Tag Archives: equestrian fitness

What aids are you giving?

As you’re riding your horse you’re communicating with your seat bones. If you’re tuned into them you can give precise aids without looking like you gave any aid at all.

However as often we aren’t necessarily tuned into our seat bones they could be giving aids without us realising. Or if we are using them but aren’t necessarily fully tuned into exactly what they’re doing they could be doing different things right to left.

So, here’s a little exercise for you to try out on a gym ball.

Firstly sitting on the ball, can you feel which direction your seat bones are pointing? Forward, back, different each side? Ideally they should both be pointing straight down as if you could plug yourself in to the ball with them. 

Then imagine there are pencils on the bottom of them, draw a circle with them one at a time. Are your circles the same? 

Now, sitting on the ball imagine a set of buttons in front of you. Slide alternate knees forward to push the button-or start to move your seat bones as if you’re in walk on your horse. Are your left and right seat bones doing the same thing? 

How about in trot?

Then move on to Canter. If you’re on right canter just follow the canter with your right seat bone, how does that feel? What shape does it make?

Now try the left. Is that the same or is it different?

By this point you’ve probably realised you’re more asymmetrical than you thought…….

Think about how that impacts your horse, your riding and your saddle. Of course no horse and rider will ever be 100% symmetrical but being as close as you can get will have a huge impact on your riding aids, as well as your horses symmetry and the wearing of your saddle. 

What did you find when doing this exercise? 

It’s for your horse

I, like many of you watched Badminton last weekend. Anyone else need a stiff drink to cope with all the drama so early on?

What I think is clear, is to get around Badminton you have to be a serious athlete! Having a good horse isn’t enough, even if that horse is at peak fitness you still need to be a stable ninja (new project name there maybe?) to ride that course. Strength, stability, quick reactions and endurance are some of the most obvious qualities required. Having done some social media research/stalking I'd say most if not all of those riders do work off horse to be fit enough to perform at their best.

Then I saw a post from a friend who had been to a yard demonstration at Carl Hester’s. All of the riders; who were pupils of Carl’s did work off horse to perform their Dressage best for their horse. 

These are the people many of us are aspiring to. 

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “ dress for the job you want not the job you have” we could flip that for riding (or any sport) to say “Train for the level you want not the level you have” I will say that’s a little more complicated with the riding bit but I’m not talking about that. 

If the people competing at higher levels are busting their ass in the gym, or doing Pilates, Yoga etc then surely that’s what we should be doing too if we want to improve our riding. 

If you’re not naturally inclined to do any exercise other than horse stuff, just think of it as an extension of that. 

It’s about ensuring you are fit and balanced enough to support and manage your own body weight, that you are as symmetrical as possible to prevent asymmetry in your horse and you’re fit enough to help him out if he needs it. It’s about your horses welfare. This isn’t about how you look etc, it’s about appreciating the fact you are sat on top of your horse and it is your job to make that as easy for him as possible. 

What do you do to make help your horse carry you?

Can you connect the muscles

Something I ponder when writing programme for clients is how this will benefit their riding.

I think that it’s possible to become very fit and it not improve your riding that much. Once you’ve reached a basic level of fitness and stability I think you need more than just more fitness. 

It’s not just as simple as building the muscles. You’ve got to know how to connect to them and how you want them to work when you’re riding.

If you’re exercising mindfully and really focusing on the muscles as you work them you’re a step ahead; but I also think it’s important to understand what role those muscles play in your riding position.

I often explain to my clients why we’re working the obliques or the rotator cuff for example- and if I don’t they can definitely ask and I will have an answer!

So, if you don’t already really connect with all of your muscles as you’re working them, check in on how different parts of your body operates singularly and together. Then ask yourself- or your trainer if you have one how the work you do translates to your riding and I’m sure you’ll start to see those little annoying riding habits tidy themselves up!

Why Neutral?

When we talk about rider biomechanics we talk about being in neutral. You will move in and out of it slightly as you move with the horse but it should always be your set point.

But why?

Is it because it looks nice? Is it tradition as so many things are with riding?

Actually, there are proper legitimate reasons for riding in neutral. When I refer to Neutral I don’t just mean the Pelvis. 

