Just Breathe

It’s been two weeks since I’ve had a lesson, first because I had things to take care of at home and then because my trainer was away at a show, so this week I get to ride twice. Today was the first of the two lessons, and what a relief to be back in the saddle.

I rode Bella again and I think that’s good for me. She’s a good girl, but difficult in very specific ways that are things I need to work on as a rider. The continuity of working with her to improve on those things has been nice.

The major issue I had today was finding my spots. Sometimes when you approach a jump, you’re at the right speed and rhythm that the take-off feels natural; it’s the obvious, reasonable spot. That didn’t happen today. Every jump we took felt like a negotiation. I never felt like I was getting enough impulsion from Bella to make the jumps smooth (largely due to my lack of exercise lately and my legs getting a little soft). Without enough impulsion, we should have waited and added another stride. But she and I both didn’t seem to want that. I wanted us to be going more forward and taking the longer spot so I was pushing for that right up until the jump. She would take the longer spot, which is what I wanted her to do, but I was then surprised by it and left behind because her lack of forward movement was telling me she was going to add a stride.

When I stopped letting her make the decisions and started actually being a rider, things went better. I forget that she’s quite young and needs a bit more direction than the horses I’m used to riding. I pushed and pushed for the forward spot but when I saw that I wasn’t going to get it, I started waiting and adding. I also think I forget how small she is. We weren’t jumping high, but shorter legs means shorter strides. She’s not tiny, but she’s just a little bit smaller than I would prefer. I have to remember that and ride the horse I’m riding.

The course we rode was two lines on the long ends of the ring to a vertical plank jump on the diagonal. My boyfriend filmed me again today, which is very helpful in identifying areas for improvement. I noticed that my shoulders are getting a little rounded over the jumps; partly that might be because I was getting a little left behind the motion but partly I might need to get back in the gym for some work on my upper body strength.

We did the course several times, as I was lucky enough to be the only one there for the class. The lines kept presenting problems; one time I took out a stride on the first and added a stride on the second, and we had a run out on each of them. Finally I was able to put it all together. I’m not crazy about my equitation; I can see that I’m a little bit left behind on some of the spots and my jumping position isn’t quite right, but I feel a sense of accomplishment of completing the course with all the right number of strides and even getting the flying change on the final diagonal.

But my biggest problem today was one that has been historically something I struggle with, and that is breathing. I hold my breath when I do a course. It’s the dumbest. When I was a kid and I’d be gasping for air after jumping a course, my trainer actually expressed concern that I had asthma. That seemed unlikely since I played other sports and ran around through the woods like a wild animal with no apparent breathing problems. Then we figured out that I was concentrating so hard that I was holding my breath. My trainer back in Brooklyn would remind me to breathe periodically, specifically right before the jump to decompress the tension and anxiety I was feeling with jumping basket case OTTBs in a small indoor arena jam-packed with children.

Today I was extra bad at breathing. I asked my trainer to remind me as I went along; she said that she handles this by making sure to take a breath each stride. I responded that I feel like it’s an accomplishment if I take a breath each jump!

This is not something I’m sure I know how to change. I’m incorporating more yoga into my equestrian fitness routine, mostly for strength and flexibility, but maybe the centered breathing in that discipline will help me in my riding as well.

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.

The gracilis muscle extends all the way to the knee.
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.


Hand and Leg

Today I rode a slightly more challenging horse named Flash. A good-tempered, not-very- large chestnut with a blaze, he was a good boy but we didn’t really make a connection.

There were a couple of things that added to the struggle. First, there was some road work being done out in front of the barn, which made a class of four rather advanced women leave the front ring and come join us in the back. So there were six of us in there–only one other girl from my class came, the one who typically rides Jackie. Six horses seems not that much compared to the twelve I would typically share the indoor with at Jamaica Bay, but there mostly big, spirited horses and they were jumping. I started to feel a tinge of the old anxiety that I would get in situations like this, but was able to just breathe and take it slow, focusing on what I was doing without worrying too much about the commotion around me.

The other trouble came from my boots. I forgot to mention that last week I rode for the first time in my new Ariats. They are lovely and the zipper up the back is a luxury after how many years I spent getting a charley horse mid-way through taking the pull-on kind off with the boot jack and falling to the floor in agony because my foot was still stuck in the boot and I couldn’t put it down and put weight on it to release the cramp. The best thing about these new ones is that they are pretty soft. Breaking in new boots can be hell, and I was surprised last week that they didn’t hurt at all while I was riding. When I got home I saw that I just had a small cut behind my left knee from the top rubbing there. Once they break in and sink into the ankles more, the tops won’t come up so high. This week, however, they hurt a lot for some reason. Both boots were cutting into the backs of my knees whenever I bent my leg more to squeeze my horse on. Since Flash was a bit stiff and pokey to start the lesson, I had to do a lot of that. I had to force myself to push through the pinching and urge him on.

