The 4-Inch Difference

At a Ridefit clinic I taught recently, one of the riders was a fit and flexible woman who regularly participates in ballet classes. Her balance on the ground is highly developed, and so I expected her balance on her horse to be equally impressive. Yet, her balance on her horse simply did not measure up to expectations. Her ear, shoulder, hip, heel alignment was completely skewed, and she had to struggle to keep from falling behind the horse’s motion. Knowing that, all things being equal, this woman should have had beautiful alignment on her horse based on her excellent balance on the ground, I started looking for reasons for this disconnect. What I found was that the thigh blocks of her very fine Dressage saddle were preventing her body from finding its own correct balance.

This is a very common problem I find when riders first try Ridefit. The large thigh blocks on the most popular brandsLarge Thigh blocks of saddle make many riders feel more secure, by preventing their knee from slipping forward on the saddle flap. This can very helpful for riders whose balance is not yet developed enough to have a truly secure seat, and because this is the vast majority of amateur riders in the world of Dressage, it has become the standard in dressage saddle design. Yet, when I work with these riders to develop their balance, remove physical restrictions and tension from their bodies, and increase their core stability, they often find that the thigh blocks ultimately interfere with their body finding equilibrium in the saddle. For some, the thigh blocks push their knees outward which puts their hips into tension, limiting their ability to move freely with the horse. Others find that the thigh blocks keep their upper legs too far back, causing their pelvis to tip forward, restricting the movement of their lower backs and placing their center of gravity too far back – and the rider behind the movement. Whenever I see this, I check to see if we can remove the thigh blocks. When we can, the riders find that they actually feel much more secure, and balance themselves with much greater ease. When we can’t, we have to find other ways to help the rider sit over the horse in balance.

Such was the case with my ballerina student. Her thigh blocks were forcing her upper leg and hips too far back, making her have to try and compensate with her upper body and lower leg (both coming forward) in an effort to stay over the horse’s center of gravity. The only other way to correct this is to have the rider put her lower leg back about 4 to 6 inches, which brings the lower body into balance, and allows the upper body to settle into a much better state of equilibrium. As you can see from the photos, the difference is dramatic, and the rider is suddenly able to flow with the horse’s movement. Consequently, the horse is able to stay more actively forward and will exhibit fewer losses of balance him/herself – which generally results in less “falling” out of the canter…

Karen Before Canter_cropped          Karen After Canter

This is still not ideal, because it still leaves the lower back with a necessarily shortened range of motion, as it is restrained between the thigh block and the cantle of the saddle, but it is tremendously better than the alternative!

For the thousands of riders out there who look like the first picture, please try removing your thigh blocks, and see what happens. If they are not removable, before you start looking for a new saddle, try moving your lower leg back and see if your body will find its own balance more easily. Finding a saddle that fits your horse properly can be a true test of one’s patience and perseverance, so having an option to adjust one’s body to give your horse a better ride can be a real life saver!

Until next time, ride fit!

Three Tips to Letting Your Body do the Riding!

Happy Rider and HorseWhat would you say if I told you “Your body rides better than you do!”?

You might say, “Say what?! How can my body ride better than I do? That’s silly. I *am* my body, aren’t I?”
Well, let’s take a look at it, shall we?
First, for clarity, let’s define a few different mental concepts:
  1. Your Brain – the physical organ that, through chemical and electrical impulses, controls your voluntary and involuntary nervous system.
  2. Your Mind – the part of your brain that synthesizes thought – conscious and unconscious, instinctual and rational.
    • Your Unconscious mind – the accumulated collection of experiences, thoughts, feelings and triggers that your brain uses to filter, categorize and respond to external stimuli.
    • Your Conscious mind – that part of your mind in which you rationalize, use logic, think consciously about external stimuli.

I’m going to use these terms to differentiate between the various ways your physical grey matter can function.