Neutral refers to all of the joints of the spine stacked directly on top of one another in perfect alignment, with relaxed, moveable joints in the limbs.

This enables them to absorb movement more effectively which means you will sit much stiller with more stability. This enables you to move with your horse and give clearer aids. 

It also means you are completely in line with the pull of gravity. Creating just one line of pull for gravity to act on as opposed to being out of alignment means there is less chance of gravity getting the better of you!

Neatly stacked joints also avoids putting extra strain on the supporting ligaments, tendons and stabiliser muscles as they do not have to fight to keep joints safe if they are already aligned. This therefore helps to prevent injury through strain or pulling of those ligaments, tendons and muscles. 

So, how do you apply this to your riding?

Here are a couple of tips to get you thinking neutral.

Imagine stacking yourself up in boxes. Your pelvis is one box, your rib cage another and then your head the top. Your aim is to stack all of the boxes directly on top of one another.

Starting with your Pelvis. Have your Seat bones pointing directly down as if you could plug yourself in to the saddle. With your Pelvis level then imagine there are 4 corners to your pelvis and rib cage with dowels on like flat pack furniture and slot them together so your rib cage is directly over your pelvis. Then sit your head directly over your spine with your ears in line with your shoulders.

As mentioned, Neutral is not a rigid position, you will move gently in and out of it as you move with your horse but you continue to pass through it each time as your central point. 

If this is new to you just give the stacking up process a try and see how it feels! 

Think of it as part of your anti fall, injury prevention and effectiveness tool kit!

You get what you asked for

I’ve been doing more ridden coaching recently and a pattern I’ve noticed is many problems are solved when the rider is more clear about what they want.

A Horse’s lack of energy very often matches the riders lack of energy. Said rider may be flapping their legs etc but the actual energy emanating from the rider is a bit lacklustre. Add a bit more oomph to the rider and you get a bit more oomph from the horse! 

The same goes for the more lively horse. If the rider can lower their own energy they will find it easier to contain their horse’s energy. 

Then there’s the specifics. When you’re asking for forward with your seat and legs yet you’re hands are ever so slightly pulling back. If you’re pulling back just the tiniest bit that’s a stop/slow down signal to your horse. If he’s an “energy conserver” you’ll be struggling for forward; if he’s a bit of a hot head you’ll get what comes out as a tantrum-he’s confused!

You give an aid, you move a leg then a hand……. did you mean to give two separate aids? Or did you mean to give a hand and leg aid as one aid? Those things will get you different outcomes.

If you give a leg aid and lift a seat bone, you’ve shifted your weight, did you mean to do that?

There are multiple ways your body can shift when you what you think you’re doing or asking for become something else. So it’s really important that you as the rider can take responsibility and be really clear about your intentions to your horse. 

If you don’t get what you wanted, ask yourself if you definitely asked for that or if maybe you were a little unclear.

This is why as riders it’s super important to work on your body awareness. Being able to recognise your own patterns and notice when things move a little off kilter is the key to refining your aids and being clear with your horse.

I do this in lots of different ways with my clients, from Gym Ball work to exercises involving bands, different planes of movement and often just really focusing on the basics.

How do you train your body awareness? 

Tipping Forward?

When I asked riders what their biggest riding bad habit was, tipping forward was a common answer.

It’s a big one because there can be lot’s of reasons we do this.

  • Nerves. When we are scared or nervous our body tries to feel safe by returning to the foetal position; hence it tries to curl up.
  • Expecting bad behaviour-rearing for example. There may be some nerves linked to this too, but not necessarily. There are plenty of fearless riders who spend a lot of time riding flighty horses so they naturally sit a little hunched in a sort of defensive position.
  • Lack of stability. This can be two fold. If you lack strength through the middle it’s going to be difficult to sit up on a horse. Also, if you lack stability in your hips/pelvis again like the nerves your body tries to retreat to a position of safety-leaning forward.

Firstly, let’s deal with a quick checklist of how to set yourself up to sit up straight.

  • Have your seat bones pointing directly down as if plugging into the saddle.
  • Check your pelvis is level.
  • Imagine you have 4 corners of your pelvis and slot the 4 corners of your rib cage directly on top.
  • Float your head directly on top.

