Best way to improve your riding

I get asked a lot what the best exercise to improve riding is. This is quite a subjective question as it depends what it is you struggle with, as well as your current fitness level.

If you are incredibly fit but struggle with certain aspects of your riding then that area needs to be looked at individually, or you could be fairly unfit overall and that needs to be addressed to correct an overall picture.

That makes the most important thing to me Self Awareness.

In order to improve your riding you need to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses.

This can be done from just basic self- awareness as you ride, do a full body scan of how you are sat.

For a full alignment scan check out my video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgNplzeUObk

However I know lots of you like me want to be working on your riding when you’re not on your horse.

If it’s at home and keeping it simple you like then I suggest a gym ball. The reason being you can just sit on it and test things out. Can you lift your feet, can you kneel up etc. Of course this trains your core stability but most importantly it will tell you where your weaknesses are. Do you keep falling off the same way etc.  That will tell you which side you are weak on (the side you fall off) and over time will help you to learn which muscles you need to switch on to keep you on the ball which of course will transfer to which muscles you need to switch on when riding.

I also very much like Yoga for riders. This is because it encourages body awareness. Not just for asymmetry but also for areas you may hold tension or be not quite as strong or dextrous.

Why not put these ideas down as 2019 projects.

I don’t have any space on my classes currently but if you would like to be put on the waiting list hit reply.

I do have space for 1 2 1 clients  in the new year so of you would like to improve your riding off horse with full focus on your goals let me know!

Sitting Up Straight

Last week we looked at being equal left to right so this week we will look at equal front to back.

This one I think is looked at more often but can actually be more difficult to correct. You see often the problem of leaning forward or back comes from a deeper postural or strength issue-not always but most often.

I’ve mentioned before the importance of Neutral spine for both balance, shock absorption and injury prevention and the short answer is if you are leaning forward or back you aren’t in neutral spine.

If you don’t know whether you lean forward or back ask a friend to video you, or if you are on your own sitting in your saddle ask yourself whether your rib cage sits directly over your pelvis or whether your sternum lines up with your pubic bone. This is a good indicator of where you are sat.

I also like to visualise pushing your front to your back and then equally your back to your front; this encourages you to switch on the right muscles.

In order to maintain equal front to back you need to have equal muscle strength front to back. It is quite common for riders to be told to improve their core stability and for them to go away and do lots of ab work-what about your back?

Now of course you can train your front and back separately and that will improve how they work together, however you are busy people with horses to ride so we want to make it as simple and time efficient as possible.

I really like the kneeling squat exercise with the focus being on staying level on the up and down.

Also Bird Dogs both simple and lifted of you like an extra challenge. This focuses you on keeping the middle still whilst moving limbs-or in riding speak staying still whilst giving aids.

Look out for next week where I’ll share with you another tip for practicing this too.

Stop the Tilt

I’m sure you’ve heard me say the phrase “stay straight on circles” or being equal left to right.

Perhaps you are aware of it on yourself or as you watch other people that there is a tilt or a shift of the ribcage in an otherwise beautiful position.

Firstly, why does it matter?

Any deviation of your weight is noticeable to your horse, if that’s a full tilt, it could be almost half your bodyweight being shifted to one side of the horse. In order to balance himself he will drift away from the side you are leaning to. For example if you are tilting left he will drift right.

This can affect everything from general straightness, circles, lateral work and of course the wear of your saddle and most importantly the muscles of your horse. Perhaps your Saddler and Horse Physio could give you a clue as to which side you sit heaviest on.

So what can you do about it?

Most importantly is becoming aware of it. If you have no idea you’re tilted then you aren’t going to make the effort to fix it. Ask a friend to video you on both reins in 3 paces, then on circles and some lateral work.

Once you’ve spotted which way you tilt you can start to notice if you do the same pattern at any other time, driving the car or sat at your desk for example.

When you get on your horse, close your elbows into your sides and notice whether they sit at exactly the same place and pressure on both sides. If you can equal them up this will be your first self-check as to whether you are level.

