Pushing and Pulling

Today I rode Bella and jumped one of the more involved courses I’ve ever done in terms of height and difficulty. It was fun and challenging. It was a little bit daunting to begin with, and it was also exhausting. The trainer said she is pushing me, which I appreciate because I take that to mean she thinks I can handle it.

I wasn’t on the top of my game today. I skipped psychotic spin class last night because I was feeling tired (and don’t think that didn’t generate an internal dialogue where I swung back and forth between telling myself alternately to listen to my body and rest, and then that I was a lazy jerk who needed to suck it up and go). I am glad I chose to listen to my body, since I woke up feeling still a bit low-energy today. But I had a good breakfast, did some warm-up calisthenics and stretches, and headed out to the barn.

I was extra excited to ride today because my boyfriend was coming with me to watch. He’s seen me ride once before at Jamaica Bay, but the lessons out here are at a whole new level. I was also excited for him to record me while I was jumping.

We rode in the front ring this time, what I call in my mind the “big girl” ring that I’ve never been in before. That’s where all the bigger jumps are, and where I had kind of assumed I wouldn’t ever ride in. It’s an assumption that belies my mindset of not being as advanced as I apparently am, and that’s something I need to get out of my head if I’m going to keep pushing myself to improve.

Headed for the big girl ring.
Headed for the big girl ring.

I was a little behind everyone else getting on, so I didn’t get to do a long warm-up before we dove into jumping. I could have used a little longer to get warm and stretch into my legs; I felt especially tight in the area behind my knee. The tops of my thighs have gotten a little bit more toned and flexible, so they feel less tight, but the area around the knee is still difficult.

The course we did was tough. It involved changing direction a couple times, which was difficult mainly because Bella is sticky on her flying lead changes (she gets them in front but sometimes not in back). There were also a couple of oddly-angled jumps that made the approaches interesting. The first couple times around, my reins were too long and I was being too passive; Bella is a young horse and needs a lot of riding. I really had to push her up and pull on the reins to take contact on her mouth for us to be connected enough to get the distances right. Pushing her up was hard for me today, I just felt like I had no energy in my legs. Pulling her back was difficult too; she is stronger than I expected given her size and had a tendency to pull me forward in the saddle. I needed to sit up and wait instead of anticipating the jumps as I did many times. Going over a jump awkwardly feels awful, but once I took that control things went more smoothly. At least, upon watching the videos my boyfriend took of me, it doesn’t seem to look as bad as it felt.

You can watch the video of the best course I did here. (I have about 300 times, studying all the ways I can make it better next time.)

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Equestrian Fitness: Stamina

Everyone who rides has been treated many times to the ignorant refrain of “You’re not an athlete–the horse is doing all the work!” But the truth is that riding a horse takes an incredible amount of stamina. Simply holding onto the horse uses so much energy, and you’ve got to make it pretty on top of that. You’re controlling the movements of an animal that is like 15 times your weight, mostly with your legs. I know that after cantering around the ring a few times, I’m blowing just as hard as my horse. After a course, I’m always winded.

I build muscle rather quickly. I can develop flexibility when I put my mind to it. But stamina has always been something I’ve lacked. In high school, I ran track for one year but was only able to do sprints (and hurdles, which destroyed my legs with shin splints for many years). The idea of long distance running was hellish to me; I thought the cross-country team was a perverse cult of masochists.

I need to build up my stamina for riding, but also because having more stamina will make me able to work out better to increase the other two aspects of equestrian fitness, strength and flexibility. To that end, I’ve tried a couple of things at the gym:

Running: Since I have always pretty much hated running, this has been a long, slow build up for me. I started out running on the treadmill and simply trying to run a whole mile without stopping. Then I tried to run two. Then three. This necessitated understanding my limits and learning to pace myself; those miles were pretty slow, 11-12 minutes apiece. Three miles is just about the farthest I’ve ever run, mostly due to the time limitations of going to the gym after work. Next I started focusing on increasing my speed; I dropped back down to one mile, but each time tried to do it faster. Eventually I decreased my time from 11 or 12 minutes down to a little bit over 9 minutes per mile.

After a few months of doing pretty much the same thing–a quick mile as a warm-up, then moving onto weights–it started to get pretty stale. Exercising without variety is not only problematic because it’s mentally unchallenging, it also doesn’t push your body enough to keep building stamina.

