Agility for the rider: mind and body

Defined as the ability to control direct of the body, or body segment during rapid movement, agility is a commonly used training method in many sports.  Agility has also become common in the equestrian world as a way to work with horses, training obedience and giving riders a fun way to work with their partners. Unfortunately, it isn’t as common to see riders doing agility training for themselves. Agility is related closely to reactivity, and any rider can appreciate the potential of being reactive in the saddle. Reaction time is the time between the onset of a stimulus and completion of the action, the stimulus could be your horse falling to the outside and your resultant action of using correction aids to re-balance around a corner.

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Athletes of all sports, riding included, rely on complex neural pathways and biofeedback to keep them performing at their best. It could be argued that as agility training is meant to improve quickness and reactivity in sports where athletes are asked to do a variety of quick movements with their bodies and riders are sitting on another animal doing majority of the movement that agility isn’t a key aspect of our sport. However, while riders do have four extra legs moving us through space- riders are required to react to a variety of things throughout the course of a ride. The decision making process involved with the sport can only be enhanced by training the body to speed up the neuromuscular response.
Recent research has shown that agility like training can help improve concentration and focus in athletes (and general population). Moving your body in quick sequence in reaction to any given stimulus takes brain power-  it’s something I do a lot of with my older adults class. Working on the agility ladder every week, giving them new patterns to do- they always tell me they can feel their brain working just as much as their body is- trying to coordinate their movements and focus their mind on the task.
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I talk a lot about confidence and how improving fitness can lead to increased confidence. One of my favourite quotes related to this comes from Harvey Penick:
 “If there is doubt in your mind…how can your muscles know what their supposed to do?”.
A rider’s reaction to any given thing while in the saddle (or on the ground or that matter) can mean the difference between a clear round and knocking a rail, or a perfect transition and a sloppy one. The horse’s performance is a mirror of our own, how can we expect them to be sure-footed and agile, if we are slow and uncoordinated with our cues. From another point of view, reaction and agility can make a big difference when it comes down to staying the tack during unpredictable incidents. Yes, there is only so much a rider can do if a horse decides to bolt, stop, rear, etc. They are large animals with their own thought processes. But a rider who has trained their body to react quickly and efficiently no matter the situation is much better prepared to make a good recovery then one who is a few milliseconds off of the movement. You find a long spot to a big oxen half way through a course- wouldn’t you rather be able to react appropriately and not be left behind, compared to the sketchy alternative?
Much of athleticism is thoughtlessly performing complex movements and making split second decisions. Often the difference between good riders and great riders is in the subtle decisions. Finding that perfect distance every time doesn’t just take an ability to see the distance, it takes appropriate timing of cues, and following through with each decision before, during, and after each jump. The same can be said for riding a dressage test, performing a reining pattern, on the endurance trail, or any other sub-division of the sport. Each has its own set of decisions to be made. Decisions are much easier to make when there is efficacy behind them.
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While riders aren’t required to directly move quickly, change direction, and transition through movements- they are indirectly responsible for coordinating all those things through appropriate use of their body weight, fluidity of their joints (requiring stability), effective use of aids, and good timing. We’ve all seen riders who are lacking in any of the above qualities, and it’s not always nice to watch.  Agility incorporates many factors from the body: balance, coordination, joint stability, strength, power, and flexibility. It asks the mind to focus and builds reactivity throughout the entire body as a result.  If we expect it from our horses, we have to expect it from ourselves. Why wouldn’t you want it in a training program!

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?

Am I done yet?

Just kidding, I love school. Most of the time. Sort of? Ask me again when I’ve recovered from midterms.

It’s been one thing after another, as usual, this week. Between midterms, my car breaking down, and then being fixed, but actually not being fixed and breaking down again, not getting to work, taking two too many cabs, midterms midterms midterms, awards banquets, more Thanksgiving, wanting more sleep, assignments….. and everything else… Lets just say I’m tired.

I just finished my last midterm (of 5) today.. Last Wednesday I had two of my bigger ones. That was lots, by half way through the second one of the day I was starting to wind down. I haven’t quite been able to get my studying mojo back. My brain is in full rebellion mode, and I don’t really feel like fighting it to be honest.

Now that midterms are over with, it’s time to really stop procrastinating on some of the assignments I have. Instead, what do you think I’m thinking about? Riding. I think I have the MHJA year end awards banquet to thank for that one. Hanging out with the McMullan Team this weekend, seeing many fellow riders get well deserved recognition for accomplishments this season, and discussing goals for next year- how could I not just want to jump back into training full time and forget about school? While I am getting some of my barn fix with Horse Connection, I’m really craving that feeling you get after a great course, or after a lesson. Or just after a good ride on my own horse. I know I would miss my “other life” in school and all these other goals I have. But, grass is always greener.. right?

