Cross-training

Over the last year, Dunnie has been a great teacher, helping me learn all the new tricks I’ve picked up as a Western rider. I thought it was about time that I returned the favor, and last Friday I decided to put an English saddle on him.

English Dunnie.

I’ve only ridden English twice in the last year, both times on horses that were not Dunnie, and both times I was struck by how much more work it is than Western. There’s so much less saddle to hold you on your horse, and the stirrups are less attached to the saddle, providing much more opportunity for your leg to swing all over the place. So in addition to not knowing how Dunnie would react to the different saddle and style of riding, I really didn’t know how my own body would react to it. I predicted that I’d be pretty sloppy.

Amazingly, that wasn’t the case. First, Dunnie is the best. He reacted so well to the change, even naturally adjusting his stride and movement to my different style of riding (posting at the trot much more, a little more forward center of gravity/arch in the back, etc.). I have to imagine that the significantly reduced weight of the English saddle was like a vacation to him after the serious heft of the Western saddle I ride in, but even so I was so pleased at how quickly he adjusted.

As for me, I was very pleasantly surprised by the strength and stability of my legs. Riding Western, I don’t grip as much with my upper calf as I do in an English saddle — it’s just not possible with the way the stirrups are — but I do use my legs a ton to tell Dunnie where to go and to move him laterally. I’ve also been making a serious point of adding exercise into my rides; I’ve been forcing myself to do a lot of two-point at the trot, posting with no stirrups, and a two-beat posting exercise that means you stand up for two beats, sit for two beats (up-up, down-down),  which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. I was able to see the results of all this work in the English saddle, where even at the canter, my leg was rock solid. It just goes to show that constantly going back to the basics in riding is important, no matter what level you’re riding at. I’m constantly reminding myself of fundamentals to work on in my own riding, now that I’m teaching and correcting the kids on these basics over and over.

I think now that I know he’s all right with it, I’m going to add to that exercise regimen one biweekly English ride to provide cross-training to both myself and Dunnie. Now that we’re making some real breakthroughs in our Western riding, including getting him to carry his head much lower than before and finally finally getting some good turnarounds, I’m motivated to keep pushing him, to see what else he can do. While Western is still our main focus, throwing in a little English now and again will be good for both of us just to keep it interesting — a bored Dunnie is a troublemaker Dunnie — and who knows? We might just try out some English classes in addition to the Western ones at our next show.

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The Thighs Have It

Now that I ride 3 to 4 times a week, I have a lot less time for writing about riding. Which is a trade I’ll take any day. The riding has been particularly good lately, and I chalk that up to two things: 1) a happy horse and 2) strong thighs.

Dunnie has been in a great mood lately, since he started getting turned out at night in the big back paddock with his new girlfriend, who is appropriately named “Happy.” He’s so much less crabby than he had gotten lately, and is back to thinking it’s fun to play with me in the ring.

Dunnie, being happy with Happy.
Dunnie, being happy with Happy.

While one can’t possibly overvalue the merit of having a happy horse to ride, perhaps the even bigger improvement in our riding over the last two weeks has been how strong my legs have gotten. Part of this has been from consistent riding for a few months; the horse muscles are finally getting back to proper shape. The other part is that I have, in anticipation of an upcoming “milestone” birthday, become extra-focused on toning myself up, specifically in the thigh area.

Pinterest has about 3 billion suggestions for how to tone up your thighs, and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily workouts. In the mornings, I do some light thigh-centered calisthenics (leg lifts, fire hydrants, sumo squats, wall sits…I’ve tried them all) in circuits that switch up the exercises from day to day. I go for a half-hour to forty-five-minute ride around midday, hopefully before it gets hot as hell. Then sometimes in the afternoon I go to the gym and either do weight training (which is often upper-body-focused, cuz that’s important too), but also includes squats with a dumbbell over my shoulders, and the leg-press machine. Or I run on the treadmill, or, preferably, outside.

It’s amazing how much of a difference it has made in my riding, immediately. Before, at the lope I’d have a really difficult time going for more than half the ring. I’d be gripping with my legs inefficiently and huffing and puffing because of it. Also, in my weakness I was tensing up my lower back, making it rigid to try to hold on tighter but only succeeding in bouncing against my horse’s movement instead of flowing with it. I went back to Sally Swift’s Centered Riding to remind myself of the right movement for a rider at the different gaits, and it worked like a charm. I took that metaphorical metal rod right out of my back, and now I’m flowing along with Dunnie’s rhythm as we lope around the ring several times, doing large fast and small slow circles, and I don’t feel wiped out from it at all.