The recommendations about what exercises are “best” or “most effective” change about as often as the recommendations on what we should and shouldn’t eat, and so tend to be something I avoid making myself crazy trying to follow. But the current story seems to be that interval training has a lot of benefits: increased calorie burn, increased efficiency of oxygen getting to the muscles, greater efficiency of lactic acid breakdown, and a steady increase in overall stamina. I’ve done intervals before and they’re pretty fun, so I’m giving them a go again. Possibly the biggest benefit for me is that intervals are mentally engaging. It’s like a game: every time I try to beat my previous best.

Here’s what I’ve been doing: I run about a half mile at a medium pace to warm myself up, with a few short bursts of going slightly faster than is comfortable. Then I do about 5 intervals wherein I sprint all out, followed by a rest period of walking. I started out doing 30-second sprints, then upped it to 45 seconds, then a full minute. The last time I did this, two days ago, I went to a 1:15, and next time I’ll try to do 1:30. Each day it gets easier. I was gasping for air after my first few attempts at 30 seconds, and now at that point I’m still in the “I’m fine” territory. Picture a meter, like the temperature gauge on a car. At 30 seconds I’m still in the blue. Around 50-55 seconds I’m starting to redline and want to stop so desperately. But the important part of intervals is you have a set time you have to get to. I used to go into exercises with the mentality of “I’ll do this as long as I can,” but it’s always easier to punk out that way and not push yourself as hard as possible. It’s easy to convince myself it’s time to stop at that 50-55 second mark when my lungs are screaming at me that I have no air left, but if the goal is to get to 1:15, I always find a way to hold on until then.

One way in which I go fairly easy on myself is that I don’t define an amount of time for the recovery. I just slow down and walk until I catch my breath. It would be more effective if I pushed myself to recover more quickly, and that’s something I plan on working up to. But for now, I’m focused on extending the length of my sprints.

After the third or fourth interval in a given day, it starts to get harder and harder. Intervals really tire me out quickly. So I’ve adopted a rule for them called “One After Done.” That means that after the interval that feels like it has demolished me and I can’t do anymore and I’m absolutely done, I have to do one more. That way I know I’m going to my furthest limit and building as much stamina as possible.

Cycling: I also go to a cycling class once or twice a week. It’s called “Les Mill’s RPM,” part of a series of Les Mills classes that they do at my gym, 24 Hour Fitness. It’s also known as “that psychotic spin class,” which is how I’ll probably refer to it from here on out. Let me begin my saying that group exercise is not my fave. I don’t like other people looking at me when I work out. I chafe at an instructor deciding my limits for me, and I flat out will not tolerate being yelled at. So I was reluctant to try this class. But my boyfriend convinced me to try it. His point was that sometimes you really do need someone to push you past your limits and that I might get something out of it. He was right. The instructors I’ve taken the class with do encourage everyone to go faster and harder, but they are not the screamy types.

The class isn’t all intervals, but incorporates a lot of interval training. As you ride the stationary bike, there’s a knob to adjust the resistance on the pedals. The instructor tells you when to put it up and down as you go through a series of sprints and climbs, sitting down and standing up in the stirrups. It’s pretty amazing for building up thigh and core strength but it is really, really hard. The hardest part for me is of course the cardiovascular stamina. Whereas I am (perhaps too) kind to myself on the treadmill with letting myself totally catch my breath in between sprints, this class does not give you much time to recover. The next song comes on right away and you’re back at it. Sometimes I drape my body over the handlebars, put my head down and close my eyes for a couple of seconds just to breathe and convince myself I’m not dying.

The “One and Done” rule doesn’t really apply to this class, mostly because at the time I feel done there are usually several more songs to go. I just try to finish the class and do all the things the instructor is doing–keeping it at her speed and resistance. It’s getting easier, especially now that I’m going twice a week. But it also sort of never gets easier because you can always put the resistance higher, and as you get stronger it’s kind of necessary to do so in order to keep the pedals from getting out of control. I’ve started going to this class the night before my riding less, replacing the yoga class I was going to previously. I find this is a better workout before riding. My original thinking was that a low-intensity stretch the night before would do me better on the horse, but actually just blasting my thighs and core makes me feel looser and warmer the next morning for riding. It also hopefully gives me more stamina so I can continue challenging myself in the ring.

 

Flying

This week I got to ride a horse like I’ve never ridden before. I’ve ridden hundreds of horses: mostly the wide gamut of schoolies, some sale horses, some former racehorses and former polo ponies, even one or two really nice horses owned by friends. But I’d never before gotten to ride a real serious show horse. The one I rode this week, Sjapoo (pronounced like “Chapeau”; it’s the Belgian spelling) was pretty amazing.

