It is 6:20 a.m. and I load my truck in the dark to go teach fitness to the WIT participants. I arrive as they scurry to complete morning barn chores and prepare for the daily fitness activity. The horses dip their heads over the windows to observe the odd activities. Benson smiles for some attention causing an explosion of giggles. Some of the horses have to be removed from their turnout because they want to run and play with us too! Other riders who pass by our strange workouts can’t help but stare, smile and appreciate our efforts to be fit to ride.
They walk/trot/skip their dressage tests on their own feet twice a week.
I approached Lendon last summer offering my fitness instructor experience and she was quick to take me. It’s a rigorous schedule being at the barn ready to teach six mornings a week at seven a.m. My husband is a little shocked that he is solo with Kira’s morning school routine. (Thank you Honey.) It is worth it because I am getting to know these exceptional young riders in a meaningful way and hopefully helping them improve their health. I believe wholeheartedly that riders who give their fitness priority will serve their horse better, and be more effective in the saddle.
I am not training them to become the next crossfit champions. I don’t think it matters much if they lose weight, gain weight or develop visible definition. We don’t get on scales or take body measurements. We do time our one mile runs and check our heart rates. I do think it’s vital that they feel more relaxed, playful, flexible, centered emotionally, cognitively quiet, and overall energized. I want them self-aware of their body as it moves in space and with the horse. They absolutely will be stronger in their core and improve their riding position. If an equestrian feels healthy they connect with the horse in a positive way. Feeling strong and energized builds confidence. Confidence is the equestrian oxygen.
Benson hates to be left out of the fun.
I ask them to hold their physical fitness participation at the same standard as they hold their horses. Be prompt, quick, attentive and hard working. Some have realized they ask a lot of their horse and aren’t quite as willing to match the ranking. That will change. I have them six mornings a week for an hour, and there’s no escaping my program. Many of them are giving it all they have and seeing great improvements already.
We are using a variety of activity in the fitness classes to prevent injury and keep it fun and interesting. Playfulness reduces stress and increases positive thinking and emotions. We only run a couple times a week. We do circuits for strength exercises. We hoola hoop to increase suppleness in the hips. We jump rope several times a week to improve coordination and cardiovascular fitness. We hand walk the horses for half an hour with high energy walks and trots. I am teaching them a series of core exercises that have tremendously improved my riding position. I am giving them a short yoga routine they can do before riding and especially during showing. It’s helpful to get the blood flowing, stretch and engage all the muscles of the body in a way that is energizing yet calming for the mind to quiet the nerves. We take our dressage tests and we walk, trot, and canter on our own feet in the sixty meter arena. I ask them to visualize their perfect ride first, then they run it to practice accuracy with the geometry. We had a snowball fight using the wrong throwing arm to practice ambidexterity. It is fair if we ask our horse to canter equally in both directions that we should also know what it feels like to have to develop skill on a weaker side of the body.
It’s surprising how many of these young athletes have aches and pains in their bodies. If they are asked to work through it, I remind them our horses have these same aches and we push them through as well. In fact, we use the whip when they are not prompt to our request. Perhaps we should tune in more carefully to how our horse can work in a way that doesn’t cause aches but instead gradually increase the work load so they can grow strong rather than get hurt. I know what it feels like to be stiff in my joints because I am getting older. I definitely have more sensitivity for my nineteen-year-old Hanoverian who appreciates a long brisk walk before having to pick up the trot. I plan my day to be sure I arrive early enough to give him that walk. If he is a good boy in twenty minutes of decent work why would I drill him for another half hour? I won’t because I’m more interested in his soundness than my practice.
One cold morning we hand walked the horses for 30 minutes.
We had an interesting lesson about feeling tired and having to perform. Last week after their break when they felt fresh and for the first part of the work out I asked them to run their best mile and they all improved their time. This week I had them time their mile at the end of the week and after we already did some hard work in that session. Most of them did not improve their running time. I pointed out that often we work our horse really hard and then we put them in a show and expect him to give us their best score. It’s good to make it personal for the riders so they can have more compassion and insight into what we are asking of their horses.
We talk a lot about form and getting it correct so the exercise has the desired effect. Going through the motions is useless. It’s a lot like going through dressage movements without having quality in the gaits, not that impressive. Everything we do in fitness should improve our riding posture and strengthen our core. Those elegant, floating, rider-horse pairs that we admire do not dismiss the value of fitness.
I am helping them all improve flexibility for riding. A rigid rider cannot create a lovely supple flowing horse. Stretching is painful but over time progress can be achieved. A year ago Jack could not touch his toes but now he can almost get his whole hand on the floor with straight legs. Flexibility will also help prevent injury. If a horse ducks and twists quickly and throws the rider out of position it could pull a muscle. But if you are flexible, you are more likely to go with the horse and be fine.
It’s actually very hard to throw with the wrong arm! The game got very aggressive when I said they could play with their true throwing arm.
We are also working with exercises that practice balance. They are all very good at balance exercises and this doesn’t surprise me. Anyone who can keep level hands, relaxed long legs, and a steady torso on a big moving horse has talent for balance. We practice it anyway. It is balance that keeps us on the horse, not strength.
Love the teamwork! Everyone encourages those who try hard and push for a good finish.
There are regular exercisers who are actually too strong for riding. Nick Handy, our trainer at home, sees a trend in all of his riders who exercise regularly: they get too strong with the horse and actually block his ability to move freely. I am in that guilty group. A key component to riding well and communicating clearly with the horse is the relaxation/rest phase of a contraction. If we stay tight the horse becomes tense and confused. He is looking for our body to melt into his to know he is doing his job right. So we practice the sensation of knowing how to not contract a muscle while holding our position. We isolate muscles to contract, or influence the horse, and then make sure we totally release it. For strong people the hard part is doing nothing! But it is the most important part of riding well. We have to train our mind to know what relaxed feels like, and train our courage to trust the horse if we give him that vulnerability.
It is actually FUN to jog with our horses!
A side effect of dressage is the serious monster who shuts the door against all fun and playfulness producing fierce hard to please humans. This riding discipline attracts the type of people who tend to be demanding, perfectionistic, and controlling. I personally think that being too serious is detrimental to riding well. We need to have rules, be clear and consistent with our horse, but we absolutely must find a way to be playful and emotionally neutral while riding him. So, I want everyone to laugh a lot and have a good time. Exercise is a great release valve for stress and we should use it to make sure we aren’t bringing our stress to our horse. He deserves better than our scary serious selves. He deserves our most alert and playful self-aware approach to interacting with him.
I hope these young riders learn valuable tools in fitness that they will continue to use when the season is finished to improve their relationship with their horse, their quality of riding, and performance in the arena. I will be so pleased to hear reports that they are running their test before shows, jumping rope, doing yoga and using their core workouts long after Wellington is a memory.