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.

Every Step You Take, Every Move You Make

Your horse can feel you!

I’ve been doing a little more work with riders on horse lately. I’m not a riding instructor but what I do specialise in is how to make your body move and perform better and this case it means being able to do that whilst you are riding.

 

What I think has been the biggest lightbulb for most people is how just the tiniest movements can have an effect on your horse. I haven’t been teaching anything that on the surface looks dramatically different from how these ladies already ride but what I have taught them is how to use their body most effectively to get greater results with much less effort.

You see, your horse can feel a fly landing on it, so when give him a kick, or you pull on a rein etc. he can definitely feel it so more than likely he isn’t ignoring you if he doesn’t do exactly as you asked, he probably doesn’t understand the question.

Often what we think we are doing and what we actually doing can be a little different. Also, when we ride several times a week over many years we can get a little lazy with certain things and develop bad habits.

When I ask “do you think you are sat straight” people aren’t lying when they say yes, as however they are sat feels straight to them, and then when I move them to actually straight…..it feels wonky!

It turns out it’s the little things that actually make all the difference, like remaining straight yourself around turns and circles rather than leaning in. Just ask yourself next time you are riding if you really are doing this?

Perhaps as you make an upward or downward transition you lean forward or back, when in fact you should remain equal and strong front to back. You probably still get the transition (unless we are back at my Canter transition debacle!)But that transition could be more balanced if you stay balanced throughout too.

I know you are thinking …..This all sounds like more work when it fact what I’m doing now is working. Well yes I’m sure you are still getting circles, sideways, speed up and slow down and it feels relatively easy because you are used to doing it that way.

However, when you start to address the weaknesses and imbalances with a little time they won’t feel so difficult and in fact because you are more balanced your horse will be more balanced so in fact it will actually become easier than that previous default as you won’t have to balance your horse so much anymore!

Now this is just one of the little secrets we go through in my rider assessments, but if you want to learn some more I have spaces available at a clinic running at Long Lover Livery, Halifax HX3 7TJ.£35 per 45min private session on your own horse.  Hit reply if you would like a slot.

There is also just 1 slot available on my weekly Thursday Equestrian Fitness Class at my private studio located WN8 9QP. Let me know quick if you want it!

What does Douglas do?

You may have seen recently I was featured in Your Horse Magazine. It is a regular feature they run about how people fit horses around their jobs. Those that have read it have asked me how I do fit so much stuff into a day/week. The answer? Good time management. This is definitely something that helps when trying to get multiple ponies worked throughout the week and keeping them all on track with their individual training.

So, how can you do it?

Firstly, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog; make a training plan. If you know what your goals are you can then look at what your schooling/exercise plan needs to entail in order to get there. That way you know exactly what you have to achieve in each session so you don’t waste time just going round in circles (unless your plan was to work on circles…) and you can plan this across the week looking at what time you are likely to have each day to get things done. There is no point pretending you are going to school for an hour 5 times per week when you barely manage to ride twice per week now, it clearly isn’t going to fit with your lifestyle.

I will use my driving pony Douglas as an example. Douglas had been chilling out in a field for a couple of months before he came to me so one of his initial goals is to improve his fitness and endurance. Then as he is a driving pony to encourage him to use his back end more to give him more power and finally to work on his manners/schooling as although he isn’t particularly naughty he can be a little cheeky, doesn’t like to halt and we are still figuring out each others cues.

So, Douglas’s plan looks like this.

Monday: I have a little time but not much so we lunge, do plenty of Canter work, Poles and little Jumps. This is his cardio and building muscle and as its on the lunge just 20 mins is enough to tire his little legs out.

Wednesday: Usually have a little more time so I will either long rein or go out in the Carriage. If I’m short on time I actually long rein pretty much at a trot for 20-30 mins (sneaks in a cardio session for me too!) or we walk, trot, do circles and practice our halt and groundwork if I have more time.

Friday: Usually similar to Wednesday. Or I do what I didn’t do on Wednesday so if I just took him for a trot I will do groundwork and a little schooling and vice versa.

