Everything Else

Jon Pitts – Fit to Ride

A while ago I attended a Jon Pitts talk and it was so good that I have included a copy of the notes I took. If you have any questions, hopefully I will be able to clarify further in the comments below. Apologies that it is note form but hopefully its self explanatory!

Jon Pitts – Sports science background, started working with jockeys, became involved in eventing with Team GB at Beijing and worked with Australia for London. 

  • 62 million people think horse riders are insane to even consider getting on a horse.
  • Trauma of falls would put most people off and yet the majority of horse riders will get back on. Asked around the room injuries people had suffered from horses including one who had reconstructive facial surgery. JP said that most people would not even consider carrying on a sport if they had gone through that kind of thing.
  • The brains job is to try and keep you safe and protect you. Due to this the brain will often lie to you this is particularly found in riders tipping forwards where they feel straight but are not. There is often a perception gap between what is real and what the brain is telling you.
  • Technology has really developed in the last 10 years that means you are able to measure riders now which was not possible before.
  • Elite riders do not often know why they are good. They find it difficult to teach feel and lots of them cannot understand how the rider on the horse is just not getting it, they then get on and bingo it happens.
  • Passing of information is getting better but can still be radically improved and horse riding is often behind the times (for instance how often to trainers ask how you like to learn? Or how you process information?)




  • Badminton 15 years ago would have seen 5 possible riders as a winner and now you will see about 20. The margins are so small that riders need to be able to get the best out of a horse.
  • Half pass for instance is easier to get one way than the other and this is due to the rider and not the horse due to asymmetry.
  • A horse should walk in a straight line yet how often does this happen with a rider on top and without them getting involved?
  • When you learn to ride – subconsciously you are working out how to not fall off so you will learn bad habits.
  • No one sits straight on a horse.




  • Confidence waivers.
  • You have to understand why things are not working.
  • They had an elite rider who was struggling with one time tempis – they screwed them up, so came round again and tried harder with a more aggressive aid. When they analysed the video they found that the rider was sitting crooked so the horse could not bring its hind leg under to make the changes. Once this was addressed them they happened.




  • Horses have the highest rate of air ambulance call outs.
  • IOC is very fidgety about horses – for that reason Greenwich was very safe for a reason. If eventing falls off the Olympic roster it will never come back.
  • Can you make people safer? If the brain is trained to do something rather than nothing then you will be better off.
  • In Australia jump racing was banned due to public pressure so safety has to be carefully managed.
  • They are now looking at hunting statistics – in particular safety hat wearing.




  • Technology allows you to measure what is happening.


  • They tried to do V02 tests with sjers before Atlanta where the culture was not one of going to the gym! They took them to Uxbridge and had them doing press ups etc. At the end the sjers said what is the point as we do not need to do that to ride horses?
  • Moral of that experiment was that you need to develop the right fitness for horses.
  • They have lots of info about heart rate (HR), V02 and lactic acid built up in riders. Much of it was done through research on jockeys galloping on a 6f stretch (1min 20 secs).
  • The heart rate was found to be 160bpm which is the same as 200-400m sprinter, they had the same HR as a 100m runner and their leg muscles had also worked as hard as a sprinter.
  • With this information we are now able to compare riders to other sports.
  • All the elite riders wear HR monitors – dressage and sjers were found to be 160bpm. Paul Tapner going round Badminton was 195bpm.
  • They now have such sophisticated GPS it will tell them how fast the horse is travelling, how fast it travels over certain jumps, whether riders find certain jumps easier or harder and they can even see the force that is going through the horse’s skeleton. This will also tell them if the horse is lame.


Physical Properties of Riding

a)      Flight or fight mechanism

b)      Body dominances

c)       Pelvic Function

d)      Respiratory/HR

e)      Suppleness

f)       Flexibility

g)      Balance





  • When anyone gets on a horse their HR will rise.


  • The rise in anxiety is more in some than in others. You might not feel it but there will be a rise in the body.