I’ve had this picture as my computer background image since approximately 2004. It has migrated across my computer screens through several different jobs. My coworkers would ask, “Hey, is that you?” and I’d reply “I wish.” It’s always been a touchstone for me, even though most of my life I’ve been an English rider. It’s an image that represents the little girl in me, who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “A cowgirl!” even though I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just knew it was someone who worked with horses.

Me (I wish).
Me (I wish).

Riding Dunnie this last week, I’ve had glimpses of this feeling. We’ll be loping around, and I’ll feel strong and centered and relaxed, and he’s happy and fit and collected, and it’s like I’ve clicked into a place that I’ve only dreamed about before. This mythical cowgirl riding her horse through the firey sunset isn’t just an image I’ve carried inside me for years in those moments; for a few seconds, I am her.

Work

Today was the first lesson where we’ve focused on working on reining techniques, specifically the half pass. But truthfully, it wasn’t really something that required much “work” at all. My trainer told me how to do it: At the walk, using the leg on the side opposite from the direction in which you want your horse to move, put the leg back and push him over. Putting the leg back makes sure that not just his shoulder moves, but both his shoulder and his hips. With Dunnie, it didn’t take any more than that. He immediately crossed his legs and moved in the direction I was pushing him, and after two or three nicely-executed steps I gave him a big pat.

The thing I am realizing about the reining moves, from what I’ve learned so far, is that there isn’t much to them. The cues don’t seem that complex, and if you have a well-trained horse, they just kind of happen. So I’m starting to see that in Western riding, it’s not going to be so much about learning new skills as it will be about refining them, and about finding the subtlest way of communicating cues to Dunnie.

So the other day while riding him, most of what I was doing was learning his buttons. We spent a good deal of time trotting around while I learned to make him bring his head down and round his frame to get into a very slow, collected trot that’s easy to sit to. Everything is just so much more comfortable and natural than English riding.

When I used to go to my English lessons, the anticipation of it was always such a big deal. I’d spend my day eating a certain way and had a detailed pre-ride workout to get my body ready to deal with the challenges of the lesson and even with all of that, I’d feel like it took me half the lesson to get warm enough and feel like my legs lost their tightness enough to be effective. Maybe part of it’s that I’m overall in much better shape now, working out more intelligently and avoiding the overtraining trap that I had fallen into in LA. But last night when I went out for a lesson, I just felt so much more relaxed. I made dinner and ate with my boyfriend, we watched a little TV before, and did some light stretching. I wore the same jeans I had worn to the store and just slipped on my cowboy boots and grabbed my helmet when I walked out the door, as opposed to the feeling of “suiting up” in my breeches and tall boots. I don’t bother with gloves anymore since I’m just riding with the reins in one hand and I’m barely using my hands anyway. And of course, not being all ratcheted up when I get to the barn pays off in my interaction with my horse. I’m not the crazed, hyped up lady coming into the barn with a bunch of spiky energy trying to make the absolute most of every second of training. To Dunnie, I’m the calm lady who brings him carrots and who slowly and leisurely tries to learn as much as she can. Everything feels at once more deliberate and yet less driven, even though this time around I am actually more focused on getting to a place where I can compete. It just seems so much more realistic to look at a reining competition and think “I can definitely do that” than to go to a Grand Prix, like I did this weekend at the Pin Oak (as a spectator) and think “I dunno, maybe someday I could jump that high? But do I want to? I’m admittedly kind of scared to but no, that’s BS, I’m not allowed to feel that way, I have to push myself to be great.”

It’s always the same old story, finding the balance of pushing myself outside my comfort zone but trying to figure how far is too far. Watching the jumpers on Saturday, I was finally able to admit to myself that this was too far. I love jumping, and I want to keep doing it. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but as far as I’m concerned now, 3′ is high enough. Anything higher than that is just not my style. Maybe that realization comes from having found something that is.

 

Easy Going

Before striking out more on my own—and while I wait for Dunnie’s current lease to end—I’m taking a few group lessons. This week there was some stormy weather that made my trainer move the lesson up and combine two, making it somewhat of a hectic conglomeration of different styles and levels—but this ended up being perfect for my purposes.

