Are you fit enough?

When I started Ready to Ride, a large part of my ‘mission’ if you like, was to share my own experiences and also my learning. We are learning all the time, and certainly I am developing my approach to helping riders all the time too. Early on, I realised that I hadn’t ever thought about my cardiovascular fitness before, other than thinking ‘I need to be fitter’, especially back in my eventing days!

So a year ago, I bought a heart rate monitor. I have worn it for schooling, fast work rides and Pilates sessions and the results have been interesting. By far the best way to raise my heart rate (HR) is to be attempting to hold together a slightly ‘strong’ Lizzie out on the moor. More recently, doing more collected work when schooling has started to get near to this level of cardio activity. When it comes to Pilates however, even though I work hard and am much more aware of my HR, it takes a lot more intensity to get my HR up to levels matching those ridden. Of course, when I am teaching I am not doing the exercises for as long as my clients because I stop to observe, so this gives my HR a chance to drop again before I start the next exercise so it may not be a true reflection of the effects of sustained Pilates.

Comparing the data across the different disciplines, one thing that does seem consistent is the way my HR ‘behaves’ in terms of increasing and decreasing. Essentially, the more intensely I work with smaller but complex movements, the more the HR goes up, rather than working at ‘speed’ or doing ‘big’ movements.

What does this mean for me and how I integrate Pilates into my exercise regime and those of my clients? Well, this is actually something that I had been reflecting on already due to the impact of Lockdown. This might seem rather strange, but instead of teaching Pilates in term ‘blocks’ which roughly follow school terms, we have carried on almost non-stop since mid January for 2 groups, and early March for 2 more. I have also had to think laterally because not enough of my attendees have enough equipment to do the usual variety of exercises. Instead I have focused on increasing the intensity and complexity of the usual range of exercises. The result of this is that we have all increased our strength and stamina with the more complex exercises that involve multiple body parts, and these then increase the HR more. Long term, I know that this is how Pilates needs to be; more focused on stamina and complexity.

What does this mean for cross training, especially if dressage is your main discipline? Well, if you are working at lower levels, then you will be able to match your cardiovascular needs by working at a lower level in say Pilates. But if you compete in any of the jumping disciplines – especially cross country – you will need to work at a higher, more intense level. The same is true if you are working at higher levels of dressage where greater collection is required.

The obvious gap here is any form of specific cardio exercise such as running. In part this is because I haven’t run for years, and also because I just don’t have the opportunity with being a single parent. However, whilst of course any exercise that increase HR is going to be hugely beneficial, the more similar the nature of that training exercise is to the target exercise, the better. Running is not a complex activity, the arms and legs work in diagonals and momentum plays a role. Riding and Pilates have far more in common in terms of the complexity of movement, the need for control and the ability to multitask. It’s just that I/you/we probably need to ramp the intensity up a little more when it comes to Pilates.

So watch this space – and if you follow Ready to Ride on Social Media or subscribe to the YouTube channel, then you will find plenty of exercises and tips aimed at improving stamina and intensity during your off-horse training. I will also continue to use my HR monitor so will update my findings in a few months’ time, including seeing if I can wear it doing Pilates when not teaching.

Take care and thank you for reading,

Louise

That Saddle issue again!

Do you get your saddle checked regularly? Looking back I think we were really lucky with Baz, because once we had got the right saddle for him, and although he did obviously change shape massively through his life, he did well with an annual check up. There are 2 reasons I think, for this. Firstly he is not as sensitive as Lizzie, so small changes in fit didn’t bother him, unlike with her where the slightest change is acutely felt. She is the equine equivalent of the Princess and the Pea…… Secondly he progressed much more slowly through his training. Not that Lizzie is exactly racing on; she has just turned 10 and now starting baby canter pirouette work. She probably had further to come because she was SO scrawny and strung out like a string bean for quite a long time, and Baz has always been more contained.

I took her 1/2 sheepskin pad out in Feb/March time because although she hadn’t complained I realised it was all getting a bit tight around her shoulders. Then, by early April I noticed that Lizzie was getting a bit grumpy about her canter work. Mid lockdown we were a bit stuck, so I got myself on the list for my saddle fitter – Elly Pitts at Optimum Performance. Things got progressively worse, and even after a week off, Lizzie was starting to be reluctant to canter in some of her favourite places on the moor. She was also pulling me forwards (actually probably the worst thing she could have done, but it was her attempt to relieve pressure) and I was finding I was stiff in my low back after riding.

Thankfully we got a slot with Elly at the very end of June, and she confirmed that Lizzie had changed shape quite a lot, probably – as I thought -from sitting more and lifting through her shoulder girdle using her thoracic sling muscles. Reflocking made a big difference, but Lizzie was still a little short in the right canter. Elly popped a memory foam pad in – too thick for what we needed for the fit, but what Lizzie needed in order to get over her expectation that the saddle was going to pinch.

Lizzie’s temporary memory foam pad to alleviate her sensitivity

In addition, Elly moved my knee blocks. This is the 1st saddle I’ve had with ‘proper’ knee blocks, and thankfully they are moveable. I’m not a fan of knee blocks, especially as so many are excessively large and have a very negative effect on hip, pelvic and lumbar mobility in the rider. This is probably a topic I need to do as a separate blog really, but basically, too big and solid and the knee block fixes the rider so much that all the motion of the horse is transmitted to the rider’s back. Not great.

This time, Elly just moved mine up slightly, which meant the pressure was less because the angle of my thigh was moving away from the block, and my hips less fixed, rather than the block being closer to me knee.

Since then, we’ve been able to ditch the memory foam and work with a 1/2 sheepskin numnah and Lizzie is generally now back to herself. It took a good week; she is now as fast and furious as ever on the moor though! Today we had out 1st lesson with Pammy Hutton since November, and she was pleased enough with the canter work for us to start on Lizzie’s flying changes. We had a successful attempt on each rein eventually, and have a great exercise to work on at home. After that we worked on making Lizzie’s new collected trot more forward; I’ve struggled with this at home because in getting her more forward I’ve lost the ‘lift’, but today it all came together. Not bad considering how grumpy and uncomfortable she was 2 weeks’ ago – and how much she was pulling me forwards. I can now sit up, keep my weight in the centre of the saddle and be balanced, and therefore apply my aids as I should (well mostly, allowing for numpty rider moments!).

I know this isn’t that much of a Physio/Pilates post, but I thought it might be useful to share my challenges with you so that you know you aren’t alone!

Take care, and Good Luck if you are getting back out competing.

Louise

Injury! A personal account…

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.

A deep lunge with rotation is a great way to improve lower limb stability whilst working on upper body mobility

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!

Take care,

Louise

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……

Could a Schoolmaster lesson be the best thing you do this year?

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!

Louise

Hydration – the Forgotten Factor in Your Performance?

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.

Image courtesy of Sophie Callahan

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

Before Exercise    

•    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).


During Exercise  

 •    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.


After Exercise    

•    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.”******

This Mug of tea is a little large, but holds just under 300ml of liquid

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.

Take care,

Louise

Exercising through the Lockdown

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.

Louise

Riding whilst injured

Let’s start with 2 questions.

1) Do you work your horse when it is injured?

2) Do you work your horse when you are injured?

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
A saddle tipping during ridden work

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.

Louise

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.

Cross training

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.

The reading of my Polar Beat monitor after teaching 2 Pilates classes

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.

Using a foam roller for symmetry and balance work

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!

Louise

Tension

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.

Trapezius trigger point referral pattern

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!!

Louise

Self Carriage for the Rider

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.

A simple test of your own self carriage

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.

Louise