Weekends: We are starting to get the Carriage out (it’s just too much faff if you don’t have much time during the week!) and do our schooling session for that.

I’m finding that although he may have only done less than a couple of hours work though the week, it’s all relevant to his Driving work so he is primed and ready to go. Fit from the lungeing and long reining, and on the aids from the groundwork etc. It’s like we’ve been doing the same stuff all week, which we haven’t but they have all been relevant to getting out driving at the weekend.

So I know the majority of you aren’t drivers but this was just an example. You can apply the same thing with your own horse. Maybe lunge sessions, ground work (The Equitation Science work of Andrew McClean is great) and faster and shorter ridden sessions when you have less time through the week and then longer more advanced schooling or hacking etc. at the weekend when you have more time.

Then there's looking at whether you would be better getting up early and training your horse before work? Or maybe arranging lessons on week nights when you need the motivation to ride!

I apply this theory to my own fitness routine (I can highly recommend long reining as a double whammy!) Just looking at what I want to achieve and how much time I will have on given days.

 

Practice Differently

We all have that one element of our riding that we just can’t seem to crack. For me it’s Canter transitions, they are like a mental block and if I don’t get my Canter on the first ask I fall to pieces and start to flap away like a lunatic-achieving nothing!

 

Now I’ve spent a fair bit of time lately working on these Canter transitions as the horse I was riding was not making them easy for me-Jamie just wants me to learn I’m sure he’s doing it for my benefit…..

 

The thing is, I’ve been riding for many years so I’ve done thousands of Canter transitions so you’d think I’d know how to do one, which I kind of do. But if you break it down do I REALLY know how to do one? If I did why would I not get into Canter on the first ask? Or why if I didn’t get it the first time because the horse was being lazy could I not just ask again a bit firmer? You see I went round and round trying again and again but they weren’t getting any better, sure I got into Canter but it was messy and certainly not effortless.

 

So what did I do? Well I got help via a couple of different mediums.

 

Firstly I am fortunate that often I have a friend with me when I ride so she was able to watch EXACTLY what I did I.e not what I THOUGHT I did and we could then discuss which bits of this did and didn’t add up to a Canter transition. Apparently what in my head was sitting up tall, giving with the reins, leg just behind the girth was in fact tip forward, chuck the reins at him and swing your leg at his hip bone…...so not exactly a Canter aid after all!

 

I also had lessons on a different horse -who was a little more amenable so that I could practice the aids knowing I was going to get the Canter.

 

I also had lessons on Jamie to deal with the steps leading up to the transition to give us the best chance of a successful Canter.

 

I also went away and did some research-I’m a huge fan of Dressage Training TV with Mary Wanless and Peter Dove and I found a great session on Canter aids by Peter that really helped.

 

So with all of these new tools under my belt, I practiced and practiced and well they have definitely got better. The reason not being because I have practiced but because I have practiced differently than before. I have broken down what was going wrong, found new ways of learning it and then begun to practice with these new tools under my belt.

 

It would have been easy to blame Jamie for not responding to my aids but in reality it’s me that needs to learn to communicate with him not the other way around. If he doesn’t respond to what I’m asking I need to change how I ask the question.

 

Ok so what the point of my little confession on the crapness of my Canter aids, well hopefully you will feel a little better that other people struggle too, but also my point is that if you are struggling with something in particular instead of just bashing away with the same skill set, go away and develop a new skill set on it.

 

You could try doing some reading on the exact aids, some schooling exercises around the aids and then really analyse whether you are using those aids. Again someone on the ground or if I don’t have that I set up my phone camera in a corner of the school and video it so I can watch back. Having lessons on another horse or with a different instructor can help too. Our brains all learn differently so what explanation may work for one person may not work for another.

 

I challenge you now to decide what you’re going to tackle and spend this weekend looking for a different way to practice it! Let me know how you get on!

 

If you would like to improve your riding performance off horse I have space for 121 clients at my private studio located WN8 9QP so hit reply if you’d like a consultation.