My half of the lesson group was about 5 of us in a large outdoor ring, and much of the lesson was devoted to strengthening exercises, which is exactly what I need to get back up to speed after 6 months out of the saddle. We warmed up walking and posting without stirrups. We trotted around doing “7-7-7,” which consists of sitting 7 beats, posting 7 beats, and 2-point for 7 beats. We played a game where we spread out on the rail and had to control our speed and stride length to avoid either passing each other or breaking. Given the trainer’s divided attention, she actually did a great job of giving me just as much attention as I needed—some tips and explanations about how my position should be in the Western saddle—and the rest of the time I was left to my own devices, feeling out my body and my horse and forming new relationships with both.

Despite the long absence from the saddle, and therefore lack of “rider fitness,” I am perhaps at the highest level of general fitness I’ve ever had as an adult, due to lots of weight and cardio training at the gym over the last few months. This is immediately apparent to me when I am riding now, as I’ve focused particularly on building upper-body muscles that contribute to postural strength, especially in my chest and back. Combine that with longer stirrups and a more comfy saddle that encourages the rider to sit back rather than perch forward, and I feel so much longer and taller on my horse than I’ve ever felt.

Dunnie is an incredibly sensitive horse. Not in the tweaky Thoroughbred way, just in the smart and very well-trained way. He knows his job, and he knows his cues, and he’s such a pleasure to ride because of it. In the lesson, I focused on learning his responses to my aides, and realizing that I actually had to tamp them down, using less and less until I found the threshold where he didn’t respond anymore. The biggest example of this was when asking for the canter. Historically, I have preferred to ride horses that required as little hand intervention as possible, and have worked hard to cultivate soft hands. But this is a whole new level. You’re supposed to ride with your reins so much longer, and I’m only holding them in one hand, which sparks some small control issues for me until I remember that I don’t even need the reins to stop—Dunnie will halt with just sitting back and saying “woah.” So the trainer did remind me a couple of times that I could put my hands even further forward, and every time I did, it produced better results in the form of a more connected and energetic stride. When asking for the canter, I was having a tough time getting him started. He was being a bit prickly after having picked up the wrong lead and when we did pick up the right one, he was charging into it. After a quick interval where the trainer jumped on to school him, I got back on and tried again. After a moment of confusion where I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go forward, I realized it was me—my hand, which felt like it had barely any contact on his mouth at all, was too high. The second I dropped my hand, he moved right away into a rounded, smooth canter.

Everything about the Western saddle is more comfortable to me than an English saddle—except, for some reason, the left stirrup. I think this might be a peculiarity of this particular saddle, but for some reason, the left stirrup twists in such a way that my ankle is turned in and it’s very hard to keep the stirrup when cantering. It’s probably just a matter of adjustment and remembering to keep my weight even, but that’s something I’ll have to work on.

Looking forward to next week and hopefully focusing more on learning reining techniques. But I also find, after just two rides, that I’m looking forward to spending time with Dunnie again and getting to know him better.

 

Equestrian Fitness: Yoga Tune Up® for Recovery

One of the problems with the methods of training I use (running, cycling, and weightlifting) is that they all result in a lot of muscle tightness that builds up over time, making me inflexible, sore, and irritable–all things that make me want to avoid working out.

Since riding itself can contribute to muscle tightness, especially in the hips and lower back, I’ve found a number of ways to combat this unfortunate downside of my training regimen.

Swimming

Getting in the water is a great way to ease sore muscles. Swimming is itself an excellent full-body workout that is especially helpful to sore joints because of its lack of impact. But even going for a dip without doing laps can be quite restorative.

After a hard run or weightlifting session, getting in the pool and relaxing helps my muscles recover more quickly. Doing some flowing movements and stretches in the pool stimulates the muscles with a light resistance created by the water, preventing them from getting stiff as they heal.

Yoga

I’ve written before about the benefits of yoga for a rider’s flexibility, and in my opinion, yoga is the best cross-training for riding and all of my other training methods. It contributes to the length and suppleness of the muscles, a perfect counterbalance to the tightening caused by building strength.

But what if you don’t have access to a pool and can’t find the time for a regular yoga practice?

I found a very inexpensive, effective solution that I can do at home: Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls.

I was actually introduced to these amazing things back at my yoga studio in Brooklyn and recently I’ve been incorporating them more often into my recovery program.

They’re basically two racquetball-sized balls that are used for self-massage, not dissimilar to the rollers found at the gym. The balls target trigger points and can get in deep to alleviate muscle pain in more specific areas than the rollers.

It’s quite an experience. Laying down on your back with them underneath you, you find all sorts of amazing mayhem in your muscles that you weren’t even aware of. The beauty of self-massage is that you can do it as long as it takes to alleviate the pain in each muscle, without being rushed off a masseuse’s table or trying to air-traffic-control your significant other to massage just the right spots.

