Cardiovascular Training for the Equestrian

Cardiovascular Training for the Equestrian

by Robin Levine

No matter what equestrian sport you participate in, cardiovascular fitness is essential. Riding requires adequate energy, stamina and endurance. And because riding, in and of itself, does not provide an adequate training stimulus, to improve one’s health it is necessary to participate in a comprehensive exercise program addressing all three components of fitness. Well-conditioned equestrians, who possess a strong cardiovascular system, perform better, recover more quickly, sustain fewer injuries and experience less fatigue. And because their bodies can handle the physical stress of riding, they have better control over their horse.

Cardiovascular fitness conditions your heart, lungs and circulatory system. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) Personal Training Manual defines cardio respiratory fitness as “the capacity of the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the blood, and the circulatory system’s ability to transport blood and nutrients to metabolically active tissues for sustained periods without undue fatigue.” Cardiovascular health is the foundation for all fitness programs, is an essential component of fitness and is directly related to one’s cardiac health. Aerobic fitness is acquired by participating in any weight bearing, rhythmic exercise that involves the large muscle groups, such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, step aerobics, or, for example, climbing a stair master.

The benefits of aerobic exercise go far beyond increased endurance, stamina, and/or improved performance. Riders, who engage in regular aerobic exercise will; improve the health of their heart muscle, blood vessels, circulatory system, decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. It will also help to lower trigylceride, and LDL cholesterol levels, increase body fat utilization, increase maximal oxygen consumption, and decrease peripheral vascular resistance.

Before starting an aerobic exercise program consider your goals. Your goals will determine how long you exercise for, at what intensity and determine the type of aerobic exercise you will engage in. Is your goal to improve your general health? Lose weight? Improve your competitive performance? No matter your goal, it is imperative that you consider the frequency, intensity and time (FIT) of your aerobic exercise. How frequently do you plan on exercising? How much effort (intensity) are you going to exert and how much time are you going to commit to exercising? These three variables are vital in planning, and executing your cardiovascular exercise program, depending on your goals, fitness level, weight, age, etc. It is important that you only change one variable at a time. For example, if you choose to begin an exercise program by walking 5 days a week, at a moderate intensity, for 30 minutes, it is advisable to maintain this regiment for a number of weeks before changing/increasing one of the variables. Therefore, after a few weeks, you could either choose to increase the number of days you walk (frequency) add a couple of hills to your workout (intensity), or walk for 60 minutes, rather than 45 minutes (time), but you can only change one of these variables at a time otherwise the workout may become too challenging increasing the risk of injury, muscle pain, and/or other health issues.

If you are beginning an exercise program it is important to start an aerobic workout gradually progressing over time. It is recommended that those new to fitness start at a low intensity for short durations increasing physical challenges slowly as your body adapts to the added stress. When starting out exercising every other day for the first 8 weeks is a good idea. If you are in average physical condition three exercise sessions per week, alternating days is appropriate. Always pace yourself especially if you are beginning a new fitness routine. The American Heart Association recommends “at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of moderate/vigorous activities), with 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week being easy to remember.” And you can divide that time into segments. So, for example, if you have 15 minutes to devote to exercise in the morning, before heading to the barn, and 15 minutes in the evening, splitting up the sessions is ok. What matters is that you find the time for fitness training despite your busy day! And you can mix up your fitness program by varying the intensity of your workouts. For instance, two days out of the week work moderately, and two days challenge yourself by exercising more vigorously.

So, how can you tell that you are exercising hard enough to illicit a physical change? Vo2 Max, or maximal oxygen uptake, measures how efficiently oxygen enters our lungs, moves into our circulatory system and is utilized by our muscles. Basically, an athletically fit individual, when compared to an unfit individual, will transport and use oxygen more efficiently, thus improving Vo2 max. Maximum oxygen uptake is the main goal of aerobic training. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests an exercise intensity range of 50-85% heart rate. Beginners are advised to aim for 50-60% of maximum oxygen consumption and the average exercise intensity for healthy, fit adults fall between 60-70% maximum oxygen uptake. Remember that moderate intensity exercise reduces LDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure, risk of heart disease, diabetes, and anxiety. It also increases one’s glucose tolerance.

There are several reliable methods used to measure exercise intensity. They include; target heart rate (THR), rate of perceived exertion, the talk test and METS. The first, target heart rate calculates your heart rate as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. Keeping track of your THR will allow you to chart your progress as you become progressively more fit. You can use this simple equation to determine your target heart rate range;

220 – age = ___ x .50 = ___ then x .85 =___

For example, 220 – 47yrs = 173, 173 x .50 = 87, 173 x .85 = 147, therefore this person’s target heart rate range is between 87 – 147.

