Hi, with so much going on at this time of year, I thought I'd share my latest fitness tip for equestrians. The EquiTips go around the world to a few thousand readers, and subscription is free (just email me at personaltraining@equifitt.com if you want to subscribe to the fittips). You can also read lots of free articles by looking up Fitness Tip of the Month in the search bar on www.equisearch.com . Equisearch articles are linked to Dressage Today, Practical Horseman and a couple of other publications.


Also, you can post questions to this blog (photos too!). So send in your questions or photos and questions for suggestions for your spring/summer rider fitness. Get the self-carriage you expect of your horse.


EquiTip March 2010: How to Ride Better

© Heather R. Sansom

Forward to a friend, subscription to monthly FiTTips is free.


This past weekend my dressage coach said ‘do you think there’s an easy button?’. One of her students had gone to a local big box office supplies store and bought her a big button that says ‘easy’ on it. You press it and the tinny voice whines ‘now that was easy!’. Fortunately, there is no such button on the wall of your arena, horse’s stall, or sticking out of your horse.


I say fortunately because I’ve noticed that most competition is at the lower levels. The higher you go, the fewer people you are competing against. It gets to a point where you no longer even refer to them as competitors, but colleagues because you realize that if they didn’t show up as well, there would be no competition, and that would be it for the sport. Whether you compete or not, competition pushes advances in performance, which pushes availability of good training, which helps everyone even if you just ride your horse on trails for pleasure.


If there were an easy button, there wouldn’t be a challenge, and you wouldn’t have to fight upstream against your age, physical limitations, experience, financial situation or whatever obstacles you face to being as good a rider as you wish you could be.


If you are competitive, the lack of easy buttons is a good thing because it weeds out your competition the higher you go. One year, I decided to go for regional champion at my level (Level 2 dressage at that time). I figured out that most of my competitors did not ride when it was ‘too cold’, ‘too hot’, ‘too wet’ or when there was a weather storm, they were too busy, too tired or felt sick. Since I live in a climate with four seasons that dips to minus 35 degrees Celcius with white-outs in the winter, and climbs to 35 degrees Celcius with heat waves and high humidity in the summer, I started to calculate just how many weeks a year of training I would get if I approached my training in that same mindset.


It wasn’t very many: nearly all of January is frigid, all of April is soaking and muddy, most of December is gone to Christmas, and you have to ride very early in the morning in July to avoid heat-stroke. That’s four months out of 12. Then, if you ride an average of 3-4 times a week, you are cutting out the other half of the week, so you are really riding a total of 4 months out of 12. Assuming you don’t pare down to 2 days a week for a bit because you have a cold, go on vacation or are just plain tired. Even if you do not live in a four-season climate, you can do a similar calculation with the variables that affect you.


When I did the math, I realized that if I trained 5-6 days a week no matter how I felt, and as long as it wasn’t under or over 30 degrees Celcius (minus or plus), I would be training 200x more than my competitors in the same season, I would have a competitive advantage just by showing up more often to ride. This was a necessary competitive advantage for me because I did not have an expensive horse, or even a usual dressage breed, or the resources to pay for lessons more than once a week. When I did the math, I realized that the extra $100/month an indoor arena would cost me through the year, more than paid for itself in the additional riding time available to me. I had a full time day job in management, so riding only when the weather suited was a total non-option: it was dark, cold and I was tired every week. Three months’ worth of riding a year is very expensive when you break down the annual cost of keeping your horse to a per ride cost. Showing up at a show unprepared is also very expensive when you break down the costs involved.


I also figured out that if I did all that riding, but had to compete in over 30 degree Celcius in the middle of a hot July show day and either me or my horse fatigued, that it would be a very expensive mistake. You aren’t in charge of who else shows up and might be better than you are. You aren’t in charge of the judges opinions. But you are in complete control of your own preparedness, precision and technical correctness.


So, we built galloping on hills and trails, and training over fences into our schedule to rule out muscle endurance on the horse’s part; and jogging and weight training a couple times a week for me so I could carry my end of the deal. We actually competed in both L1 & 2, placed in the top 5 provincially in L1, and were provincial champion in L2. My $2300, 15.2hh Arabian sport horse who I backed myself was provincial L2 champion against warmbloods dozens of times his value. Trust me, it wasn’t because I’m a brilliant rider or dressage judges just like Arabs. I’m lucky to have an adaptable, athletic horse with a great work ethic. This example is really small potatoes compared to the achievements of the Olympic and elite athletes I have had the opportunity to work with. However, the experience proved to me that your innate abilities (you or the horse) can always be improved, and that preparation, discipline and precision are possibly more important than the raw material.


Regardless of raw talent (genetics), and resources, your limit to your riding ability is mostly in your mind. I’m not talking about your pie-in-the-sky mental daydream time. I’m talking about what you actually believe in your mind. Actions reflect what your basic assumptions and priorities are. So, by extension, you are limited only by your daily habits and practice. In fact, even if you don’t think you have much of a chance, but you train like it’s possible…you will get a lot further than you realize. You may even come around to believing yourself if you maintain the right habits long enough.