Spinal erectors.
Spinal erectors

For me, the most productive area seems to be my lower back. The long muscles going parallel to my spine–the spinal erectors–became extremely tight, and are often the source of my hip pain. Hamstring tightness contributes as well, and my poor hips become pulled between these two very large muscle groups.

After using the Therapy Balls, I feel a huge difference. Often, I can feel the release while I am using them, as a muscle finally lets go of its tension and everything around it relaxes. I used the balls yesterday afternoon and then went for a run in the evening. My body felt refreshed, limber, and there was a spring in my step that hasn’t been there for a couple of weeks.

I’m going to try incorporating the Therapy Balls once or twice a week–especially after I ride–to see if more regular usage keeps helping my muscles retain their flexibility and elasticity.

Equestrian Fitness: Pre-Ride Workout

Riding itself is a workout, so it may seem that a pre-ride workout is a little bit of an overkill. However, I’ve found that warming up my muscles before I get on the horse results in a much more pleasant and productive ride.

I like to ride in the morning, so this workout is also about waking up and taking the kinks out of sleepy muscles. Usually I do this routine, then I have a cup of tea and a light, but high-protein breakfast before heading out the door.

Here’s my pre-ride workout:

1. Jumping Jacks:

25 of ’em, right off the bat, just to get the blood flowing.

2. Standing Toe Touches

I actually am not sure what these are called, but what I do is stand up with my arms straight out to the sides. I then lift my leg straight and twist to touch the opposite hand to my toes. Alternate legs and arms, 10x.

While standing, lift leg straight and touch toes with opposite hand, just like this creepy diagram shows.
While standing, lift leg straight and touch toes with opposite hand, just like this creepy diagram shows.

3. Squats

Nothing crazy, just a few to warm up the legs. I do maybe 15 or so.

4. Yoga

I go through a quick sort of modified sun salutation routine that focuses on opening up the hips and stretching out the thigh and back muscles.

Starting in downward dog, I move out to plank, then lower myself down to chaturanga. Then I push myself up to cobra and then back up to downward dog.

Next, I lift one leg straight up behind me and then bend it at the knee. I circle that leg a couple times in one direction and then in the opposite direction to open my hips, then hold the position for a stretch.

hip-opener-dd-734x618
Hip opener stretch in downward dog.

After that, I straighten the leg out behind me again and bring it forward between my hands for a low lunge.

Low lunge.
Low lunge.

Next, I lift my arms for a high lunge, then move into warrior 2, triangle pose, and twisting low lunge.

warrior 2
Warrior 2
triangle
Triangle
TwistingLunge-p117
Twisting lunge

 

 

 

 

 

From the twisting low lunge, I place both hands down on the floor inside the front leg for a really nice hip and hamstring stretch. If I’m feeling particularly flexible that day I go down on my forearms.

Low-lunge-dropped-knee
An amazing stretch for your hips and your hamstrings.

From here, I go back into downward dog, go through another plank-chaturanga-cobra routine and then back to downward dog to repeat the sequence with the other leg.

After all of this is done, I lay down on my back and go into happy baby pose, and then pull my knee across my body for another twist. Return to happy baby pose again, and then repeat with the opposite leg.

happy baby
Happy baby pose makes for happy hamstrings when you’re in jumping position.
knee-down-twist
This twist is so wonderful on your lower back.

5. Abs

To get my core warmed up, I do 25 Bicycle Crunches followed by 25 hip lifts. Then I repeat that.

Hip raises.
Hip raises.

6. Gracilis Stretch

To finish off the workout, I end with this intense but lovely stretch for my gracilis muscle. I wrote before in my post on flexibility about how tight that one can get. When I found this stretch, I noticed a big difference in the efficacy of my leg while riding. I have more flexibility to lengthen and wrap my leg around my horse, and this gives me more stability to hold myself in the saddle. It also allows for more suppleness throughout the interior of my thigh, so my legs don’t become so fatigued while squeezing my horse forward.

On your knees, move them as far apart as they will go. Keeping your lower back flat, bend forward from the hips (like you do in jumping position) and come forward to rest on your forearms. If you’re able to, come even further forward and make a pillow with your hands to rest your head on the floor. Breathe. This is an intense stretch, but if you relax into it for a moment, you will feel those inner thighs loosen up.

The best inner-thigh stretch!
The best inner-thigh stretch!

