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.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Aiken’s Boutiques | 7/11/11

Eclectic and Unique 

By Pam Gleason

"There’s something for everyone in Aiken," says Carla Cloud, who is the executive director of the Aiken Downtown Development Association (ADDA). "That’s the theme of our current marketing effort. We have antiques, art, shopping, dining, spas, whatever you might want."

The ADDA is devoted to ensuring the health of Aiken’s downtown shopping area. "We try to be a resource for businesses and to help the community understand how important individually owned shops are," continues Carla. "Economically, it is much more of a boost when you shop in locally owned stores – so much more of the money stays in the community."
Efforts to keep Aiken's downtown vibrant started back in the 1980s, when malls were being constructed on America's highways and many small cities and towns across the country were seeing businesses wither and die on their main streets.

"There was a group of business people headed up by John Cunningham who were very savvy and knew what they needed to do to save downtown," continues Carla. "They did a remarkable job. I get lots of compliments all the time. People will say to me 'Oh you’re doing a great job!' I have to say 'Honey, all this was done way before me. We’re just carrying on what they did.'"
Aiken's downtown is just a few blocks long, but it has a wide and varied collection of shops that give every indication of thriving, even in the current economy. Aiken is often said to have a small town atmosphere combined with big city sophistication. This character is reflected in boutiques that offer surprisingly cosmopolitan items – the kinds of things you might expect to buy in New York City, Los Angeles, Palm Beach, or even London – not what you would anticipate finding in a small southern city.

And yet, with all this sophistication, the majority of the shops are intimate. You are likely to find their owners at the cash register, and for many, the store is clearly both a labor of love and a deeply personal expression. Aiken’s boutiques tend to reflect their owners' personalities, and are often stocked with items that the owner would buy, use or wear.

One new business that exemplifies this aspect of Aiken’s shops is Aiken Dry Goods, which opened at the end of March on Laurens Street next to the Hotel Aiken. Aiken Dry Goods is a joint venture between Jami Chandler, who recently moved to Aiken from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and her partner Matthew Fonseca, a 3-goal professional polo player who lives and plays in Aiken. The back wall and the back room of the shop are devoted to polo gear – bridles from Argentina, Tato’s Mallets and Casablanca saddles, polo boots, whites and gloves. You can even buy authentic Aiken Polo Club polo shirts. The front of the store is dedicated to fashion, jewelry, soaps and d├ęcor items.

"We have clothing by Free People – that's very popular and hard to find around here," says Jami, "And t-shirts from Dang Chicks. We're also getting in some Argentine-style rawhide belts soon." There are various hats, riding clothes by Goode Rider and Gersemi ("the equestrian brand that has a passion for style," according to their website), summer dresses by Judith March and rings and bracelets crafted from antique silverware.

The store is decorated with antiques, "found" items and things that have been repurposed. For instance, there is a large map of the United States hanging behind the cash register that is made entirely of used automobile license plates from all 50 states. Other walls display antique farm tools, a rusty weathervane, an ancient American flag. The feel is part Americana, part Bohemian, part modern and trendy. One overriding theme is a love for horses and dogs. Jami's dogs are generally with her in the store. You can donate to Aiken’s Friends of the Animal Shelter at the cash register, or buy t-shirts made by the dog-friendly designer Barkology that proclaim "Sleeps with Dogs."
Jami admits that the items in her store are pretty much selected because they are things that she likes and would wear or decorate her house with. "New Free People arrival . . ." she writes on the Aiken Dry Goods Facebook page, "Please come shopping before I buy it all for myself."

A little further down the block is Equine Divine. This shop also has an equestrian theme, but a very different personality. Equine Divine is part art gallery, part jewelry store, part upscale clothing store. It also has some unique items for the home – silver trays and plates embossed with horse heads, pottery, sterling silver swizzle sticks shaped like polo mallets. If you are looking for horse or hunting books with an Aiken connection, this is a good place to start. You can find Memoirs of a Longshot, written by Cot Campbell, an Aiken resident who is the president of Dogwood Stables and the pioneer of racehorse partnerships. Other books include Hunting Sketches by Charles Matheson (who comes to Aiken for Hunt Week many Februaries) and Alex Brown's Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy (Brown was in Aiken for a book signing this winter.) Or perhaps you need some notecards: The collection that features photographs of Aiken in the 1920s and 1930s, taken by Freudy, the foremost equine photographer of his day, are not to be missed. (They are, in fact, so beautiful and interesting, they may best be destined for framing, rather than for mailing away.)  

The overall feeling of Equine Divine is of a kind of elegance that comes from being surrounded by beautiful things. This atmosphere emanates from the artwork that hangs on the exposed brick walls. 
"I have fabulous artists, primarily from the Southeast," says Taryn Hartnett, the owner of the store. "But I also have Melinda Brewer, who is probably the leading polo artist in the country. I’m fortunate to be able to represent her." Although Melinda lives in Canada, she comes through Aiken on a regular basis, generally when she is on her way to Palm Beach, where she creates polo pony portraits for the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame. 

Other artists include Lynn Carlisle, an Aiken resident who is well known for her paintings of horses and of dogs. One wall is devoted to Susan Easton Burns, an abstract painter from Atlanta.

"Susan doesn’t paint with a traditional brush," says Taryn. "She uses knives, hay, even shavings. This gives her work an interesting texture."