In a well-known study on talent and performance, researcher Anders Ericsson studied musicians over a period of a decade and drew the conclusion that the common factor in success was not raw talent, but something motivational speaker Malcolm Gladwell has made famous as the ’10,000 hour rule’. Essentially, if you spent 3hrs a day perfecting or learning something, over a period of about 10 years, you would have achieved world-class expertise in that area—and spent about 10,000 hours doing it.


When you look at young athletes such as we watched in the Olympics this year, they have an average 10-15 years of focused experience in their sport. If you dedicated the next decade to doing something every day that would be MORE than what you already do now for your riding, you will be surprised at where you get to. I emphasize more, because if you do exactly what you do today, or have been doing for the past decades, you will be in exactly the same spot a decade from now. In my former career, I once had a boss point out that 10 years of doing the same thing does not equal 10 years of experience. It equals one year repeated ten times. I don’t know about you, but I am not into spinning on the spot when you can move forward instead.


Even though many of us cannot actually sit in a saddle three hours a day, every day for ten years, we have all kinds of other components of our development as a rider which we can integrate into the process. For example, due to the demands of writing and running a business, I can no longer ride 5-6 days a week. I aim at 5, and average 4. And, I only have time for one horse. That’s not three hours of riding. However, we are on track (for an amateur trainer) towards our goal of Prix-St-Georges because I make the best use of my out of saddle time. I spend time watching riders and trainers who are better than me, reading, and working on my own athletic cross-training plan so that I bring strength, balance, co-ordination and so on to my riding time. In fact, my riding has improved more with a blended balance of riding time and dryland conditioning, than it did when I was mostly riding. With age, this blend becomes even more important so that I bring a conditioned body to my end of the partnership. Sometimes I am tempted to think of ways to get myself on a ‘better’ horse, but it always comes back to the simple realization that I can still improve with what I have.


Even though I started riding 30 years ago, I consider myself an amateur rider. The pros I work with get more saddle time, but the risk of repeating the same experience, over and over can be higher, and so can the risk of repetitive strain injuries. So they take time out of the saddle to train because it’s what keeps them at their best, longer when they are in the saddle.


When you think about it, the difference between a gold medal and the other medals, or even not getting a medal, is often in percentage points- not huge gaps. While you or I might never take a run at a medal, we can learn the lesson: the difference between adequate and excellent is often just one step: one extra training time, one extra repetition. Improvement comes not just from practice, but from the deliberate practice: analysis of what you are doing, breaking down your goal into achievable chunks, and diligent perfection of each part until you can bring it back together.


Eddo Hoekstra’s quote above says essentially the same thing as best-selling author Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code). Getting 10,000 hours of repetition isn’t enough. Coyle discusses something he calls ‘deep practice’ which means breaking down your goal or activity into chunks you can master, putting them together and repeating enough to master them, and to internalize it. Actually, if you just repeat old patterns without breaking and re-constructing them, you re-inforce the old unproductive habits more. That’s why you can’t simply repeat yourself to riding better- why repetition on it’s own isn’t enough. We understand that training a young horse is easier than re-training one that’s been through several hands already, or has ingrained wrong habits.


Let’s bring it back to your training. In training your own core to engage as you are riding, you can start on the ground with core work where you build core strength, and hardwire your body’s muscle firing patterns so that your core engages when you do anything else. Then when you get in the saddle, you will be more likely to find your core engaging, and it will certainly be easier to engage it on purpose. You can also apply your new awareness to make things happen on purpose as you ride, and to stop your old reflexes such as leaning your shoulders back instead. As you block the old habit and re-inforce the new one, you will find you are riding differently.


Eventually, you will have internalized the core engagement and will no longer be thinking about it consciously- and you will have the core strength to maintain your position for that extra inch your competitor may not. No, doing crunches will not teach you how to apply better shoulder-in aids. However, core training will help you sit with better balance, and be physically able to position your hips and shoulders where you want to, for as long as you need to without tension. So, you will be able to apply your coach’s instructions more consistently whether they are with you or not.


I do some dryland coaching for a local college polo team on a voluntary basis- which means that getting the team to comply with training suggestions on their own has been difficult. They weren’t doing their homework. Their polo coach is excellent, and they are strong riders. They recently went to a tournament at an Ivy League school and had their behinds soundly whipped, mostly because they didn’t have the stamina for the tournament. The difference was the other teams are consistent about their gym time in addition to their riding. Outside riding time, my team was fluffing around. The other teams were training like athletes.


If riding around the same way you’ve always done isn’t getting you significantly further ahead, ask yourself what the elements are in the equation that you can change. In business change management in my last career, we called these ‘low hanging fruits’. Figure out what they are for you (things you can do within your lifestyle and priorities), and get started on what’s in front of you. Keep taking baby-steps in the right direction, and you will be riding better.


© Heather R. Sansom



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