How long do you try for?

How hard are you trying?

How much time do you put in?

Ok, so this one comes from both my recent horse training experiences and from years of both my own training and training other people-both on and off horse.

How much time do you give to trying something before you give up.

Try it once, decide it’s too hard and don’t bother again?

Give it a couple of goes and if you don’t get it properly then give up?

Or do you keep trying, hopefully making tiny incremental gains along the way, so that one day a little in the future you have got it?

It’s something I’ve had to do with pony training recently with both Gwydion and Panda, but if you’ve seen my other social media you’ll see that Panda has gone from scared, aggressive and Panda to a little scritch obsessed sweetie finally learning the arena isn’t a scary place. Gwydion has gone from being a total anxious wreck just being tied up to having a rider on his back again, and I can assure you that even a few months ago I wasn’t sure we’d be getting there! But I just kept chipping away……along with some tears and tantrums!

The same goes for riding. I’ve had new things taught to me that I’ve really not been able to get the hang of the first few goes but I’ll just keep chipping away and eventually it clicks. It might take days, weeks or even months but I’ll keep trying.

Then with my training, there are loads of exercises that I couldn’t do at first. Olympic lifting definitely a case in point! You didn’t lift heavy on your first session, you start low and add a little more as you get stronger.

When I’m training clients whether that’s on or off horse often they can get frustrated and want to give up when they try something for the first time and it’s hard. But you didn’t learn to ride in your first lesson did you? If you want to keep getting better you’ve got to keep pushing yourself to do things that seem hard at first.

Just think if you started exercising now and did a couple of session a week, you might feel useless at first. It might not immediately fix all the problems you thought it was -you don’t stabilise your seat in 1 Pliates class!

However if you just keep turning up and leaning into that uncomfortable place where it feels like you can’t quite do it and aiming to get just a little bit better each time; you may well just look back in a few months time and not be able to believe how far you’ve come.

Are You Present?

I want to talk to you about being present, in the zone of whatever you call it.

It’s not just a skill we should practice whilst riding but also on the ground with our horses; and as I’ll go on to discuss other times too!

This is something I’ve had to really focus on lately as my Fell pony Gwydion really requires this from me as we’ve restarted him with groundwork. If I’m not fully present and in control of my energy and emotions he isn’t engaging in the process. Basically, I’m all in or he’s all out. It’s been frustrating but it’s an important lesson to learn.

When riding we should be fully present, not just in what we’re asking the horse to do, but also how our horse feels and how our own body feels.

Being able to tune into how your body feels and moves as you ride is a skill that takes practice. As does being able to feel how your horse responds to your own movements as sometimes these can be really subtle.

This is why I suggest mastering it off horse first.

Of course, there’s practicing it whilst doing ground work with your horse, if that’s something you do together. In fact it’s a great way of testing out how you can change your energy by changing your body language; can you back your horse up or move him sideways with just a change in your body language and movement but without actually touching him? Can you get him to stand still doing this?

However, I’m a fitness professional so let’s look at this from an exercise perspective.

If you can learn to fully focus on your body, it’s movements and how it feels during exercise this will tell you a lot about your body. Being on the ground means you can fully focus on your body without the complication of the wild animal with a mind of its own.

If I ask someone to move, then ask them to check in with what they’re actually doing often they’ve no idea they weren’t fully engaging all the muscles required.

If I ask if they have equal weight in the feet, are their shoulders level, can they feel their abs engage etc. They often need to really concentrate when they do this.

Then when we move onto a riding specific exercise and I ask them if they can now feel their abs, back, outer hip etc. they may be surprised to find these muscles are supposed to be involved!

Are you fully present when you ride? Do you focus on the muscles you should be using, how it feels, how your horse reacts and how your energy and body language can change that?

Give it a go both on and off horse and see if it changes some things for you. I’d love to know if it does.

Check in with yourself

Do you ever check in with your body?

When you’re riding do you ever mentally check in with how you feel today rather than just checking in with your horse?

Does everything feel stacked up the way it usually does, or feel as mobile or stable as always?

I reckon the answer lies somewhere between no I don’t, and everything hurts!

It can be easy to fall into this system of just plodding considering how your horse feels day to day and whether he might need some physio, a massage, a different workload etc. But never considering how your body feels and whether it needs attention.

Your body has a huge impact on how your horse feels and moves being ridden and then of course than may impact on his overall wellbeing.

There are a couple of ways you can check in with your body.

Sometimes at the beginning or end of a Yoga session in my online programme we just lie on the floor or stand still and do a mental check in of our bodies from top to bottom.

Try lying on the floor, taking some deep breaths, and then starting at the top squeeze then relax each part of your body and see how it feels. Which areas of your body feel like they don’t relax? Those areas might need some more attention.

In my in person classes, we do regular stretch weeks where the sole purpose is to reconnect with your body and deal with those areas of tension. We do this with movement patterns such as opening and closing the chest, mobilising the spine etc. and self - massage with physio balls and foam rollers.  It gives everyone a chance to check in with their own bodies and deal with any niggles that may be affecting their riding.

