I have come up with a new phrase, which is ‘Quality then Quantity’. This is partly a reflection of my whole training ethos, but also because I have manged to injure myself by NOT following this advice!
So what have I done?
Through a combination of an increase in Pilates teaching, doing said teaching on a slightly slippery carpet, and spending a lot more time in flip flops….I have managed to massively inflame the tendons on the outside of my right foot.
On paper, doing 1 extra Pilates class a week should be fine – I’ve taught 5 in a week before, but the surface has made a huge difference. I also have been doing 3 in a row on one day, which is not something I have done before. BUT, the biggest single factor has been that I have increased the emphasis of my teaching on balance and control work in standing.
Oh and because the weather has been good, and the evenings longer, I have been outside filming YouTube and Facebook videos.
So what started with a twinge a couple of weeks ago during Pilates, ended up as a very swollen, red and painful outside of my right foot. I am fairly certain that I ‘strained’ the tendon of a muscle called the Peroneus Brevis; this little muscle helps to point the toes and turn the foot out, so of course has been used a lot recently.
It’s been a while since I’ve hurt that much, but fortunately this time my professional knowledge helped me out and although I had to carry on working on it initially, once I ONLY wore the right shoes, medicated regularly and kept the foot up all evening……it started to improve. It’s not totally gone yet but I can deal with it!
Why am I telling you this? Well I want you to know that I am going through exactly the same trials and tribulations as you are. Just because I am a Physio, and I’ve trained a horse to a high level of dressage, doesn’t mean I am immune to upsets along the way. By sharing my good and bad times I hope I can help you avoid the same pitfalls.
Also, remember the injury blog I did a few months ago? Well, initially when I rode the foot was OK, and when it was at it’s worst I didn’t ride due to work anyway. But once I was back in the saddle and thinking I was good to go with riding, I had a nasty shock. The mobility of the foot/stirrup took me by surprise. Without foot pain I have never really appreciate just how much this whole area moves – I know, the probably sounds crazy, but think what it’s like when you have a sore throat; you KNOW you have a throat, but when you don’t have a sore throat you don’t ever notice your throat. So having ridden since I was tiny, the multitude of small movements that happen at the foot are now imperceptible to me most of the time. Add in foot pain however, and it was a very different story. Every time my foot and stirrup moved slightly I felt it, and they move fractionally all the time I discovered. Trying to turn my leg slightly to give a kick when the mare backed off hurt like crazy. And putting my ‘leg on’ was almost impossible – so much so that my attempts at leg aids resulted in all sorts of unwanted responses, to the point that I gave up and just hoped that the next day would be better because I really wanted to school her! (thankfully it was)
All in all this has been a huge learning curve and reminder about just how important it is to not ride when we are injured. My ‘problem’ was really very minor, if incredibly painful whilst it lasted, and yet I completely confused my horse. I also have no doubt that if anything untoward had happened, I would have had nothing like enough control, balance or strength to deal with the situation; I was not actually that safe.
Just in case you missed the message last time then – best not to ride if you are injured if at all possible!
PS – I know my leg in the photo at the top is a little far forward. The saddle is very overdue a check up and has got tight in front, so tipping me slightly back. Unfortunately, our saddle fitter, like everyone else, has been off work for the best part of 2 months……
Have you ever had a lesson on a Schoolmaster? I have had several over the years.
As a teenager I had lunge lessons on my Instructor Sandra’s horse so we could work on my posture without me worrying about what he was doing.
I then had a few lessons at Talland in 2003 on a horse I think called Slick. I had a locum job not far away, and as I couldn’t get to Pammy’s lessons near home, I popped along to Talland after work instead. The best thing about Slick was that I rode my 1st flying changes on him! He wasn’t easy though, and I had to get the aids right; certainly no arm-chair riding allowed there.
Since then, I’ve managed a few more random lessons at Talland when Baz was the only horse I took, and it meant he could have a rest whilst I carried on learning.
The best thing about schoolmaster (or schoolmistress) lessons is that you only need to think about YOU. The horse knows exactly what it is doing, it knows which aids mean what and also which random leg-flapping, hand pulling signals to ignore. So you have to ride correctly, but when you get it right you get the right answers. This means that if you have a horse at home that is learning – doubly so if you and your horse are BOTH learning – you get to go and practice doing it right without worrying that the horse hasn’t got a clue either. When you then take your new-found confidence and skills back to your own horse, things often then fall into place more easily. If you then hit a problem, you can go back over what you learnt from your schoolmaster and then once again transfer to your own horse.
You don’t need to be a novice or have a novice/young horse to benefit from a schoolmaster; in fact I think most of us could do with a few ‘top-up’ sessions form time to time. There is no pressure – except to get the aids right – and that means as a rider you can focus 100% on you and not the horse, which is SO hard to do when it is your own horse isn’t it? Take away the emotion that comes with riding your own horse and you may find that you can function more clearly, and focus more effectively on what you need to do. Our own horses usually have a few quirks to say the least, which will have an impact on how we ride; anticipating a jump into canter, a lean in this transition or stiffness on one rein. This will be removed – although possibly replaced by different quirks in your schoolmaster – so you can concentrate on hopefully a more ‘correct’ and maybe straighter way of working. This can help you work on your own straightness and symmetry not just in how you sit, but how you use your body. This is excellent if you are 1-sided, have a ‘weak’ leg/fixed hand or general bad habits. Often, you and your horse know each other so well that you can hide each other’s asymmetries, but working on a different horse can highlight these much more because the horse won’t be used to you and will also expect the correct aids. You can learn so much about your body and go home with so much to work on.