Let’s look at a scenario where your Mind can sabotage your Brain, and ultimately your Body:

You’re totally relaxed and confidently riding your horse down the arena wall, and you notice that you’re coming up on the corner of the arena where he (or she) *always* spooks. Your unconscious mind collects this data, remembers that this is where the horse is likely to spook, and immediately turns on “Protection Mode”. Your brain then sends out the signal “Danger, Will Robinson! Defend! Defend!” in an effort to protect you from potential harm, and your breathing becomes shallow and quick, and your body tenses up in preparation for having to “hold on”. Your horse, feeling your muscles tense up around him, starts looking for the danger, spots the corner, and… spooks!

Your body responds to your brain, and your brain controls every impulse that your nerves, joints and muscles receive. Your *mind* (conscious/unconscious, id, ego, whatever you want to call it) can muck up the works by holding on to fear, tension or stress. And, we all know that horses respond to our “intention”, which is the same as our mental state, and that’s where a lot of things can go wrong. It doesn’t matter how fit or balanced or relaxed you can be on the horse, if your brain takes over and jumps into a fight or flight mode, you have no chance! So, let’s talk about how you can train your mind right along with your body, so it doesn’t sabotage your relaxation.

How do we prevent the above scenario from happening? By training our minds (both conscious and unconscious) to stay in a state of equilibrium while we are riding, so our bodies can stay relaxed. Here are 3 strategies that professionals use, and that you can start doing TODAY to achieve that mental state:

Learn to Breathe

Have you ever noticed that you hold your breath while you’re riding, or that at a certain point in your ride you start panting? That is a sure way to make your body tense, and your horse to start looking for monsters! Go to a yoga class that focuses on the breathing practice (pranayama). Get good at your yoga breathing and bring it to your riding. As you are warming up your horse and/or taking a walk break on a loose rein, practice breathing.

Once you’ve become really comfortable with that, start bringing that breathing practice into any situation that you think might be scary or that you might normally tense up in anticipation of. It’s impossible to hold onto tension and fear when you are breathing really deeply. It physically changes your brain chemistry. You will be amazed at how your horse responds to just that one change!

Talk to Yourself

You read it right… your unconscious mind has been programmed by years of experience and the influences of other people in your life. When the chips are down, it takes over and uses its full complement of experiences and negative messages to protect you from whatever you fear – failure, pain, injury, embarrassment, etc.

Problem is, it’s always responding to the PAST. Your body is no longer the same as it was 6 weeks ago, so your unconscious mind needs an update! So… talk to yourself! Whenever you are looking at a scenario where your horse might do something that, in the past might have unseated you, or scared you, consciously give your brain a message:

“Hey, brain! Listen up! My body can move with the horse better now, I’m NOT going to tense up and risk falling  just because 2 months ago I might not have been able to recover from a spook, so let it go! Just breathe, and everything is going to be perfectly fine! It’s a beautiful sunny day on the beach… somewhere! Let’s be there, right now!”

Do this every time you come to any situation that might make you feel even remotely anxious, and eventually your subconscious programming will start to shift.

Ride The Next Stride

This might sound like anticipation, and it is, but it’s anticipation of the perfect stride, not a spook! So, here’s what it looks like: Look ahead, somewhere other than the scary place, and ride the next stride as though it’s going to be the perfect, most balanced, relaxed stride you have ever ridden. You’ll be setting your brain, and your body, and your horse up for success instead of failure.

In fact, don’t just do this when you are anticipating something scary, do it every stride! Let your imagination run wild with how beautiful, relaxed and joyful every stride on your horse can feel, and then keep that in your mind every single moment of your ride. Your brain will send *those* signals to your body, and your body will communicate *those* feelings to your horse. It’s a win-win, and will give you many more balanced and relaxed strides than tense, unbalanced ones.

Your body is capable of whatever your brain allows it to do, so start controlling your brain by controlling the mental process that trigger it into action, and let your body do what it’s learning how to do best!

Until next time, Ride fit!

