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Resilience

I’m sure you will agree that 2020 has tested our mental resilience, and 2021 appears to be doing the same.

I’d say Equestrians are already a pretty resilient bunch. We constantly deal with setbacks such as horses going lame, competitions not going well and generally just bad horse days.

Physically though how resilient are you? I reckon throughout your Equestrian life you’ve hit the deck, been pushed and pulled around so many times you daren’t even remember. Which since you’re still riding means you’ve got a fair amount of physical resilience but I imagine to go with it you have your fair share of aches and pains.

I know we kind of accept them as part and parcel of our sport but it doesn’t actually have to be that way. You see the stronger your body is the better able it is to deal with the knocks and bumps.

A body that is able to absorb force, move load AND has a good range of movement is not only less likely to injure but if it does it will recover a whole lot quicker than one that does not.

That should be a key reason for training if nothing else, just to be free of aches and pains and to recover quicker if you do take a knock.

That’s why I like to cover several bases with my clients. We improve their flexibility, their movement patterns, stability and ability to tolerate loads.

This is why no one exercise is the definitive best one for riders. Its dependant on your current strengths and weaknesses and what you already do as part of your lifestyle.

You may need exercises that help you with particular aspects of your riding but above all else you want your body to be able to keep you riding.

Build a resilient body to go with that resilient mind and this year we can tackle anything!

 

What is Specific?

Sometimes when looking at rider fitness programmes it can be hard to see why seemingly regular fitness exercises may be of benefit to your riding. You may be thinking that in order to be effective it needs to look like you’re riding as you do it. 

However footballers, golfers, rugby players etc all train for their sport doing “regular exercise things “ . There will just be a particular emphasis on certain movement patterns or areas of the body that will be specific to that athlete. The focus is not to mirror the sport, that is what they do in separate training sessions doing drills etc. The focus is to improve the movement patterns and performance of the body as a whole, to prevent repetitive patterns causing injury (if a golfer never gained strength rotating the other way that could be a problem) and to make the body strong enough to withstand the forces placed upon it during the sport. 

Riding requires the ability to remain balanced and in control of your body whilst under load-I.e on a horse. 

Therefore training off horse needs to be movements that require good body control and/or balance. 

Initially this needs to be mastered at body weight and then progressed with a load. This load could be a band, barbell, dumbbell whatever or it could be just making your position or the surface more unstable-load does not necessarily mean heavy weight it just means increasing the difficulty in some way. 

So if you’re looking to improve your riding with some off horse training look at the areas you struggle with. Is it your stability? Is it your ability to move limbs independently and do multiple things at once? Have a look at exercises that may also require those things off horse and that would be a good starting point! 

Happy New Year

2020 was a bit of a roller coaster wasn’t it? Although January 1st 2021 unfortunately doesn’t just transport us back into magical normality it at least brings us hope.

New Year is also the time when most of us set goals.

So, what has 2021 got in store for you and your horse?

What are the steps you need to take to get there?

Maybe you’re thinking of stepping up a level at Dressage. What are the new movements you need to be able to perform? What are the things the judges will now be looking for and expecting of you and your horse? 

Write a plan of how that’s going to be incorporated into your training.

The system is the same whatever your goals are, stepping up in Jumping, maybe competing for the first time or bringing on your young horse. 

As well as considering what you expect your horse to be working towards, what about you? 

Are you bringing your A game?

Feeling a little over weight and sluggish after lockdown and Christmas? Time to start putting in place some better nutrition habits and upping your daily activity. 

Struggling to stay balanced and organise your body whilst trying those new moves? Adding in some off horse training can help you improve your strength and control back on your horse.

Maybe you’re struggling to get through a full round without being out a breath. Adding in some cardio training will help you get up to speed. 

What are your 2021 riding goals? What plans are you putting in place to achieve them?

 

Reaction Training

Reaction times are something that is looked at a huge amount in other sports but not so much in equestrian sports. Yet we all know that one minute you’re merrily riding in one direction then the next minute you’re facing the other way. If you’re lucky you’re still on board at this point! So, you definitely need good reflexes to deal with that!

