective as a riding instructor, though, the real highlight of Sansom’s book was in chapters two through four, a section titled, “Training the Rider’s Body”. In Chapter 2, “Good Training is About Building Balance”, Sansom breaks down in clear detail the components of flexibility, core strength, strength and balance, and stamina, areas which all riders must address. She includes anatomical discussion supported with excellent, clear visual depictions to help readers understand the how, what and why of each type of fitness. In Chapter 3, “The Important Core Muscles”, Sansom goes into greater detail regarding the specific muscles which help to control the rider’s body while in the saddle. In this section, I was able to draw many correlations between her work and that of Hilary Clayton for horses. Again, this chapter is exquisitely illustrated, helping to show how the various muscle groups overlap and intersect with each other and with the skeleton of the rider. In Chapter 4, “The Differences Between Riding Disciplines,” Sansom helps readers to understand how she has grouped disciplines which might seem quite different (roping and eventing, for one example) based upon the type of fitness required of the rider.
Overall, Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks is an equestrian fitness plan that has been made as palatable as possible for the skeptical rider. Sansom explains exactly what the rider can hope to gain by completing her plan, provides options for many exercises to accommodate individual rider strengths and weaknesses and provides superb illustrations throughout the book (including models demonstrating the exercises themselves). For me, it is worth the read for Section 2 alone, and I think this is a book which should earn itself a place on any serious instructor’s shelf.