If this person’s THR fell below 87, while exercising, they would need to work harder because the exercise intensity would not put enough demand on their heart/lungs, and insufficient to obtain a training response. If, on the other hand, this individual’s THR is over 147, it would indicate they were working too hard, placing too much stress on their body.


Measuring your THR requires that you take your pulse while exercising, or if desired a THR monitor can be used. Your pulse is simply your heart rate, or the number of times it beats in a minute. Pulse rates vary from person to person. Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats at rest. It is best to take your RHR first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. The average RHR is 60-80 beats per minute (bpm), but if you’re physically fit your RHR may be lower. RHR usually increases as you get older. Taking your pulse, while exercising, is easiest by placing your index, second and third fingers on the side of your wrist, at the base of your thumb. While pressing your fingers lightly on your wrist use a watch, with a second hand, and count the beats you feel for 10 seconds, then multiply this number by six to figure out your heart rate. A normal adult pulse runs between 60-100 bpm. You can measure your pulse periodically while exercising. Remember to pace yourself. Start in the low end of your THR, especially if you are just starting an exercise program for the first time, and gradually challenge your body, over a few weeks. If you feel tired, or the exercise seems too hard, slow down. Do not over do it! It may take six months before you can exercise comfortably in your THR zone. Expect your heart rate to decrease as you become more fit. Fitness improvements depend on age, fitness level, type of training, and intensity. Unfit individuals will improve quickly over the course of a few months if exercising consistently.

The second way to monitor your exercise intensity is called Rate of Perceived Exertion. This method requires you to assign a numerical value, based on your own subjective feelings, in regards to how hard you are exercising. For example, you can assign a number 1-10, with 1 corresponding to “very easy” and 10, “very difficult.” This makes it easy to assess how challenging the fitness routine is, and helps you to decide whether to increase and/or decrease the intensity at which you are working.

The third way to monitor your exercise intensity is called the Talk Test. This simple, and subjective, approach, basically helps you assess whether, or not, you are working in your comfort zone. You should find it difficult to carry on a conversation, but, at the same time, should not be hyperventilating. If you can carry on a conversation then you are not working hard enough, or if you can sing a song (Row, Row, Row Your Boat), and maintain your pace, then again, you are not working hard enough. When talking/singing becomes a challenge you are most likely in your target heart rate zone.

Lastly, exercise intensity can be measured through graded fitness testing. One’s metabolic equivalent, or MET, can be measured, but it requires specialized testing at a fitness club. According to the American Heart Association, a MET is, “a ratio comparing a person’s metabolic rate while seated and resting to their metabolic rate while performing some task.” There is a wide range of fitness levels based on MET measurements, starting at 1.5 MET for low intensity exercise all the way up to 20 METs for high intensity exercise, with an average of 8 METs for most moderate activities.


Beginning a Cardiovascular Exercise Program


Before beginning an aerobic fitness program it is important to consider your goals. Do you want to improve your riding performance? Increase your stamina and endurance? Lose weight? Lower your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and/or stress? Remember that before starting out you need to obtain clearance from your physician if you suffer from any chronic disease, including cardiovascular, diabetes, high blood pressure, or musculoskeletal injuries.

If you are a beginner, it is imperative that you start out slowly, and gradually. If you’re just starting an aerobic fitness program, such as walking, jogging, or step aerobics, for example, go slowly. Those who are de-conditioned need to start by engaging in 5-10 minutes of aerobic exercise. Those with low cardiovascular endurance can begin with 10-20 minutes of aerobic conditioning, whereas the average person can engage in 15-45 minutes, and those who are in top physical condition can workout for up to 60 minutes or longer.

Walking is an excellent first choice! It is free, easy, fun and can become a social event if friends join in. Studies show that working out with a spouse or friends, helps keep you motivated and adhering to an exercise routine. It’s also a great choice for beginners, the overweight, and for people over 60 years old. And there is less risk of injury for those who choice walking as their first choice of exercise. According to the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research, 10,000 steps a day is likely to meet the minimum requirements of physical activity. Studies show that 10,000 steps a day is the equivalent of thirty minutes of moderate exercise. If you successfully work up to 12-16,000 steps per day you will fall into the “physically active” category. Buy a pedometer, that’s accurate and easy to wear, comfortable walking shoes, and get moving! Increasing the amount of steps you take is easier than you think. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park your car far away from wherever you’re heading, or, for instance, leave the golf cart and walk the course for a change of pace! Walking, however, does not burn as many calories as jogging/running. One would need to walk faster than 5mph to equal one mile of running! So, add some hills to your walking route to help burn more calories. And remember, as you find yourself feeling stronger, and more fit, always progress by increasing the duration of your walk, before you increase the intensity. If you decide to begin a running/jogging program begin by jogging/running every other day, 1-4 days per week for 25-30 minutes for the first 6-8 weeks. And remember that you burn more calories by increasing your running/jogging speed. In terms of weight loss, it is recommended that you burn 500 calories per day, or 3500 calories per week, to lose 1- 1.5 lbs. Studies show that to lose weight 60-90 minutes of exercise, 5 days a week may be necessary. Watching your calorie intake is also vital to losing weight. You can either burn the calories, or eat less caloric foods to reach your weight loss goals. No matter, it is a simple equation; “energy in = energy out, your weight remains the same.” However, if the energy in (calories) exceeds energy out, there is an increase in stored energy and you gain weight, whereas, if energy intake is less than energy out, there will be a decrease in stored energy and you lose weight. It’s that simple!