If your horse is off work, lessons on a schoolmaster can be beneficial to keep you fit and maintain your skills. If you have had time off – especially through injury – you might find that lessons away from your own horse are a good way to regain fitness, skills, and possibly confidence without the worry that you will be taking your horse backwards. And speaking of confidence, if you have had a fall which has caused a loss of confidence – or even if you are just feeling that you are not as confident as you could or should be – riding an experienced horse that will ‘hold your hand’ a little may be just what you need; you will be more relaxed physically and mentally and achieve a whole lot more.
Right now, I suspect that most people are just desperate to get out and about on their own horses, but bear this in mind for the future. You will not only learn a huge amount to transfer to your own horse but will probably find you are inspired to up your game even more. Lots of training centres offer schoolmaster lessons, so have a look and make some plans!
If you are like me, you spend a lot of time and effort – and possibly money – on making sure your horse has the best diet, especially if you are competing. Hydration comes into this; how much, when, do you add electrolytes etc etc. Magazines like Horse and Hound are full of articles on feed and supplements, and have been for years. Fortunately they are now catching up with information for riders, but I think that when talking about this with clients and friends, too many people don’t really give their own dietary intake anything like enough.
I am not a dietician or nutritionist, but I do know a little because as a Physiotherapist, making sure that my patients have a healthy diet is important. A large part of this is hydration – ie taking on enough fluid to enable normal body and brain function for the activity being performed.
Water is key because it is involved in the chemical reactions that enable the body to function. This includes processes like digestion, cardiac activity and muscle contraction. It maintains normal blood volume and pressure and regulates body temperature. All of this is overseen by the brain. To do this, the amount of water in our bodies needs to stay within a certain percentage. Too concentrated – eg when we sweat – or too dilute – eg if we drink too much after exercise – and this disrupts the chemical reactions and therefore the normal function of the brain and body.
Mild dehydration is classed as a loss of 1-2% of body water, and moderate dehydration is classed as 2-5% loss. If we sweat enough to lose 2% of our body weight, this is enough to produce a noticeable reduction in our physical performance. Push that up to a 5% loss, and the loss of performance/ability to work rises to 30%. At this point, symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting can kick in.
Dehydration in general will cause a cascade of heart-related issues, ultimately resulting in a reduced cardiac output. Lactic acid production will also be increased, resulting in greater muscle fatigue.
Brain – or cognitive – function is perhaps even more at risk because whereas water makes up 50-70% of body weight, it makes up 75% of the brain. A 2% loss of hydration will impact on attention, short term memory and the ability to judge our own ‘state’. It is also thought that women are more adversely affected than men; perhaps not surprising now that we know women are also more likely to suffer the effects of concussion.
All of these effects are probably fairly easy to manage when doing simple tasks, but not when you factor in more complex activities such as driving, or exercise….and riding a horse is both of these….it is clear to see how serious the situation could be.
A loss of physical performance due to muscle fatigue and reduced cardiac output when you are riding cross country for example, has obvious safety implications. If you add in the reduction in attention then this is further amplified.
From a competitive aspect, even if safety is not quite such an issue – such as showing or dressage (and that isn’t to say loss of strength and attention aren’t a safety issue here, just perhaps less so) – then competitions will be won and lost because of the effects of dehydration. When tiny margins matter, you cannot afford to be the weaker rider or the less attentive rider.
When you look at all your preparation, don’t waste your time, effort and money on training you and your horse, developing your fitness and strength….only to fail because you were the one who didn’t drink enough (or too much, but you’d probably be more likely to do this after you ride/compete). It may be a good idea to rehearse your hydration volumes and frequencies, and plan your drinking throughout the day when competing. It is too easy when busy and under pressure to ‘do it in a minute’, or have just a quick swig and nothing more. If you make it routine when training it will be much easier to implement when competing.
Don’t forget, that when you feel thirsty, you are already getting into the dehydration zone, so the best plan is to prevent this happening. Below is a section that I have found on the website http://www.nutrition.org and I think you will find it very helpful. For more information please visit their website.
****** From nutrition.org
• Drink about 500mls of fluid 2 hours before exercising to allow time for any excess to be lost in urine • Then drink a further 125-250mls immediately before exercise • Weigh yourself (see After Exercise below).
• Drink small amounts regularly, aiming for 125-250mls every 10-20 minutes. You can maintain optimal performance by replacing at least 80% of sweat loss during performance.