At the back of Equine Divine, shoppers can find a selection of upscale women's clothing from designers often found in Palm Beach. "I’ve always worn J. McLaughlin clothes and I think it’s a great line," says Taryn. "I asked them if they’d be willing to work with me, and they were. We also have Jack Rogers shoes. I wear them myself, and you couldn’t find them anywhere in the area. I wanted to make the fashion part of the store things you couldn't get in Aiken, and it’s been very been successful."

Other notable items include Jack Van Dell jewelry, which features rings, earrings, pendants and bracelets with an equestrian theme. These pieces are fine art in themselves – white gold horse head earrings with diamond studded rings in their mouths, a gold and diamond pendant shaped like a riding boot. Equine Divine is the only place outside of Florida that carries Jack Van Dell’s work. For those who are looking for something a little easier on the pocketbook, there are rings and pendants made by Beverly Zimmer, an Aiken resident, jewelry designer and sculptor. There are as necklaces of antique silver crafted by Heather Crespo, a jumper rider who is married to Gabriel Crespo, a 3-goal professional player based in Aiken.

At the end of this same block of Laurens Street is Lionel Smith Ltd., a men's specialty shop that has been in the Smith family for over 40 years. Started by Lionel Smith, the business is now owned by his son, Van Smith, who can usually be found in the store. The store’s motto says it is "Limited to only the finest in men's fashions." It has hats, shirts, shoes, suits and formal wear. It is also the place where you can buy your official Aiken Hounds hunt tie (if you happen to go out with that hunt in the Hitchcock Woods) and has the distinction of sharing its logo with Aiken Polo Club. That logo is derived from a sketch by Paul Brown, a famous polo artist from before World War II. Van Smith explains that the sketch is of William (Billy) Post, who played polo in Aiken. (His father was Fred Post, who moved his polo pony training operation to Aiken in 1912 and built the Aiken Training Track in 1941.)

"One day in the 1970s, William Post's widow came into the store, and she had a card with the sketch on it," says Van. "My father thought it would make a good logo, and he asked her if he could use it." Aiken Polo Club adopted the same sketch, and these two entities are the only ones given permission to reproduce it.

According to Van, business at Lionel Smith has been quite good lately.

"We've been selling a lot. I think people are tired of the economy, and they're tired of not spending. I think they’ve decided to go shopping to make themselves feel better." The equestrian community often gives the store business, since traveling riders might be in town for a horse event, and then find that they need formal wear that they did not bring with them. "We sold some tuxedos that we didn’t expect to sell for the formal dinner at the Steeplechase. We're selling a lot of bow ties to the younger people."

One of the most popular bow ties for horse people was made especially for Lionel Smith – it is blue and embroidered with the distinctive polo logo. "If I find a necktie or a bow tie with horses on it, I buy as many as I can," says Van. "I can’t keep them in the store."  

Other items that horse people might appreciate include leather belts that are fastened with a folding hoof pick. It's a small hoof pick, but an authentic one, and you could use it if you had to.

"They tell me they only sell these belts in two places: here and in Middleburg, Virginia," says Van. "Other places, people wouldn’t know what they were and wouldn’t appreciate them." 

On this same block, shoppers can visit Vinya, which stocks fashionable women's dresses, blouses and slacks from such designers as Ecru, Tribal and French Connection. If a customer loves the clothes but they don’t quite fit, Vinya provides a seamstress to take up hems and tuck in waists. There are chic designs and fashions that are hard to find outside of a big city.

Next door, Folly is also a recent addition to the block. Opened last September, Folly is filled with fine linens, tableware, clothing, unique necklaces, belts and bracelets. Hats are a Folly specialty – they had quite a good selection provided by the Madder Hatters this spring. It was perfect timing for anyone who wanted to compete in the hat contests (or just look the part) at the Aiken Trials and the Aiken Steeplechase. Folly even sold a straw hat to the event rider Boyd Martin, who wore it to the formal jog at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event in April. 

Of course, Aiken's boutiques aren't limited to art and fashion. Those who love to cook must visit Plum Pudding, which has the best kitchen items anywhere. Those who are interested in wildlife should check out Birds and Butterflies, where they will find an excellent selection of bird feeders, including some lovely and artistic hummingbird feeders. And if you adore Great Britain, The Curiosity Shop on the corner of Newberry Street and Richland Avenue is the place for you. This store, opened in 1998, is devoted to anything that comes from the British Isles. There are imported hats and caps, t-shirts, tartan plaid scarves and Beatles memorabilia. You can buy items featuring Celtic designs, and books from and about England, Ireland and Scotland. Have a favorite (English) football team? Buy a mug with its insignia. Always admired those English walking sticks that fold out to make a stool? You can buy one here.

Another Curiosity Shop specialty is the grocery store. Brits who are homesick for their favorite candies and cakes can find them on the shelves. They can also find genuine British tea – the stuff sold in our grocery stores is generally weak, according to many British visitors. The teas at the Curiosity Shop are imported from England and are available bagged or in bulk. And the Curiosity Shop is probably the only place in the area where you can buy beef bangers (Scottish style sausages) and even the Scottish national dish, haggis. Haggis is not for the faint of heart. Traditionally, it is made of a sheep's heart, liver and lungs, mixed with oatmeal, suet and onions and boiled for several hours in the sheep's stomach. The haggis you can buy at the Curiosity Shop comes frozen. It may not appeal to the casual or uncommitted Anglophile, but if you are a Scottish expatriate, it might make you feel right at home.

And so there you have it. From art and clothing to tablecloths, tea, and even haggis, Aiken has something for everyone. There are imported items and things made in the U.S.A., quirky local specialties and top quality items with international appeal, all in just a few charming blocks. Makes you want to go shopping.

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