Train like you mean it

I’ve been riding for a while. I’ve also been an athlete in many other sports for a while. I used to spend countless hours defending the sport of riding to my gym teacher, who didn’t want to let me count the hours I spent riding as hours towards my credit, this was the same man who coached me for 4 years in countless soccer, basketball, and badminton matches- and watched me participate in volleyball, track, cross-country, and awarded me athletic dedication awards in both my Varsity years.

The defending didn’t stop there, of course, the equestrian sport is not always highly regarded as the image of athleticism (on the rider’s part anyway). Those who don’t do it, don’t understand it. Yet, even those who don’t play basketball/football/gymnastics/etc consider those who participate athletes. You can clearly see the sweat dripping off those athlete’s bodies, you see the tole a performance has on them, and often through media you get a glimpse into their intense training regimes, nutrition, and the prices they pay for their sport.

Unfortunately, often the way the media represents the equestrian culture is questionable- and the most prominent image is one of catty drama on lesser known reality shows, the latest fashion craze, or as a sport exclusive to the wealthy and upper class. I can’t say that all of the above isn’t true, I’ve seen it all first hand- even the truly questionable “fashionista’s” on campus wearing “hunter” boots with, get this, fake spurs attached. However, I also know the other side of the lifestyle, one where sometimes success doesn’t only come to the ones wealthy enough to buy it, but also to those dedicated enough to work for it.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to write another one of those oh so popular posts about how equestrians should be held up to the same standard of athleticism as all those other athletes, and how it’s a tragedy how we aren’t thought of as super-human athletes. After all, we are in the Olympics, and “we put our lives at risk”, and blah blah blah “it’s just as hard as football”. It’s been said before, and all those rants are out there to be agreed with or argued with already. The world doesn’t need another.

I’m not going to rant on that, because to be honest, so much of this sport is unique to many others. And I know how hard other athletes work, I see it all the time in my career, and I’ve experienced it as an athlete in other sports myself. Every sport is a little bit different, and I don’t think it’s fair to complain because equestrians aren’t considered the same athlete as an athlete in another sport. Especially when often those who complain the most are the one’s who act least like an athlete.

Equestrians aren’t at the same standard as other athletes, nor are they above or below that standard. I’ve spent a lot of my University career doing projects on how aspects of what we do as riders takes serious athleticism, and changed many a doubter’s mind. The farther I get in my degree, the more people I run into that don’t need convincing- they have had experience working with or talking to equestrians that take themselves seriously- and therefore are taken seriously by others. That is what I would like to talk about. Why riders need to take themselves a little more seriously, and spend a little less time trying to convince other’s why they’re worthy of being called an athlete.

I believe in order to be an athlete, no matter what your sport, you have to earn that title– its not a label that should be freely given as soon as you sign up for a team or pay a certain amount of money for the equipment. It’s a mindset, a lifestyle, and a dedication to yourself and to your chosen purpose. It’s hard work.

In the last case study I did, on how to train an elite equestrian athlete (a project I had to fight to get permission to do), I originally thought I would spend a lot of time focusing on why a trainer should take the sport seriously- but instead ended up writing about why the rider who choses to go above and beyond just the training done in the saddle has the potential to do so much more in the saddle. A rider who trains like an athlete (in all definitions of the word), considering aerobic, strength, agility, and other types of strength training as a regular addition to time spent working directly with a horse as well as proper nutrition and a balanced lifestyle is often the rider who has more success then one who does all their training in the tack. Don’t get me wrong, a considerable amount of time working in the saddle is also a necessary part of being successful- but developing total body strength, awareness, and increasing overall self-confidence need to be developed off of the horse as well.

Why is functional strength valuable to a rider? To start, you’re on a 1200lb animal often moving at a decent pace toward large objects. If you don’t have the strength to hold yourself in position while that 1200lbs defies gravity for you, good luck sticking in the tack- let alone lasting around a full course. C often uses the phrase “Don’t pull, resist” when training. It takes more strength to patiently resist a horse pulling at your hands then it does to get into a tug-o-war with the same animal. You’re more likely to make your point with steady, consistent enduring then by fighting a losing battle. Strength is necessary, and a strong patient rider will over and over again be more effective then one who isn’t. Riding shouldn’t be a power-struggle, and developing the strength to effectively use your body in the saddle and develop a functional relationship with a horse will long-term prevent unnecessary conflict, mistakes, and injury.

