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.

Searching and Exploring

The other goal of my life lately, in addition to becoming the best rider possible, has been exploration. Leaving New York was like being sprung from a trap and starting this work-from-home existence has been like being released from prison. It was a ten-year long sentence and I see now it was a prison of my own making. I knew intuitively the moment I joined the office world just a couple months after graduating from college that it wasn’t right for me. I simply wasn’t cut out for it–but I didn’t listen to my body and myself. I just changed jobs, every time getting the same type of work that didn’t suit me, and every time believing that it was the only path available. My confidence eroded over time and I saw no other options. I knew that I wanted and needed to get out of the commuter lifestyle because it was killing me–but I came to believe that desire was unrealistic and wrong. “This is just the way it is,” was the message that was drilled into me by the surrounding culture.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Now several months into the working from home, my perspective is so much clearer. So many paths and opportunities and adventures now feel open to me that I thought were closed off.

The biggest one of those has been the ability to explore other parts of the country and places to live in. My boyfriend and I tried out LA for a few months, and decided it was not for us. On the surface, it seems easy to live there–the mild weather, the friendly-seeming people. But beneath that, it is an unnatural place and life there is very out of balance. And for someone who grew up surrounded by the natural beauty of woods and water, the landscape there–carved out in a desert–is not comforting or inspiring.

The one great thing about living in LA was my barn there. I was too busy to write about my last several lessons before leaving, but they were wonderful. I felt comfortable at this barn and like I was thriving and learning and growing as a rider. The courses felt less intimidating and more solvable and exciting. My trainer remarked that I was getting better every lesson. The horses there were some of the best quality horses I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride–and that in itself gave me the opportunity to grow and jump more and higher than I ever have. In my last few lessons I also discovered a horse that suited me very well–a chestnut quarter horse named Flash who seemed to move at my rhythm and who was very fun to jump.

Leaving the city was a no-brainer–it’s expensive to live there and not what I’m looking for across many factors–but the part of that decision that meant leaving that barn was a tough one. Ultimately, I realized that I will likely be able to find a similar level of riding and a comfortable barn at which I can grow elsewhere. To remain in a situation in which I was otherwise not satisfied would have been a trap in its own way.

So, we packed up our few belongings and the cats into our trusty truck that had already gotten us across the country once and headed East. For now, we’re staying with family in Texas, taking a breather and taking stock. Discussing priorities, compromises we are willing and unwilling to make, and dreams to pursue. Talking about the kinds of lives we want to live. One thing I know for sure is that I never want to stop riding like I did for all those years back in NYC. I want horses to always be a part of my life, and a big part of it.

While we’re here in Texas deciding on the next place to explore, I’m making it a priority to keep riding. Even if I’m not staying to put down roots at a barn, I can keep myself in riding shape. Last week I had a lesson at a barn that turned out to not be for me–it was almost distressingly run down and dilapidated. I rode a horse that in his day was quite a nice showjumper, from the pictures the owner showed me; now at the age of 30, he is in incredible shape for a horse so old, but is certainly not capable of performing at the level that I need in order to progress. We had a relaxed flat lesson working on transitions, which is always useful, but I left feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged.

I’m currently looking around for another barn to try in the area. There are a few of them, and it’s just about narrowing down which one has the right feel. It’s just like what I’m doing in the rest of my life–exploring, trying things out, and for the first time since I can remember, having the freedom to decide what is right for me and actively shape my life to be the way I want it.

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.

Horse

I rode another new horse I’ve never been on before today, and I do mean horse. Like, 17 hands of big, athletic, lovely, grey horse. His name is Frenchie.

Frenchie
Frenchie

When I first got on, I was admittedly nervous. I haven’t had that much animal to handle since I left Brooklyn. I felt so high up and vulnerable. Posting felt weird because of how big his stride is. It took some time to settle in an adjust my body to the entirely different movement that an added 2 hands brings.

It wasn’t just his size that made me a little nervous; once we warmed up at the canter I could feel a bit of a charge to him. A couple of times he tried to pull his head down on me so I brought him back to the walk before he could get worked up. I hoped he would settle down before we jumped. I also asked my trainer the best way to handle him. He had a long, long neck and I wasn’t sure if he was just pulling down on me because I was trying to keep his head too far up and his stride too collected for his comfort, or if I should be bringing his head up to forestall what felt like was pre-buck behavior. She and the other trainer standing by both said he was fine, just practically a giraffe.

But on our first warm-up jump over a cross-rail, Frenchie showed that he was being frisky. The jump felt amazing–I always forget how much more intense the airtime feels on a big horse–but afterward he picked up speed and gave a few bucks. I didn’t panic and was easily able to sit to them and pull him back to a walk, but my trainer said that was very atypical of him and maybe he was in a mood. So she had me hop off and give him to one of the stable hands for a quick lunge. It would give him the opportunity to run a little, kick and buck and get the lead out.