• You need to consume 150% of the amount of fluid lost during exercise to allow for the fluid that is naturally lost from the body via urine. For example, if you have lost 1L of fluid, you need to drink 1.5L. • The easiest way to calculate your fluid loss is to weigh yourself before and after training. 1kg of weight loss resulting from exercise, is roughly equivalent to 1L of fluid loss. • Weight loss in kilos then needs to be multiplied by 1.5 to calculate the amount of fluid to consume • This does not need to be consumed all at once, immediately after exercise. Aim for 500ml immediately after training, then consume the remainder at intervals afterwards.”******
If you look at the size of my mug, then 500ml 2 hrs before exercise is nearly double its volume, 250ml just before/during is nearly as much…..I have to confess that was a bit of a shock to me, even though I drink lots of water throughout the day. So please join me in taking greater notice of how much you drink so that especially during warmer weather we can all maximise our potential.
We are living through challenging times right now. Life as we know it has changed beyond all recognition, and for many of us we have no idea how long the situation will last. One of the challenges we face is that our regular exercise has been curtailed, and whilst this might seem very trivial when people worldwide are losing their lives, actually for many people this is a major issue.
Exercise is essential for mental well being for a large proportion of society. The production of endorphins – the feel good or happy hormones – help us cope with the stressful and negative aspects of life. Hopefully for most horse riders and owners, time with your horse is still allowed, but for some who are self-isolating because of health risks then visiting the yard will be off the cards.
Whatever your individual situation, it is important to find ways of keeping fit and active is essential. As I have already said, keeping active improves mental health. When it comes to physical health, the fitter you are – in general – the better you will cope if you become ill. As horse riders, there is also the long term issue of maintaining fitness in readiness for returning to full activities. Many of you will normally attend classes aimed at improving your strength/balance/fitness, and of course these classes are now on hold.
We all need to play our part in getting through this Covid-19 crisis, by staying at home. So if you are needing to find a reliable source of exercise, then the Ready to Ride YouTube channel is now up and running. I am trying to upload new Pilates sessions regularly – although I have had a bit of a hiatus whilst I transfer my day to day operations over to being online only (which is hard when I am a Physio and work face to face and hands on). If you subscribe then you will get an update when new videos are uploaded. If you follow Ready to Ride on Facebook or Instagram then I am also posting short clips on there too. All these sessions are free, and should be easy to do at home.
Please join me, stay at home and stay safe but keep exercising.
I can be almost 100% certain that the answer to question 1) is NO, and to question 2) is YES!
My response to that is ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’, although I can include myself in the category that needs to be reprimanded……this topic brings me back to one of my top ‘soap box’ issues, whereby we as horse owners are prepared to spend hours looking after our horses and a small fortune on having them treated/pampered/clothed/assessed etc etc etc, yet all too often do almost nothing about ourselves. There is definitely an element of the whole badge of honour that horse people like to wear – and again I include myself in this – about how tough we are. We are proud that compared to our lily-livered friends and townie relatives we are out in all weathers, dragging ourselves off our sick beds and riding whilst still in our plaster casts! And of course, all too often we really do have no choice when it comes to the basic tasks of horse care and stable management. But it should not carry over into riding.
So lets go over why we would not ride our horses whilst they are injured, unless it is part of a controlled and prescribed rehab programme.
We’d consider it unfair/cruel
There is a risk of worsening the problem
We don’t want to risk ruining our horse’s career
It may not be safe for us or the horse
Would all of these not be exactly the same for not only ourselves, but also the horse when we ride whilst injured?
Cruel/unfair on ourselves to make ourselves ride, BUT also on the horse as it has to carry a wonky/weak rider
We could easily worsen our own condition, BUT worsen or even cause a problem in the horse as it copes with our wonky/weak riding
We could risk ruining our own career – equine related or otherwise – BUT also our horse’s if we persist in riding badly
We risk our safety when riding badly due to an increased likelihood of falling off due to weakness/poor balance/asymmetry BUT are also more likely to put our horse’s into unsafe situations such as when jumping with an unstable rider
In addition to this, there is the fairly major issue of how injury – or illness for that matter – will affect your ability to ride effectively. If you have back pain, or a knee/shoulder injury for example, you are not going to be sitting straight and certainly not using your body symmetrically. The result is poor training, and the reinforcement of poor technique for you and your horse. Long term, there is the potential to train your horse to be incorrect and asymmetric. Bear in mind that Para Dressage riders in groups 1-3 have their horses schooled by an able bodied rider as well as themselves, in part to ensure that the horse is ridden by a (hopefully) symmetric rider. These riders acknowledge their asymmetries and weaknesses, know they can’t solve the problem, so work around it as best as they can to make their horse’s lives better. For most of us, our time of asymmetry or weakness from injury or illness is temporary, but that is not a reason to continue regardless. We can cause a lot of problems in a very short space of time.
I appreciate that if horses are your livelihood, I might well be laughed out of town. But, if I was your client, and you were riding my horse, I actually would rather you didn’t. So would my horse. If you are meant to be competing at the weekend on 6 horses, are you going to be able to do them all justice? Or even ride safely with all of them?