What does body awareness have anything to do with riding? The horse is the one doing all the moving and balancing, right?

As a rider you gain an extra four legs, two floppy ears, and a tail. Being able to balance your own body through time and space is highly recommended if you plan on guiding that 1200lb addition around a large obstacle course. Knowing how to apply a precise amount of pressure in your ring finger, calf, or how to effectively shift your body weight in the tack to rebalance your mount and communicate the next move-  are all tools in the rider’s tool box, tools that are only sharpened with increased body awareness.

Yes, you could get away without the above two skills as a rider. You’d have a tougher time working with difficult horses, making it through week long competitions, and achieving the necessary precision to be the best.. but you’d get by. The confidence thing, though, is kind of a make it or break it thing. Confidence is the difference between a run-out at jump #2 and a clear round. Confidence is what trains a horse, and what makes a team work. In any sport, confidence is a trait found in every successful athlete.

What helps build confidence? Knowing your body’s capabilities, strength, awareness, countless time spent practicing, both skills directly related to the sport and developing those skills away from the sport as well.

Over the past couple years I’ve had a shift within my own mindset. The reason behind that was partly through education, but also through experience. The last few years have brought a huge increase in my own skill as a rider. Much of that I credit to joining a team of dedicated riders, under two of the most dedicated coaches I’ve met, in any sport. The drama that floats through the horse world doesn’t interrupt the patient process of skill development that takes place within this group. The results seen each season speak for themselves.

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I also credit that to an increase in confidence that I am doing what I need to be doing to be the best I can be in every aspect. I started paying less attention to if others took me seriously, and spent more time taking myself seriously. I started applying the training I did in other sports to training outside of the saddle. As my fitness (physical and mental) improved, my riding improved. I didn’t need to prove to others how riding should be taken more seriously. If I took it seriously, and trained like any other athlete, people started to take it seriously too.

In the New Year I will be running a training program for riders. Not only is this a first for me, teaching a class of this type, it’ll be something new for the MB riding community. I know many riders who do train outside of what they do on a horse- and it shows in their riding. Riding does require athleticism, more then many people realise, and the best way to demonstrate that is by being the best you can be. I am hoping to pass on some of my own experience both in riding and in the training industry to fellow riders through this program which is designed to enhance the skills we already have from being in the saddle.

A rider who is strong and balanced will create a strong and balanced horse.

I am hoping to periodically write bits of info about different aspects of training as an equestrian for readers as well, based on things that I incorporate into the training program, and things that I do in school. Stay tuned for those.

To all the riders, or athletes, out there reading this- What do you do to be your best? Is what you’re doing going to get you where you want to go?

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6 thoughts on “Train like you mean it

  1. Great thoughts put together. I couldn’t agree more. During my Equine Sports Science degree I had a chance to watch first hand an experiment where heart monitors were fitted to riders as well as their blood pressure monitored at simple riding efforts. The heart of a rider schooling correctly does significant work…

    This is true for fairly recreational riding too:
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s004210000207#page-1

    In my riding programmes, even though they are aimed at amateur riders, I use off-horse training as part of the “riding programme” and I notice big differences between riders’ progress, body awareness, balance and ability to improve on feel.

    I believe that taking up riding as a sport, from bottom levels to Olympics, requires every rider to think of themselves as of an athlete, be it on a scaled down level. We owe it to the horses, their health and well-being not to treat them as moving sofas…

    Happy Holidays 🙂

    • Katmah says:

      Neat to hear about a trainer like yourself using off- horse training and seeing the difference! I am hoping the idea becomes more popular here as well. This sport is a team sport, which would imply that both members of the partnership work towards a goal.
      Happy Holidays to you too!

  2. saraannon says:

    There is a reason the basic stance in martial arts is called the ‘horse stance’. I’d love to see more riders seriously engage in tai chi, qi gong and the like. Improving self-awareness, strength, balance, resilience, and agility can only improve horsemanship.

  3. L. Williams says:

    Great post, just found you through Haynet. 🙂

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