If you struggle with nerves and it causes you to tip forward, focusing on your breathing can both help to calm you down and help you to uncurl.

  • Breathe in, fill your belly so it pushes out, breathe out, push the air out and draw your abdominals in. This deep belly breathing activates your diaphragm. This both calms you down and creates stability in your core at the same time-cool huh!

If you tip forward because you lack stability……..well I think you know the answer! You’re going to have to get stronger! Creating stability in your seat and middle requires strengthening your Glutes, your Hip flexors and your Abdominals and Lower back.

  • If you’re a gym bunny that could mean adding Deadlifts and/or Front Squats to your routine.
  • Not a Gym Bunny? A Pilates class that includes Squats, Bridges all the hip work plus the regular core stuff you get with Pilates. Little hint-my online programme has all of this….. https://www.equestrianfitness.co.uk/online-classes/

If you want some more in depth help, myself and Veterinary Physio Steph Morgan are running our April Challenge in which I’m focusing on helping you deal with your tipping forward problems alongside Steph providing structured strength and conditioning for your horse. She is adding in a focus of different training strategies that would be helpful for different breeds and types of horses. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in head over to our Facebook page for full details. https://www.facebook.com/110251518143961/posts/149872854181827/?d=n

Mastering your Body

As part of my work with clients I often help them understand what things are supposed to feel like when riding.

For example; the idea of your rein contact coming from your shoulder girdle and abdominals, or what your body needs to do to absorb the movement of a horse underneath you.

It can be hard to explain this whilst on a moving animal, particularly when it can be something that talented riders do instinctively. It takes a huge amount of body awareness to understand what the body is supposed to be doing whilst riding, which muscles are activating, which bits are lengthening and how you can make those things work better together.

Without blowing my own trumpet, that’s what I do. It’s my job to understand, analyse and explain all of those things to riders like you in a way you can easily grasp and then hopefully recreate that feeling when you’re riding.

Once you are aware of how your body can move or manipulate what’s going underneath you, suddenly things start to click into place; the impossible becomes possible.

Off horse training is about mastering and understanding your own body. If you can understand and control which bits of your to activate to create stability alongside which bits to release to create mobility you can fully use your body to communicate with your horse.

If you want some help mastering your own body let me know!

Restore Equilibrium

As riders it’s inevitable that we are going to fall off at some point. Even if you don’t sustain any noticeable injuries, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected you.

If you did suffer an injury, what did you do about it before getting back on your horse.

Even if you didn’t fall off it’s possible a bucking episode or a shoving over by your horse can still injure you- ‘I’ve had plenty of whiplash from bucking and long reining incidents.

But what do we do as follow up……? Nothing!

Yet if your horse takes so much as an off step you probably phone the Physio, maybe get him a massage. If your horse does get injured, you have experts on the case and a full return to work rehabilitation programme.

If you get injured? A hot bath and some ibuprofen…….and if it’s really serious maybe a couple of weeks on light duties too.

Yet, I see so many riders with multiple areas of tension, dysfunctional movement patterns and a whole heap of pain issues all related to a full fax roll of incidents they’ve had throughout the years. At every stage they did nothing to restore equilibrium in their bodies, which means it never got truly restored to its original function. Add onto this the next injury and the next injury and we’ve got a body full of unresolved issues.

If you want to be the best rider you can be for your horse, it’s time to start unravelling those issues and restore equilibrium.

We can do that with movement. We can release fascia with resistance stretching, we can restore function through body weight movement patterns, and we can build future robustness with weights.

It takes time, patience and hard work but that’s everything with horses, isn’t it?

You wouldn’t let your horse be the lame, wonky half of the partnership, so don’t let it be you either!

Teensy bit of space left for dedicated Equestrians to work with me 121 in person or via Zoom. If you’re ready to restore Equilibrium in your body let me know!

Finding Your Flow

An important part of both exercise and riding is the ability to fully focus on what you’re doing.

When riding our performance can be hugely improved by being fully present in what we’re doing, how our horse is feeling and reacting and in turn responding to that.