P.S., if you haven’t been training your body to move freely with the horse in a relaxed and balanced way, then get on it! If you’re not sure how to start, go ahead and schedule a FREE 60-minute strategy session with us, and we can help you not only map out your path to success, but offer you some really simple, yet powerful strategies to get started, and stay on track! There’s literally nothing to lose, and everything to gain!

When Saddles Attack!

My job as an equestrian fitness trainer is to do more than just make a rider more physically fit. It’s also to make the rider’s body more balanced, more stable, more mobile, and more athletic. To understand exactly what that means, read last week’s post. This week’s post is all about what happens when the rider’s body reaches that state where the neuro-muscular pathways have been created or re-connected, and the rider’s body is now in a state that it*naturally* wants to stay in a balanced position… only to find that the saddle is interfering with that naturally balanced position.

Large Thigh blocks

This saddle creates a “channel” for the rider’s leg with large thigh blocks, but sits the rider behind the horse’s center of balance, removing the rider’s ability to adapt to changes in longitudinal balance along with the horse.

Let’s take a step back and talk about saddles… dressage saddles, specifically. Other types of saddles have their own issues that we can talk about in another blog, but Dressage saddles have traditionally been designed to allow a rider to sit comfortably, in a relaxed and perfectly balanced position, and move freely with the horse. Their seats used to be somewhat flat, knee rolls and thigh blocks virtually nonexistent, and flaps were angled slightly in such a way that the rider’s back could relax into a neutral position without tension on the lumbar spin or the hip flexor, without sliding over the front of the flap.

With the influx of amateur riders into the Dressage sport over the past 50 years, it became clear that without a natural (or trained) balance for riding, riders were struggling to keep their legs in place and keep their seats in the saddles, and so saddle companies started making the seats deeper and deeper, to help stabilize the riders’ pelvis. Then thigh blocks came into the picture, to help secure the rider’s leg so it didn’t slip around quite so much. Then, even blocks at the back of the thigh were added to further prevent the rider’s leg from slipping out of position. Amateur riders around the world have hailed this as an advancement in saddle fit, and love the secure feeling they can get from these saddles. Until they meet me…

We previously talked about what it means to be a fit rider, and so keeping in mind that we are talking about creating that “natural” balance in a rider that has previously not had it, guess what happens when their bodies have started to make that adaptation, become more capable of sitting on a moving object in relaxation and with greater self-stability and tremendously greater mobility, and then are put up into a saddle that is intended to restrict that mobility. Suddenly, the saddle is the restriction keeping the rider from balancing naturally with their horse.

The unfortunate reality is that these large thigh blocks are often coupled with a saddle that is fitted behind the horse’s shoulder in such a way that the deepest part of the seat is behind the horse’s center of balance, making it impossible for the rider to ever sit in balance with the horse, and if they manage to sit in balance with gravity, their legs are back about mid-ribs on the horse, not “at the girth” where the horse is naturally narrower, and which the legs will always attempt to migrate back to (causing a chair seat). So, the catch-22 for these riders is to either ride in actual balance, fighting the saddle, or ride in the balance the saddle sets them up for and never be properly balanced.

It is exciting to be able to help riders find a natural neurological balance when they have never felt that before on a horse! And, equally distressing to help a rider make such amazing changes in their body only to have to tell them, “Well, you are going to have to put your leg in an incorrect position in order to maintain your balance in this saddle.” or, “Unfortunately, you are not going to be able to balance in the way your body has now become capable of, in this saddle, because the thigh blocks are preventing you from finding the correct alignment.”

Saddle buying can become a nightmare, with the saddle fitting both the horse AND the rider becoming Relaxed Rider Seat with Perfect Alignmentan elusive mirage when saddle after saddle doesn’t fit quite right. But, as much as it is a dreaded thing to look for yet another saddle, I encourage riders to consider your saddle choice very carefully. If your goals include becoming a more skilled rider, look for saddles that will allow your body to develop, not just the saddle that makes you feel comfortable and secure right now.