When I first got on he seemed very excitable, with his ears perked up and head raised high despite wearing a running martingale. His gait was prancey and the movement vertical, and I thought to myself, “Oh great, another choppy Thoroughbred that’s going to make me feel like a total mess. Can I even handle this?” He wasn’t extremely big or strong–probably around 15.3 hands and athletic but not bulky (built like a soccer player rather than a football player). But he was clearly spirited in a way I’ve not often experienced. It was kind of like this: when I was younger, I had a Saturn. It was a good car, reliable, got me where I needed to go with its four-cylinder engine. It was a like a school horse. The road my family lived off had one lane going in each direction and a speed limit of 50 mph. There was one section that had a short passing lane right near my barn and, being 19 years old, I pretty much always felt I had to pass whomever was in front of me when I drove there. In my Saturn, this was a bit of an effort. I had to give it a good push on the gas pedal to get up that hill and around another car. But one day I borrowed my dad’s Infiniti. When I got to that stretch of the road, I barely had to breathe on that gas pedal to put the other cars in my dust. I realized very quickly that I had a lot of power underneath me and that it was important to be aware of that and be in control. That’s what riding this horse was like. He was like the luxury car of horses: very beautiful, but also very finely-tuned and powerful.

Sjapoo with his owner (not me) at a show.
Sjapoo with his owner (not me) at a show.

Luckily, being a professional show jumper also meant that he was incredibly well-trained. After my initial apprehension, I just got to work doing what I needed to do as a rider to settle my mount and I found that he adjusted almost immediately. I took a little bit of soft contact on his mouth, I sat deeper and posted slower and as soon as he warmed up, he transitioned very nicely from that more strung out trot to a collected and comfortable working trot. The same was true at the canter. I took him around the ring a couple of times to get warmed up and we did a few circles; he gave me a perfect bend at just the slightest suggestion from my inner leg.

Since the main trainer was back, after we warmed up on our own we went right into jumping. We started with a line of low verticals at the canter. She wanted us to get four strides in between the jumps, but Sjapoo and I came in right off the bat with three. Right before the first jump, I gave him a lot of leg like I would normally do to encourage the horse forward to his first jump of the day. But he didn’t need that much, only a light touch on the accelerator. “He’s not a school horse,” the trainer reminded me.

The next time through, he came to the jump expecting it and I didn’t collect early enough. We got the four strides but it was uneven; the first jump was a little big so the first three strides were more forward and the fourth was jammed in there at the last second. The next time around, I was more prepared. From the get-go, I did everything in a more understated manner, even asking for the canter. It really took nothing more than shifting my weight and bending him slightly to set him up and then the barest whisper of my leg on his side to get him going, and in approaching it this way the transition was much nicer. Before he had kind of leaped into the canter, like a horse out of the starting gate, and then I’d have to calm and collect him quickly before we got to the jump. This time the transition was far more organized and gentle, which changed our whole approach. We went into the first jump with a perfect distance and the four strides flowed easily and naturally from that; it only took a little bit of sitting up and woahing in between to get the perfect fit.

The trainer added a couple of other low jumps to make it a small course, but for me, the line remained the main event. After a few times through, she raised the jumps in the line. I took a look at the second one and told her, “That’s probably the highest I’ve ever jumped.” It was a vertical of about 2’9″, not very high in comparison to those 5’9″ jumps I watched people take in the show last week. I may have done 3′ once back in the day, but I’ve never had much opportunity to do anything with much height, partly due to space constrictions and largely due to horse limitations.  She said not to worry about it and told me to take the line in a forward three this time around.

As we approached the jump, I could feel Sjappo’s excitement match my own. Horses that love to jump really perk up once things get going. I spurred him on with a little leg on the approach to the first jump, keeping light contact on his mouth. We cleared the first one and had three long, smooth strides to the second and when he took off, it was beautiful. We soared. I could feel myself break into a huge grin in the air, quite literally just elated. Often when training and working on a course, each jump is like a piece in a puzzle, a thing to be solved. That’s fascinating and I love that kind of work. But riding such a knowledgeable and responsive and athletic horse took the experience to another level. It reminded me of the beauty and grace and the pure fun of jumping. It made me want to do it again and again. More, and higher.

