Fitness / cardio gurus please help

I will preface this post by saying I am not the world’s fittest person, and I am significantly overweight. Working to get better on both counts.

With most cardio exercises I do, I get my heart rate up to between 150-160 and can sustain it there. Swimming, cycling, rowing machine, hiking, Zumba…even when I used to run, 160 was about max.

But when I ride it routinely tops out at 180, and I have to stop often to take walk breaks, which drives my trainer nuts. She never tells me I should lose weight but does frequently (and correctly) remind me that fitness is the #1 thing holding me back from progressing further.

Any thoughts on why it’s only riding that makes my HR so high? And any thoughts on how to improve my riding stamina? This has been pretty consistent for more than a year, so it’s not that I’m suddenly working harder in my lessons or doing something different.

If it’s relevant, I’m a female in the 45-55 age range, weight about 200lbs, and my average resting HR is 52.

Are you holding your breath? That’s so common in riders.

Are you holding too much inappropriate tension in your body such that even if you are breathing, it’s shallow and up high, not deeper down and diaphragmatic?

I’d bet with the exercises you listed, including Zumba, you’re doing a lot of deep body breathing.

Stamina for riding is somewhat about simply riding, somewhat about cardio off the horse, but also, a lot of it is weight training for stamina/endurance. Riding requires the right muscles in the right amounts over the duration of the ride. More muscles, and more smaller muscles are call into action as you move from walk to trot, trot to canter, and it’s different muscles whether you’re posting or sitting.


That’s a good point. I do Pilates reformer with a trainer to work on targeting the right muscles and improving my core strength and flexibility. Perhaps I should try my Pilates breathing when riding!

I sometimes wonder if I try too hard in lessons, because it’s not a problem when I ride in my own. That being said, I warm up much more gradually and take lots of breaks when I ride on my own. :rofl:

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My experience in a variety of fitness things over the years is that actual cardio stamina can’t be evaluated separate from muscle strength for the activity.

For instance you might be doing cardio Zumba or Step and have excellent thighs and be able to keep going forever. But then you get in the pool to swim laps where you are basically pulling yourself along with your arms and you are out of breath until you develop more arm strength. People who run or walk on the flat can get winded on hills. Riding uses all kinds of muscles not activated by Zumba class. Also in most fitness things you can moderate effort a little bit. With riding you can’t so much because the horse sets the pace.

I’ve lost a little weight over the past couple years and I find that even ten pounds makes far more difference than one would think.


100% agree with this. I’m down 14 pounds since the beginning of June. It’s coming off slowly, but steadily, and I’m hoping my horse and I both will notice a difference.


That’s excellent progress!

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Lessons are a whole different deal than riding on our own! Any time we do things on our own - riding, workouts, anything - it’s just SO much easier to take longer breaks, not push ourselves like we should, all of it. Lessons/coaching/accountability really level up everything, and yes, it’s a lot more work. I’m fit, my (riding) trainer has always commented on how fit I am to the point where I can put my body anywhere she says to put it and it can stay there and do what she says, but I’m TIRED at the end of her lessons, in ways my solo riding doesn’t do

Yes, exactly. You have to ride to get better at riding, but also you have to cross train and activate an strengthen accessory muscles, and you HAVE TO work on flexibility and mobility off the horse. Have to. Strength requires flexibility and mobility just as much as it requires sheer strength, because it’s those other 2 things that allow you to finesse the strength you have

I’ve had people tell me they stopped lifting weights because they were getting too strong for their riding. That’s nonsense. They were getting strong muscles that were getting stiff and tense, and they weren’t ever working on the lengthening part of those muscles - flexibility is the passive stretching of them, mobility is the active stretching of them Both are required for optimal riding.

Congrats to both of you on your weight loss!


I would say two things –

One, I would bet your max heart rate could be higher in other cardio activities if you were fitter; unless you’re sprinting in the pool, your heart rate should be lower while swimming than running, for example. And also the same with cycling - my cycling threshold is much lower than my running threshold. So, not really the point, but might be something that changes as you gain fitness.

Two, I would say it is probably adrenaline. I’ve posted this before in another thread about fitness, but I was in a race once and looking at my cycling HR afterwards it was hilarious because the highest HR by far was when I went down a very steep slope. So, it wasn’t exertion but (in my case) fear. LOL. You’re probably not terrified, like I was, but you are on the back of a 1000+ animal and trying to communicate with it while exerting yourself too.

Also - someone on COTH works in a cardo clinic…I am terrible with names. I can find it but you might get her response if you double post to Off Topic (or move this there).


I’m in a similar boat but I spent years as a runner so my cardio endurance is always quick to come back.