Stay away from the saddle that makes you feel like you’re sitting on your pubic bone, because that one will ultimately prevent you from riding in that relaxed, tension-free position. Especially avoid the saddle that “locks” your leg into position, because that one will prevent you from developing proper neuro-muscular control of your body. A really good idea might be to do some Ridefit mobility and stability exercises BEFORE you sit in a potential saddle, so that your body is optimally balanced and you can truly feel what the saddle is going to do for you or against you. It only takes about 15 minutes if you use our Rider Warmup video.

You CAN ride better, and a properly designed saddle will allow that to happen much more easily!

Break Through Your Limitations!

What’s stopping you from reaching your riding goals? Tammy Prevo, creator of the Ridefit fitness program for riders, talks about how you can improve your riding despite some common limitations faced by many riders. You don’t have to stay stuck, even if you can’t ride regularly!

Do You Ride Asymmetrically?

Every horse is naturally somewhat asymmetrical, and as riders we are always working to help the horse become more symmetrical in its own body. But, what about our own body? Are you actively working to make yourself more symmetrical, or are you unwittingly making your natural asymmetry worse? Find out as Tammy Prevo, creator of the Ridefit fitness program for riders discusses the ways we can improve our natural asymmetry on a daily basis.

Barn Chores and Rider Fitness

Does working hard at barn chores make you fit enough for riding? Find out why you may not be doing yourself or your horse a service by limiting yourself to just barn chores for exercise!

“Word” to Your Back!

Rider Spine ImageAccording to the US Department of Health, 75-80% of all adults will experience back pain. Indeed, low back pain is the leading cause of disability in adults under age 45.(1) Due to the concussive forces inherent to riding and the potential for falls from height, equestrians are particularly susceptible to back pain and injuries. Incorrect riding posture and postural weaknesses most certainly are contributing factors to riders developing chronic back pain. To complicate matters, saddle type and stirrup length can play a role in increasing the potential for back pain.(2)

The body’s natural response to pain is to protect the area that hurts and compensate by relying on some other muscle or joint to take up the slack. This not only upsets our ability to ride freely and without holding in our bodies, but also sets us up for secondary pain in the compensatory muscle or joint. It can be assumed that if the rider’s body is compensating and not evenly seated on the horse, the horse’s back is also going to experience negative effects.

So, how do we riders prevent back problems before they begin? And what do we do if we already have back injuries or pain? Here are some strategies to prevent back injuries and strain, improve or alleviate already painful backs for riders:

Strengthen, Strengthen, Strengthen
Every rider needs a stable core to ride correctly. Even more importantly, a strong core protects the back. Many fitness programs do a lot of work on abdominal muscles, but only some directly strengthen the back. For greatest core stability, choose a workout program that has the following elements:

  • Addresses the low deep abdominal, psoas and hip flexor muscles, as well as the muscles of the lower and mid-back.

  • Incorporates balance exercises where core stability is challenged – on a balance ball, for example.

  • Includes whole-body core exercises such as planks rather than targeting individual muscles for high burst-strength training.

If you have a current injury, work with your doctor or chiropractor to develop an appropriate physical therapy plan that will bring you back to full function before starting a workout program.

Mind your Ps and… Rs
Posture and Relaxation are critical elements in not only protecting your back, but also in riding well. In some Western riding disciplines you might see professionals slouching in presumed total relaxation, but if you ask them, they are often riding with back pain. It has become quite popular in the Hunt Seat as well as the Saddle Seat rings for the rider to be “posed” with a hollow back, a recipe for future back pain. Event riders often show a rounded (often called “roached”) back during the cross country round. This is a symptom of fatigue, which will ultimately result in back strain without greater strengthening.  For all disciplines, good posture with relaxation is critical to protecting your back from strain. A strong core allows for both good posture and proper relaxation.

According to Dr. Jason Ablett, Doctor of Chiropractic in Kirkland, Washington, yoga is the most effective spine health habit one can practice. As it turns out, yoga is also extremely beneficial for riders in many ways, and will help protect the rider’s back from strain while riding. It has the added benefit of developing great riding posture. We have incorporated some of the most powerful yoga poses for spine health into the Ridefit program, making it a fantastic whole-body workout that is perfect for helping riders protect and improve their back health!

