Back to Work

A couple of things have recently somewhat derailed any efforts at training: 1) the insanely demanding, all-consuming juggernaut of the holidays and 2) some soreness/lameness for Dunnie.

The holidays had their nice moments, of course, and I enjoyed spending time with family. But the “holiday season” seems to keep getting longer every year, and it’s gotten completely out of hand. It really feels like it starts in September now, when everyone starts freaking out about pumpkin spice. And then the month-long marathon of Christmas music on the radio begins the second after Thanksgiving and it’s just a countdown until I can have my life and my 80s music back.

The other thing I’ve recently gotten back is Dunnie. Starting a week or two before Christmas, he started acting strangely. We had noticed that there were potentially some pressure points from the saddle I was using, although he was acting fine, and decided to try a different one. That went poorly. I tried three other saddles, all of which seem to make him PISSED, and then went back to the old one only to find that he was still not himself.

At first there was no obvious lameness. He was certainly stiff, particularly when tracking right, and especially on circles. He was usually just fine at the trot, but ask him to pick up a canter and he would kick out on the left, and wouldn’t be able to smoothly pick up the transition, sort of rearing back a tiny bit with his head high to lope off. Then at the canter, he was constantly switching leads in back. And ornery. He was uncharacteristically ornery about all of that, which is what tipped me off to that fact that he was in pain and not all of a sudden acting out just for fun.

Then at my lesson on the Thursday before Christmas, he finally turned up lame. His back left was really stiff and it was apparent after trotting him just a few steps. I ended up riding a different horse that night in my lesson — a big, sweet, calm ex-racehorse named Chrome — and riding English for only the second time in a really long time. It was fun, but strange; it’s amazing how much less secure an English saddle feels. And I’d forgotten how much work it is! I think I just assumed that riding so often has gotten me in much better shape, but nope. Western is just way, way easier.

Anyway, I ended up giving Dunnie some rest over the holidays, and then my trainer contacted a Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) therapist . There’s a good description of what this is on their Facebook page, but essentially it is a machine that pulses a magnetic field through the body, stimulating cells and increasing oxygenation, reducing inflammation and promoting faster healing. I was there when they came to work on a bunch of the school horses, and the therapist (who also treats human clients), put the machine — which looks like a vacuum hose bent into an oval shape — on my back to see what it feels like. I could feel it all the way through my stomach. It was kind of intense, not altogether pleasant or unpleasant. In the places where there is particular pain and inflammation, the muscles sort of twitch in little spasms. This is very clear on the horses, whose muscle groups are large and easy to see.

When she treated Dunnie, I wasn’t around, but when I spoke to her after she said that he’d had a lot of soreness all over his body, and particularly on the left side, which jived with what I’d been experiencing. I’m not really sure what made him like that. One theory was that removing his back shoes put him out of whack (the farrier came right after Christmas and put them back on, and that seemed to help a bit).  Another was that he’d pulled something when we tried to work on slides. Yet another was that the cold temperatures were bothering him, making arthritis that we didn’t know about in the warm months act up. We just didn’t know. While Dunnie could communicate to me very effectively that he was in pain, he couldn’t tell me why.

Luckily, the PEMF seems to have worked like a charm. Since he had the treatment about two weeks ago, it feels like I have my old Dunnie back. He’s moving much better, doesn’t display the same stiffness, and is visibly happier. I’m so relieved that it doesn’t seem to be a bigger issue or serious injury, and that he’s clearly feeling much better. It’s a terrible feeling to think that your horse is hurting and that it might be because of something you asked him to do. Especially because Dunnie, champ that he is, would do it anyway. When I first noticed something was amiss and I was putting him through his paces to try to identify the problem area, he’d tell me “that hurts!” — but he would still do what I asked of him.

Now, with all that distraction out of the way, it’s time for us to get back to the work of training. We’re working on a new pattern that incorporates pretty much all of the skills we need to use for anything we want to do. It has side-passing, lead changes, circles, backing, spinning — you name it. It feels good to be focusing again, and working toward getting better at things we’ll use at a show. Dunnie is at his best when he’s mentally engaged in what we’re doing, and so am I, so we’re about to start having lots of fun together again.