It’s pretty likely that the bad juju was a result of the weather. There’s a storm coming today that will be the first rain the area has seen in weeks and weeks. Horses are extremely sensitive to changes in weather and approaching storms. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason why the horses here seem so much more mentally stable than the horses I was riding back east might be because of the consistency of the weather here. Pretty much every day, they can count on the weather being just about the same: warm and sunny. Not a lot of cold fronts come through to throw them out of whack like they constantly do in other parts of the country. And there really aren’t seasons here, so they don’t have to contend with the big changes in temperature and scenery those bring. So maybe the uniformity of the Southern California weather is something that keeps the horses here sane (although clearly this argument cannot be made for the area’s human denizens).

The horse that came back to me after the 5 minutes of lunging was like a totally different horse. He was much happier and more relaxed when I got back on. We took the same cross-rail to get back in the swing of things and he approached it with aplomb. The rest of the lesson was a great time; I really loved riding him.

As much as I’ve felt that the smaller horses are more my style since returning to riding, this made me remember why I love the big ones. In my mind, small horses less daunting because they aren’t quite as strong and there’s less height to worry about falling from. Sometimes having a more compact frame makes it seem easier to fit the right amount of strides between jumps, or make tight turns. But I forget, until I get on one, that big horses suit me quite well. I found it much easier to find the distances on all my jumps today with Frenchie’s bigger, longer stride leading up to them. It also gives me a higher vantage point that makes me feel like I can look through them and soar over them, rather than getting in really deep and feeling the jumps loom. (I also like a higher vantage point when I’m driving, especially on the freeway. I drive a small SUV and feel much better in that being raised up above the traffic than being in a low car that is dwarfed by all the surrounding vehicles).

In many ways, Frenchie reminds me of my favorite horse back at Jamaica Bay, Jasper, the big bay that I always felt my best jumping with. Or even an amalgam of Jasper and another fun horse to jump there, Casper. (I can’t stand that they rhyme, either). Frenchie has the tall frame and the long neck of Jasper, making him a bit difficult to bend; he also has the smooth but lumbering stride that makes the lead-up to the jump somehow flow more easily for me. He shares with Casper his striking grey coat and tendency to hang on my hands as well as a more athletic jump.

The course we did today was very fun. It started off with a vertical on the diagonal very close to one end of the ring. After that, we had to roll back around on a tight turn to another vertical just a bit further back from it on the other diagonal. The turn was quite tight, especially with such a big horse. I had to sit up very tall and draw on all my abdominal and back strength to keep us collected around that turn.

Here's a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.
Here’s a crappy drawing I made of the course I jumped today.

After the second diagonal and the very easy flying change, we came around to a two-stride line on the long side. The first couple of times I got into this a little bit deep and the second jump was a little tough getting out. But my last time through I made a plan and stuck to it; I decided to pull him up and collect right after my turn, not right before my first jump. That enabled me to pull Frenchie back to wait for a better spot on the first jump and gave us a more even line. After the line, we went around the end of the ring and weaved through some jumps to finish with another vertical on a diagonal. By this point Frenchie had a momentum and on the turns he was tilting like a motorcycle. I stretched up, stepped on my outside stirrup and lifted his head as best I could (I can already feel the soreness in my shoulder blades creeping in only a few hours later from this exertion) and aimed him at the final jump. It was a long enough approach that I had too much time to think about it. The first couple of times through I got excited and gunned him a bit, taking a long, flat jump. The last time through, confident from my ability to be the boss on the line, I sat up and waited and finished the thing off beautifully.

I still apparently am holding my breath during my courses because I always have to work to catch it afterward. In my last several lessons I’ve been so beat that when I finish a course doing a decent job and my trainer says that’s it for the day, I’ve been at least partly relieved. Today I could have gone a few more times. I felt again that I had the presence of mind to be a more critical rider and to stick to decisions that improved my course each time through. I hope that I can ride Frenchie again on Friday now that I’ve got into the rhythm of him; I think we will be awesome together.

 

 

Shut Up and Look Up

I rode a horse I’ve never ridden before today, named Rosie. She’s a real beauty; a small, bay mare with a sweet face.

IMG_3762I got to the barn with plenty of time to warm up today, and it was a good thing. When I got on Rosie, she was pretty lazy. I haven’t really experienced a horse just kind of refusing to move in a long while. Even my big, lumbering pal Jasper back in Brooklyn would get a move on if you gave him a good squeeze and flapped his reins at him.

At first this got me all in a huff. It is pretty warm today, and I found myself getting worked up about her not even wanting to trot, sweating and breathing kinda hard from the effort. But then I slowed myself down and reminded myself that I do actually know how to handle this behavior. I gave her a couple of “I mean business” kicks to get her going, and then a light tap with the crop whenever she started trying to slow down. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget the basics sometimes.