The same goes for exercise. If you can focus on the muscles and your movement pattern throughout this will give you better results both physically and mentally.

An Athlete would call this Flow State.

The ability to be fully immersed in what you are doing, having your body follow your horse and to be as one with your horse-Flow State.

However, I think for most of us it’s more of a mental battle than that. Whilst we think we are in the zone, our brain is probably sifting through various thoughts; maybe your work day, what else you have to get done that day etc.

I can tell what mental state someone is in during their exercise session by how they are moving.

If your brain isn’t in the game during your workout your balance will likely be off. If someone’s struggling to perform stable movements often it can be a as much a brain problem as a muscular problem.

How do you get your head in the game then and find your flow state?

You can work on your mental stillness and focus in various different ways. For some people it’s Meditation, for other’s it’s Yoga or maybe it’s music, running whatever.

A great way to test it before you get on is to stand on one leg and just stay still. Too easy? Now try it with your eyes shut! Struggling? Focus on a spot in front in front of you that isn’t moving. This focuses your brain on the object and creates the stillness you’re after.

How do you find your Flow?

Jumping Position

This week I’ve been looking at Jumping Positions and the Biomechanics of a good one. There’s been some serious “nit picking with Nicola” going on over Youtube, viewing some serious top level competitors -but there’s always something that could be improved! 

I believe that the same rules apply in jumping as in flat work in that you should be in your own self carriage.

Generally horses carry 60% of their weight on the front end  and 40% on the hind end. That’s quite a bit of force through the front end.   When jumping those forces are increased further still.

In order for the horse to do his job to the best of his ability it’s up to you as the rider to manage your own body weight to enable him to manage his. 

If you are leaning forward, using your reins or the horse's neck for balance, that is extra weight he has to lift up over the fence and then has to manage on landing.

In order to allow him to do his job the best he can you need to be over his centre of gravity. That is the middle of the saddle as you would be for flatwork. The only difference is that you will be lifted out of the saddle in a Jumping position. 

As for supporting your own weight there seems to be a pattern of people being told to have their weight in their feet. Which I think is actually more of an interpretation issue than it being incorrect. I find that as soon as people are told to have weight in their feet they push their feet down; which pops them up and locks the joints in the ankles, knees and hips preventing force absorption. This makes the position tense and also not that stable. Also, if you had all your weight in your feet what happens when you lose your stirrup? We’ve seen plenty of top riders complete a round with one stirrup; which means they didn’t have all of their weight in their feet did they?

I think it’s more that there should be a positive connection to your feet, in that there is weight in the ball of your foot, your ankle is able to absorb movement so it draws down rather than being pushed down. 

The majority of your weight will be in your thighs and your bum. These are the big muscles of your body so it makes sense to use them for stability and endurance. 

In a Jumping position your hips hinge back, so it’s not a rounding of the shoulders, it’s a stable core, flat back hip hinge like you would in a Deadlift off horse-starting to make sense why we might do them now isn’t it? It’s this hip hinge that keeps you over the centre of the horse. If you leaned forward like I think many of us seem to have been taught, you’ve sent your bodyweight forward onto the front of the horse. Now he’s got to lift himself up at the front and you! Then when he lands there’s his own body weight multiplied in force, and now yours all coming down in his front legs. Then of course if he trips on landing you were already partially out the front door so you’ve less chance of staying on!

So your hands will go forward to allow his neck out, but the rest of you is still central over the saddle, supporting your own bodyweight on the take off right through to the landing. 

The ability to absorb that force through your body and still be supporting yourself to land pretty much in the same position ready to ride onto the next fence requires your body to be very stable and be supple enough to absorb that force without having to collapse.

 I actually train force absorption with my riders, we do jumps off a box straight into jump position, we use med balls for throwing and catching, band work to train against resistance. 

As mentioned we also train the hip hinge so it’s a natural position for their bodies to adopt and they understand how to be strong there. 

Training off horse is of course about being a better rider in general, but if the jumping position is anything to go by, the ability to support your own bodyweight can go a huge way (I’m not saying you're heavy!) in taking additional strain from the front of the horse; and I’m sure for most of us it really is just about being the best that we can be for our horse.