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Adjustments

In the post-first-show universe Dunnie and I now inhabit, we’re working on refining some of our technique — particularly, softening and lowering Dunnie’s head carriage. The result of this is that his whole body is carried differently: his back rounds and his legs come underneath him more, moving the propulsion from the front legs pulling him forward to the back legs pushing him forward.

At first, this change felt a lot more comfortable, especially at the canter. The horse is a lot more collected and has less opportunity to get strung out, so it’s easier to sit. However, I noticed at the trot that I was feeling a lot more bounced around than I had been before, and was having a more difficult time sitting deeply in my saddle. I came across an article about correcting common leg, seat, and hand problems and one of the fixes mentioned was stirrup length. Having ridden English most of my life, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make to the Western saddle is the stirrups, both their clunky size and their typically longer length. I’ve been riding with mine on the shortest setting to make myself comfortable, and if I look at myself objectively, my legs do look a bit incongruously crunched up like I’m about to go jump a course in a Western saddle. Thinking about it now, I’m sure that’s contributing to my continued struggles with arching my back too much, and I also suspect it’s causing me to sit with my weight more forward in the saddle — which, in turn, may be making Dunnie more apt to carry his head higher.

So recently I decided it was high time that I put my stirrups down to a more reasonable length and moved them down a hole. Now they fall where I don’t have to lift my leg up to reach them, but can just slide my toes right in.

stirrupsThe first few days that I rode this way were a bit difficult. I felt less secure in my legs, and afterwards could also feel the soreness in some of my interior thigh muscles that I haven’t felt for months. But I’ve been riding with the longer stirrups for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally starting to feel the payoffs.

It’s another one of those cases where you start doing something new and the fact that you can even do it at all feels like you’re a champ…but then you get a new piece of information, or insight, or make a tiny change and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel.”

That happened the other day when we were cantering around the ring, and I could feel Dunnie’s back rounded, and I could feel myself perched up there, my balance and my posture so different than before. My legs feel longer and my weight in my heels counterbalances the weight of my upper body; I don’t have to grip with my knees or my calves to stay with the motion of the horse — my seat does that naturally. hipsMy back isn’t arched anymore, and whenever I find myself falling back into that habit, it’s immediately recognizable because it’s so uncomfortable. When it’s arched, I can feel the impact of hitting the saddle on my hips and my spine. When my lower back is tucked, the ride is so smooth that I could canter all day.

So lately it’s been more about little adjustments that at first are frustrating, but are ultimately leading to big wins.

Speaking of adjustments…I’m working on a new look for the blog. Hoping to roll it out in the next couple of weeks!

Problem Solving

Wednesday when I rode I could not for the life of me get Dunnie to give me a good canter transition. He kept doing that super sloppy speedy trot thing that horses do sometimes and is one of the most frustrating things I know of. I wondered if it was because we were outside for the first time in a long time. I wondered if it was the footing out there. I wondered if he was sore in the shoulders, or even maybe lame. But when I got off him and watched him walk from the end of the lead rope, nothing looked amiss.

Thursday when we rode it started happening again. But occasionally he’d do a little jump like he was trying to get into a canter stride. He wasn’t being ornery, and this time we were inside, hiding from the midday Texas sun. As I mentioned before, he is such a willing horse that I had to take a step back and wonder what I was doing wrong. The answer was: a couple of things.

First, I’m still not too slick with the split reins. For much of the lesson, especially the exercises where I’m softening his neck and shoulders and hips through circles and figure eights, I ride two-handed. But when we get to cantering, I try to ride one-handed. If things were to go badly, I feel like it’s a lot easier to shorten up on the reins that way, and while I’m still building back my leg muscles, I sometimes want to hold onto the pommel at the canter for a little extra help. But it’s not easy keeping the reins even and sometimes I find that they are lopsided, pulling his head in one direction more than the other, which has to be distracting.