Whilst riding around I like to use the imagery of a pair of boards on either side of your body and you have to push them together. This will help to switch on your “side” muscles to stabilise you and keep you level.

Out of the saddle we are looking to strengthen your Oblique’s and Transverse Abdominis. These are the muscles that wrap around your waist between your pelvis and rib cage.

A great no equipment exercise is the Side Plank. This can then be changed up to Side Plank Dips or Thread the Needle (which is a rotation underneath yourself) to challenge your muscles in movement.

 

 

 

 

 

In the gym or with a band I like Woodchops on the Cable Machine, Kettlebell or Dumbbell Windmills or Single Arm work that requires you to stabilise the other side to stop tilting such as single overhead press or single arm kettlebell swing.

Check me out on Instagram for videos!

https://www.instagram.com/nicola_equestrianfitness/

 

Improve Your Rein Contact

In my classes and with my 1 2 1 Clients, I train shoulders and backs a lot. This surprises people as they expect it to be all about the core. However in terms of riding your back and shoulders are part of your core. They are a vital part of your torso box and it’s over all stability as well as the foundation of your rein contact.

In order to absorb the movement of your horse underneath you, you need to be equally strong in torso back and front. In order to be able to truly ride with an independent and soft, giving hand you need a stable foundation at the shoulders. If your rein contact comes from your chest and your arms whether you think you are or not, you are bracing against your horse.

I have coached several riders with “strong” horses that as soon as they stop trying to resist the horse with their arms and instead just form a solid base at their shoulders and relax their arms the horse stops fighting.

Also if like me you have a wishy washy rein contact, or perhaps find your arms straight out in front of you (it’s like I forget I have elbows!) just focusing on retracting the shoulder blades brings your elbows back and firms up your contact.

So, what are these mysterious back exercises…..?

Well depending on where you do your training and what equipment you have access to there are loads of variations you can do.

If you train in a gym things like Dumbbell bent over row, Narrow Grip Cable Row, Lat Pull down are great rider specific back exercises. Just ensure you are focusing on using the muscles between your shoulders blades and not tensing up your shoulders.

If perhaps you have a resistance band you can do Narrow Row and Rein Position Band Pull aparts (Dumb waiters with a band if you are a Pilates fan).

Without equipment? Then Dumb waiters, Tricep Press Ups, Superman Pull Down.

For examples of these exercises go to my YouTube channel or keep an eye on my Social Media this week as I will be posting them after this blog goes out today across the week.

What do you struggle with in your rein contact?

 

The Weight of Your Head on Your Shoulders

Do you think about the position of your head much when you ride?

I have a little per hate of the amount of riders I see looking down, although it’s slightly hypocritical as I have a tendency to cock my head to one side-it’s my concentrating pose!

However your head has a huge impact on both your own posture and therefore performance and wellbeing. Your head can weight around 4.5-5kg, add to that your hat and you’re probably looking at 6kg-that’s just shy of 1 stone!

If you are looking down you are transferring that weight to your horse, which often has the effect of pushing your horse onto the forehand. If it’s tipped to the side you are unbalancing your horse on that side.

In terms of your riding this is an important point to take notice of.

With regards to your own bodies overall performance and wellbeing this puts a lot of tension on your neck and upper back. As I have mentioned before, being out of neutral alignment does not allow your body the best chance of absorbing the movement of the horse underneath you. This puts extra strain on the joints and muscles surrounding the neck as they take the load instead.

I use a technique that has foundations in both my Equipilates™ training and the Franklin method.

Take your fingers to the base of your skull and find the two indents either side of your spine. You should feel a little dip and also the neck muscles –which may feel quite hard if they are tense.

This area is the equivalent of your horses’ poll. Now keeping a little pressure on those muscles begin to flex your poll (tilt your head forward) and then extend your poll (tilt your head back) Think Rolkur to Nose in the air! Just do this gently and slowly several times, you should start to feel the muscles relax. Once you stop you should feel like you have re set your head directly on top of your spine-Magic! Now remember this feeling and try to maintain it as you ride-I know if you have a concentration tilt like me this is super tough!