Body Dominances

  • 70% of people are right handed.
  • Everyone also has a dominant leg. The dominant leg is the one you use to stabilise you and keep you safe. For instance kicking a football the dominant leg is the one you plant to kick the ball. You also have a leg you favour when standing and this will be the platform in case you ever need to run off.
  • In 70% of people this will be their left leg.
  • In relation to riding when you sit on a horse you will be over to the dominant side.
  • Saddle pressure systems show that a horse will feel the seat bones.
  • Any shift in the upper body will change the seat bones.
  • To see this in action walk in a straight line and see if you can keep horse straight through seat bones rather than leg/hand.
  • Interesting – Endurance horses are the only ones who will ignore the seat bones.
  • Harder to get horses going on the right rein as 70% of people are left leg dominant. Riders are normally sat slightly left hence harder to turn on the right.
  • The more you think about this the better you will get – simple thing to practice is zig zags through weighting the seat bones. Horse will get more responsive.
  • A lot of equestrian people never fix themselves properly after injury so will take that into their riding.
  • Para riders – the job is to try and get them balanced as possible. They have to work very hard to to get their bad side balanced.


Pelvic Function

  • Core stability is about linking the legs and the upper body together.
  • The problem with riders is that they are not in contact with the ground so they still need to be linked but they are not using the ground as a foundation.
  • A horse will make the body travel in 3 directions (side to side, up and down, Forwards and backwards).
  • A horse has to lift the shoulders/arch back to put front legs out and move, it cannot just go forwards.
  • Dressage riders need to get the weight off the shoulders to get forwards and get flicky toes in the trot.
  • A leg landing by the horse causes it to push off and then brake which causes deceleration. They have measured this at 2-3mph in gallop.
  • This means that humans are pushed to the limit of performance to try and master all these different elements.
  • There is often a gap from Young Riders to Seniors because the Young Rider has got used to riding one horse and to move on has to master more horses which is hard and they often struggle.
  • When we first get on a horse to learn to ride we bounce and take a while to work out how to get with the movement.
  • The pelvis works very hard to stabilise us.
  • A deeper seat is gained by plugging on the seat bones.
  • A horses back has been proven to be as sensitive as skin around the edge of a humans nail.
  • Exercise to test the pelvis – hands on hips can you move the pelvis forwards and backwards without moving your legs or shoulders? Done through moving the belly button.
  • On a ball lifting one leg will tells you a lot. You should be able to lift both legs equally and while keeping the upper body still. You should not have to think about lifting the leg and stabilising yourself it should become ingrained. If you are struggling use the muscle which you use when desperate for a wee then the upper body will be still. (I am pretty sure this is called bearing down in Ride With Your Mind?)

Respiratory & Heart Rate

  • All elite riders have quite heavy exercise programmes like running up hills.
  • This is because when riding your brain is doing so much work it cannot absorb all the information.
  • On XC you will rarely remember the whole round.
  • Head Cams can really help with this aspect of XC.
  • If you are not fit enough you cannot sustain the brain because the priority for oxygen goes to the heart and lungs.
  • If you are not sustaining your brain then it will affect co-ordination, balance and decision making all the things you need for xc riding!
  • Oxygen needs to get to the brain.


  • German word- The body’s ability to absorb forces acting on it.
  • In elite riders they are looking to get a rider more in tune with the horse which is why dressage riders get such high heart rates because they are having to work so hard to stay in tune.
  • An elite dressage rider will feel the optimum moment to ask for a flying change because they will feel when the correct hind leg has hit the floor.
  • A Formula One driver processes a lot more information when turning a corner than the average driver. It is the high level of detail they will process that is the difference.
  • Suppleness is the extra information which allows you to become at one with the horse.
  • Challenge yourself to be able to feel the horse picking up the left hind and feel what it is doing. Develop this further learning to pick up fine detail.


  • Flexibility is very important for riders.
  • We are designed to move but when we ride it is in a fixed position.
  • With riding in a fixed position and doing nothing else things like Hamstrings are only working at minimal capacity so become tighter and tighter.
  • You have a greater risk of injury if you ride more than 8 horses a day – lots of groin tears.
  • Most back problems in riders are due to tight hamstrings.
  • Jockeys bad backs are not caused by riding but because they sit in a car for 5-6 hours a day.


