Ride Better 1-2-3: Rider Fitness 'Clinic' week 8 IMPROVE YOUR RIDING WHEN YOU'RE NOT RIDING

This week we did not have anyone submit specific questions or photos for comment (Please do- if you're reading this blog and like it, and have some questions...go ahead and attach comments regardless of whether you have some pics or not. There are probably 10 other people out there who have the same question. Plus, you get free recommendations without having paid a clinic fee, or personal training fee.)

So, I got thinking about the season- gearing up for shows, and the fact that a majority of riders do not have the luxury of training 5-6 days a week. Most of us have jobs and other responsibilities. Then I saw Jane Savoie's blog this week about using sport psychology to program yourself when you're not riding, to improve your ride. I was so excited because of course, she's right. An artist isn't only an artist when they are in the act of painting (or other creative work). They are an artist all of the time: seeing, thinking, reflecting. The moment of the paint brush hits the canvas represents hundreds of moments in mental preparation and visualization. The act of painting simply releases an image already in the artist's mind.

Similarly, a rider is not a rider only when riding. That's good to know and very encouraging for anyone who can no longer actually ride. We think and talk about our horses and our riding all of the time- look at us all here on a website when we barely have time to do housework. Now that's dedication-- or just being horse-nuts.

It's less common for me to see a rider treating their body in the same way. What I mean is, everything you do with your body as an athlete, impacts sport. A serious runner, is always mindful of every physical activity from carrying groceries, to the way they sit when they drive or work at their desk. Why? Because the constant repetition of physical habits hard-wires muscle memory and posture. Over time, these affect muscle development, and the firing patterns your brain uses when stimulated.

Let's look at it this way. Imagine you have a horse who is quite stiff to the left. If you lunge him and he goes with his shoulders out and haunches in, lungeing him more and faster on the left side will not create bend in and of itself. It will actually make him STRONGER in the muscles which are holding his body incorrectly. It will make him more imbalanced. This is why we want a young horse to start training, and not an older one who has had ten years of going wrong. Similarly, you riding crooked more, does not make you straighter. Increasing the number of incorrect repetitions of physical pattern only makes it harder for your body's muscle memory to unlearn and relearn correct patterns. It is actually possible for you to be MORE effective in the saddle with slightly less riding time. I used to ride 6 days a week. This made us very competitive and we were provincial champions in Level II dressage, although it took a few years to crawl from Training level dressage to Level II. That's where we plateaud for a bit because I did not have the self-carriage required to bring my horse up the jump to level III.

When I started my own off-horse fitness work in earnest, I had to scale back riding to 4 days a week due to the demands of my business (speaking, clinics, writing, clients, entrepreneurship-- the neverending workweek). But, I was spending more time cross-training than I had been before, and with more awareness and precision. My horse jumped from Level II, to now schooling Prix St George with some piaffe/passage. My stirrups dropped two holes and I had to get a new saddle to accommodate correct riding with a classical leg. We also went from scrambling over 3 foot fences, to managing them with balance and ease. I would say I am more effective in my ride now than I ever was.

Let's say you get tense in your shoulders at your computer at work. Over time, your brain uses your trapezius more readily than other muscles in your back and shoulders. The firing pattern is that when stimulated, your shoulder's hunch first. A result can be gradual atrophy of lesser used muscles, overdevelopment of that upper trapezius (between neck and shoulder), and a hard-wired physical pattern which will occur no matter what you are doing from household chores, to working on your computer....to riding. This particular problem is one I see quite often.

Of course when riding you do not want this particular reaction no matter what your discipline since correct (effective for aids) posture requires that you engage other muscle groups while remaining tension free in your neck and shoulders. In addition to what I call deliberate acts of exercise, mindfulness and self-correction throughout the day will accelerate your ability to re-create more effective muscle memory for your riding.

I'm running out of room for this weeks' blog here, but wanted to share an exercise you can do with or without resistance to build up your back strength and reduce tendency to carry tension in your shoulders. Remember, a strong back and shoulders equals light hands but a back that can brace against anything. Grabbing with your biceps, clenched hands and tight shoulders just creates hard hands, and a hard mouthed horse.

The exercise is the row. Most people start out doing it incorrectly. You should not really feel your biceps or trapezius engage at all. It's all about those smaller, little used and often underdeveloped (especially in female riders) rhomboids and lower trapezius between your shoulder blades. Weakness in that muscle group is often a source of back pain and stiffness in the back and neck for many riders, as well as tendency to ride with hands.

Your object with a row is not to pull your hands back. It is to squeeze your shoulder blades together without engaging the muscle at your neck/shoulder. In your office, you can practice by placing the fingers of one hand on the trapezius (neck muscle) and just rolling your shoulder back, squeezing that shoulder blade flat on your back. If you can detect hardening of the upper trapezius under your fingers, do it again until you can isolate the correct muscle group, while remaining relaxed in your neck/shoulder. When you have the correct firing pattern, you can introduce resistance and incorporate strength training into your week. You need to do several sets, at least twice a week to stimulate muscle growth. As your body learns to use a new muscle, and as the muscle becomes strong enough, you will rely less on those shoulder/neck area muscles. You will find you are less tense in the shoulders, and also more effective in your aids.

I've attached some pictures of clients doing the row exercise with an exercise tube below. You will notice that one of my clients, Fran who is a para-equestrian client, is doing the exercise with many of her fingers free. She is wiggling her fingers while squeezing her back and shoulder-blades together in order to test whether her mind is appropriately engaging her back, without also creating tension in her arms and hands. I get riding clients to do the exercise this way often, in order to develop that separation between what one part of your body is doing, and another, and to ensure they are not cheating and using their biceps and just pumping their arms back and forth. Most of the time, your biceps should not harden while riding any more than your shoulders should hunch or shrug.

I'm looking forward to your comments and questions for next weeks' online Ride Better clinic blog!

Heather Sansom, trainer/speaker, equifitt.com
ps. Don't forget you can go to my website to sign up for the free monthly fittip subscription list.

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Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on April 27, 2009 at 7:45am
Hi Annette,- thanks for saying hello and telling me about your website! I use some pilates and postural work, as well as a good deal of basic sport conditioning. I have found that in most cases pilates alone is insufficient as a complete sport conditioning program- we are not after all only in control of our own bodyweight, but also managing 1000lb livestock and in most cases, farmwork. However, the riders I work with who do pilates do tend to be the most physically aware, and of all exercise modalities, I really don't see better core work and postural emphasis than in pilates. I couldn't tell from your website whether you are actually certified in pilates. I draw on in myself as a training component, but like you, from experience with it rather than certification. I'd be interested to know how sales of your online program have worked.
Comment by Annette Willson on April 27, 2009 at 12:08am
Your program has many similarities to mine you can view mine at
Pilates for horse Riders
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on April 25, 2009 at 11:09am

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