Breathe yourself a good seat

You may not believe this but your breathing has a huge impact on your riding, and not just by stopping you from passing out due to lack of oxygen. Your breathing actually has an impact on your biomechanics.

This is mainly because of our diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle that separates our thoracic cavity (your ribs essentially) from the abdominal cavity-stomach. The Diaphragm contracts as we breathe in and relaxes as we breathe out. I like to think of it as a Jelly Fish sat under your rib cage with its tentacles the attachments to the spine. When we breathe in our diaphragm should flatten and drop down to create more space for oxygen to be drawn in.

The thing is many of us don’t use our Diaphragm to breathe.

We spend so much of our day hunched over a desk, breathing from what is then a narrowed chest area. You can test this by putting your hand on your stomach as you breathe normally, does it rise and fall as you breathe? Or does the movement come from your chest?

The diaphragm as well as being involved in the breath, is part of your core structure. The Diaphragm connects to our lumbar spine and this attachment sits on top of the attachment of the Psoas muscle. (a hip flexor that passes from the lower back to the front of your thigh bone through the pelvis). When riding your Psoas muscle enables you to be long down the front of your thigh and have a relaxed swing through your hips and be able to flow with the movement of your horse.

When our Diaphragm is activated it sends a message to our brain via the Vagus Nerve to relax.

If you are anxious just breathing with your diaphragm can help to relax not just your brain but also your hips which in turn is your seat. If you are tense in your seat you are immediately sending your horse a message that there is something to be wary of.

This can be the case even if you are not anxious but you hold tension in your hips. Your seat will be tense which in turn can make your horse tense, which means you try using more muscle to control him which tenses you up even more……..

Luckily, there is an easy and un strenuous fix. Breathing exercises!

 

Homework.

Try this both sitting/standing and lying down. Relax and breathe normally first to see where you are breathing from. If most of the rise and fall is coming from your chest, really concentrate on breathing in through your nose and filling you abdomen with air, imagine breathing right down into your hips and then breathe out through your mouth to release.

Then try it whilst on your horse. Maybe when you first get on and are just walking around spend a couple of laps just concentrating on your breathing. First get breathing with your diaphragm, then imagine breathing down into your hips and see if you can feel them relax. Then imagine you are breathing down and into your horse (just try it don’t over think it) and see what your horse does…..Let me know if you get a reaction!

I use this technique as I am an anxious rider, but it is also why I sometimes sing when I’m particularly tense when riding. As singing ensures you are breathing and encourages you to use your diaphragm-I ignore any comments about the possibility my pony is spooking at my singing……

 

 

Don’t be so hard on yourself

I spent the weekend teaching some of my magic to several riders and all of them very different.

However one thing that united them was how terrible they thought they were! Hand on heart not one of them couldn’t ride, in fact they all rode really well but I think we increasingly compare ourselves to other people. Not just on social media but also others on our yard and most ridiculously to the Professionals. You know who doesn’t ride like Charlotte? Everyone else who isn’t Charlotte! The thing is we are all doing the best we can with the skills and information we have at this time. Great riders aren’t necessarily born great, yes some may be naturally gifted than others but I can guarantee that a lot of hard graft and training went on over the years to make them the way that are now.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with using other peoples’ success as a catalyst to improve your own performance but if this constant comparison is making you feel negative towards your own riding it’s time to turn it around.

I know a lot of it comes from wanting to do the best for your horse. We think that if we aren’t riding perfection and out competing at a high level our horse will not be happy. Now of course if you’re constantly jabbing on his mouth and bouncing on his back without a care for his comfort then you might want to address that but most riders I see aren’t doing those things-and you’re reading this so you are trying to improve.

I honestly don’t believe most horses care if they go competing every weekend or not. Of course some horses are of the nature they need to be kept busy, but most are quite happy being fed, grazing in a field and doing the odd bit of work in between cuddles with you. They also don’t really have a concept of the difference between Burghley and your local fun one day event. Yes the jumps are bigger but either way your horse had a fun day out, the height of fences is usually irrelevant-if he likes to jump big he’ll just jump big over the little ones anyway!