  • Balance goes up and down.
  • Brain has chemical balance so on a bad day things will affect your balance.
  • They now tune riders balance up before they go XC. They discourage them from going to sleep before riding XC as this will affect and limit the capabilities of their balance.
  • Dressage riders now sit on gym balls and ride through their dressage test.
  • For XC riders sit on the gym ball and have to catch things and throw them back making it harder.
  • If you neglect your balance it will get worse.
  • A high incidence of dyslexics, ride.
  • Good XC riders are often good at maths!
  • Sjers listen for poles and this will affect their position and it has to be overcome.
  • No other athlete has to concentrate on something below them.
  • How does anxiety get signalled to a horse?

a)      Tension – often rider’s legs will get tighter and this will restrict the horse’s ribcage making it harder for them to breathe.

b)      Breathing – When breathing becomes shallower and shorter it means your seat bones are quicker transmitting to the horse.

c)       Heart Rate – horses can feel your heart rate through your inner thigh.

Video Analysis

  • Our perception of what is going on is altered by fight & flight reactions.
  • Our brains are designed to protect us.
  • The brain likes us to be forward as we are not designed to fall backwards.
  • When riding a horse the same occurs and you can get used to being in front of the vertical.
  • There is also a force from horse’s mouths so shoulders often get hunched.
  • Normally you should not be able to see the shoulder blades but you often can in riders.
  • They put a horse on a force plate to measure the pressure put on the horse’s front legs by rider position. By a rider being forwards from the vertical it placed forces of an additional 1kg (a bag of sugar) on the shoulders of the horse.
  • A rider thinks they are riding straight often because the brain has put them into safety mode.
  • Long term horses get used to imbalances in the rider but it often causes injuries.
  • Video is an essential tool in any riders development.

Foundation exercises

On a gym ball

a)      Lifting one leg at a time while keeping the body still.

b)      Both legs off the floor balancing.

c)       Balance on the ball on your knees holding the side.

d)      Develop balancing on your knees into being able to lift each leg and each hand.

e)      Develop the above into being able to lift diagonals of arms/legs.

  • A 65cm ball is about right for most riders and is the same width as the average horse.
  • Pilates is often not a good fit for riders as all about alignment though it will help you to isolate the core muscles. Riders are never in alignment
  • WFP has always been tall even as a child. He is very self-conscious about his upper body and head so has learnt to develop a very still upper body.
  • Looked at the photo of WFP at Blair where the horse flips 90 degrees but because his upper body is so still and he is able to do very slight shifting of balance the horse has the extra split seconds to find a leg and recover.
  • There are two types of rotation – flips over or flips to the side.
  • If you have good balance then you will enable the horse to have those extra split seconds to find a leg and get you out of trouble.
  • Watch Claytons near fall on Walterstown Don at Barbury and the horse helped him out but he had the balance/strength in his core to be able to enable this to happen.
  • It can often be about the split seconds but good balance will help the horse to help himself and thus you.


  • Equestrian world is not set up for admitting when you struggle with things.
  • The more you practice then it will go into your brain – practice forward rolls for the same reason so you do not have to think about things but instead it becomes natural when you fall you will tuck and roll.
  • Any split second you can give yourself can make a difference.
  • JP often sees people so nervous of riding it harms the horse. He cannot understand why people put themselves through it as you really never see this in any other sport but thinks it’s because they love the horse and the care surrounding it.
  • Jockeys get an initial adrenaline buzz at the start of the gallops and then it tapers off.
  • On XC riders get spikes round the course depending on the jumps ahead.
  • Adrenalin acts as a beta blocker.
  • Riders will often sit straighter on horse simulators because they have less anxiety.

For more information or to attend a demo see the website – http://www.fittoride.org/




About the author


An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.


  • Thank you for sharing your notes; they are very interesting and informative.

    Do you have links to the examples that you mentioned?