If you put time into making sure your horse’s body is in tip top shape surely it makes sense to make sense yours is too.

The same principles apply

Whatever your chosen Equestrian discipline they all require the same fundamentals from you as a rider.

Yes, there are differences in your position if you’re doing Dressage as opposed to Jumping, however there are many principles that remain the same whatever actual position you may be in.

  1. Straightness. Whether trotting the centre line or approaching a fence, being able to ride straight makes a huge impact on how successful that will be. Obviously in Dressage lack of straightness will affect your marks. When jumping, the line to the fence can have an impact on whether you clear it and then the line following landing sets the success for your line to your next fence.
  2. Stability and Self Carriage. The ability to support your own body weight gives your horse the space to manage his own balance. If you’re unbalanced your horse has to manage your weight as well as his own. If your horse is a little unbalanced being able to support him with your own stability can help him to achieve his own balance with time. Again, the ability to remain stable over a fence makes the job a lot easier for your horse, as well as stability being able to hopefully keep you out of trouble if it goes a little awry.
  3. Proprioception. This is just a posh way of saying body awareness. It’s really helpful when riding to have good awareness of what your body is actually doing.  For example, if you ask for go with your legs but say whoa with your hands that’s not a clear aid to your horse. Or perhaps you’ve no idea you always slide your left leg further back than your right and it’s affecting your Dressage scores. A good level of body awareness can help you identify and then address these asymmetries.
  4.  Shock Absorption. Riding of any style requires your body to absorb the movement of the horse underneath you. In flatwork this enables you to move with the horse, maintaining good, relaxed stability.  Over a fence this enables you to land well and in balance. This has two benefits; firstly in preventing you from distorting your horses balance on landing and secondly setting you up well to ride away from the fence and possibly onto the next one. It is also vital for helping you ride pain free. A body that isn’t able to  absorb the movement underneath it will overuse some muscles and under use others. It will also place more strain on the joints and ligaments again potentially causing pain.

These are the things that whatever your chosen discipline you should be considering in your off horse workouts.

Are you Symmetrical?

I’m pretty sure you know that Symmetry is super important for your horse, so I’m sure you also know it’s important for you as a rider too.

Your own symmetry affects how your weight is carried by your horse and how effectively you give aids.

That asymmetry will affect your horses’ symmetry and therefore his way of going.

If he’s falling in on one rein or always getting a better score for movements one way than the other that could be down to you.

We all know we have a better rein, but do we ever really address it?

Perhaps you aren’t sure which leg is the strongest?

Or you do but you don’t know how to fix it?

Training your body off horse is an effective way of addressing asymmetry as patterns can be spotted and then addressed on the ground which will more than likely be representative of what is happening on when you ride.

Here’s a couple of exercises to try to both identify and then help to correct asymmetry in your lower body.

Standing on one leg-Surprisingly you might find one leg easier than the other!

Single Leg Bench Squats. Standing up from a seat on one leg is firstly more tricky than you think, secondly it’s a great way of training a weaker leg.

Give them a go and see if with practice you can even yourself up.

Nicola x

Staying strong the whole ride

This week I’ve been having a little fun with some of my 121 Clients holding a 2 point seat on some balance pods whilst trying to keep a steady contact on bands held as reins. With optimum time of the Cross Country at the Olympics being 7mins 45 that’s been the aim. To stay fairly still on an unstable surface, when if you try and use your hands for the balance the elasticity of the band will throw you off is harder than you think.

Although of course this doesn’t directly replicate a cross country round effort it does train stability and endurance of the muscles. I’m considering ideas of how I could add jumps in……

Whether you do Eventing, Dressage or just general hacking or schooling, riding well throughout requires stability and endurance of your muscles. This is slightly different (although not exclusively trained different) to endurance of your lungs.

If your stabilisers and your bigger muscles get tired mid ride it’s going to be hard to stay effective, and indeed safe right to the end of your ride. Tired muscles don’t perform as well, so they won’t be giving clear aids, or sitting as lightly or correctly. Secondly, tired muscles may not react as quickly to a spook, trip etc meaning you’re more likely to fall off!

As I mentioned training endurance of your lungs is different that doesn’t mean training you would traditionally do for that such as running, cycling or swimming etc isn’t effective for endurance of muscles; it totally is! So, if you like adding that into your training that’s great.

Regular resistance training is also great for improving muscular endurance.

However I like to occasionally add in some static muscle poses to test the endurance of muscles alone. Although riding can often feel like a decent workout (or it should if you’re doing it right!) you don’t actually move your muscles that much-although they are working quite hard.

You don’t have to be quite as silly as me and my clients with the balance pods and the bands etc, you can make it much simpler by doing things such as wall squats, a low free standing squat, plank, side plank or holding a split squat for increased lengths of time.

Getting Started

The thing with riders is that often we’re so beat up from various injuries etc that the very idea of exercise seems impossible.Just getting your body to move into these seemingly strange positions is exhausting and feels all kinds of wrong.

Which is exactly why you need to start!

Having a body you can control well and make it do what you ask if a huge step in improving your riding. 