 

Nicola

Improve Your Personal Performance

You may have noticed that fitness for equestrians is having a bit of a moment (great news for me!). It seems that suddenly there are programmes popping up everywhere all promising to improve your fitness for riding. I think this is a great thing as I really do believe fit riders make better riders. A fit rider is in better balance and control of their body as well as able to maintain that level of balance of control for longer periods before becoming tired.

However not every rider wants to be an avid gym bunny. You may have absolutely no desire to take up running or lifting weights. That’s cool it doesn’t mean you can’t find an off horse way of improving your riding.

In order to see what needs to be done to improve your own performance you need to look at two things.

Firstly your specific discipline. What does it entail and require of your body? The demands of a jockey are very different to that of an endurance rider, dressage rider or showjumper etc. So have a think about what level of cardio fitness you require. Do you need to remain focused and strong for long periods or short rounds? How do you need your body to be move and be active? The working position of a showjumper is very different to a dressage rider and therefore again the flexibility and stability needs will be different.

Secondly, what are your current strengths and weaknesses? Perhaps as a Dressage rider you have a very good alignment but you struggle to absorb the movement of the horse in bigger movements and therefore require more stability. Perhaps as an Eventer you are quite strong but get tired on the cross country and therefore need to work on your cardio endurance.

To avoid doing a generic improve everything programme have a look at these questions and then focus on your off horse exercise into improving these elements specifically.

I have 1 2 1 training availability so get in touch if you would like some help with your specific training plan.

Planning Winter Training

No matter how many years it has been since I left school (a few….) September always feels like a fresh start.

Maybe it’s because it’s also the switch over from summer to autumn so the nights get darker, the weather gets colder and with that comes a change of routine for riding and fitness sessions.

I think it’s a really good time to sit down with a pen and a diary, planner, piece of paper etc. and make a plan of how your training is going to look for you and your horse from now until the end of the year. (Without causing alarm there are just 16 weeks left of 2018!).

For your horse:

  • What activities will he be doing? If he’s not likely to be out competing etc. maybe you want to give him a break, or if you have some winter competitions planned how fit do you need him to be?
  • What facilities do you have? If you have an indoor then time and weather may not be a problem, but does your outdoor have lights? Maybe you don’t have an arena and will be limited to hacking in daylight hours. Make a plan based on the fact it will be dark in the mornings and evenings and it may well be wetter and windier.
  • What do you want to work on? Have you struggled with a particular issue out competing this summer? Make this time your chance to really nail it and plan the exercises, schooling sessions etc. that you will use to help you overcome it.
  • Get your trainer involved in your goals so they can be best advised to help you when training you. If necessary also get your saddler, vet and horse bodyworker on board to help you along the way.

Of course we all know with horses you can make a plan and the next day you’re phoning the vet and ripping the plan up! However instead of falling at hurdles along the way go back your plan, regroup and amend as necessary. For example we had spells over summer when the arena was too soft to ride on, so instead I did groundwork with backwards, sideways and walking over poles. My original plan was work to get my horse using his back end improving his muscle tone so we still achieved some of those things just in a slightly different way so that when I got back on we hadn’t regressed at all-in fact I think it helped immensely.

For you:

I personally feel that autumn/winter is the perfect time to really work on your on fitness, balance, symmetry etc. As you are likely to be riding a little less, and the dark nights mean you tend to spend less time socialising at the yard so more time to focus on you!

  • What activities do you need to be fit for? There is difference in being fit to go a full days hunting to be being fit for a Dressage Test.
  • How fit for this activity are you currently? If you are feeling very unfit then start slowly and if you are fairly fighting fit maybe just a few tweaks to your routine could make all the difference.
  • Have you been struggling with something on your horse that could be caused in part by you? Now is the time to assess and work on any imbalances, injuries and weaknesses.
  • As with your horses training, get your planner out and write down your training aims and plan and get them scheduled into your week.
  • Who will you need to help you? Maybe it’s just a local class you need to sign up to, or you may need the help of a physio, personal trainer etc. whoever it is, contact them and get them on board to help you achieve your goals.

If you need some help with your goals I have availability for 1 2 1 training in the studio, so get in touch if you would like an appointment to see how I can help you.

 

Biomechanics, Posture and Performance for the Equestrian

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