Once the trainer got me a crop, things were a little easier and Flash started moving on. For the record, I don’t like riding with a crop and will avoid it if at all possible. It’s annoying to have another thing in my hands, it gets caught up in the reins and gets in the way. I also don’t really want to use a crop. I feel like I should be able to get the horse to do what I need him to with my own aids. But sometimes when the horse is being particularly unresponsive, it can be helpful just to carry one. Simply feeling it resting on the shoulder will sometimes make a horse more willing to go, and that was the case today.

The biggest challenge with Flash was finding the right balance of hand and leg to keep him moving forward in a collected way. This was most apparent at the canter. When we started cantering, I was at first disappointed with how uncomfortable it felt compared to the pleasure cruise that was Jackie O’s. But I was able to find Flash’s rhythm and go with it after a little practice. I found that really getting in the front of the saddle and being perched on my thighs instead of on my butt, and even giving a little bit of a half seat was the best way to ride him. I can sometimes overcompensate for a tendency to lean forward by sitting too far back and driving with my tailbone. Doing that on Flash was so uncomfortable with his lopey canter that I was forced into riding in a more correct way.

Once I adjusted my position, it was much easier to sit the canter when he was moving, but around the corners he kept breaking to the trot. I needed to use a lot of outside leg to push him through the turn. Once I did that (with the backs of my knees still protesting in pain), he started getting too quick and disorganized on the long side and I needed to establish some connection on his mouth to collect the canter. Flash uses a pelham bit due to his past as a polo pony, which is stronger than a regular snaffle bit used on most horses. The bit is the part of the bridle that goes into the horse’s mouth and is connected to the reins. The strength of the bit determines how much pressure the rider will need on the reins for the horse to respond to them.  I like to ride with very light hands, letting the horse have as much slack on the reins as possible, but like in this case, some contact is necessary. The hard part today was finding how much contact to use. With the stronger bit, even the slightest pressure on the reins made Flash break to the trot. In order to keep him going around the ring at an even pace, I found that I needed to put on more leg than I thought I needed and less hand. Every time we went around, I made slight adjustments, trying to go lighter and lighter with my hands until we struck that right balance, where he was moving forward up into my hands.

We ended the lesson with an exercise that really emphasized this. First we cantered two poles on the ground, trying to fit in an extra stride. Five was easy to get, as Flash was responsive to my leg moving him up just before the pole. But six, as the trainer asked me to do, was more of a challenge since I needed to keep the leg on and pull him back with the reins enough to cram in another stride, but not so much that he broke to the trot. The first few times this was difficult and the best I could do was really five and a half strides–where the front end of his body fit in before the pole, but the back legs were split over it. Once we got the six, the next challenge was to come in cantering and go over one pole; then we had to slow to the trot and trot over two poles, then pick up the canter for the last pole and continue around the corner without breaking. We were able to do it both times through, but I felt it was a little herky-jerky. When I pulled Flash down to the trot from the canter before the two poles, he practically stopped on a dime. It was the strangest sensation of halting in mid-stride, and then going forward at the trot from there. It honestly felt terrible to me, but the trainer was generally pleased. She said it was better to do it that way than to not get him down to the trot before those two poles. Afterward, when someone mentioned to me that Flash had done polo in the past and also had Western training, it all made sense. I had sensed some of the Western cues in the way he responded to indirect rain and the lopey canter, but the hard stop and the sensitive mouth fit into place as well. I think next time I ride Flash, this understanding will help me out.

I was a bit disappointed not to jump this week, although all of the pole exercises we did will certainly be helpful for judging distances and stride numbers when I do again. I think the main trainer will be back next week and it is likely we’ll go back to the way the class was the first week I rode there. Next week I’m going to a) stretch more before I come, since my lower back was so tight after today’s lesson and I can’t blame it all on Flash’s canter b) put bandages on the backs of my knees to prevent my boots from exacerbating the blisters I now have there and c) bring my own saddle! I asked this week if that’s all right and they said people can bring whatever of their own equipment they’d like. I haven’t used my saddle to ride since college, so I’m looking forward to that.  No one else has ridden in it but me, so it’s perfectly molded to my body. And I don’t have to worry about adjusting my stirrups since they are set to my height. (This doesn’t sound like a big deal but for some reason I have an inordinately difficult time getting my stirrups even and the correct length; I sincerely believe I’m lopsided.)