In a nutshell, if you are in pain, ill or injured, don’t ride unless you really have to. The best course of action is to seek help from an appropriate health professional ASAP. It is far better in the long term to give your horse a few weeks off whilst you recover, than to create greater problems for the both of you. In that time you can recover and regain strength and symmetry. You will then return to riding in top condition, and it will only take a couple of weeks for your horse to pick up fitness.
Sermon over! I’ve kept this short and sweet on purpose; please bear everything I have said in mind, especially if you are about to start your summer Eventing season.
PS – I don’t know who drew the cartoon in the featured image so I hope they don’t mind that I have used it and not credited them for it.
Whatever discipline you follow, it is hugely beneficial – actually even essential – that you include cross training in your routine. This might sound counter intuitive, because obviously if you are training in a specific skill, surely you want to improve in that area and not waste time doing other things that aren’t directly going to impact on your progress. Right?
Wrong! The problem is that in being very specific in your training, you become too conditioned in one way of working, both physically and mentally. Doing the same exercise(s) day in, day out, means on a very simple level, that your joints and soft tissues only ever move through the same range; your reactions are never challenged; you are not pushed; your asymmetries become entrenched.
If you think about the main riding disciplines, we tend to keep our bodies working within very small ranges of movement. This means our joints and muscles don’t get taken through their full range; for joint health we should be exercising through the full range, and to maximise muscle strength and function we should work into end ranges. End range to when the joint or muscle is moved to the limit of its capability. It isn’t a big secret that riders commonly have tight hip flexors for example, a direct result of hours spent sitting.
Another aspect of riding is that our heart and respiratory rates don’t often get significantly raised. Hopefully everyone knows why this is important for general health…. but there are times when riding – such as when going cross-country – when theses rates will be raised. It is very difficult to recreate the same conditions in training, so unless cross training is deployed, the rider risks putting themselves in a position whereby they do not have the cardiorespiratory fitness to safely and successfully negotiate said cross-country. The result of a lack of cardiorespiratory fitness is early fatigue and the resulting weakness, lack of physical control and mental sharpness.
I’ve been doing a mini study with a heart rate monitor – it’s an ongoing work in progress because I have more that I want to test before I compile a full ‘report’. However, I can tell you that so far that the ridden activity that gets my heart rate up the most, is holding a horse together when it’s trying to take off somewhere up on the moor! But that tends to be in short bursts and not the several minutes or more required for cross country, and I don’t have the nerves linked to competition either. Watch this space for comparisons between all the different riding activities and off-horse exercise.
Another advantage of cross training is that it can give you a chance to mentally unwind if you spend much of your time on horseback in training. It is a time to perhaps just enjoy your surroundings if out for a walk or a run, be competitive against yourself without the worry of how this will impact on your horse, or just simply clear your head. For me, I find Pilates incredibly beneficial mentally. It requires a very intense focus on myself and what I am doing, but in a wholly positive way. Any external stresses disappear as I work to improve my body. I focus also on my breathing, and on relaxation in combination with movement; the latter might sound like a paradox but it is important – as mentioned before – that tension does not take over and that there is a balance between activity and relaxation/softness. I find when riding that this can sometimes (or maybe often?!) be difficult to achieve if I am faced with a challenge. To spend time reinforcing better ways of using my body is hugely beneficial.
I also love a good walk on the moor to take in the views and get really put of breath as I tackle the hills, and it is wonderful way to clear the cobwebs. I feel that I have worked my whole body through lots of different ranges, challenged my balance reactions and not got too focussed on ‘doing things correctly’.
So, whatever physical activity it is you like to do in your free time, prioritise it and embrace it for the benefit of you and your horse. Enjoy!
Who watched any of the London 2012 Olympics Dressage? Of course I was biased and wanted Charlotte and Valegro to win regardless, but when comparing their test to that of Adelinde Cornelisson and Parzival, for me there was no contest. Charlotte and Valegro were soft, relaxed and flowing, Adelinde and Parzival were strong but tense by comparison. To produce Grand Prix dressage movements there has to be tension, but if that is the overriding picture, it no longer is pleasing to watch because the horse doesn’t flow or look so happy in its work. Equally, if we see the rider looking tense, it they don’t look happy either. I by no means wish to criticise Adelinde, it’s just that to me the tension in that combination was too great.
20 plus years ago I used to get a lot of headaches when I was riding. We nailed it down to tension from my shoulders, and spent a lot of time in my lessons working on how to relax said shoulders. I honestly can’t really remember the details, although I do know that a big part of the issue was that I was away at boarding school. My instructor Sandra would frequently bemoan the fact that just as she got me right, I would be off again. The reality is that I was young and weak, and essentially I was just starting to get strong enough to maintain my posture AND ride effectively and then I’d be off. The cycle had to start again next time I came home.
So why is this relevant to the subject of tension? Because my lack of strength and fitness for riding meant that I was underusing certain key parts of my body and consequently overusing other parts. I was tending to tip a little forward and stabilise my arms by lifting up my shoulders. My upper trapezius muscles became very overactive, and the tension from these is what gave me the headaches.