None of us should have to suffer pain while riding, especially pain that can be as debilitating as back pain. Fortunately, it is possible to improve your spine health and reduce, eliminate, or prevent back pain while riding. Here’s to your back!

1 Source: Bigos S, et al. Acute Low Back Problems in Adults, Clinical Practice Guideline No. 14. Rockville, MD: U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, AHCPR Pub. No. 95-0642, Dec. 1994.

2 Quinn, S., & Bird, S. (1996). Influence of saddle type upon the incidence of lower back pain in equestrian riders. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 30(2), 140–144.

What’s Stopping You?

img01Through the years I have often heard that the only way to become a better rider is to ride more. I never questioned that statement, because it seemed completely logical and rang of truth. However, as an amateur rider with a full-time corporate job, home and family to care for, and struggling just to have the time and energy to ride my one horse every day, it was also a terribly depressing thought. Even riding every day wasn’t always possible, much less riding more than one horse! My finances certainly wouldn’t support owning (boarding) more than one horse, sometimes two, but unless I gave up sleep, there was no way I could make the time to ride regularly and consistently. So I despaired of ever becoming the rider I have aspired to be my entire life.

During this time of my life I had the opportunity to audit a clinic with the German biomechanics specialist, Eckart Meyners. He spent an entire day watching rider after rider for about 2 minutes in walk, trot and canter, had the riders dismount and perform a couple of very simple exercises, and then had them mount up and ride again. The differences in the way these riders rode after the 5-10 minutes of exercise was nothing short of miraculous to my eye. I believe the riders also felt much the same. The exercises were so simple, and seemed completely unrelated to riding, and yet they had an enormous impact on the riders’ ability to move with the horse without tension, and ultimately ability to influence the horse’s way of going.

At the time I wished desperately that I could go to Germany and work with Herr Meyners, but alas, my personal situation was such that it would have required a sacrifice I was unwilling to make at the time. After all, I had a job and a horse, and pets that I couldn’t just give up and leave to pursue this crazy dream…

Fast forward at least 10 years, and I found myself at a crossroads in my life, my riding, and my career. I had spent many years working out to be stronger and more fit, finding that while it helped my riding tremendously to be fit, it didn’t really make me a better rider – I still had the same issues with one side being stronger than the other, a pelvis that seemed permanently tilted and slightly twisted, tension still crept in at the slightest provocation, my body still didn’t move as fluidly with the horse as I would have liked, and I still couldn’t influence the horse in the harmonious way that I dreamed of being able. I knew there had to be something more that I could do off the horse to improve my riding.

So on sort of a whim, I decided to pursue certification as an Equi-Yoga instructor. That act opened up a whole new world for me. I realized that what was missing from my fitness routine was all the exercises that actually would improve my body for riding, in a way that I actually could look forward to. I studied the work of people like Eckart Meyners, Suzanne von Dietze, and Mary Wanless.

It finally hit me that I had all the pieces to allow me to create the Ridefit program. And that is what I set about doing towards the end of 2014.

The more I teach the program, the more effective it becomes, as I find and try new exercises to add to the program. Recently, I had the opportunity to instruct a shortened Ridefit session during a clinic, in which a local Dressage trainer offered herself up as a “guinea pig” to try out the program for the first time. The clinician didn’t join in, but he observed very carefully all the exercises that we did. After the workout, the trainer got on her horse for her clinic ride.

Several times during her ride, the clinician came over to the spectators and made a note of some way the trainer was using her body on the horse, and pointed out which exercises we had performed on the mat or the ball that had mobilized or simulated that exact way of moving. Towards the end of the trainer’s ride, the clinician asked her how she felt in her body. Her answer was that she felt like she was riding her second horse of the day, instead of just the first – the Ridefit class had warmed up her body in the same way that a ride on another horse would have. This was precisely my intention when I created the program. I have finally realized my dream of being able to help riders become better RIDERS, even without more time in the saddle.

