Monday, August 15, 2011

Dismount To Improve Your Ride | 8/15/11

 Exercise and Equitation 

By Lauren Allen, Photography by Gary Knoll 

We all love riding our horses, but sometimes life's complications make that impossible. Work overwhelms, injuries sideline, daylight disappears. While there is no replacement for time in the saddle, there are some extremely effective ways to improve your riding without going anywhere near a horse. Whether you are forced to take time off or just looking for a way to maximize your riding ability, many other activities pay big dividends for your health, and your horse will notice the difference.

There are several aspects of riding that you may choose to address. Do you fatigue before your horse does, causing your ride to deteriorate as it progresses? Do you struggle to control your horse, perhaps finding that you have to use a stronger bit to keep him from pulling you right over his neck? Do you run out of oxygen while riding a hunter course? All of these symptoms indicate a lack of core strength and physical fitness. Riding is a sport, and cross training can be an effective way to optimize your time on the horse.

Many top riders are also runners because running is an excellent way to increase cardiovascular power. Your lungs must be able to keep your body oxygenated so that your brain can continue to process what you are doing and stay ahead of the game. A breathing problem isn't always a result of poor conditioning, though. Some riders fail to get adequate oxygen because they are actually holding their breath – a common response to tension or anxiety. It is important to diagnose the source of the problem correctly, because no amount of cardiovascular conditioning will allow you to hold your breath for the duration of your ride! If you are a tense or fearful rider, there are other ways to address this issue.

A number of riders turn to yoga to help them gain strength and flexibility, and also because it quiets the mind and attunes practitioners to their inner thoughts and feelings. Shelley Onderdonk is a rider, an equine veterinarian, and a yoga instructor based in Aiken.

"A rider needs to maintain and increase strength, flexibility, endurance, coordination and balance," she says. "Keeping fit is very important. Cross training is a good way to prevent repetitive motion injuries and provides a more holistic approach to body fitness, which allows a rider to concentrate on their own body, rather than having to incorporate the added dimension of the horse's body, too."

Dr. Onderdonk adds that yoga offers much more than just the physical benefits of additional exercise. "Yoga develops awareness of the subtle body. For example, the bandhas are areas where muscular holds, or mild contractions, allow a focus of energy. The mula bandha, at the root of the spine, is very important in riding as it is the center of contact between the rider and the horse. The uddiyana bandha, located just below the navel, represents the core power. Lifting actions through both of these areas are intimately involved in a light and responsive seat."

Dr. Onderdonk talks about the connection of the limbs to the spine and the breath as a bridge between the mind and the body. She explains that there are mental benefits to learning to face the challenges of difficult yoga exercises with composure, and the positive relaxation of dealing with the present, "not the past, not the future, not the if." "Because riding is a partnership between two beings, their relationship is very important. By its very nature, yoga supports attunement with the self but also with others. A more nuanced sense of receptivity is fostered by a regular yoga practice. As one of my teachers told me once, people miss more by not seeing, than by not knowing. As any good rider knows, a sensitive attachment between horse and rider is key to success."

Some riding problems are so subtle or insidious that students don't even realize that the problem is actually theirs and not the horse’s. For example, a rider may have difficulty getting her horse to pick up a particular lead. The rider becomes frustrated that the horse is a slow learner, only to discover that when she rides another 'better trained' horse, it also won't canter off on the correct lead. In cases like this, the rider must be the source of the problem. There are many small position errors that create confusion for the horse. No human or horse is completely symmetrical, so part of improving as a rider is becoming aware of and correcting imbalances.

Pilates is another effective way to address these riding problems, while simultaneously increasing core strength and fitness. Mary Watson, of Lugoff, S.C., has taught exercise for 26 years, and is certified by STOTT Pilates as well as the American Council on Exercise, the Pink Ribbon Program, and she is in the process of completing certification to become a postural analyst with Kinesis, Inc.

"The guiding philosophy behind Pilates is to obtain optimal musculoskeletal performance (strength, flexibility and endurance) with a focus on core strength," explains Mary. "This includes shoulder and pelvis stabilization, neutral alignment and breathing, resulting in a balanced and aligned body that moves with ease." Mary has a keen understanding of riding and riders' needs since she is a lifelong rider herself. "I started riding when I was three. My sister would take me into the woods where no one could see and make me ride her pony… I would be wearing a dress and penny loafers!"

Mary rode with the Camden Hunt and also worked for the legendary Camden horseman Max Bonham. "About 25 percent of my clients are riders, and Pilates has helped them to become aware of their postural issues, which they tend to have off of the horse as well as on the horse. Some of these include rounded shoulders, a forward head posture and rotations through the upper body and lower body. Usually if there is one rotation there is another trying to counterbalance it."

Nicole Swinehart has been a client of Mary Watson's for four years. "As a mother and an equine veterinarian, every minute I get is precious. Riding has always been my favorite sporting activity, but as I’ve gotten older I've found that my back is not as flexible or as strong as I would like. Pilates has really helped me strengthen my core and regain some of my flexibility and balance, which has helped me a lot as a rider. And as the owner of an off-the-track Thoroughbred who didn't see any reason for cantering on the right lead, the core strength and improved body consciousness has been an enormous help in retraining him."

With so many possibilities for increased fitness, knowledge and self control, there is no excuse to wait any longer to become the rider you dream of being. Perhaps it is time to try out another sport or experiment with a new form of exercise. There are plenty of ways to complement your time in the saddle, so start today: dismount to improve your ride.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.