We also do not all have the same goals. If you’re goal is to do a bit of hacking and the odd clinic then what you do with your horse will be different to someone who is aiming for Badminton.

We are all at different points on our journey. This can be a tough one I think because the point on your journey does not necessarily correlate to the length of time you have been riding. We all have different things going on from our own and horses health, work, family, finances etc. that there is no comparison to how you are doing compared to the girl in the next stable. If you have a very busy job, husband, 3 kids and a tight budget, comparing yourself to the single, 9-5, high disposable income girl next door is doing yourself a disservice. Or if your horse has been on and off lame for 6 months comparing his progress to your friends’ horse that has barely had a scratch all year is unfair.

The thing that it really boils down to is why does it make you feel bad? Is it because you really want to be doing what that person is doing or is it because you think you should be doing it? These are two very different things and I have definitely done work on analysing this mind set myself.

If it because you think you should be at the competitions, or you should be working towards Travers and Half Pass but really deep down you’re happy with the odd local show and mastering an acceptable leg yield then you need to make peace with your own aspirations. There is nothing wrong with having seemingly smaller goals than other people. Your riding is your hobby, your bit of peace and head space and something you do for love; not another thing you need to over achieve at to impress other people.

However if the reason it makes you feel bad is because you do want to be achieving those things ask yourself what it would take to achieve it. What really goes on in the world of that girl on Social Media who is out winning competitions every weekend? I imagine she rides her horse 4-5 + times per week, has at least one if not more lessons per week, and maybe she also has her trainer rider her horse too. These are the things that have made her as good a rider as she is. She then of course also gives up those weekends to go to the competitions or uses work holidays to compete mid-week etc. Do you really want to do that? Do have the time and resources to do that? If you do and you really want it stop being envious and crack on with it! Get those lessons booked; make sure you’re riding consistently etc. If you’ve just read that and thought “phew that sounds like a lot of work I don’t want to do” accept that and be at peace with your decision that perhaps that isn’t actually your goal after all.

The most important thing to remember is “The Joy is in the Journey and not the Destination.”

I have asked more than one friend this question “what would you do if tomorrow everything clicked into place for you and your horse and you rode perfectly and won those competitions? What would you do then?” The answer every time…………………………..”Well I’d get another horse and start the process again!” So, we clearly don’t do it for the big wins, we do it for the feeling a continued little progress and picking ourselves up no matter how many times we get knocked down and the big wins are just the icing on the cake-that and I think we’ve clearly proven that all Equestrians are bonkers!!

So before you go comparing yourself to others and feeling yourself come up short, ask yourself if you really want what they have, the day in day out behind the scenes what they have. If you don’t stop comparing yourself unfavourably, and if you do; go out there and make it happen!

 

Analyse Your Riding

I do clinics and 121 sessions with riders analysing their position and looking at ways to help them use their bodies more effectively when they ride.

 

This is great but unfortunately this isn’t always an option for people. However there are still some things you can do to improve your riding without having access to a biomechanics trainer on the ground.

 

Firstly, video yourself. I do this alot. I just have a fairly cheap tripod for my phone, set it up before I get on, press record and yes I record my whole ride. Then when I’m done I edit it to cut out all the time I’m not in shot to take off irrelevant chunks and then maybe take off any bits I don’t feel need looking at say the first walk around or cool down at the end etc. Then I can go back and look at the bits I’m really interested in. For example what happens during transitions, what am I doing differently when the horse comes into a contact-did I change something when I lost it?

 

I find this really useful to do on my own and once you’ve got the hang of video editing-(I use iMovie) it doesn’t take that long.

 

Have a friend watch you. I also do this alot. They don’t have to be an instructor they just have to “say what they see”.

 

Perhaps ask them for feedback on things like.

 

Am I sat straight in the saddle?

Are my Shoulders, Hips and Heels in Alignment?

When my horse does x what am I doing?

