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"Dressage is the most physical work of any of the three English riding disciplines"

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  • "Dressage is the most physical work of any of the three English riding disciplines" is a good Chronicle article on the physical demands of riding, particularly dressage. I agree with a great deal of it, but since reading it this morning, one sentence has been niggling at me because I'm not so sure that I agree:

    "Every upper-level event rider I've ever spoken to on the subject agrees—dressage is the most physical work of any of the three English riding disciplines."

    Now, I'm certainly NOT an upper-level event rider, but I think I have enough experience for an informed opinion. I've fox hunted for two decades. In eventing, I've gone as far as a CIC* and a training three-day. In dressage, I've shown through 4th and am schooling PSG. I look back on what has been the most physical "work" for me, and I don't think dressage wins hands down.

    Gallop sets with short stirrups, or long runs on a coyote that start three hours into the hunt take a physical toll—very different from dressage but similarly demanding. I think dressage demands more of your core strength day in and day out, but the most muscle burn I've experienced is long conditioning sets with super short stirrups (how on earth do those jockeys do it?) and the most physically fatigued I've been is a long day of whipping in after fast coyotes in big country on a game thoroughbred.

    I'm curious what others here think: is dressage really the most physical work of your riding?
    Last edited by Badger; Aug. 12, 2013, 10:47 PM.
    Hindsight bad, foresight good.

  • #2
    If dressage really is the most physical then I'm not doing it right!

    (I kinda already knew that... ) - Lets build your dream barn


    • #3
      At a competition.....yes, dressage is the most physically demanding most of the time for me (but not always)...primarily because of the length of time--you are just often riding longer and a 6 minute xc course just isn't that long. But I don't see the riders at Rolex looking as winded getting done with dressage as they do after xc (and a longer course).

      I'd agree with you, trot and canter sets in short stirrups take it out of me...legs and core. But I also think it REALLY depend on what you are sitting on. On my big WB/cross....yes...dressage is DAMN physical on him...not as much on my OTTBs. But so is galloping and jumping....but given a choice...I'd much rather gallop and jump him than do flat work. Not sure if that is because I have more fun galloping and jumping so the work doesn't seem as bad as doing dressage
      ** Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. ~Winston Churchill? **


      • #4
        Galloping cross country with short stirrups requires a lot more stamina. IMHO.
        If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats. - Lemony Snicket


        • #5
          I've been laid out and so sore I've not been able to go up and down stairs the day after my first gallop sets of the year. Dressage has never done that to me.


          • #6
            Gallop a tough racehorse 2+ miles then come back and tell me how demanding dressage is.

            But I still loved the rest of the blog.

            "Pat the horse; kick yourself" - Carl Hester


            • #7
              She actually says something about jockeys in the blog.

              Honestly, I've ridden with Lauren....she KILLS me. She also gets an almost sadistic pleasure (I say that totally tongue in cheek) that she can wear UL event horses out. Good dressage IS hard work. I definitely find a good, hard dressage school more exhausting than any other kind of ride I do. Even gallops (especially now that i'm galloping strong).

              The only time I find xc/galloping more tiring is at an event. And that I think is from the adrenalin let down.


              • #8
                It is also a little hard to compare, because it is like asking is a killer Pilates class harder than a half marathon (I do a lot of both). The half marathon makes you winded and requires endurance, but it isn't difficult physically in the sense of having to really make your muscles cooperate and work correctly. I do find dressage much more challenging. I am sweating much more after a dressage lesson than after any sort of galloping or jumping work and much more likely to be sore from dressage than from anything else.
                OTTBs rule, but spots are good too!


                • #9
                  Some research on actual physical effort of riding

                  "Good young horses are bred, but good advanced horses are trained" Sam Griffiths


                  • #10
                    Grooming and tacking up your horse in 90% humidity is the most physical work of all disciplines anywhere.
                    Life doesn't have perfect footing.

                    Bloggily entertain yourself with our adventures (and disasters):
                    We Are Flying Solo


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by wildlifer View Post
                      Grooming and tacking up your horse in 90% humidity is the most physical work of all disciplines anywhere.
                      Ha! Especially when you have to go to the back pasture to get him before the ride, and he's back by the upper fence. And you have to go uphill. Both ways.
                      Blog chronicling our new eventing adventures: Riding With Scissors


                      • #12
                        I most certainly do agree with Lauren. In fact, I am fairly certain that my statements this past weekend to both Lauren and Michael Barisone were among the statements that triggered this blog.

                        I am a student of Lauren's and my dressage has come a long way under her in only six months, with lessons only twice a month. I rode in the clinic with Michael this past weekend. I was the only upper level eventer at the clinic.

                        Every lesson I have with Lauren leaves my legs and arms rubbery. Both of my clinic sessions with Michael left me obliterated. He barely let me off a twenty meter circle, and we spent the entire time just working on improving the quality of my horse's gaits. By the end, we looked like a million bucks. For a few strides at a time. Until I messed it up. Then Michael would help me fix it.