In my case, tension not only gave me headaches but also – partly because it was related to my posture – meant that my hands were fixed. By using my upper trapezius I then limited my ability to use the rest of my shoulder muscles to control and move my arms. We need tension in our muscles because this is what creates movement and provides stability; the technical name is ‘tone’. But, if tone is too high then we have tension and this blocks movement, if tone is too low then we cannot create movement.
I want you now to think about your own tension, and how this might impact on your body.
For me, my current area of tension is around my jaw; I have had a massive amount of life stress in the last few years, and about 18 months ago I became aware that of a feeling that my head was going to explode. After initially thinking it was my blood pressure going through the roof, I realised it was actually that I was clenching my jaw so tightly that I could feel it in my temples. The worst part about this is that I wasn’t doing this just at times of stress, but it became habitual, even when I was riding. The way our body is connected from the neck and down into the arms means that I was blocking my contact. I was also making my breathing very shallow, which when you think it through is one of the worst things to do when riding.
As with so many ‘bad habits’, once I had identified the problem I was able to try to stop myself as soon as I became aware I was clenching my teeth. I am now not doing it nearly as much, and not at all when I ride. On top of this, I am actively trying to make myself relax my jaw when I ride – in particular schooling. Through the last term of Pilates classes I also encouraged everyone to smile; think Strictly and the ability to smile throughout a dance! Smiling is great because it encourages ‘positive tension’, and for me certainly means I can’t lock my jaw.
Other common areas of tension that can be experienced include the stomach and feet. Stomach tension is often linked to a degree of anxiety/nervousness and therefore also breath-holding. Tension in the feet can also be due anxiety – eg toe curling, but also if you have a slightly unusual foot shape which isn’t well supported; once in the saddle the rest of the leg tries to compensate for this, often by locking the foot into position.
Try a little test – tense your foot into one of the above positions, and feel what happens to your leg. Now think how that would impact on your riding. Then tense your abdominals as if pulling your ribs down to your pelvis. Now think about how that impacts on your ability to sit and also on the tightness around your hips.
The key is to identify your tension and then work out where is stems from:
If it is the result of weakness elsewhere – as with me in my youth – then that is quite simple to resolve (hopefully!) even if it takes a while to achieve.
If you have an anxiety based tension then you will need to think laterally about how to combat this, and then transfer this to riding. That said, focusing on breathing is good place to start anyway, and even just out hacking you can practise altering your tension/breathing and see how it affects your horse.
If you have a structural issue like your feet – or any other specific asymmetry – then you will need to once again start off the horse looking at how you balance this, and then transfer this to the riding position.
I would suggest that if it is relatively straightforward you can address tension issues yourself, or with your instructor’s help. Otherwise, it is well worth getting help from some form of health professional, whether it is a Physio or a Sports Psychologist for example.
Ultimately, excess tension in the rider blocks movement and creates tension in the horse, so if we can restrict it to ‘normal’ tension then that can only be a good thing. Happy relaxing!!
The other week in Horse and Hound I read a great article by Carl Hester. To be fair, all of Carl’s articles are great, but this one really struck a cord with me because he identified a concept that I think sums up so much of what I am aiming to achieve through Ready to Ride. I am also very annoyed that I didn’t come up with it myself but if anyone had to do so instead of me then I am happy that it was Mr Hester. The concept is ‘Self Carriage for the Rider’. So neat and so to the point that I hardly need to say much more. However, I think it might be useful to give some pointers towards how to achieve such self carriage.
I have covered all the key components for self carriage before, so I won’t go into great detail but rather I will summarise. Starting at the bottom, you need equal weight through your feet and that weight into your heels. The seat should be symmetrical, and your pelvis and spine moving together and with the horse, with your core working well in support. From there, your shoulders can sit relaxed, back and down which enable light hands. Finally, as your body is well positioned and in alignment, your head will be sitting on top of the spine.
So simple, yes?
Of course, it takes ours of practice in and out of the saddle to make self carriage easy and natural – just as it takes ours of training for our horses. Below is a good test for you:
Set your shoulder blades back and down – but not fixed – then hold your arms out in front. Keep them relaxed and soft, as if you were holding the reins, and now stay there as long as you can…..aim for 2 minutes.
Now here are some example exercises that will help you develop your self carriage.
Starting from the left we have work with a Flexibar, which is a major core strengthener full stop, but it is great for improving your scapula control whilst combined with arm motion. Then, working with equipment such as Ova balls, you can combine scapula control with arm and body motion. Finally on the right, there are various exercises you can do on your front – this is ‘Breaststroke’ – where you are working your scapula stabilisers against gravity, plus or minus the weight of your head and arms.
Initially you don’t need to try to do these for too long, because it is crucial that you can maintain your core position throughout, and if you find these challenging you will find that you lose your core position quickly. Build your time in the positions and the repetitions, and you should find that you can reproduce the same effect in the saddle.
As always, don’t attempt these if you have any physical reason not to (check out the disclaimer page), and it is always worth discussing ways to individualise your exercises with your riding instructor or Physio/pilates instructor because I can only give generic ideas.