 

This can be really useful as often something seemingly inconsequential can have a huge impact. For example I was watching my friend ride and her horse can throw her head around and become very strong in the Canter. I said “Do you know that you lift your outside hand up when you go into Canter usually just before she throws her head?” She tries again and keeps both hands down…….yep head flinging stopped! This was just an observation, I didn’t give her any great riding wisdom I just told her what I could see happening.

 

The same then happens for me and those bug bear Canter transitions. My friend “do you know your heels are by his hips and your leaning forward?”......No but now you mention it perhaps that’s where I was going wrong-yes that was were I was going wrong!

 

You can ask a friend to take pictures of you sat normally from the front, back and side and have a look at them later. The same with a video, ask someone to video you doing the thing you struggle with and when you watch it back don’t focus on what your horse is doing look at what you’re doing.

Ask yourself whether you are balanced & symmetrical or are there areas for improvement.

 

You only have to address the basics however quite often it’s the basics that are missing that is creating the problem.

 

Put Your Back (and front) into it

Last week we looked at Neutral and why it was so important.

This week I want to look at being equal front to back.

As mentioned last week, it is increasingly common to see riders leaning back to try and balance on a big trot or canter or equally leaning forward to prevent losing balance.

In order to be truly in balance with your horse and to remain with his stride you must be equal length front to back.

 

If you are leaning forward you will be ahead of him, and if you are leaning back you will be behind.

The thing is, staying equal front to back takes great core strength and control.

On your horse, have a scan of your body and ask yourself whether you can feel the muscles on the front of your body as well as the back of your body equally switched on.

A little trick I use with my clients is to draw the elbows into the sides and ask them to close their “back armpits”. This switches on the back muscles and then maintaining this feeling then on the front take the bottom rib closer to the top of the hips, this switches on the front. So cue yourself “close back armpits and bottom rib to hip”.

 

Try it and let me know if it helps!

Why Neutral?

We talk about neutral spine a lot and also alignment in terms of ear, shoulder, hip and heel. Whilst most riders are aware of it, it can kind of be left to go awry if we find it difficult to maintain, or if no one points out that we aren’t doing it after years of letting bad habits in.

The more I talk the riders the more I notice that many don’t actually know why we ride in neutral alignment.

Do you know why?

Often if I ask riders why they think we ride like this I get answers like “to keep the horse in balance, to remain over the strongest part of the horse and it keeps you more balanced….”

All true don’t get me wrong, but the thing is even at the highest levels (I’m always analysing the alignment at Grand Prix!) they aren’t all in this alignment so you start to think well if I can get the job done without being in this alignment then why should I struggle to try and achieve and maintain it?

I will add that the super elite as I would call them-Carl, Charlotte, Isabell etc. Are in this neutral alignment.

But back to why you should be.

Neutral Spine stacks up all of your joints on top of one another in perfect alignment which allows it a much stronger foundation upon which to absorb the movement of the horse beneath you without placing excessive strain on the ligaments, tendons and muscles as well as creating just one line of pull for gravity to act on rather than being out of alignment which gives gravity extra lines to pull and on well…….gravity might just get the better of you!

Basically it does keep you balanced but it also protects you from injury from just riding itself.

I see lots of riders with back pain, most commonly Dressage riders who when I watch ride will hollow or lean back during sitting trot in an attempt to stay balanced and let the horse go forwards when unfortunately what they are actually doing is putting the movement of half a ton of horse athlete through their lower back in extension and it’s not able to keep doing this without complaining eventually! It is also not the most effective way to get your horse to move forward with impulsion but that’s a different blog post.

So, I want you to go away and think about your alignment and how you think you stack up. This will be extremely useful for you if you do have any aches and pains but even if not you should still take this into consideration to ensure you are bullet proofing yourself further down the line.

If you want some help with this I offer 1 2  1 on horse assessments at £35 (local only or if you have 4+ riders a clinic could be arranged) and this can be combined with an off horse Biomechanics assessment of yourself for £60 as a package.

Biomechanics, Posture and Performance for the Equestrian

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