Equestrian Fitness: Flexibility

I think there are three aspects to equestrian fitness. The first two are strength and stamina, and I think the third is one that is often left out: flexibility.

I’ve found this to be the most difficult thing about coming back to riding as an adult. When I started riding again about two years ago after my nearly decade-long hiatus, of course my muscles were not in shape. It was hard to grip with my legs; it was even more difficult to squeeze a slow horse to move on. It was very hard to hold my upper body still. But I had muscle memory helping me out there. So my muscles knew what to do and would instinctually do it even though they weren’t really strong enough. It’s a lot faster and easier to train muscles that already know what to do and simply need to get stronger to do it than it is to start from scratch and teach them what to do. It’s something my riding buddy and I talked about a lot, how we couldn’t fathom starting to ride at our age if we hadn’t had so much experience in our youth.

Training my muscles to get stronger wasn’t too difficult, and I noticed a difference there right away. Every time I’d go to the gym to run or to do the leg weight machines, I’d see results; I’d be able to run faster and longer, or I’d have to put the weight up on the machines. But I wasn’t seeing the same results when I rode. My legs were objectively stronger, yet not a great deal more effective at doing the things they were supposed to do on the horse.

The amount of time it took me to warm up seemed to be the issue. I’ve noticed as I’ve aged that in general it takes longer to warm up. This is even true on the pitching mound, where I used to be able to throw a few warm-ups and then step right into the first inning and now if I don’t get to a game early and go through a whole warm-up routine, I won’t hit my stride until the second or third. In my riding lessons, it was taking me most of the lesson to get warm—flatwork was agony and it was like I was just getting started when I took my first jump. I tried stretching at home before the lesson, doing a little light yoga and calisthenics to get the blood flowing, but by the time we drove out there and mounted up I would be cold and inflexible again.

Warming up before a big exertion is useful and necessary, but there’s a lot of controversy about whether stretching before exercise is helpful at all for performance and recovery. But it’s not just on the horse that I feel my flexibility has become limited; it’s all the time. The area between my lower back and my knees, including lumbar muscles, my hips, hamstrings, and IT band seem to be all jammed up all the time. I feel them tightening and pulling on each other when I walk or sit. So warming up isn’t the only issue, it’s my general flexibility.

All of this has led me to do some research into the anatomy of these areas. The thighs are particularly interesting. Most people are familiar with the quads and the hamstrings, but there is a whole group of muscles called the adductors on the interior of the thigh that work to keep your knee rotated correctly and your leg stable. Looking at a diagram of these muscles, I was able to pinpoint the one that seems to be the hardest for me to stretch when I’m riding: the gracilis muscle. It’s the most superficial of the muscles on the interior of your thigh; a long, thin muscle that goes from your pubic bone all the way down to your knee. It is involved in the flexion of both your hip and knee and it’s the muscle that prevents all of us from being able to do the splits. When you’re riding, it’s the muscle that is directly against the saddle, the first line in holding yourself onto the horse and keeping your knee closed and bent at the correct angle.

gracilis
The gracilis muscle extends all the way to the knee.
adductors
Adductor muscles in the thigh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merely strengthening this muscle is not enough. I’ve spent plenty of time over the last several months using the adductor machine at the gym (and its counterpart, the abductor) to strengthen those muscles. But when they are tight, they aren’t particularly useful to me. I can’t access the strength I need from them–to let my leg really lengthen and wrap around the horse–if there’s no flexibility there.

So now I’m trying to seek out exercises that will specifically target flexibility in that area. My first thought is yoga. I’ve been going to a class once a week for the last few weeks but haven’t gotten much out of it physically because it was very meditation-focused; I’ve now found a different class that is more anatomy-focused and it seems to be a better fit. I’ve only gone to that one once but will continue to go weekly to build flexibility throughout my body. I will probably also do some practice at home using poses that are focused on this region. I found this informative blog post with a list of poses helpful for healing, strengthening, and stretching the adductor muscles.

 

Turns and Timing

I rode Bella again yesterday, the small chestnut mare I rode in my first lesson out here. No one else from my regular jumping class was there and the trainer is still out of town at shows, so I rode again with the assistant trainer and two young girls. The lesson turned out to be a good challenge. I brought my saddle along with me and rode in it for the first time in over a decade. It felt really, really good. I asked the trainer her opinion on whether it was too small for me, to which she answered, yes, it is. But not by too much. She said it’s noticeable but not glaring, that I could use a bit larger one but if it’s comfortable for me there’s no reason to run out and get another saddle. I’m going to keep riding in it for now because it is so comfortable.

