Weight down the thighs

When I’m working with someone on horse I will often ask them to put more weight through the thighs, perhaps imagine they are kneeling. The phrase/cue originally comes from Ride With Your Mind with Mary Wanless, however as I’m only ever focusing on how the riders body is working on the horse I don’t ever use a cue I don’t have an understanding of when and why I’m using it from an anatomy point of view. So I tested it and analysed what it did to riders (including myself) if they did it. 

The two most common reasons I use this cue are 

  • Instability 
  • Pain -often the knee but sometimes the ankle.

Now I’m not saying there shouldn’t be weight through the heel as we are originally taught  as there definitely needs to be a connection to the foot but if a rider lacks stability they will often push down quite a lot into the heel in order to try and create it; which then results in joints locking and becoming rigid instead of force absorbing. This then contributes or indeed causes a pain issue, or at best just doesn’t enable you to move with and communicate with the horse as well as you’d like to.

However if you bear weight through the thigh what you actually do is activate the muscles at the front and the back of the thigh and hopefully if done well the glutes too. So you’re instantly using some big muscle groups to help stabilise you further and in the case of joint pain give it a much bigger support system. 

A rider truly in self carriage has these muscles activated as they ride. They won’t be tensing and flexing with huge effort as if doing a workout but they will just be gently working away, supporting the body and enabling it to absorb the movement of the horse and move itself to give aids and accelerate and decelerate through transitions. 

If we expect self carriage from our horse we should expect it from ourselves.

 

It’s got to work together

When I ask my clients what they want to work on to improve their riding often they will say things like my legs need to be stronger or the old classic I need to improve my core. I take these things into account and design their programmes accordingly.

However a large part of what we actually do is full body movements. That’s not because I haven’t listened it’s because just working on a single part of the body in isolation is unlikely to  improve its performance on the horse. 

When you are riding the whole body has to work together synergistically in order to stabilise all the joints and enable them to absorb the movement of the horse and still be able to move limbs or your seat to apply aids. So just having stronger legs or abs won’t necessarily make it stronger on a horse if it isn’t able to work together with your back, arms etc. 

This is why when we’re training we focus on exercises that yes may appear initially as say a leg strength exercise if it were a Squat; but in fact if done well will also use your glutes, your back and abdominals, then if your were holding a weight may also use your arms and shoulders. 

An overhead press is another great example which we may do as a push press. The legs are required to drive the weight up, the back and abs are required to keep the middle stable and then obviously the shoulders and arms will kick in to finish with a stable overhead position. If these muscles don’t all activate together as a team then you won’t perform the lift correctly. 

If we are doing abdominal work it will usually involve a breathing pattern to work on incorporating the diaphragm, then there will more than likely be a movement of the arms and legs too whilst maintaining a stable torso.

This is something I want you to take into account for your own off horse exercise. If your goal for your workout is to improve your performance on horse then you should be focusing on exercises that require your whole body to work together, and leave the isolation exercises to the body builders. 

 

Why should riders strength train?

I’ve definitely seen some mixed messages about exercise for riders. However one of my biggest bug bears is people saying strength training won’t help your riding.

Reasons are usually things like -

  • Riding isn’t a strength based sport so it’s not relevant 
  • It will make you bulky
  • It will make you tight and therefore unable to ride effectively 

 

To be honest I think all of these comments are made by people who don’t understand strength training at all.

I agree that riding is not a strength based sport as if it were a case of a 60kg rider against 600kg horse of course the horse is going to win. However if the rider isn’t truly in control of their own 60kg they have even less chance of communicating what they want to their 600kg partner. 

You need to be able to fully control your own body from top to bottom, then you need to be able to control it under load. That load may be the horse underneath you or it may be a weight you are lifting. The principles of neuromuscular connection are the same.

Lifting weights is highly unlikely to make you bulky. When you see people with big muscles I can assure you that has taken a serious amount of gym work (not just 1 or 2 sessions a week) alongside a proper nutrition programme designed to optimise muscle growth. Also as most of you reading this will be female we lack enough testosterone to build a huge amount of muscle.What it will do is give you that “toned” look so many of us are after. 