This routine isn’t set in stone. Sometimes I do more of something, sometimes less. Sometimes I leave some of this out, sometimes I add other things, especially different yoga poses if I feel particularly tight somewhere. All throughout, I throw in little movements and stretches as it strikes me (like a neck roll or an ankle roll). The point is just to get limber, however works best for you. This routine offers a little bit of cardio to get the blood flowing and then stretches everything out, focusing on the areas that tend to become the tightest while on the horse.

Challenge!

I rode Bella again today and we did a (for me) very challenging course. We were back in the Big Girl ring again and the jumps were on the higher end of my experience (2’6″-ish, I think, and one was an oxer!).

There were a few challenges with the course, but as seems to frequently be the case with me lately, they were mental rather than physical. My new training schedule seems to be working well, and I feel I’ve trimmed down and tightened up quite a bit. I do always feel a little bit rushed to warm up, especially today when I got to the barn a little later than planned. But even with a quick warm-up at the trot and canter, my muscles seem much more supple than they were even a month ago. I’m going to make it a point to get there a little earlier next time and have a thorough warm-up.

We dove right in with a low vertical on the diagonal to warm up with. I went to it with the confidence of last week’s realization that I have to stop being a control freak and just feel the rhythm more freely with my horse. We took our first two jumps very nicely and even got the flying change afterward, and I was feeling confident and ready for a challenge.

That’s why it felt especially clumsy when we did the course. Basically a figure-eight shaped design, we started on that same vertical on the diagonal (which had a weird approach through all the other jumps), then took the line containing the oxer on the other diagonal, then turned around and took a roll-top on first diagonal, then came over another vertical on the other diagonal again. That’s the best I can describe it; the jumps were haphazardly placed so there was a lot of negotiating obstacles to find the best approach.

My first time through felt pretty disaster-y. Even though Bella was more up and responsive than last week, we still didn’t quite have the right pace for the height of the jumps we were doing. We got in really, really deep to all of them and I was honestly surprised we even made it over some of the jumps. I owe that entirely to Bella, who kept her head and used her athleticism to rock far back on her hind legs and save both our necks.

I also can’t blame this entirely on our pace. I know I was focusing too much on the jumps themselves, looking down at them and anticipating them rather than looking up and through them. It’s new for me to be doing these more challenging jumps and it’s both exciting and daunting (even though I recently read this cute and helpful article on Horse Collaborative). So instead of doing the things my head is supposed to be doing, like counting strides and using its knowledge of how to get flying changes and take turns properly, it’s doing something like this: “Oh ok wow here’s the next jump. It’s high! Holy shit, this is awesome–wait no–god, can I do this? Yes, yes I can. Gotta move her up, let’s go, let’s go…oh, shit, where’s the spot?…aaaah we are in too deep are we gonna make it? Ok yes! Thank you, Bella! Phew. NEXT.”

In between my first and second round, I watched one of my classmates take a fall. She went into the line deep, got a little bounced out of the saddle going to the oxer, and then her horse helped her along by giving a tiny buck afterwards. She was not seriously injured, just a little bruised, but it was a hard-sounding thud when she hit the ground and that’s always terrifying. I had to talk myself down from starting to feel anxious before my next turn, which seemed easier than usual. But then when I went through the course I was still a bit distracted by the fall and wasn’t able to do it much better than my first time.

The third time through, I started to get it. The jumps started coming together better with a little more pace. I had to stop halfway through to re-organize, but that was because of trying to get the flying change in between. I pulled Bella down to the walk, caught my breath, and did the second half of the course in a way I was much more pleased with.

Our last time through was the best. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a vast improvement. We had a good rhythm and the spots came more easily. We only got a little deep on one of them, but it wasn’t disaster-y deep, it was just like a normal added stride that made it not perfectly smooth. I pretty much gave up on trying to get the flying changes by this point and just did simple ones so that I could entirely devote my attention to the course itself and do it well. Given one more go, I think I could have gotten it perfect, but that was a good one to stop on, employing the motto of riders everywhere, “Quit while you’re ahead.”

I was pleased with how the lesson went. It can be alluring to just stay in your comfort zone and feel like you’re doing everything well, but stretching myself and challenging myself is what I’ve wanted to do for so long. When I’m doing it I sometimes feel clumsy or foolish, but ultimately, I feel proud that I’m getting better, little by little. It was also nice to hear from my trainer that she knows she’s pushing me and that it’s tough, but that I’m doing really well.

I’m thinking of trying to go to two lessons a week instead of just the one. Hopefully that will speed up the improvement. The more jumps I get under me, the more confident I become.