The interesting thing I’ve noted about riding with this trainer is that she is very structured in her approach. Flatwork is not just a warm-up, it’s a training session that builds individual skills that will be used when jumping a course. In this lesson we really focused on turns and timing.

When warming up at the trot and at the canter, she had us do a similar drill to one she’s had me do before: alternating extending and shortening the horse’s stride. This time, instead of extending on the long side of the ring and shortening on the short side, she had us extend on the short side and rein it back in for the long side. This is a lot more difficult. This drill not only warms up the rider and the horse (all that extending takes a lot of leg and of course the horse is working hard to move that fast), but it’s also incredibly useful for jumping courses, especially lines. When you’re in between the jumps in a line you often need to either move up the horse to take away a stride or pull them back to add a stride, and this exercise builds those skills on the flat. It teaches you how to get that extension out of your horse by squeezing with your legs and how to get them to come back by sitting deeper in the saddle and using your back and hands. It also trains the horse to be responsive to those aids and flexible in changing her stride.

The next drills worked on turns. This trainer is big on circles, really emphasizing pushing the horse out with your inside leg while keeping her moving forward and on track with the outside leg. There’s a huge temptation to use your inside rein to get the bend; it turns the horse’s head and should be used subtly and indirectly to help create that silhouette. But when you’re thinking about jumping a course with some tight turns in it, you don’t just want to be wrenching your horse’s head towards a jump at the last minute. That will prevent you from coming in straight and will likely earn you at best a knocked-down rail and at worst a flat-out refusal. Instead, you want to be prepping your horse for the turn with your seat as early as possible–on the landing, if not in the air. To that end, we did two really useful exercises before jumping a course. The first was not dissimilar from one I’ve done with her before, doing a circle around different points of the ring with a focus on bending. But this time she upped the ante and took away the ability to use the inside rein at all; we had to take both reins in our outside hand and get the circle and bend entirely with our legs. This was hard. Imagine sitting on a bike and trying to make it go in a circle without touching the handlebars. And then imagine that the bike is 2,000 pounds and has a mind of its own. Pushing the horse out with your inside leg is so much work. Think of how much effort you have to put with your whole body into pushing a heavy piece of furniture; this is like that, but just with one leg.

After that, the trainer set up some poles on the ground. There were two in the middle of the ring at the longwise center line and then two perpendicular to that on a tight turn–one to the right and one to the left.  It looked kind of like this crappy drawing:

polesWe had to canter in over the two center poles and then make the tight right turn to canter the right pole, then come around and go through the center poles again to make the tight left turn to the left pole. The turns were very tight. The first time it took all of us by surprise and everyone did that last-minute jerk on the reins that made a very messy, bowed-out turn and did not get a straight approach. The trainer illustrated what needed to be done in a really helpful way though (to me at least, but not really to the two little girls): she asked if I’d ever driven a truck. I said I have, and so she likened turning the horse to turning a truck; you always have to go a little bit further out in turning the front end of it in order for there to be room for the hind end to get around the turn and come in straight. So the next time through, more prepared, I did much better; I set my horse up right after the center poles by switching my weight to the outside stirrup and pushing the horse over with the inside leg.

The course we did at the culmination of the lesson was set up to be all about turns. It started with a line on the long side, then went to a line across the diagonal, then a tight turn to a single jump on other diagonal and then around another tight turn to finish off over two poles. Like this:

course It went pretty well. I was so focused on making my turns well that I got a little messed up about my spots. This was another situation where I needed to sit back and wait; Bella knew where she needed to take off and it was a stride closer than I expected her to. I have a tendency to sort of throw myself forward in the saddle; it’s almost like I’m trying to jump for both of us. It’s something I really have to work on, for two reasons. The first is that if I’m flinging myself forward and my horses refuses, it’s curtains for me. I’m going to go over her head. The second is that it’s totally counterproductive to my horse. When a horse jumps, the power all comes from the hind legs for the take-off, so she needs to somewhat rock back on her hind legs first. If the rider is ahead of the motion of the jump and her weight is forward over the horse’s neck, it makes that movement so much harder. Jumping position should happen over the jump, coming up to meet your horse’s neck and arched back, not before take-off.