                        We run Advanced. I do gallop sets. I've felt the calf burn. I've had my shoulders burn, when my horse decides it's a freight train kind of day. I've had it burn for 7 or 8 minutes at a time. The difference is that I get a two minute breather for my muscles in between each 7 or 8 minute set.

                        Sitting the trot for 15 minutes straight and truly getting my horse in the trot he needs absolutely murders me.

                        Part of that may be because I am simply not used to it. Michael told me to 'toughen up' and he was absolutely right. My instinctual position is a galloping two point. It's easy for me. Sitting the trot is not. Sitting the trot is like doing leg presses and crunches simultaneously over and over and over. The first few minutes are fine, but after a bit, I'm dying. And I have to grit my teeth and bear it.

                        Lung endurance has always been easy for me. I'm the kind of person who can run two miles after not running for six months. I'm convinced I have abnormally large lungs (no, really!). The muscles needed for dressage? Those come more slowly.

                        In terms of Lauren's article, keep in mind she says of the three English disciplines, which to me means of the three Olympic disciplines. She even calls out jockeys as being stronger, and I'd throw in exercise riders with them too.

                        In terms of Olympic disciplines though, I completely and totally agree with Lauren, and in fact, am one of the upper level eventers to have told her that.


                        • #13
                          I don't think this is a useful comparison, because the kind of fitness required for the various disciplines is so different.

                          I will say that the fittest I have ever been in my entire life was when I was galloping race horses. When I was getting fit, my knees and ankles were often swollen and sore, as were my arms and shoulders. I don't ever remember my abs getting sore, but in a couple of months I had a 6 pack. I also remember the weight melting off of me when I galloped. I went from a size 14 to a size 8 in a couple of months, and I ate anything that slowed down when it ran by me.

                          When I decided to get serious about learning dressage, and took a lot of lessons and clinics, including a six month stint with lunge line lessons on a school master with a big trot, it was brutal, but in an entirely different way. I had massage and chiropractic on a regular basis to keep the thighs and hips loose and working freely and to keep me from getting crooked, my hip flexors screamed in agony while I tried to master sitting trot, and my abs were really sore from that and mastering half halts. A couple times I got off the horse and had trouble walking, and sometimes I would be sore for days after the lesson.

                          I think riding field hunters, jumpers and event horses falls somewhere between the two. I have certainly finished a hunt or a long, difficult course muscle sore and gasping for air a time or two!

                          Part of the difference was that after all those years of hunt seat riding, opening my pelvis and really sitting and following with the seat was a wildy foreign concept and I was using muscles that I never had before. I will also say that I think the way you use your abs is different - on the race horses, I was mostly holding/bracing with my abs, riding dressage, they had to be strong and flexible, the had to do the contract/release for the half halts and allow the following seat. But it wasn't the aerobic, calorie burning, weight melting workouts that the racehorses were.

                          Everytime I watch a GP test, I watch the rider's seat bones and pelvis and am *amazed* at the amount of work and athleticism involved at riding a horse at that level.

                          But then, I watch horse racing and look at the jocks riding so short their knees are above the withers and my joints scream just looking at it.

                          All UL riders are fit athletes, and all of us can improve our riding by being fitter, is it really necessary to award the title of "most physical?"
                          The plural of anecdote is not data.


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by scubed View Post
                            I am sweating much more after a dressage lesson than after any sort of galloping or jumping work and much more likely to be sore from dressage than from anything else.
                            I agree! Dressage lessons can kill me! But I tend to be lazy about core exercises, while I am pretty good about doing things to strengthen my legs.


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Badger View Post
                              [URL]three English riding disciplines."
                              That caught my eye. I had no idea that I hadn't been riding English my entire life. Apparently I don't. There are more than 3 English disciplines. Saddleseat, people. Harder than it looks. Lauren needs to get more.
                              Visit my Spoonflower shop


                              • Original Poster

                                Originally posted by McGurk View Post
                                All UL riders are fit athletes, and all of us can improve our riding by being fitter, is it really necessary to award the title of "most physical?"
                                Excellent point.

                                I have been struggling with the tempi changes for PSG and decided I need a stronger and more effective core to get it done, so have been working out to the Success in the Saddle DVDs. 20 minute workouts that are pretty miserable but pretty effective.

                                Hindsight bad, foresight good.


                                • #17
                                  absolutely agree.
                                  did you guys read the blog?

                                  Galloping and jumping are childs play. You 2 point or sit and the just balance. That's all.

                                  The majority of riders will never get to the level of which Lauren speaks. Maybe my statement pisses some people off but it's true. What does your warm up for your novice horse or 4 y/o include? Canter serpentines? Counter canter? Shoulder-in? Leg yield and turn on the haunch? Transitions within the gait? Changes in bend within the circle...
                                  What does your warm up for your training horse or 5 y/o include? All the above plus working canter pirouettes? More work sitting on the haunch?