It will make you tight. Well full disclosure sometimes after a training session you may be sore the next day or so. I try not to over do on this with my clients but it’s sometimes unavoidable. However if your muscles are sore the day after a workout that means they are adapting and building back stronger (they may not always be sore to be doing this). The best thing to do is just to keep moving gently through it and they will loosen off soon enough. The “tightness” is not permanent. As you keep up your training sessions the soreness should lessen. 

So What will strength training do for your riding?

As mentioned if you become a master of your own body you will be able to control it better on a horse. The horse underneath you is a load placed on your body which is required to work with. If you have no idea how to control the muscles of your hips, shoulders etc. and get them to work together on the ground with a load I.e a weight then how can you expect them to do it on a horse?

A strong, mobile body is less prone to injury as it is more robust. A body that is able to control itself under load has a better chance of controlling itself in the event of an impact. Also as injury in equestrian sport is often unavoidable, a stronger body will recover better and more quickly than a weaker one. Proper rehabilitation from injuries can prevent asymmetries, pain issues and ongoing dysfunction that so many riders often just struggle on with. It’s also never too late to do this as I’ve worked with plenty of people who sustained injuries or had surgery years ago and have managed to improve on that area with corrective work.

Strength training can help you manage asymmetry,  as working with weights can highlight asymmetry and you can then work towards correcting them with targeted training. 

What I will say is any old lifting of weights won’t necessarily get the benefits you’re after.  Of course I’m biased but I think working with or at least following and learning from a decent strength and conditioning coach will ensure you get the most out of your training. 

 

Changing Plans……….again!

Just as we thought we were getting some normality back we went into lockdown 2.0. 

 

It sucks I know but we Equestrian’s are a tough bunch so we’ll just adapt and soldier like last time.

 

What we aren’t going to do this time is descend into an extended holiday period of eating, drinking and general laziness are we? If you do that you’ll slide into Christmas feeling like an unhealthy slug straight into the regular festive indulgence and into 2021 probably very fat, unhealthy and miserable. 

 

I know everyone is trying to focus on ending 2020 and thinking that 2021 will be like turning over a new leaf but without sounding a bit doom and gloom 1st Jan isn’t going to vanish Covid so it’s really important to keep focused on the here and now. 

 

It is super important now more than ever to look after your health both physical and mental. 

 

Also I know lots of you achieved great things with your horses last lockdown as you stopped focusing on upcoming competitions etc and worked on the basics which then paid off big time when you did get back out. Remember that this time!

 

This weekend now you can’t really go anywhere, sit down and make a plan. 

 

Plan your nutrition . I’ve ordered a fruit box from a local company to stop me reaching for junk all the time. No I’m not cancelling chocolate I’m just not having as 80% of my diet!

 

Plan your exercise. If your gym, class etc is now closed plan your alternatives. Are they offering online options? Could your trainer write you a home programme? I know someone that has an online programme……

 

Write a plan for your horse.  What do you want to work on? Maybe you want to mix it up and try some groundwork or get the poles out and have some fun with that.

 

Get your diary out and write your weekly plan in for your training and your horses training to help to keep you on track. 

 

I’m planning to do a little more yoga -now in on Tuesday mornings in my schedule and with the recent purchase of a new carriage I’m going to make the most of this quieter time to get both Spotties back in the carriage working on Panda gaining confidence and Douglas perhaps paying more attention to the speed I want rather than the one he thinks is suitable!

 

What are your plans?

 

Cartoon Wisdom

I heard a great phrase over the weekend “your body is a car for your mind to drive around in” It was actually said in kids cartoon Kipo & the wonder beasts but let’s not dwell on why I was watching that as clearly they are very wise beasts. 

 

It got me thinking about how much our brain affects our body. 

 

I think we all already know how being tense or nervous affects our riding.

 

How does being mentally tired affect it?

 

Feeling like you aren’t good enough? 

 

Being angry? 

 

I’m sure if you think about this you’ll notice your body reacts differently depending on your mental state. 

 

So, our mind has a huge impact on our performance.

 

However it also goes deeper than that.

 

The brain links to the entire nervous system, so (and this a very brief & unscientific description) is a key part of how your body responds to and manages pain. We all know fellow riders who in any other area of life would be absolute write offs, probably bed bound with all their injuries yet they crack on mucking out, riding etc. Their mind is so strongly focused on the horse stuff that they just don’t focus on the pain they may be in. NB. These are my favourite kind of people to work with.