Second, and more important, I still slip into a hunter seat. My lower back has a natural arch in it, and years and years of hunter seat riding made me develop a habit of emphasizing that on the horse. So it takes a particular effort on my part to drop my tailbone, tuck my butt, and lengthen that part of my spine the way you’re supposed to do in a Western saddle. I have to imagine that this is somewhat confusing to Dunnie, and I think it was the major issue in preventing us transitioning to the canter. When I stepped back to take a look at myself, I realized what I was doing was sitting forward, arching my back, and using both heels to try to push him forward, but really all I ended up succeeding in was chasing him into a fast trot. Then I was pulling him back, trying to collect him so we weren’t flying around the ring like idiots. I brought him to either a very slow trot, a walk, or to a halt, trying to get the transition from different gaits. No dice. I knew he could do it; I watched my trainer do it on him like a week ago, and he had smoothly and immediately picked up a nice, collected lope for her. I stopped him for a moment and thought about what exactly she had done. I remembered that she really only signaled to him with her outside leg, but I knew there was something else as well. I tried just the outside leg, which still didn’t work on its own, but it put me on the right track. When I pulled my outside leg back to prompt him into the canter, it shifted my weight. Then I pulled up the memory of my trainer doing it in my mind’s eye and watched the rest of her body movement — I thought I remembered her sitting back in the saddle and kind of urging him forward with her hips. So I tried that, and it worked! From a standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter right away. I kept trying the transition a few more times in both directions to make sure we’d got it down. The right is a little bit sticky with the lead, so I’m going to keep working on making that side supple and flexible, but I think I finally understand how I need to talk to him with my body so he understands what I want him to do.

The next step, of course, is being able to sit the canter more, shall we say, elegantly. I do feel my legs getting stronger every day, but I’m also still adjusting to the longer stirrups, so I’m not as tight or as still as I’d like to be. Now that I don’t have to spend all this time sweating it out trying to chase him into the canter, wearing us both out, I’ll be able to practice the actual gait a lot more. My goal is to be able to go all the way around the ring one direction, get the flying change on the diagonal, and go all the way around the other direction by the end of next week. I think that’s a reasonable goal, although when I write it out, it sounds so basic. I really have lost a lot of the muscle I built in California over that 6 months that I didn’t ride.

Finding (What’s Good for You)

After about a month of looking, I’ve finally found a new place to ride.

There are plenty of stables in the greater Houston area. Some of them only cater to boarders and don’t give lessons to people without their own horses. Some of them give lessons, but don’t jump their school horses. Some of them focus only on dressage. One seemed promising on recommendation from another trainer, but when I checked out their website it said they were closing up operations and moving to South Carolina.

So I haven’t been on a horse in over a month.

I went out to Rainbow Hill Farm on Tuesday morning for a lesson. I’d already taken an informal tour and met the owner, Karen, who I felt immediately comfortable with.

Other than a handful of times when the rest of my class didn’t show up in LA, I haven’t taken private lessons in ages–not since I was a teenager. It’s a vastly different experience than being in a group; having the full attention of a trainer to point out every little thing you’re doing wrong can be quite overwhelming at first. There’s no downtime–every minute is devoted to learning and fixing things.

Karen seems to be an excellent trainer, very articulate and understanding. She’s very focused on the principles of dressage as the basis for good riding, which is new to me. Other than maybe one lesson back in college when I was on the riding team to cover the barest basics, I have had zero dressage training. Everything I’ve learned has been hunter seat equitation. So at first it felt like I was doing everything wrong.  Karen commented that I have “beautiful equitation”–but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be the most effective way to connect with my horse to produce the best results on the ground or in the air.  (It always surprises me when people compliment me on my equitation because I still feel totally sloppy most of the time).