I would have liked to keep perfecting the course longer, but we only had time to do it twice. It’s very useful to build up skills dong all of these flat exercises and I’m glad for the experience, but there are drawbacks, like not having a whole lot of time for actual jumping and also being pretty fatigued by the time we get to it. Hopefully next week I’ll get a chance to focus more on courses and take a break from all this intense flatwork.

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To top off a good riding lesson and make the day extra horsey and wonderful, I also got to go watch some show jumping. My boyfriend and I went out to the barn in Burbank where they were having a competition and it was very nice. There weren’t many spectators, so we got to be right up close to the action. I don’t honestly think I’ve ever been this close to a horse jumping so high; the fences in the class we watched were 69″ (or 5′ 9″–three inches taller than me). I’ve seen it from far away in a grandstand and I’ve seen it on TV, but when you’re up close it really drives home the athleticism of these animals. You can feel the presence of such a huge body and the exertion of it leaping into the air carrying a person on its back. It’s pretty unreal. And exciting and beautiful, as well. Watching the riders take the course, I paid particular attention to their turns and found it to be very predictive. It was easy to see when someone was going to knock a rail down and almost all of the time it was because of a bad approach due to lack of a good turn. That’s way easier to see when you’re in the stands than it is when you’re down in the ring, especially since show jumpers don’t get a practice round. There’s no opportunity to see the course from horseback prior to entering for your round, there’s only a walk-through where riders and trainers apprehend the course on foot. If I ever get a chance to ride in one of these shows (and I want to, now maybe more than ever), I’m definitely going to keep that in mind on my walk-through and pay close attention to looking at where I’m going to make my turns.

showjump
A rider (not me) at the show jumping competition.

 

 

Equestrian Fitness: Upper Body

It’s obvious that in order to be a strong rider, you need to strengthen your core and your legs. But what about upper body? It seems like this is an area that riders–and women generally–tend to neglect in their fitness routine.

I’ve found, mostly by accident, that a strong upper body improves my riding in so many ways. I would go to the gym and do a bunch of lower body exercises: running, squats, cycling, and all the thigh-oriented weight machines. Those have all done great things for me and I’ll touch on them in another post. But I realized that if I was going to be all-over fit, I had to target the rest of my body too. My original goal was to lose some weight and to look a bit more toned. The rationale was that muscle burns more calories so putting more muscle everywhere on my body that I could would speed up the burn.

I think a lot of women avoid the upper body weights area at the gym for two reasons: 1) not wanting to look like a dude and 2) dudes. To address the first, I’ll say this: you won’t. Unless you’re taking steroids (which, just don’t) then your feminine form is safe; lifting even heavy weights is not going to make your arms muscled like a man’s. As for the second, it’s true that the free weights area is an especially testosteroney zone in the gym. For some reason the guys are all really hyped up over there about each other and there’s a whole lot of posturing going on that only gets worse when a girl is thrown into the mix. At first it really put me off, but I’ve learned to just ignore it and laugh about it in my head. I’ve found that the weights machines are a little less fraught and seem to have a more reasonable male-to-female demographic if that makes you more comfortable. Plus, if you’re just starting out, one benefit of the machines as opposed to free weights is that your movements are constrained and guided by the machine and you might be less likely to hurt yourself overextending your range of motion.

It might be tempting to go for the more simple-looking machines that target the familiar small muscle groups like the biceps and the triceps, but we’re going for more than just toned arms here. The goal here is to strengthen the chest and the back for better equitation posture, better airflow, and more control of your horse. Also, most of the machines that target these bigger muscle groups also work the smaller secondary ones as well, so you’ll still end up with nicely toned arms.

Historically, I have had pretty much zero upper body strength. On top of that, the tone I do have is completely lopsided; since it comes mostly from pitching softball for nearly a decade, I have this disproportionate right bicep that looks really big compared to the left one, but which really provides no strength since none of the other supporting muscles are strong.  I can do zero unassisted pull-ups at this time. I can do a decent amount of push-ups (20-30) if I am balancing on my knees, but can barely do any (maybe 3-5 on a good day) if I’m in full plank/push-up position. My back is a particular weak spot, having hunched over a desk forever. So there’s a lot of work that can be done.

My approach has just been to browse through the machines and keep trying new ones that look interesting. There’s a little diagram on each one that shows which muscles it targets and a few instructions on setting it up to your size. I make a guess about how much weight I think I can lift (sometimes based on checking out whoever used it before me) and make adjustments if necessary. I lift the heaviest amount of weight I can handle for 6-8 reps and do three sets of that. I used to do the opposite, putting the weight relatively low and doing a lot of reps because I thought I was going for tone and that’s the way most women go about it. But I’m going for strength and since I’ve started doing it this way I’ve gotten much better results.