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M&C. The impact these two people have had on my life, and the lives of countless others is astounding.

As much as I can’t really be riding as much right now, I’m being presented with a few opportunities to tie in my career goals in the AT world with my goals in the riding world. A proposal from a prof in regards to brainstorming ideas around a functional training program based around things one does on a farm came about around the same time my boss at MORfit proposed that each staff member come up with some sort of class to teach, or event to run. This combined with my longstanding plan to form a fitness program tailored to the equestrian athlete is definitely causing some ideas to float around. If anyone reading this has some specific things they would like to work on, or questions about how a training program could help your riding- please let me know! I’m very much still in the brain storming phase.

The thing that’s becoming painfully obvious about this year in Uni is that, for me anyway, we’re getting to do just enough hands on stuff to make you want to do more and be done with all the lectures and in-between things.  Especially because I am able to integrate what I’m learning into more than one of my work places and volunteer opportunities. Sitting in assessment lecture just is not quite the same as actually getting to do an assessment. Just like practicing in taping lab just doesn’t cut it when you have been doing it in real life. At the same time, all these classes make us realize how much there is to know.. and how little of it we actually know.

This past week a classmate and I ended up accepting the position of Vice Presidents of the Kinesiology Student’s Association, which is a partner of our other student association, WATSA (Wesmen Athletic Therapy Student Assoc.). We had been wanting for a while to become more involved, so this was kind of a “go big or go home” response. I’ve had very minimal experience in student politics, with small roles in high school. Nothing, however, to this scale of responsibilities. I’m both looking forward to the new role, but also hoping it doesn’t completely overload my schedule. Another thing I said yes to was a paid research assistant position with the same prof mentioned above, who I have been working with the older adults fitness class. He received a grant to continue with research, and I gratefully accepted the chance to be a part of it. Why not, right?

I’m hoping this week brings some time to get my feet back under me. I’m pretty much headed to bed once I push publish on this sucker.. it’s 9:30. Here’s hoping I get my car back tomorrow (9 business days and counting it’s been at the shop), and that I also find some of my energy too.

Monty at Horse Connection

Monty at Horse Connection

 

 

Go

So my weekly posts have quickly turned into monthly posts. Such is life.

As I mentioned before, I’m pretty busy (understatement) lately. Between school 3 days a week, work, riding, studying and keeping myself in shape- I really don’t have many spare moments. I can honestly say I’ve never been more tired then I was the past 2-3 weeks. Last week about 20 hours of my life were dedicated to just driving. Kudos to everyone out there who commutes long distances to work everyday of the year, I am already pretty tired of highway 3. But it’s worth it, I’m loving my class and hopefully retaining everything I’m learning; midterm is on Monday. And I’ll have a place to live in the ‘Peg as of June 1st, so that will cut some driving down. Or at least provide a place to nap between drives.

On the horsey side of things, I cannot get over how well Will is doing. I’ve probably said it before, but I feel like I came home to a completely different horse (more then just the extra weight). After those first couple weeks of ADHD and wild horse syndrome, he’s been absolutely perfect. Both of us are more confident, and although I was initially worried about how much his winter off would set us back- I’m now realizing how much it benefitted him. The things we struggled with last year seem easy now and we’re able to focus on progressing further. I’m very excited for our first show, which will be the Summer Smiles show in mid-June.

I wrote a post not too long ago about upping my fitness level- and that is also going extremely well. After 4 weeks straight of almost everyday work outs, I was feeling so much stronger in the saddle. At the 4 week mark I took two weeks off heavy work outs as I had a brutal cold and a few injuries arise.. strained tendon in ankle/foot (serves me right for not buying new running shoes earlier-still paying for that one) and some minor alignment issues with my shoulders and hips- easily remedied with some rehab and stretching- which I’m all too used to by now. I’m back into regular work outs now, and feeling great! The tendon in my foot is still not 100%, so no high impact (running, etc) for a while. Good thing I like the rowing machine! Tonight is interval night (4x1000m rows), my favourite.. In all seriousness though, the difference I can feel in my riding ability is amazing. Can’t wait to see the improvements after 12 weeks!

My mid-term on Monday consists of the entire skeletal system from head to toe. And is worth 25% of my grade, a grade that must be above a B for me to progress in my chosen degree. Needless to say that I have quite a bit of memorizing to do this weekend. With that being said I’m going to head off to the gym, and then bunker down for a crap load of bones, ligaments, and joints.