A body that moves well is less likely to be in pain or injured. It will recover better from injury when things do go wrong and it will perform better day to day making everything feel that little bit easier.

The hardest part is getting started and accepting it’s going to feel awkward for a bit. 

So why not start with a little yoga flow that will get your body on the way to moving better all round. It doesn’t matter if it yours doesn’t look like mine just do your best and with practice it will get better.

For more of this why not take a look at my online programme, it’s just 20-25 minutes of two workouts per week designed to give you everything you need to improve own body to ride better. There’s also a bonus HIIT workout every week if you want to push it a little harder. Waaaaay more affordable than you think it is too!

Shoulder Control

I often talk about Shoulder stability for riders.

It provides two benefits.

  1. It provides stability to the torso as a whole-it’s part of what you’d think of as your core.
  2. It provides stability to your rein contact.

The problem is many of us spend our days hunched over either at a desk, driving or sweeping the yard. This leaves the muscles of the back and shoulders long and weak. This means when we want to use them on horse they aren’t strong enough to respond.

When I work with riders I will ask them to retract their shoulder blades and many of them have no idea how to do that without using the muscles of the neck or chest. This means they lift their shoulders and tense rather than activate the muscles of the shoulder girdle that provide the stability.

So before we can even think about training the shoulder girdle we have to gain some connection from the brain to the muscles to allow us to activate them without tensing.

I start with Shoulder retractions. To do well this exercise is actually quite tricky.

With your arms out in front of you, draw your shoulder blades back and together without moving your head, neck or chest. Your shoulders shouldn’t pop up at all and your arms stay straight and will just move back a few inches.

Once we have got that mind -muscle connection we can move on to control of the shoulders whilst moving the arms. 

Do the same shoulder retraction, hold the shoulders down and together then bring the elbows back and then forward again without losing the shoulder connection. You can then add more movement to the arms, maybe elbows in and sending the hands out, then hands up and shoulders down. 

If you then want to progress your shoulder strength and stability there are some great exercises you can do with very simple equipment.

Add a band to your retractions and other movements to add resistance.

Then you can make this a Bent Over Row using a weight or band and recruiting the legs and rest of the torso to test your shoulder control as part of a full body position.

Windmills are another great exercise for shoulder stability that can be done with a Dumbbell, Kettlebell or just a bottle of water.

There are loads of ways to make your shoulders stronger but whichever exercises you choose it’s super important that you can control the recruitment of the shoulder blades.

Breaking down the basics

I’ve been doing a bit more horse training lately. Mainly groundwork or basics under saddle with both my own ponies and a friends. I am by no means an expert on training horses but I tend to approach physical schooling problems with horses in the same way I approach training people.

How are the absolute basics or movement patterns? With my clients that’s how stable are they on single legs, can they isolate their shoulder blades, do they rotate left and right equally and can they Hip hinge and Squat.

The Squat is one I’ve seen lots of riders struggle with. The squat is much more technical than it appears. It requires stability from the hips, knees and ankles and good control of the torso. 

This is why I break it down to into regressions depending on peoples’ ability. 

If someone struggles with control of their torso or finds Squats painful on their knees I start with Gym Ball Squats.

If it all goes wrong in the mechanics of the up and down (lacks stability) I use Bench squats. Just using the familiar motion of standing up and down like you would many times per day makes it easier to focus on the bits that need extra work.

Using plates under the heels can help people reach depth whilst they work on ankle mobility.

Once we’ve got a solid base we can do regular bodyweight squats. 

Then we can add weight with a Kettlebell/Dumbbell or a Barbell on the back or the front. 

After that it’s add more weight or add instability such as bands, wobble boards etc.

The point isn’t necessarily to get to the end point. 

We don’t all school our horses to get to Grand Prix, we school them to be the best athletes that can be. 

That’s how you should approach your own training. It’s doesn’t have to be about becoming an all out gym bunny or weight lifter, it’s just about making your body the best that it can be.


Lessons from Wimbledon

I’ve been watching some of the tennis this week and in between matches they have been showing cameras behind the scenes where players are warming up. The nerd in me found this bit way more interesting than the matches!

The players aren’t hitting balls and just playing tennis to warm up, they were doing a series of activation exercises clearly all specific to them. Things like fast banks rotations or arm pull overs designed to prepare the muscles for what they’re about to do on the court.

It got me thinking whether if you went behind the scenes before a Dressage competition or on Cross Country day would we see the same thing? 

Probably not. I’m sure you may find the odd rider doing a few stretches or activation exercises, but the majority will be getting straight on and focusing on warming their horse up. 

Of course if anyone ever says the horse does all the work you’ll strongly disagree-“have you ever tried to get half a ton of animal to follow instructions?” Riding requires you to do a lot of things with your body. So why don’t you prepare it for that before you get on?

So, what sort of things should you do to prepare your body for riding?

Think Seat - Activating your hips and glutes with some Crab Squats and Side Lunges

Rein Contact-Open your chest with some T Arm rotations then activate your back and shoulders with some scapular retractions or dumb waiters. 

Then add anything else that may be personal issues to your body such as opening up one side or stretching out a calf