 

Then when you feel mentally exhausted or stressed your body does too. It can be a struggle to even lift your limbs sometimes when you’re mentally drained. 

 

It can also affect your gut. There is increasing research into the gut-brain axis and how mental health can affect your gut. “Gut feeling really is a thing”. 

 

So, there are various different ways our mind can affect our body. 

 

Yet I know so many of us use riding as a form of stress relief, a way to switch off etc. Which is great as of course we know it really is great therapy.

 

But, how do we keep improving or riding at our best when our mind is not necessarily in the game. 

 

We need a system or routine that hel us switch into riding focus. It doesn’t need to be difficult or complicated, in fact it needs to be a basic and easy as possible so that it’s totally doable on even the most stressful days.

 

Mine is something like this.

 

I do a warm up off horse , nothing fancy or complicated just a few torso rotations and hip mobilisations or whatever my body feels like it needs that day. Then I like to do a little body check in when I first get on. Just as I’m walking around I just let Jamie bimble around whilst I take some deep breaths, check into how I’m sat, realign if I need to, maybe think about activating some bits that feel asleep and generally just see how my body feels and then focus on what we’re going to work on today. This helps me to get my mind focusing on the ride without really forcing the issue.

 

Do you have a pre ride routine to help you get in the right frame of mind? 

 

Do you struggle to stop your mind affecting your riding? 

 

 

 

Make being healthy easy

We are still going through some really uncertain times at the moment which means many of you may not have got back into your healthy habits. You’re still having a gin and tonic on your 10 am work Zoom meeting aren’t you?

 

The thing is although this year has been a huge out of the ordinary test for everyone, regardless of that there will always be stressful, testing times to throw you off course. 

 

That shouldn’t make them excuses to not hit your healthy lifestyle goals.

 

You just need to make your healthy habits easy to stick to. 

 

It’s not about being all kale smoothies and daily 10k runs, its about small, easy to stick to habits done consistently.

 

So maybe start with just one at a time.

 

  • Buy a reusable water bottle and aim to finish it every day.
  • Try not eating snacks after your evening meal during the week. 
  • Do two 20 minute exercise or stretching sessions per week (I’ve got an online programme perfect for this….) 

 

Also just because you maybe don’t do as well one day doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You just draw a line under it and try to do better the next day.

 

Plan your workouts and riding sessions etc. In your diary as if they were important work meetings at the beginning of the week so you know where they are fitting in.

 

Plan your meals and your snacks. They don’t need to all be “healthy” they just need to stop you steering off track completely. So three proper meals and then maybe 1 or 2 small snacks used tactically as a mid afternoon pick me up and then a pre or post ride one or whatever works for you.

 

Full disclosure I eat chocolate most days-that’s proper, full sugar milk chocolate not some raw, cocao based healthy option. 

 

Don’t feel like that run? Go for a walk, do some yoga whatever you choose, just honour the commitment to do something for your body. 

 

Make it small, make it consistent and it will start to just become what you do all the time.

The devils in the detail

When it comes to riding very often the devil can be in the detail. Something barely noticeable to you or someone watching could make all the difference to how your horse performs what you’ve asked of him.

That’s why having mastery of your own body is vital to improving your performance. 

Particularly in Dressage when the smallest percentage can make all the difference. When getting equal scores for a movement left to right knowing how you behave differently on each rein can be a huge help. 

When you train it’s really important to focus on exactly how your body reacts. 

I always say I can tell how someone’s body reacts whilst riding by watching them squat. Hip shimmy’s, more weight one way than the other, turning from the shoulders, tipping forward…………

If we can get someone to first notice that and then fix it in the squat they have addressed the asymmetry which then transfers over into their riding. 

It’s not just the squat though, whenever you’re performing an exercise really check in to what muscles are working, how they move and travel and how that may be a pattern in your riding too. 

 

Advanced Old People Training

Sometimes when I'm training clients I do exercises that one of them refers to as “advanced old people training “. Usually this will be an exercise that involves maybe getting up off the floor or standing up from a box or bench. There is another reason for doing these exercises that will be relevant to that clients goals but he has got a point about the old age thing. I tell him he’ll thank me when he can still tie his own shoes at 90!