Does running appeal to you at all? Strength training is definitely important, especially for us of an age, but cardio fitness will really help as well. You learn how to breath with a high heart rate, which transfers to the saddle well.

I’ve currently humbled myself back down to C25k and only 3 weeks in I’ve been able increase speed significantly (will never be fast). I’m doing it all on the treadmill because I don’t want to be a runner anymore, I want to be a fit rider. Then I do weights and core because it’s all right there.

Also, you have to work up. It’s hard to explain, but if a run starts out too fast and the HR gets high too soon, you’re toast and can’t recover so it remains uncomfortable. If you start out super slow, gradually getting the HR to that same level, it’s sustainable and feels fine. You can transfer that to riding as well.

And, breathe. My guess is you’re not breathing during the lessons. And if you’re at all self conscious of yourself in the saddle (as I am) it’s worse.

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180bpm is hard to not feel winded through - I understand asking for a walk break!

An idea - what happens if you stop “dressaging” and just canter/lope around on a loose rein and BS with a riding buddy while you’re doing it? Same with the trot - stop “dressaging” and just have a loose rein trot around, no real goal, not really trying to hold the horse in a balance. Just going somewhere, chatting to someone (or no one!) along the way. Who cares if horse gets a little fast, just ride it, use one rein to circle if needed.

Does your heart rate still skyrocket?

Then try to do the same while “dressaging”, really focusing on what gained tension with the contact and getting the horse through. Did your back get tighter (not the regular core tension that comes from sending the horse through)? Did you start to clench a with your thighs? Did your breathing change? And, can you take a big belly breath while doing this?

Did your heart rate still skyrocket when there was more structure to the ride?

Are you nervous about lessons at all? I know even with my most familiar instructors, I hold some anxiety about having someone watch me that closely.

Could you try and get your heart rate up higher in the gym (tabata, a quick burst of high exertion, whatever) to learn some techniques for faster recovery?

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I used to run and loved the stress release. Unfortunately with severe arthritis in my knees and a significant amount of degenerating disc disease and arthritis in my back, it’s not an option. Even doing one minute run intervals on walks to boost my HR is excruciating. The closest thing I’ve found, exertion wise, is steady hikes up steep trails. However that’s not as convenient as lacing up your shoes and walking out the door.

Check out a book called Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson. I use it as my training “bible” - it approaches cardio from a different standpoint. I do endurance riding, run ultras, compete in orienteering, hike and rock climb and after 2 years of training in his style, my HR rarely goes above 160 even really pushing

The first thing that comes to my mind is that you might be holding your breath. I say this as a former instructor of another athletic activity that involved learning a lot of tiny details. Holding one’s breath is so common among students, as they concentrate on form.


Another vote that you might be holding your breath! Or gripping with your legs more than needed? Those are my issues. What gaits are you finding this to be the most problematic?

For background, I have a connective tissue disease that causes my resting heart rate to be 100+. I am on beta blockers for it which help tremendously. Even with that said, cantering has ALWAYS been a sure fire way to ratchet my heart rate up into the 180’s even with the medication. To the point that my cardiologist noticed while I had to wear an EKG thingy for two weeks. I went back for the results and he’s like…what’s going on around 6PM every night :crazy_face:

At the canter, I found I was definitely holding my breath, and was also NOT relaxing my leg. I have a 5 year old fjord that needs to be reminded what gear he is in so it is sometimes a combo of keeping him going OR something does get him going and then I myself need to relax more. It has been getting better though riding with my new dressage trainer the last couple months. My seat and leg are MUCH better and I feel better able to relax, breath and kick when we need a reminder, not grip constantly.

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I’m going to say yea to both! Will pay attention in my lesson today and see what’s happening


Yes, so inconvenient I agree. I love trail running but the hassle and time of getting there is a pain.

Maybe try walking hill repeats if you have a hill near you? Or high incline on the treadmill?

It will all come, given enough time and consistency.

So today’s lesson update - I tried to breathe and relax any muscle tension whenever I thought if it. Biggest thing was I tried to warm up more gradually and with more transitions before my trainer arrived, so my heart rate took longer to get up there. It was still in the high 170s for the latter part of the lesson, but felt much more sustainable after getting there more gradually


That’s awesome! Step 1 is awareness. And then you just pick the easiest and most convenient things that can reasonably likely provide some results, and you start there. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next 4 lessons or so, with this a conscious effort.

Thats great!

Im sure the cardio activity will help to some extent even though it is different from riding too. I work our regularly, cardio/core/legs/restorative yoga, and while Im sure it does help it doesn’t always feel that way with my health garbage.


I’ve found the reformer Pilates is making a huge difference to my balance, core strength and flexibility on and off the horse. I’m hoping it will make me strong enough to up my cardio activities without ending up injured, which is the story of my life.

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