Variety is a good thing here; before I had just a couple of machines that I was comfortable with and stuck to those but it’s important to branch out. I want my whole upper body to be shored up with muscle so that when I sit up tall in the saddle, it’s like a framework that already exists and I don’t spend mental and physical energy holding myself up all the time. I noticed a difference right away in my lessons. My posture was much more upright, my shoulder blades much more supple and able to support and open up my chest. My mid-back was much more still; I didn’t get pulled forward as easily by my mount tugging on the reins or being heavy on the forehand and I didn’t rock so much in the saddle at the canter.

So I keep trying as many of the different machines as possible to get an all-around strength. It’s important for creating that balance and harmony among the whole muscular system; you don’t want one thing to be really strong and another part of be really weak because it will pull you out of whack compensating for that. A good tip my boyfriend told me was that if you work a muscle by pulling, then you should also do the opposite motion and work it by pushing. (Think of the thigh adductor and abductor machines, aka “the inny and the outy” in my nonsensetalk language; the one where you use your inner thighs to push the pads between your knees together and the other one where you use your outer thighs to push the pads between your knees apart.)

That being said, here are a few of my favorite upper body machines specifically for building strength for riding:

1) Chest Press: This is the one where you sit and use the handles at chest height to push out until your arms are extended; it’s basically like a seated push-up. This has made the biggest difference in my posture of any exercise I’ve done. Opening and lifting the chest is one of the most important visual components of having perfect-looking equitation but there are a lot of practical reasons for that. Firstly, you can breathe a lot easier, giving you much more stamina for keeping that slowpoke horse from breaking or having enough air to get you through that long course. Second, it gives you better balance in the saddle, reinforcing that line we’re supposed to keep from shoulder to knee to ankle. If your chest is caved in and your back is rounded that throws the weight of your head and neck forward and down and limits the effectiveness of your seat. Thirdly, what follows naturally from having better balance in the saddle is your horse having better balance and you having more control. When you sit up with your chest open, your head and your hands come up and that brings your horse’s motion up as well. With an open chest you have so much more strength for sitting up to give your horse half halts to gain a little control, to enact smooth downward transitions and stop the horse completely, or even to stay on if he decides to buck. Finally, a strong chest will help you keep yourself lifted in jumping position so you don’t collapse on your horse’s neck on the landing. An added bonus of the chest press is that it works the triceps as well which will help you to pull back from the elbow on those reins. Another machine that also works the chest and triceps in a slightly different area is the Chest Fly, I like that one a lot, too.

2) Mid-row: This is the balancing movement to the chest press, working the middle of your back just below the shoulder blades. This will help your posture in all the ways described above, working in concert with your chest muscles. Sometimes I do the weight machine with this motion and sometimes I switch it up and do the rowing machine that simulates a row boat, where you put your feet in the stirrups and push with your legs while pulling on the row bar. That one is good because it also works your legs and adds a cardio component, but the resistance is lower than you can get by using the weight machine.

3) Lat pulldown: This works more of the upper shoulder blades and also the muscles down your spine to your spinal erectors. It will help create that framework I talked about earlier of holding up your entire upper body. It also works your biceps, which is a good counterpart to the tricep strengthening of the chest machines.

Finally, since this was an area where I’ve felt especially weak, I’m incorporating a daily challenge at home to really push myself. I’m doing this 30 Day Plank Challenge. To really get results quickly, I’m not only doing the one shown in the picture where you rest on your forearms; each day I’m also doing a full plank with arms extended and a full side plank on each arm.  This is great because it not only boosts your upper body strength, but works your entire core.

If you’re looking to increase your strength as a rider, don’t neglect your upper body! In equitation there are so many things to keep track of in your own position in addition to controlling the unpredictable 2,000 pounds beneath you. The only way I’ve found over the years to keep it all together is for some things to become second nature and drop from my immediate consciousness to free up space for what’s going on in the moment. I call this “dropping below the line.” Theoretically, it would be ideal for all considerations of position to be below that line and for perfect equitation to be instinctual. For years now, my upper body has been “above the line,” a constant focus and something my trainer often has to remind me of. Strengthening these previously-neglected muscles and creating a framework for my upper body has allowed me to drop that part of my position below the line of consciousness and frees me up to become a better, more present rider.