Maintaining fitness, muscle mass and movement patterns as we get older gives us a much better chance of staying fit and mobile well into old age. I call it “use it or lose it” 

For us that also means more chance of riding and all that entails for as long as possible too.

We start to lose muscle mass in our 30’s unless we actually strive to maintain and build it. A loss of muscle makes us firstly weaker and therefore less able to withstand our activities but also more prone to injury. This doesn’t mean you need to become a body builder but you do need to do some form of resistance training that challenges your muscles. 

Bone density also peaks in our 20’s and if your female declines when you hit menopause due to the loss of Estrogen. A loss of bone density can cause Osteoporosis. As a rider this puts us at a way greater risk of breaking bones. A way of maintaining as much bone density as possible is by doing weight bearing exercise- I.e being on your feet.

Regardless of your overall training goals I’m sure we can agree the plan is to stay riding fit for as long as possible. In order to give us the best chance of this off horse training is vital. 

That’s why I’m so passionate about strength training. It’s not about maxing out lifting as heavy as possible-unless you want it to be. It’s about encouraging your bones and muscles to regenerate, repair and stay strong. It’s about maintaining movement patterns we use all the time but can get a bit lazy with the actual muscles involved -picking things up off the floor, going from sitting to standing unaided, carrying heavy objects etc. 

It’s basically about enabling you to live your life feeling fit and well for as long as possible. Which to Equestrian’s means still being able to put a saddle on, hop on board and go for a ride well into our 80’s…….and beyond. 

 

Relaxed Activation

One of the problems I see in riders is trying to activate muscles to help them stabilise but actually squeezing so hard they just create tension. 

Like with your horse, you want him to be working, activating his muscles but still relaxed in his way of going.

In essence you need to be strong enough to not need to do a full effort contraction to stabilise. Also you need to learn to dial up and dial down your muscular effort. Then for the piece’ de resistance you need to be able to activate these muscles at adequate tension to perform but still relaxed without having to think about it.

How do you achieve this?

Step 1 is actually getting stronger. 

Step 2 learning to activate muscles all at the same time-which generally prevents you from being able to maximally contract everything.

Step 3. Learn to breathe at the same time.

Do this often so that it becomes second nature.

Ok, great but actually How?

Well I’m a firm believer in there being no one way to achieve anything.

Personally I choose strength and conditioning training. It’s made a huge difference to the stability of my hyper mobile body. Having to lift a heavy weight off the floor or over head requires huge muscular input and you need to breathe! 

However I also like Pilates as this has a huge stability and breathing element. Trying to stabilise, keep everything in line, move and breathe in sync is great training for using your body on a horse. 

Basically anything that makes you stronger whilst using multiple muscles and breathing. 

I use both of these methods across my classes and with 1 2 1 clients depending on their preference. 

I’ve got space in my  daytime Pilates based class -Wednesday 10am.

Thursday Strength & Conditioning class at 6.15pm.

Space for 1 2 1 clients both daytime and limited evening slots.

You don’t need a beasting!

People have visions of working with a trainer as an all out sweat fest in which they crawl out and are unable to move for at least a week, when they inevitably go through the whole thing again. 

 

Any decent trainer will tell you giving someone “a beasting” isn’t hard. 

 

However helping someone to move better, use their body better, reduce pain and in my case improve how they use their body on a horse requires more knowledge and skill. 

 

I don’t want my clients to be unable to ride for days after their sessions because it’s too painful or they’re too weak. That’s counter productive, as the purpose of the training is to improve performance on horse not leave them knackered. 

 

Sometimes of course you may have some soreness (Dom’s) and yes sometimes the sessions might be tough but that’s not a rule for how every session will be.

 

Sometimes I can struggle with the fact that people expect to feel really tired at the end of a session and they may not. 

 

However the key to improving performance for riding is in the subtle shifts that happen. That spook they sat to, that walk to canter transition they nailed? All aided by the training process that enabled them to use their body better.

 

Sometimes the magic is in what isn’t happening, for example less pain. Often you don’t realise until you don’t train for a couple of weeks and you start to feel old pain patterns creep in that the training had reduced this. 

 

My job as a trainer is to make you better overall but specifically in relation to your riding. How you move your body as a unit, how it moves under load and how it reacts to outside forces are all part of that and that’s what I focus on rather than how much you sweat or hurt.

 

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