Just one Ridefit session will result in noticeable improvements in a rider’s body, but as with every fitness program, the truly lasting benefits are in the consistent repetition. There is literally nothing to stop any rider from breaking through the amateur “glass ceiling” and taking a giant leap towards becoming a better rider. The tools are all here, now all it requires is you to make a commitment to yourself and your horse.

Are you ready for the ride of your life? What’s stopping you? Make a choice today, to ride better tomorrow!

Rider Fitness is All About the Horse

TCH_Horse_Rider_Sunset_We are horse riders.
Call us what you will. We are passionate, persistent, perceptive, obsessed, perhaps a bit mad… We think about our horses first thing when we wake up in the morning, and last thing before we fall asleep.
 
We spend thousands of dollars on boarding, care and vet bills, hundreds on shoes that have to be replaced every 5-6 weeks, thousands on riding lessons and training, and we find hundreds of details to think and worry about in ensuring our horses’ comfort and safety. We work ourselves to exhaustion sometimes to master the skills needed to work with these amazing creatures. In the end what we have paid for in money, time and energy boils down to the emotional experience we have when we watch, ride, and interact with our horses. We certainly aren’t in it for the money, or glamour, or fame (most of us, anyway).
 
Yet, often times as we progress in our chosen riding discipline, what starts out as a pure and joyous wonder and delight in this amazing creature gets twisted and warped into something far less joyous – for both us and the horse. Lessons may become a struggle against the horse instead of a partnership with the horse. We may struggle against our own physical inadequacies, asking our horses to carry us around against tension and crookedness in our own bodies. Our horses may become sore, sour, or even develop injuries from compensating for the physical constraints we riders are asking them to work through.
 
What if we could turn that around? What if, instead of feeling hopeless that we will never quite “get it” when we ride, we could actually start to change our bodies off the horse in a way that makes them work more harmoniously on the horse? What if we could make our horse’s job more comfortable and enjoyable, and get back the sense of joy we once had?
 
Unfortunately for us, there are three realities that work against us:
  • First, just riding does not make us the best riders we can be. Regular riding certainly makes us better riders, but eventually our bodies develop ingrained patterns and habits that we become unaware of, and our innate crookedness becomes habitual if we aren’t actively addressing it off the horse.
  • Second, there is no other sport that has the same physical requirements as riding, so even if we do exercise regularly – whether on our own or with a fitness coach – we may be over-strengthening muscles that actually prevent us from riding our best. Or, we may be unaware of tension building up in the joints that must move freely for a safe and comfortable ride – for both rider and horse!
  • Third, at the end of the day many of us have a choice: go to the gym, or go see the horse? For we horse riders, that choice is more often than not a “no-brainer”!

Most riders struggle with similar issues:

  • Difficulty staying with the horse (getting left behind or leaning forward)
  • Sitting the trot (and/or riding bigger gaits)
  • Natural crookedness and one-sidedness
  • Tension in neck, shoulders, back, hips or legs
  • Back or neck pain
  • Old injuries leaving joints less flexible
  • Loss of confidence

Even professional riders who ride many horses a day and “natural” riders whose bodies just seem to naturally move with the horse in the right way may experience injuries over time that leave lasting impacts on their ability to move fully with the horse.  Age and injuries become insurmountable challenges, and can result in loss of riding time, loss of income and potentially end riding careers.

A regular and consistent rider-specific fitness program can address and improve all of these challenges by increasing range of motion, reducing riding-related pain, and improving stability on the horse, which will translate to greater confidence and relaxation while mounted. All of these things will also translate into more relaxed and confident horses. And, a fitness program we can do at the barn in our riding clothes takes away the choice between caring for our bodies or caring for our horses’ – we can do both at once!

Because in the end, it all comes back to the horse. Are you doing everything you can with your own body to help keep your horse’s body healthy and sound into old age? If not, consider giving the Ridefit program a try. Your horse deserves it, and so do you!