Before starting your aerobic exercise of choice always warm up, and cool down upon finishing. Warming up is essential for many reasons. It allows your body to gradually adapt, and prepare, for the increasing physical demands of exercise. This includes, increasing the temperature and elasticity of your muscles, improves blood flow, and psychologically prepares you for exercise. The cool down, on the other hand, decreases blood flow, thus preventing a drop of blood pressure. It also prevents muscle spasms and stiffness, allowing you to stretch warm muscles without tension. It is recommended to warm up and cool down for about 10 minutes by performing a slower version of your choice of exercise.

Types of Training

There are many types of aerobic training to choose from. Popular cardiovascular exercise includes walking, jogging, running, cycling, stair climbing, step aerobics, tennis, racquetball, hiking, even backpacking! And household chores cannot be discounted either. Barn chores, riding, gardening, vacuuming, and cleaning all help to burn calories and improve aerobic capacity. Don’t discount them!

You can choose between continuous training, where, for example, you run/jog for 30-60 min at a time without stopping, or you can choose interval training (circuit training), where you move through a series of exercise stations with brief rests in between, alternating from intense bouts of exercise to less intense ones. It is important to understand that exercising at a moderate pace for longer periods of time is equivalent to exercising at higher intensities for a shorter period of time. For those in good physical shape, who have challenging schedules, running, for example, for 30 minutes, at an intense speed, will save valuable time compared to running at a moderate speed for 60 minutes.

Studies show that running on a treadmill burns the most calories, and is less damaging to your joints than running on pavement. So, for those with no musculoskeletal issues, or joint problems, running/jogging is a good choice of aerobic exercise. Cycling has similar benefits to running/jogging and is an excellent choice for anyone suffering from orthopedic injuries, or joint problems because it’s not hard on your body. You can also bike indoors or out, thus leaving no room for excuse not to exercise!

Swimming is a good choice of aerobic exercise for those with chronic orthopedic injuries because you are buoyant and weightless in the water. Compared to any land based form of exercise, swimming will not raise your heart rate, resulting in a HR 10 bpm less. Nor does it burn as many calories as other modes of aerobic exercise.

American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines

Adults under 65 years old – moderate intense aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week or vigorous intense aerobic exercise for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week, and do 8-10 strength training exercises, 8-12 repetitions of each exercise twice a week

Adults over 65 years old – moderate intense aerobic exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week or vigorous intense aerobic exercise 20 minutes a day, three days a week, and do 8-10 strength training exercises, 10-15 repetitions of each exercise twice to three times per week, and if you are at risk of falling, perform balance exercises, and have a physical activity plan

(moderate intensity exercise = hard enough to raise your heart rate, and break a sweat, yet pass the Talk Test)

Important Warnings

Beginners, as well as seasoned athletes, need to be aware of a number of specific health issues surrounding aerobic exercise. Some of these involve fatigue states, and others warning signs that need to be immediately addressed.

1.Abnormal cardiac symptoms – if you feel any chest pain, burning, tightness, nausea, heart palpatations, light headedness, and or dizziness while exercising STOP and consult your physician.
2.Continuous muscle pain – if you feel any discomfort or pain while exercising discontinue the activity and consult your physician. Muscle pain could be caused from overuse, ligament and/or tendon strains.
3.Overtraining syndrome – when we engage in high volume or endurance training we can suffer from muscular pain, mood and sleep disturbances, appetite loss, and generalized soreness.
4. Exercising in hot climates – increased body temperature can be dangerous. Drink adequate amounts of water. Symptoms; lethargy, fatigue, low heart rate. Don’t over exercise in hot, humid environments.
5. Lactic acid build- when one can no longer keep up the pace or intensity, also may experience muscle weakness.
6. Carbohydrate depletion – within 60-80 minutes the body will start to deplete itself of carbohydrates. But remember; do not eat for at least 90 minutes.