Can’t wait to ride again. I’m loving all these different exercises and trying out a bunch of new horses. After two weeks of mostly flatwork, I’m itching to jump again. I also can’t emphasize what a difference it makes to ride every week; the consistency is great for me and I feel like I’m improving.

Get Out of The Way

Lately, our trainer has been trying to hold horses for us to ride in our lessons. When we get to the barn at 1 pm on a Saturday, it’s pretty hectic and our usual mounts have often already had their quota of rides for the day, leaving us with few options. After a difficult lesson a few weeks ago before Thanksgiving, this week she tried to get a horse for me that I love and feel comfortable on–either Jasper or Summer–to make sure I’d have a better and more confidence-boosting ride this time.

Jasper was already being ridden and Summer would be used in a horse show at the barn the next day, so that left me with only the more challenging options–basically, the two ex-racehorse mares, Sparkling Gal and Misfit, and another mare named Star that we’d never seen before. Riding Buddy, being the more adventurous of us lately, chose to try out Star, who was a tall, lovely chestnut with a big jump. Deciding between the more mental/emotional difficulty of keeping skittish Sparkle calm in a crowded ring, or the more physical challenge of slowing the calmer but still strong Misfit in the same environment, I chose the latter. I was slightly rattled, having expected an easier mount. Sitting there, hemming and hawing over what seemed like all bad options, I was annoyed at myself. There was a time when I’d ride anything in the barn. I don’t like to think of myself as a tentative rider.

When we started the lesson, I remembered how much I liked Misfit the one time I’ve ridden her previously. She’s quite sane for a Thoroughbred mare, sensible and comfortable to ride. She wasn’t fazed by the crowded ring and didn’t seem interested in charging around.

Misfit’s biggest challenge is getting the correct lead on her right lead canter. In contrast to the last time I rode her, she and I both seem to have strengthened our muscles a great deal. The last time I rode her, back in July, my body was totally different. I was ten pounds heavier then, had no muscle tone, and as a result my muscles were very tight and cramped. That made it difficult for me to sit up and marshal her through the tight circle we canter on to keep her from switching to her more-comfortable left lead. But this time I had so much more strength and control. Last time felt like a sloppy mess; this time I felt like a rider, like I was working hard to get something done but I actually had proper form doing it as well. As for Misfit, I could definitely feel the difference in her as well. They have been working with her a lot more recently at the barn to strengthen her right lead and the results are apparent. Her balance is improved, her bend is more flexible. She didn’t break once in the canter and didn’t once get flustered and switch to her other lead. I was very proud of us both.

After the difficult right lead, it’s a reward to get to canter her on her left. Her canter is smooth and comfortable and propulsive without being manic.

As we prepared to jump, I found myself with those little prickles of doubt and worry creeping up on me. I know that Misfit can get a little fast on the approach and take a big jump and that made me a bit nervous. The important part of that sentence is that I said I felt nervous, and not anxious. I realized the distinction on the drive home from our lesson. When I say that I felt nervous this time around, the difference from the anxiety I’ve felt before was that it was more easily dispelled. The nervousness was a state I was in relating to a specific thing; I was nervous to take the jump because sometimes Misfit gets fast. The anxiety I’ve felt before has been, I think, triggered by situations such as this that might normally cause nervousness, but the feeling has grown out of proportion and has expanded to encompass larger, more global fears about myself and about life and because of that it has taken over and shut me down. Nervousness doesn’t shut me down. I just say to myself, “What’s the worst that will happen? She’ll get fast. You’ll slow her down.”

Nervousness is in my mind; it is a thought that can be dealt with rationally. Anxiety is everywhere, a fear that I feel throughout my entire body. Horses are very sensitive to this; they can feel agitation in the rider and that agitates them in turn. Because I didn’t have that bodily response, I didn’t infect Misfit with it. As a result, she didn’t even get fast over the jumps. She took them beautifully. And because she was taking them beautifully, so did I. My trainer said my equitation–something I’ve felt I’ve always struggled with because I’m generally more focused on getting the job done than looking pretty while I do it–was perfect. She keeps telling me that when I don’t put up these mental blocks, that when I get out of my own way, I’m a great rider. It’s been hard for me to feel that for a long time, but today I felt it.