 

 

 

 

Fitness

My lesson yesterday left me pretty sore so this morning instead of going to the gym, I’m in recovery at home. When I’m tight and sore, the natural response is to not want to move at all. But I’ve learned that “recovery” is not simply about doing nothing–rest is important, but so is stretching and moving in a way that will help those muscles heal.

This morning while doing my own version of recovery–some light yoga and using these amazing things to work out the really painful kinks–I was thinking about my own fitness regimen. I’ve read many articles and blogs talking about the best exercises to get you in shape for horseback riding. All-over muscle tone, but particularly core and leg strength, is usually the focus. Clearly, the best way to develop riding strength is to ride often. But I’m finding that there are certain exercises that develop enough tone to make my lessons much more productive; having that “head start” of some tone in the muscle helps those parts of my body warm up more quickly and operate with more suppleness in the lesson, which in turn probably leads to building the muscle more quickly.

I thought I’d share what I’m finding here–basically through trial and error–in case it’s helpful for anyone else. The fitness regimen I’m trying to establish is not only for riding, although getting back into the best shape I can for that is one of my main goals. I’m also realizing how important fitness is as a part of life. I’m at the age where during the next several years, muscle tone will start sharply declining and I want to head that off at the pass as much as possible so I can continue leading an active life. Putting the work in now is setting me up to include fitness as a major part of my lifestyle for the rest of my life, and I need that.

As a child I was incredibly active. I was naturally athletic, energetic, and thin. As I’ve aged, my metabolism has changed and I’ve accepted that as a natural part of aging. I’ve continue to consider myself “active” since compared to most people, I was. I walked a lot. I played softball twice a week for half the year. I rode horses every other week. I tried to make it to the gym once or twice a week for a run on a treadmill and some weight-lifting. I occasionally rode my bike around the track in the park a few times. As I type that now, it sounds like a lot. But it’s not. At no point in any of those activities did I really consistently push myself.

In the last three to four years, I put on what for me was a lot of weight. Part of this can be attributed to turning 30. Part of it can be attributed to sitting in a dim hole of a cubicle without seeing a window for the better part of a year and my Seasonal Affective Disorder getting out of control. Much of it can be attributed to a great deal of stress from a variety of sources. I looked ok. I was still “thin” by most people’s standards, and my friends mostly told me to shut up because I was fine. But I didn’t feel fine. I felt like I wasn’t myself, like the body I was inhabiting wasn’t even mine. And a huge part of what felt integral to my personality–my ability to be active–was slipping away. Fatigue, muscle aches and worsening headaches became the norm rather than the exception. I started to become depressed at the thought that I’d never be able to feel energetic and healthy again.

Since moving out to LA about a month ago, I’ve gone to the gym almost every day. It’s a lot more accessible to do so, since I just hop in the car and drive for about 5 minutes to get there, instead of negotiating bringing all my gym clothes to work and convincing myself to get off the subway a few stops before home to walk several blocks in the cold to work out. The gym here also costs me about $40 a month less than it did in NY while at the same time being much nicer and having more equipment, classes, and amenities.

After this month of working out, I’m starting to feel a little bit better. But really, I’m just scratching the surface. It’s made me realize how much damage has actually been done by the complacency of my sedentary lifestyle. I realize that because fitness came so naturally and easily to me as a child and a teenager, I’ve expected it to be that easy as an adult. And it’s not. It’s hard. If I want the level of fitness and athleticism that I had before, I have to really, really push myself to get it.

I’ve also realized how important that is to me. I think there’s a kind of shitty peer pressure pervasive in our culture to not make fitness a huge priority because if you do, it makes the people who don’t feel bad about themselves. There’s the stereotype of an image-obsessed “gym rat” chick who is trying to get impossibly skinny, or the musclebound meathead guy who can’t put his arms down. The fitness world certainly does have its own particular breed of psychosis (as does every sort of niche); I’ve seen some of that here and I don’t even live in the really crazy part of town. But as with everything, balance is key. Pushing your body to freakish proportions is unhealthy and so is neglecting it entirely.

So, going forward in addition to my weekly lesson post, I’m going to also write about my adventures in getting in shape. I’ll mainly focus on what works and doesn’t work for me as a rider, since that’s the topic of this blog, but obviously there will be overlap on what just works generally. I want to become the best rider that I can be–I’m curious as to how good that really is when my body is also the best it can be.