It’s not just for the emergency situations though. It’s also when you’re trying to join movements together in a Dressage test, or jumping a course of fences. The faster your body is able to react to the changes required of it the more in balance you will both be and the clearer your aids will be.

Whenever I train reactions with my clients we have some fun with it.

It could be playing with the reaction ball (odd shaped ball that pings off in all directions) or we run in one direction then when I shout they change direction.

We also do weighted ball slams or throwing it against the wall.

I know we aren’t really doing Christmas parties this year but you could have a family game of musical statues or musical chairs and call it rider training.

 

Force Absorption

Force absorption is what your body is doing the entire time you are on a horse. Of course in reality your body is absorbing force when just walking around it’s just that on a horse it’s got an extra say 600kg of force underneath it to deal with. 

If you’re wobbling around on board, maybe you have a wiggly middle, a nodding head or you have to stiffen up to hold yourself, they’re all signs you aren’t absorbing the movement as well as you could be. 

Efficient Force absorption isn’t just so that you can sit and ride well. It’s also important to prevent injuries. 

A really simple way of looking at how your body absorbs movement is by sitting on a gym ball and gently bouncing. Can you do this whilst maintaining a stable but not stiff torso? Think of relaxed muscle tension. Once you’ve got this bounce a bit bigger.

A great body weight force absorption exercise is squat jumps. Starting from a squat, you jump up and land back in the squat. If you then wanted to progress you could add height by jumping onto and off a box. Make sure you land with a strong torso and bent knees still tracking over your feet.

A great weight based exercise is the Kettlebell Swing. This requires you to both create acceleration and then control it at the top to bring it back down. It’s like the biggest trot you’ve ever ridden!

Being able to absorb force makes you more stable which relates back to the exercise we did last week.

Balance & Stability

Last week I mentioned some areas to focus on for your own rider fitness.

As promised here is the first round of inspiration for you.

This weeks focus is balance and stability.

Stability requires a level of muscular strength. I’m not going to go into pure strength here I’m going to focus on the balance element.

A basic balance test is standing on one leg. 

Can you do this whilst keeping your pelvis level? Is it harder standing on your left or your right leg? 

Now try moving the same side arm or the opposite arm at the same time as lifting the leg. Can you still keep your pelvis level? 

You could then up the ante on this by trying it on a wobble board or wobble cushion. 

Or adding a band attached to a door around the standing leg or your waist so you have to resist the sideways movement.

Even trying to do this whilst turning your head or having a conversation can make it more difficult. Of course that’s the point as when you’re riding you want your balance to work whilst you’re also focusing on your horse, giving aids, possibly listening to your instructor. So you want your balance to work even when you aren’t focusing on your balance. 

Give these exercises a try and see how far you can get before you start to wobble.

Better Jumping

I don’t often cover jumping things mainly because most of my clients focus on flat work, but I do have the odd one that leaves the ground occasionally. 

However I watched a video recently that made me think about how the rider has so much influence on the quality of the horses landing, the get away and turn to the next fence and of course getting over it.

Landing from a fence requires your body to absorb a huge amount of force and it needs to be strong enough to do that. 

As you then start to pick up the pace again you need to already be back in balance to stay with the acceleration of the horse. Then particularly if you’re showjumping you will be making a tight turn to another fence.

Your horses ability to do this in balance and fast relies on the rider staying with him at every stride. 

Being able to do this can be the difference between 1st and 4th place at a competition as the margins for time can be so tight. If you shaved 2 seconds off because you were able to make a tighter turn or because you were able to pick up the pace faster after a x country fence that  could be a decider.

Also, most importantly in my opinion being able to stay balanced puts your horse at much less risk of injury.

Ok, I could talk about all the why’s etc forever but I’m pretty sure you’re already at the “so how do I do this” bit.

Work on yourself. 

  • Your balance and stability.
  • Your reaction times
  • Your force absorption 

Look out for future posts on some ideas on how to incorporate this into your off horse training. 

 

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.