Good luck – but keep it at, because now really is the time of year to build your strength ready for next season.
I have been wanting to write about this topic for ages, but wasn’t quite sure how to approach the area. Then last week I was reading my parents’ newspaper – The Telegraph – and it had a supplement about Women in sport, specifically mother’s who compete and the challenges they face. Sadly there were no equestrians included, although the stories were all incredible anyway, and I look up to all the athletes interviewed. I mean, Sophie Power – she is completely phenomenal! And so, the timing seems right to discuss this area here.
However, getting back to pregnancy and riding, and we enter a bit of a minefield. Anyone who has been pregnant will be all too aware of how for those few months when you are public with your ‘status’, your every move will be monitored and analysed and commented on endlessly. The vast majority of this is well intentioned – and I have to admit that I am probably guilty of this – but none the less it is maddening and largely unhelpful. At times it can also be quite upsetting when the well meaning comments are actually critical, and when the hormones of pregnancy are added in to the equation that can make such comments even harder to take. Not least, this is because for most – if not all – riders who continue to ride through pregnancy, it has been a conscious decision to continue riding, after much thought and usually discussion with family and midwives/consultants.
To give you a bit of my own experience, I rode through both of my pregnancies. The 1st time I had no qualms, in part because I was only riding 1 horse – Baz – and I knew him inside out and knew exactly what I would let myself do with him. He is a quirky boy, but having ridden him for years I felt comfortable that my body knew his spooks and that I wouldn’t put us in situations where I felt I would be at risk.
My 2nd pregnancy was not so straightforward. Without going in to lots of details, it was a very stressful time, and I was considered to be a high risk pregnancy. I discussed my riding with my midwife and consultant, and both were happy for me to continue. As by then I was also riding Lizzie – who was 5 and quite cocky – I did back off and had cut down to schooling her once a week in a proper enclosed sand school. I continued riding Baz up to the end and was back on him within 10 days. I didn’t ride Lizzie properly for several months afterwards, but this was only because as I was breastfeeding I just didn’t have the time to ride her and allow for the young-horse issues that can so easily crop up.
Getting back on Baz and working him as normal was incredibly therapeutic. No matter how much you love your new baby, equally there is something so physically and emotionally therapeutic about getting back on a horse. I found that the sleep deprivation and sudden change in focus to my hands carrying and protecting this tiny baby completely altered my perception of my hands. I kept imagining them as huge, almost cartoon-like apendages, magnified by my brain – probably thanks to the Homunculus – and quite disturbing. Once I started riding again, and my hands resumed their ‘normal’ role, they started to return to their normal representation in my brain, and my whole body started to feel like it used to.
It is also good for a new mother not to neglect herself in the sense of abandoning everything that went before. That is a recipe for disaster in terms of mental health because you are still the same person with the same likes and dislikes and activities that make you happy, even if your priorities have changed somewhat!
So what are the physical considerations for a woman who is going to ride during pregnancy and in the first few months afterwards?
I will start with ligament laxity. In preparation for the process of birth, as the hormone Progesterone increases during pregnancy, this makes the ligaments throughout the body become more lax. That is to say they become more stretchy to enable the ligaments around the pelvis to stretch enough during labour for the bones of the usually stable pelvis to separate. The downside of this is that as all ligaments are affected, so potentially all the joints in the body are more susceptible to moving into ranges they aren’t used to, and so the risk of injury is increased. Many of you will be aware of the problem of pelvic pain during pregnancy – Pelvic Girdle Pain or PGP, and this is due to excess motion in the pelvis which means it is unable to provide the solid and stable support base that it usually does. Weight bearing can become excruciating as the shear forces passing through the pelvis cause movement between the bones. This can make pretty much anything to do with horse care a challenge as load is involved at every turn. On top of this, sitting astride and attempting to grip the saddle can be painful, and the twisting involved in mounting and dismounting may be impossible. If this is you, then riding is unlikely to be something you can do during pregnancy. But even if you don’t suffer with PGP, you still need to bear the increased laxity and the risks it carries in mind. Back pain in particular is something you can be at increased of, so caution is needed with any heavy work. For some women, widespread joint pain can be an issue, although for most affected this tends to be only weight bearing joints; this is due to the combination of increased weight and the ligament laxity.
Linked closely with this increased laxity is the good old pelvic floor. I am perhaps a little unhealthily obsessed with the pelvic floor, but then as a Physio who teaches Pilates I think I can be excused this! During pregnancy the work of the pelvic floor increases as the weight above increases, but also as the ligament laxity around the pelvis increases. Normally the pelvis is kept stable by a combination of ligament support and it’s natural shape, so when the ligament support reduces, that role is added on to the workload of the pelvic floor. As I have talked about before, the pelvic floor is also important when it comes to back pain, and so as the chance of back pain increases then so does the need to work the pelvic floor. The poor pelvic floor are also going to be stretched beyond all recognition during labour, and asked to work in the opposite way to their usual supporting role – essentially helping with pushing the baby out – and so can get very stretched. This temporarily compromises function in just about all women, but if your pelvic floor were weak already, this will make the job of reactivating and strengthening post-partum even harder.