                                  and sit. and keep the gaits expressive.

                                  if not, then you are behind what you COULD be doing. Not everyone has the feel or will to make more happen. Which is fine. But believe me--when you do that kind of stuff. It will kick your butt.

                                  My ass and abbs get itchy from the work my muscles are dishing out. I love it.
                                  : )
                                  Dressage is definitely my love.

                                  Here are the tasty parts:
                                  Yes, at training level there's a lot of room to simply coast along. Posting trot isn't so physically demanding, and the horse is to be ridden forward and fluffy, in self carriage, of course, but looseness and elasticity are the names of the game. Riding young horses, the most physically demanding part of my job at that level is to make sure they turn, and to ride any displays of THEIR athleticism with as much tact as possible (and stay in the damn saddle).
                                  But as early as first level, dressage becomes work. The horse must be straight, and RIDDEN straight. The horse must be balanced, and RIDDEN balanced. These aren't phenomenon that magically happen for most horses. Even the most wonderful, organized, uphill, packaged creature still probably isn't a volunteer.
                                  At second level we now must ride everything in sitting trot, and as easy and effortless as a good rider's sitting trot looks to the layman on the ground, it's a physical task. A good sitting trot engages lots of core muscles, both back and tummy-side. The arms must stay at the sides, but not flop. The rider's neck must be still, but not rigid.
                                  And the legs. Oh man, the driving leg. A horse MUST step into the bridle, always, all the time. A horse MUST stay quick and crisp off the ground. And all that comes from a really impressive amount of leg pressure. But at the same time, it can't be too much leg constantly, or the horse will tune the rider out, nor can it be a ton of upper thigh pressure, lest the rider become a clothespin pinching a bowling ball - the rider will pop himself right out of the tack that way.

                                  And a real sitting trot, the ability to SIT INTO THE HORSE and PUSH ITS HIND LEGS UP INTO THE BRIDLE, that power in the rider's calves and ankles and hamstrings to DRIVE LIKE THE DEVIL, all without any outward signs of hard work, all with looseness and swing? That's the dressage version of a 4-minute mile, a triple lutz, an endzone-to-endzone touchdown. And it's just as much work.

                                  Horses are amazing athletes and make no mistake -- they are the stars of the show!


                                  • #18
                                    I agree with her. While I am no upper-level rider, I do quite a bit of fox hunting and some long galloping runs at that. Nothing gives me all over body shakes like a really strenuous dressage lesson. But like someone else mentioned, it could be that I'm just not conditioning for it. I can two-point and gallop all day and that doesn't bother me but sitting still and pushing a horse forward takes every ounce of neglected core strength I have.
                                    Equestrian and Sporting Oil Paintings
                                    Roxy 2001 APHA, Al Amir 2005 OTTB,
                                    Ten Purposes 2009 OTTB


                                    • #19
                                      Dressage egocentrism, much?

                                      All this about pushing the horse into the bridle -- if you're working that hard all the time, you're not training your horse properly. As in, the horse isn't forward.

                                      Or maybe you just like to work too hard and nag at the horse and drive your seatbones into the saddle. If there's something enjoyable in this, I haven't discovered it. Nor have my horses.

                                      If you're in a dressage lesson and you're exhausted, it's because you're being asked to use different muscles/muscle groups and to really focus on certain things. You're being pushed outside your comfort zone. That's what makes you tired -- the novel neuromuscular demands. This is what you're paying for -- if you incorporate these new patterns of movement into your training, you and your horse should improve. As you improve, it should get less taxing physically. You'll chunk information, you'll develop muscle memory, you'll build muscle strength, you'll improve your balance and body control.

                                      A similarly challenging (i.e., enough novelty) session in anything -- jumping, galloping, violin -- will have the same effect. And it's hard. If a task or exercise is neuromuscularly taxing, you'll find yourself trying to talk yourself out of doing it, especially when you're tired. The body can only handle so much.

                                      (There is a good discussion of this in horses in equine anatomist Jean Marie Denoix's book on massage and physiology.)

                                      All the same, I like that Lauren is concerned about fitness and improving fitness. There is no good reason why a rider should ignore overall fitness.


                                      • #20
                                        My trainer trained with the USET/USEA/? (forgive incorrect terms on my part, I was just born then, and don't know what's correct) in the 70s, so Le Goff, long format.

                                        He later rode GP jumpers.

                                        He says dressage is by far the hardest discipline to him.

                                        I get that for some people it might not be that hard - and I suspect they would be a specific body type which involves very supple hips and long legs, but a not-too-long body. But I definitely get yelled at not to be a wimp regularly, and find that each time I'm strong enough for what we're doing - it allows my horse larger movement which again leaves me soaking in epsom salts to ease my woes.
                                        If Kim Kardashian wants to set up a gofundme to purchase the Wu Tang album from Martin Shkreli, guess what people you DON'T HAVE TO DONATE.