Performance physiology and rider fitness: Riders are athletes too!
She is the ReemAcra FEI World Cup Dressage Champion for the years 2011 and 2012. In 2009, at the European Championships in Windsor, UK, she won individual gold medals in the Grand Prix Special and the Freestyle. In 2010, at the World Championship in Kentucky, USA, she experienced an unfortunate low point in her career when her horse bit himself on the underside of his tongue during the pair’s Grand Prix test. The pair were disqualified from the rest of the competition because of blood on the horse’s mouth. Only one year later, at the 2011 European Championships in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, she practiced the art of one-upmanship and won individual gold in the Special and Freestyle. A gold medal at the Olympic Games in London 2012 would have been the proverbial icing on the cake. But even the silver medal she managed to procure in the end was no mean feat considering the formidable competition, the likes of which no Olympics had ever seen before. ‘She’ is of course none other than the Dutch equestrian, Adelinde Cornelissen.
A former English teacher turned dressage superstar, she completed the rise to the upper echelons of the dressage world on the back of the chestnut KWPN gelding, Parzival, who, by Adelinde’s own account, was not the most straightforward horse in his youth. In addition to the obvious tenacity she showed by persevering when others would have given up long ago, she clearly possesses another vital trait that has helped her in the pursuit of excellence. Adelinde is absolutely and unfailingly dedicated, not simply to her horses (a trait that probably all top riders share) but also to getting herself in the best possible mental and physical shape she can be. Adelinde Cornelissen has evidently embraced what it means to be a top rider
– and in preparation for the London Olympics she turned herself into a top athlete too. Her fitness programme was composed and supervised by Tjalling van den Berg, one of the Netherlands’ top gymnastic coaches. Under van den Berg’s expert guidance – and let us not forget that the physical demands of gymnastics are gruelling, demanding a combination of strength, flexibility, power and coordination – Adelinde worked on just about every aspect of fitness imaginable. She was taught to control every muscle in her body separately, she improved her core
stability and posture, coordination and reflexes through a combination of breathing exercises, boxing and rope skipping, balancing on a skipping ball and juggling. In addition to the ‘mere’ physical aspects of this strenuous training programme, which also included a nutritional dimension, her new-found fitness seems to have honed her concentration skills, her commitment and her ability to work towards her goal in a single-minded manner even further – elements from which riders, no matter what level they are at, can benefit. Incidentally, the fact that Adelinde chose to look for innovative solutions outside of her own sport is indicative of another quality of top athletes: being able to think ‘outside of the box’ rather than sticking to the tried-and-tested routines of those that have gone before her. Fitness and riding – in the past, these two concepts did not always go together
naturally. Non-riders frequently joke that in equestrian sports ‘the horse does all the work’. Riders generally know better and will testify that trying to make an animal approximately ten times their own weight do what they wish it to do constitutes a physically highly demanding activity. However, as with a number of other sports, riding horses can be pursued at a leisurely pace or more vigorously, such as in competition. Both the demands on the human (and equine) body and subsequent effects on rider fitness over time are likely to differ considerably, both at different levels of riding and in different disciplines. Furthermore, equestrianism is one of the very few sports where men and women compete on equal terms, giving rise to the idea that some of the innate superior physical attributes of men (see below) provide little to no advantages (Whitaker et al. 2012; Westerling 1983). Following a spate of high-profile deaths in the sport of eventing in the years of
1999 and, more recently, in 2007, the notion that rider fitness may be an important factor in improving both safety and performance has gained renewed strength. It can only be hoped that the high-profile example of Adelinde Cornelissen might inspire more riders to embrace their own fitness with the same enthusiasm. This chapter analyzes and evaluates existing empirical evidence regarding rider physiology, while at the same time providing a better understanding of the general physiological requirements of the different equestrian disciplines. Broader principles from the field of general sport science will help to place equestrian fitness into context, while also providing a better understanding of the direction rider training should take in future.