For some women, the physical efforts of riding can be too much for the pelvic floor in this state, especially on top of the physical nature of general horse care. Whatever the situation, doing pelvic floor exercises are essential during pregnancy and if I am honest, ad infinitum afterwards. The last thing you want is to finally get back to jumping for example – having got yourself and the horse fit, sorted childcare etc – only to find that a weak pelvic floor prohibits this. I think that whilst the subject of weak pelvic floor is discussed when you are pregnant, it is definitely one of those areas where the potential future consequences are not fully divulged. Along with delights such as sleep regressions in your baby – I didn’t know these were a ‘thing’ until one hit us, and then I found out they are really common – so much of the negative side of all things baby related is not talked about, and I am pretty certain this is in part to avoid putting the fear of God into women. One of the women interviewed in the Telegragh supplement is a rubgy-playing midwife, and even she was taken aback at her continence problems when she 1st returned to exercising. I will admit that I too was horrified at the toll taken on my body, as was a physio-friend of mine. We had treated countless women with pregnancy-related conditions between us over the years, yet neither of us really understood until we experienced it ourselves. I feel so strongly now that all women, but particularly those who participate on exercise regularly, really need to know what is going to happen to their bodies IN FULL, and know exactly what they need to do. We are very good at just getting on with things when it comes to looking after horses, and when you add a new baby to the equation, that is amplified, but as a new mother, you have to focus on your body too. My late cousin’s wife is a midwife, and she told me that days after she had their 2nd baby she was out digging snow away from their driveway so that an ambulance could get there if my cousin needed it….with as she so eloquently described it, her ‘perineum flapping in the wind’. That is the reality. Your perineum will flap and it will take time to get back to how it was, so preparing beforehand and getting into the habit of doing pelvic floor exercises whilst pregnant is crucial.
The other big – and hopefully obvious – aspect of pregnancy that is arguably more important for horse riders than it is for other athletes, is the presence of a bump. Your abdominals not surprisingly will stretch, and are quite simply, weaker. You can’t therefore rely on them to provide mechanical support they normally do. For riders the bump adds 2 new factors to the riding equation: Firstly you are very likely to feel there is a risk to your baby simply by the fact that it is between you and your horse or saddle pommel; Secondly – and you may not be aware how much this will impact you until it does – is that your centre of balance will be completely altered and your biomechanics will be totally different to what you and your horse are used to.
The change in biomechanics is huge, although this is very dependant on the size, shape and location of your bump. I was very lucky to have small, neat bumps, but despite this they got in the way riding and seriously restricted my diaphragm and therefore ability to breathe. If you have read my previous posts about the role of the lumbar spine when riding, you will be familiar with the reasons for having the spine in a neutral position but able to move freely yet under control. Once there is a bump in situ, the lumbar spine is tipped back into a flexed position. This locks the spine and the combination of this plus bump means a largely immobile spine compared to normal. Not only does this compromise the ability to ride effectively, but it reduces the ability to go with the horse should it move suddenly/spook.
This change in position in the saddle also changes the angle through the seat and so where the rider’s pressure sits. This obviously impacts on the use of seat aids, and therefore what the horse is going to feel and respond to. For me, I felt that my contact was totally wrong because I was tipped back, and my legs were just in the wrong place and too slow.
All of this, especially if you add in restricted breathing, will also make riding generally much more tiring. Tiring because you have a great bump stuck on your front. Tiring because you can’t breathe. Tiring because you are using your body in a way that is not normal for you. Tiring because, well, pregnancy is generally very tiring!
Sooooo, in summary, your body is taken over and has a life of its own as it grows and loosens. You may feel unnatural fear about riding, you will probably be exhausted. Your pelvic floor become unreliable yet you still want to do all the mucking out and hay-heaving that you normally do. Your back will probably ache, and quite possibly other joints too.
However, there are also lots of positives to riding during pregnancy too. Apart from mental wellbeing, physically keeping active and doing a form of exercise that your body is used to is very beneficial. Your body will cope better overall – unless you have a specific condition which precludes exercise – if you keep a reasonable level of fitness. Using your body as normal means you will maintain normal muscle tone, better balance reactions, and cardio/respiratory function for example. This is all good preparation for childbirth itself, because unless you are one of those lucky (?) ladies who has a speedy delivery, labour is a marathon, and the fitter you are the better you will cope. To a degree anyway… The fitter you are then generally speaking the quicker you will also recover from labour, although this always depends on if you have had any complications. .
Once you have recovered from the shell shock of becoming a mother and feel able to get back to your horse duties, there are a whole load more considerations when it comes to your body.
Importantly, you need to allow for the fact that it takes 12 weeks for your progesterone levels to return to pre-pregnancy levels. Therefore, you can’t just assume that tiredness and baby-duties aside, you can pick up where you left off. As your ligament laxity will gradually resolve, you need to allow for this as you start to take on the more physical side of general horse care such as mucking out and lifting. On top of this, your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor don’t magically ping back to normal.