When I look back, it feels like the first several years I rode were just all about trying to get the horse going and preventing him from stopping. This was back when I was small enough that I probably felt like a fly on the horse’s back and the nickname my trainer gave me was “Noodle Legs” (after a while, she informed me that they had become more al dente). I used to ride this crazy Appaloosa back then named Alvin who would really put me through the ringer. He’d basically mosey into the corner of the ring and stand there, adamantly refusing to move an inch. He’d stolidly withstand my squeezes and kicks and clucks until I was so frustrated I’d be ready to give up. And then my trainer would tell me, “You’re in charge. Make him.” I never really did anything different physically after that; it felt like the same squeezes and kicks and clucks, but they came from a different place, internally. The place where I wasn’t a tiny child asking a big animal to please be nice and do what I wanted him to do, but the place where I was a rider and I was telling my horse it was time to go. And the thing with Alvin was, once you showed him you had that mentality, he’d do anything for you.

With Rosie, it was much the same. She wanted to fool around at first but once I told her what’s what, she picked up her pace. She’s quite a nice mover. Her canter is a little longer and lopier than the ponies I’ve been riding lately but even at faster speeds, it never feels strung out. It’s a smooth, graceful movement with all of her muscles in concert. Maybe part of the perception of her canter being longer is just that she’s actually a horse. With the exception of one ride on Flash and one on Sjapoo, I’ve only ridden ponies at this barn. Bella is in the upper realms of ponydom but I still always feel a tiny bit too big on her, or that I expect her to take bigger, horse-sized spots when it would make sense to wait and add. Rosie is a small horse, probably only 15.1 or 15.2 but that tiny bit more height seemingly makes such a big difference, especially when jumping. Jumping her was fun today, because she was quite willing to go for a bigger spot.

This was most apparent on the line we took at the end of our course. The course was short today; starting with a diagonal cross-rail, to a vertical on the other diagonal and then around the turn to a line. My classmates on ponies were taking it in 4 strides, and another girl riding with us on a giant horse was taking it in 3, so I asked my trainer what she thought would be good for me and Rosie, being in between. She said I could either push for the 3 or try to get a quiet 4, and perhaps the latter would be better. I agreed, but when it came to actually doing it, I found out that the 3 was definitely the way to go. We didn’t jump in huge but immediately on landing I said to myself, “No way is 4 happening here,” so I squeezed her on to the 3, which didn’t feel crazy and out of control, it felt just right. (You can see a video clip of this line on Instagram.)

My mind just felt so different today than it has, so much more stable and strong. At the beginning of the lesson, on a new horse that I didn’t know who was seemingly going to give me a tough time, I felt the old anxiety start to vibrate in my chest. But then I just took control and it went away. I felt more capable on the jumps than I have in weeks and weeks. Even in between them, I felt like I was stretched up taller with my heels further down; I felt so much less sloppy in my equitation. It was like I had all this extra space inside my head, and literally like time was moving slower, so I had time to do things like, you know, breathe and think.

I’m still not used to the higher jumps. The thought of them makes me fluttery inside. But this week, instead of allowing myself to indulge in the gibbering nonsense I’ve been thinking as I stare down at the jumps and flail over them recently, I used my new strength of mind to cut through that with this: “Shut up and look up.”

 

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.

 

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.

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: Overtraining

This is not me, but it's what I look like when I'm dying in the psychotic spin class.
This is not me, but it’s what I look like when I’m dying in the psychotic spin class.

After my lesson on Friday where my muscles and cardiovascular system seemed unusually exhausted, I had to stop and consider what I was doing wrong. Nearly every day, I have been doing something to get into shape, building strength, flexibility and stamina. But how much is too much?

Obviously that answer is different for everyone, but there are a few common signs that you may be overtraining. “Overtraining” specifically refers to a workout intensity that exceeds the body’s capacity for recovery. If you don’t let your body recover, it can’t get stronger. I know that if I don’t work out for a day or two, I feel an internal pressure to be doing something, like I’m wasting time that I could be using to get better. But overdoing it is actually counterproductive to my goals. Here are some consequences/symptoms of overtraining:

  • decreased performance
  • chronic fatigue
  • irritability and moodiness
  • insomnia
  • depressed immune system functioning

In the last couple of days, I have definitely experienced these symptoms. I skipped the psychotic spin class on Thursday night because I just didn’t feel up to it. At riding on Friday, my leg muscles simply didn’t respond, getting fatigued extremely quickly and I found myself huffing and puffing an inordinate amount after jumping a course. After I came home from my lesson, I fell into a nap so deep that I felt like I couldn’t move upon waking. All of yesterday I felt under the weather like I was coming down with something.

So today is a day of true rest and recovery. It’s also a day where my boyfriend (who is experiencing the same thing in training for hockey) and I sat down and made a more sensible weekly training schedule for ourselves, keeping it to 5 hours a week. Here’s the new schedule I’m going to try:

Monday: rest

Tuesday: yoga class (1 hour)

Wednesday: calisthenics/leg and core toning (squats, lunges, crunches, etc) or upper body and core toning (planks, push-ups, crunches, etc)  at home (1 hour)

Thursday: rest

Friday: riding lesson (1 hour)

Saturday: cycling class/upper body weight machines (45 mins /15 mins=total 1 hour)

Sunday: treadmill intervals/lower body weight machines (30 mins / 30 mins= total 1 hour)