Could a Happy Horse Make for a Better Athlete?

By: on Monday, May 8, 2017

“Dressage horses need the agility of a ballet dancer and the strength of a football player” international top level dressage rider Katherine Bateson-Chandler responds when asked what kind of athletic abilities dressage horses require to get to the top of their sport. “People sometimes underestimate how athletically versatile dressage horses have to be. Dressage horses are true athletes!” she points out.


Versatility is something Katherine knows a lot about. She grew up in England but now divides her time between beautiful Wellington, Florida, where she rides and trains with Debbie McDonald during the winter months and Europe in the summers, where she rides and trains with Carl Hester. Training with Carl Hester has taught her a lot about the importance of cross training her dressage horses.   “I have seen a big difference in my horses, both physically and mentally, since I changed to this type of training.”

“The best way to keep horses from getting hurt is to keep them fit” Katherine says. “The soundest horse is a fit horse. I used to ride in the ring 6 days a week – now I do maybe 3 days in the ring and the other days we cross train.” She considers herself lucky to have a large field to ride in, providing her with a variety of surface, the opportunity to focus on cardiovascular fitness and the ability of providing her horses with a mentally varied program.


Cross training allows her to keep from over-training her horses, both physical and mentally. Striving to keep her horses happy and positive at all times is a corner stone of her training program. Katherine harbors a keen interest in horse psychology and is aware that the mental part of training is as important as the physical – and that they are often intertwined. When encountering  ‘behavior issues’ (for example a horse being ‘grumpy’ or ‘negative’) she always takes into consideration that these are most likely  training issues (as in over training). “Perhaps the horses is sore and has no other way of communicating this” she points out. Katherine uses her grooming time to evaluate her horse for soreness every day. “We do carrot stretches on a regular basis. Alcazar also receives acupuncture when I feel he may benefit from it.”




How can amateur riders design a fitness program for their horse(s)?

So, how about the every-day amateur dressage rider? How can they design a fitness program for their horse? “Dressage riders tend to ride the same horse every day” Katherine responds. “It can therefore be difficult to really assess changes. It can be helpful to make a practice/habit out of closely observing their horse’s physical condition.” Katherine suggests taking a picture once a month to objectively evaluate changes in body composition and muscle tone/development. She also encourages riders to monitor their horse’s ‘behavior,’ paying particular attention to any sudden changes.

Rider Fitness

So, dressage horses are definitely athletes – but what about dressage riders? Katherine encourages her students to start an exercise program but does not think it is necessary for them to do it every day. “It is better to do something than nothing” she exclaims with a big smile. “Sometimes just adding a few small but targeted exercises can make a big difference.”



Katherine herself has had the pleasure of working with sports physiotherapist  Andy Thomas, currently the High Performance Human Science and Sports Medicine Advisor to the US Equestrian Team. Andy has developed a Rider Analysis System that allows him to screen riders for muscular imbalances, weaknesses and tightness. “Riding,” Andy comments “is a sport that tests symmetry like no other.” He continues to say that “Katherine, like many dressage riders, pays great attention to detail. She was very keen to figure out why certain movements were a bit tricky for her. In doing the assessment and exercises she had a light bulb moment.”

Perhaps it was her love for detail that led Katherine to take up Pilates, which she currently does three times a week.  “I do a pretty intense form of Pilates,” she notes. “I go with my friend, another rider, and we keep each other accountable, which really helps!!”


For more about Katherine Bateson-Chandler, visit



About the Author:

Anna Nielsen
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