If you are just going back to hacking this is unlikely to cause major problems, but if you have plans to be schooling or jumping, especially competitively, then you really need to factor this in. Jumping especially is going to require not just a return of core strength but also dynamic stability. For this you need you pelvic floor and abdominals to be working normally, plus have had time to re-develop your balance reactions and upper/lower limb strength. It might sound strange, but if you are breast-feeding then you also need to consider that your body shape may well be rather different to pre-baby and you may be a little more ‘top heavy’ than usual. You will also need to consider timing your riding around feeding times, and this can be very prohibitive if you lack assistance on the ground. Quite apart from anything else – and I make no apologies for being blunt here – when you need to feed you really need to feed and it becomes rather uncomfortable. Personally, the thought of squeezing into my well-fitting body protector in those early months makes me squirm! Oh, and nursing bras are completely USELESS for riding. If someone can develop a bra that does both the nursing function and offers the support required for riding (think sitting trot….) then they will do very well. Riding also cannot be the only sport where the 2 need to go hand in hand, but maybe everyone else just does what I did and resort to a ‘normal’ bra of some type, and have to half strip in order to feed their baby.
Have you come across the term ‘Diastasis Rectus’? It is the medical name for when the abdominal muscles split down the middle. This might sound very dramatic, but there is a natural join in the middle called the Linea Alba- part of what contributes to the shape of the 6 pack. For a lot of women during pregnancy, when the abdominals stretch, the force on the this little area of fascia is too much, and it splits. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reattach by itself, and so for most women afflicted by this, hard work on core strength to get some degree of closure of the gap is the only option. For a few, surgery is actually necessary, but this is in extreme cases. Mechanically, having a small gap in your abdominals is not the end of the world, but obviously, it does mean that there is a permanent ‘weak’ point in the core, and for me even now, I have to specifically focus to recruit my deeper abdominals to prevent ‘doming’ when I do a sit-up type action. I suspect it will always be the case now but I live in hope. This doesn’t worry me because I work on my core and am mindful of how I use my body, but for anyone who isn’t so rigorous then of course this can increase the chances of core-weakness related issues long term. When I say ‘weak’ point, I don’t mean that your insides are about to fall through, or that your spine is suddenly totally unsupported, but by losing a large area of attachment the mechanical strength of the abdominals is compromised. Low back pain is the obvious consequence to think of here, but when you think or riding and how the stability of your trunk is crucial to being able to have a strong seat and independent hand then you can see how important a Diastasis Rectus might be for a rider. So the lesson here is, if you have a Diastasis Rectus and you want to keep doing a physical activity like riding, keep working on your core!!!
I hope that in writing this I haven’t come across as totally negative. I just want to put it how it is. If you want to combine pregnancy and children with horses and riding for the long term you have – I repeat HAVE – to be prepared and keep working on your body for the long term. This is I am sure a topic I will return to, and may well add to in the future. If you are interested in this at a higher level, the English Institute of Sport has the SmartHER resource to help female athletes deal with, amongst other things, the areas of pregnancy and post-partum recovery.
A couple of times recently during my Pilates classes, we have discussed how different exercises work different class members in different ways. This comes about for example when we are working the gluteals, and one person will find that the clam really targets the muscles for them, yet it takes a straight lift for another person.
Why is this? There are a few reasons….
First off, we all have slightly different anatomy, and so the exact alignment of our muscle fibres is unique to each of us. This means the line of pull into tendons and then bone, is also unique. The shape, size and form of our muscles also differs – for example, in some people the sciatic nerve actually passes through one of the muscles in the buttock, whereas in most the sciatic nerve passes by. All this comes together to mean that your individual muscles work very slightly differently to mine; not enough to cause functional differences, but enough to mean that exercises need to be tailored to suit our own muscle activity patterns.
Secondly, we all have naturally – and habitually – different postural and movement patterns. Therefore, we will constantly be using our bodies in a unique way, and be stronger/weaker in ways that are then unique to our bodies. As a result, I may be stronger using my gluteals in certain ways, and you will be stronger in others.
Thirdly, we all carry cumulative injuries and degenerative changes. These once again are specific to us, and will impact on how our bodies function. The phenomenon of pain inhibition has a significant impact on muscle function, so combined with joint stiffness and scar tissue for example, entire or partial sections of muscle may not work efficiently – or even at all. Not surprisingly, this again creates individual differences in how the body responds to exercise demands.
When doing a longer, whole body exercise session it is important to work your muscles in a variety of way, but if you are doing short sessions it can be helpful to be more specific and focus on which exercises are most beneficial for you. I try hard in my classes – and it’s why I keep my groups small – to monitor everyone and ensure that I work out what is the best way to work each muscle and each portion if possible. If you are serious about improving the way your body works, and maximising your muscle function and strength, then it is really worth having an assessment with a Physio or Strength and Conditioning Coach so that you know which parts of your body you need to target, and which exercises you need to do in order to achieve this.
It is also important not to compare yourself negatively with anyone else when you are doing exercises in company. Remember that your body is unique, and you need to work it uniquely.