The new year is underway and for many of us, the turn of the calendar brings a lot of uncertainty. But for Canada’s Olympic contenders like Jill Irving, it’s full steam ahead with training for Tokyo 2021, both in the saddle and out of it. Jill shares five simple tips for staying in top shape:

1. Train for life, not just for a specific goal or sport
2. Make time for fitness every day
3. Engage your core when you are doing anything
4. Improve stamina with a cardio activity you love
5. Find balance between good nutrition and the occasional reward

Fit to ride

“So much has changed over the past couple of decades when it comes to rider fitness and our sport has really evolved,” the 57-year-old Team Canada veteran says. “It wasn’t that long ago when major events were all sponsored by tobacco companies and you would see riders smoking at the in-gate. I think the jumper riders started really focusing on fitness and hitting the gym first, but dressage is catching up. We now see ourselves as athletes and train like athletes – not just by riding more, but by really focusing on ‘off-ice’ training, to borrow a phrase from figure skating and hockey.

As an older athlete, it’s even more important to me to stay fit and healthy, not just for riding, but for life. When you’re young you get fit because you want to look good. At my age it’s more about health and longevity. I’ve always loved running and sports and I’m naturally athletic, which helps. As part of Equestrian Canada’s National Squad, we take part in regular fitness testing, and I think it’s good for my younger teammates to see me beating them! We all push each other to be better, and it’s fun.

Make time for fitness

The hardest part about a fitness program is finding the time to work out. Especially here in Florida when we’re showing and working around our trainer’s busy schedule, no two days are the same. It’s especially tough for those who also have to balance a schedule of clients and have a young family at home.

With Covid we can’t go to the gym, but my kids turned me on to a virtual fitness program called The Class by Taryn Toomey and I love it! I can access it from my iPad anytime and work out in my kitchen. The flexibility of being able to access it anytime from anywhere is fantastic. There are lots of cool classes online to choose from; I do mostly strength training and stretching.

Jill and trainer Ashley Holzer, who suggested an evaluation with a sports expert to help correct her posture in the saddle. (Cealy Tetley photo)

All about the core

Everything in dressage comes down to core strength and that means your entire upper body, not just your stomach. I was struggling a little with posture in the saddle, so my trainer Ashley [Holzer] suggested I have a sports expert evaluate me in the saddle. Because of that I now work not just on my abs, but on my upper back and the intercostal muscles in my ribcage. The best thing riders can do is learn to engage their core all the time, no matter what they’re doing. Sitting in the car, walking through the supermarket, watching TV … engage your core!


It takes a lot of stamina to ride today’s big athletic horses, so cardio fitness is really important. I’ve always been a runner, so that’s my go-to cardio workout. Especially down here in Florida we have a lot of beautiful places to run, plus its convenient and Covid-safe – I can just put in my earbuds and go.


My diet is high protein and low carb, with lots of vegetables. Like a lot of people, I put on a bit of weight in Covid quarantine last summer. I’m not a very big person, so even a few extra pounds makes a big difference to how I perform. I really love junk food and when I first got back to New Brunswick last spring, I indulged a lot. But Covid wasn’t going away anytime soon, so since August I’ve been pretty strict about healthy eating. I feel great and I’m exactly at the weight I want to be, which is so important for an athlete.

Of course, there has to be balance in life, and I reward myself with a treat on special occasions. I recently competed with Arthur in our first CDI since returning to Florida and he was amazing. My team and I all celebrated with Haagen-Daaz!

Playing it safe

We can’t talk about being healthy in 2020 without talking about Covid. I’m really proud of my team and everything we are doing to stay safe in Florida this winter. Wellington feels very safe and masks are required in the county, but of course there are some people who have different attitudes about Covid here. Basically our team is taking the same precautions we would if we were at home in Canada. We created our own bubble and since the girls can’t go out and socialize, we cook dinners together and have movie nights to make it fun.

To be proactive we all get tested for Covid every week. There’s a guy that comes right to the barn to do it; it’s so convenient and we get results in 48 hours. I’m so lucky to be able to train, ride and compete, so it’s very important that I do everything I can to support my staff and keep us all healthy.”