Right off the bat, the trot I picked up was problematic. Being on a new horse I’d never ridden before, I was just getting oriented–but Karen asked me if I knew why the trot wasn’t right. It was bouncy and strung out; my horse, Dance, was on the forehand, pulling forward from her front legs rather than pushing off from her hind. The solution to this is to sit up straight and deep in the saddle, adding half-halts to block the forward movement of her front legs and simultaneously adding leg to get her to keep moving forward from the hind legs. I dealt with this before on Max back in Brooklyn, but Karen drove home my understanding of its importance for jumping. She said that jumping is all about having a good canter (and a good canter is built from a good trot, and a good trot is built from a good walk). If the canter is strung out and heavy on the forehand, it’s going to affect your take-off and make the jump very flat, leading to downed rails. If the canter has the appropriate rear impulsion, on the other hand, it will make the horse rock back on take-off, making your chances of clearing the jump much better.

We worked on building these gaits from the ground up, spending most of the lesson in a 20-meter circle. All of this required a whole lot more connection to my horse’s mouth than I’m used to. Karen asked me to take a firm feel of the outside rein, which felt very counter-intuitive on a circle, where I’m used to bending my horse with the inside rein. But the bend is supposed to come from your legs and your seat.

All of this was a bit difficult to juggle. I kept ending up making square turns on the edges the circle that bordered the sides of the ring because I was so focused on my outside rein. Dance is a very athletic, spirited Thoroughbred and required a lot of half halts to keep her from running. My muscles are out of shape from having been off the horse for a month, so I didn’t have the leg strength to wrap them around my horse and sit really deep in the saddle–I kept habitually returning to my arched lower back and hunter seat. There was a lot of new information to incorporate, as some of the things Karen was explaining were both completely new to me and sometimes contrary to everything I’ve learned.

Even though most of the lesson was flatwork–we jumped a couple of cross-rails at the end and Dance has a powerful jump–I was bushed at the end of it. But it was good for me. I think training with Karen is going to be challenging, hard work, and that’s exactly what I need. Despite all my years in the saddle, there’s so, so much I don’t know. I’m very excited to have the chance to train one-on-one with someone who knows all the theory behind good riding and to learn as much as I can.

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: Overtraining, Part 3

Back in the gym this week and trying to keep to my new, less crazy fitness plan, I realized I had been overtraining in more ways than one.

I wrote in my last post about the importance of rest in between workouts, and previously about the negative consequences of training too often without allowing your muscles to heal. But there is another aspect to overtraining that I didn’t think about until this week, and that’s overextending myself in the moment.

When I work out, I want to get the most out of the experience; to build the most muscle or stamina and know that I will really be getting results from the efforts I put in. But this is another area in which balance is key; running too hard or lifting too-heavy weights is not going to do anything but set me back.

Yesterday at the gym, I did my typical interval training while running on the treadmill: several sprints interspersed with walking for recovery. Previously, I had been warming up with a run at about 6 mph, going up to 9 mph for the sprints, and then gasping for air as I recovered at around 3 mph. This time I warmed up at the same 6 mph speed, which is a comfortable jog for me. But instead of pushing myself to all the way to 9 mph, I decided to try slightly less speed, only 8 mph. That made a huge difference. I was able to extend the length of my sprint intervals, going from 1 minute all the way up to 2 minutes; whereas at 9 mph I had only been able to do a 1.5 minutes at the very upper reaches of my ability. But even more importantly, I was not dead after 2 minutes of running at 8 mph. I didn’t need to walk at a slow speed for a long time and try not to make embarrassing whimpering noises as I struggled to recover. I was able to, within the minute, accelerate back to my comfort zone of 6 mph and then go for another round of sprint. Normally after 3-5 sprints at 9 mph, I could feel my body suffused with fatigue. Doing them at 8 mph energized me; thus, in the spirit of still pushing myself I decided to do the last one at 9 mph, but for that one I went back down to only 1 minute.

I had a similar experience with the weights. After my run, I went to do some upper body weight lifting. I had previously been using the highest possible weight setting at which I could complete 8 reps. I decided to back it off a little and just do one setting under that for the machines I used: the overhead shoulder press, the mid-row, and the chest fly. Like with my intervals, I found that afterwards I felt much better. I felt that I had exercised my muscles, but hadn’t destroyed them.

The more experience I have with serious training and exercise, the more I learn about my body and its limits. Finding the optimal level at which to push myself is sometimes difficult, but I’m learning every day.

It’s All In the Head

Today was my second lesson this week! I cannot remember the last time I’ve ridden twice in a week, but it was probably in college. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel having ridden just three days ago, but I felt great. I noticed that I warmed up a lot more quickly today than usual. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I rode even more days a week.

Another thing that made me feel great was that today I rode for the first time in my new helmet. I’ve had the old one since college and ever since the interior padding disintegrated from sweating it in for years, it hasn’t fit me properly. To compensate, I have been putting my very long, thick hair in a bun and using that to hold it in place. But that a) hurts my head and b) sometimes comes loose. That happened last summer when I took a fall. My helmet protected me when my head hit the ground, but it also slid forward on impact and hit the bridge of my nose, nearly breaking it. Finally, it’s recommended that you should replace your helmet after a fall if it hits the ground, even if it appears undamaged. And mine was long beyond the 5-year-old mark past which it is recommended to replace your helmet anyway. So it was definitely time for a new one.

I went with the Intrepid by Troxel. It was affordable and it also had some features of particular interest to me. First, it has a cinch system that makes it easy to adjust it to exactly my head size and shape. It’s also very low-profile and lightweight. Those are great things for me since I have a really tiny head. A proper fit is imperative for safety and I don’t have to go around looking like I’ve got a big ol’ heavy salad bowl on my head. It also has air vents, which is an incredible improvement on comfort after years of a fully-covered velvet cap.

The Intrepid by Troxel.
The Intrepid by Troxel.

After the first ride, I have to say I’m pretty satisfied with it. I think its lightweight design also made it easier to balance my body without my head coming too far forward. I feel much less neck and back strain than I sometimes do after my lessons.

Consequences of incorrect head posture.
Consequences of incorrect head posture.

In addition to those improvements wrought by getting better equipment, the lesson itself was also quite fun. I rode Jackie O. today, the little appaloosa mare I rode once before in a fun and challenging flat lesson. We did a course book-ended by two lines on the long sides, similar to the one in my lesson on Tuesday. But instead of just a diagonal plank jump in between, there was an in-and-out.

I had less trouble today with my spots than I did on Tuesday. Jackie is more experienced and savvy than Bella, which helped, but I also had a clearer mind today. The first couple times through on the first line, I again didn’t have enough impulsion going in. Jackie loves to add a stride, so we got in deep and had to push to get out. She built from there, however, so the in-and-out and the final line were forward and clean.

I thought about this tendency to not have enough speed going in for the last two lessons and wonder if it’s a control issue. I know that I felt I was pushing Bella last week to go forward and just wasn’t getting anywhere, but then I felt that this week on the more-responsive Jackie and still had similar results. I suspect that I’m unaware of body language that is contradicting my leg. Really it comes down to the fact that I’m over-thinking the jumps and being too controlling. When I ask for the canter at the beginning of the course and on the approach for the jumps, I’m taking too much contact and making the canter too collected. Because I’m uptight in my head about the spots, it’s as if I feel that a very collected canter will make me able to pick the perfect spot–but that’s not the case. It’s the fluid motion of the rider and horse together that make the spots feel natural, not this clamped-down nonsense. On the final line, once we had really gotten moving, as horses tend to build speed throughout a course, I was able to just go with it and that one was beautiful.

The last time through the course today, the trainer encouraged me to push Jackie forward before the first line. I did that, but I also kind of mentally let go. I still retained contact and my mind was still focused on riding my horse down the line, but I wasn’t trying so hard. Not being so much in my head allowed my body do what it needed to do (including breathing). You don’t think rhythm, you feel it.