What?? Yes, Riders are Athletes

Editor’s Note: Ah, to be young and carefree. After a few years of ignoring what might be obvious for some, guest columnist Amy Skinner realized her diet and exercise were instrumental to a successful horsemanship career.

Read more on Rider Fitness here.

Read rider Julie Kenney’s Journey of Fitness here.

She writes:

Horse people are well known for having bad eating habits and long work hours. I’ve been no exception. For years, I skipped breakfast and started riding horses, cleaning stalls, slinging hay, fixing fences, and teaching lessons on a stomach full of nothing but black coffee.

By lunchtime, I’d be starving. But with plenty of horses left to ride and no desire to feel a bunch of food bouncing around in my stomach, I’d eat something small, like a granola bar or half of a sandwich. At day’s end, I’d be famished and sit down to a huge dinner and then go to bed.

I was always tired. And, oddly, no matter how many hundreds of bales of hay I threw or mounds of manure I shoveled, I never got any stronger.  In addition, my back hurt from riding colts and working them through their acrobatics. At night, I’d have to work at stretching out my back.

One day, I realized my job was athletic. That made me an athlete. 

Athletes eat and train for their jobs, otherwise their bodies wouldn’t be able to perform. I decided to treat myself like a athlete:

— I started waking up earlier and making breakfast, eating a midmorning snack, a good lunch, and a lighter dinner.

— I cut out sugar, upped my protein, and lowered my carbs. I added lots of fruits and vegetables.

— During my lunch breaks, I started working out by adding yoga, strength training, or running to my days.

The first two weeks were hard. I was always sore. It was really tempting to quit. The workouts seemed to make riding harder. My legs felt like heavy tree trunks.

But within a month, I felt fantastic. I was stronger and more energetic. My day doesn’t exhaust me anymore and I don’t feel stiff at the end of the day.  My metabolism is much higher and I actually feel like the food I am eating is giving me what I need for my day, not just filling my stomach and making me tired.

In another month, I noticed huge changes in my riding. I have much better awareness of my body. Little issues – unevenness in my body, collapsing a rib cage or shoulder, and slouching shoulders – started going away.  My posture is better because my core is stronger.

I can go with a horse much better when it spooks, spins around, or bucks, because I have much better core stability. That stability and strength mean I rely less on my hands or reins for balance.

The change has made me a more confident rider because I’m less intimidated by sudden movements and goofy antics from young or troubled horses.  I am much less reactive and more able to ride out a buck or squirt or bolt and take my time to deliberate what action should be taken.  My back does not hurt at the end of the day.

Another side effect of my fitness progression is that I have a better understanding of bringing a horse along in its own fitness.  In my own body, areas of stiffness and weakness have only benefited from more attention.  I work harder on weak points instead of favoring what was easy and already strong.  I also made stretching, lengthening, and symmetry a huge priority so that my strength was functional and benefited my lifestyle instead of just looking better.

The same goes for the horse:

— it takes time to build muscle

— it’s important to strengthen weak areas and work on symmetry

When training the horse, we can’t expect immediate change. It should happen slowly over time if we are to build healthy muscle and lasting improvement.

I also got a sense for when to push a little when a horse was resistant, as I would become fatigued in my own workouts but knew progress could be made if I reached a little deeper. I also gained insight on when to back off and give the horse a rest.

Sticking with the change in diet and exercise has been tough, but worthwhile. It’s so easy to get caught up in tasks and dismiss healthy eating. But once I got in the habit of eating better and more often, my tastes changed and I stopped craving what wasn’t good for me.  Yes, my grocery bill is through the roof, but I have all the energy I need to do my job. Getting stronger and more fit has made all the difference.

Riding, after all, is an athletic endeavor.

Sign up for Amy Skinner lessons in Maine, April 29-30.

Best Core Practices

We welcome Kerry O’Brien as a new guest columnist and Rider Fitness contributor.

Read more on Core Fitness here.

O’Brien is a therapist certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and long-standing member of the American Massage Therapy Association. She blends hands on bodywork with biomechanical re-education. She owned Inspiring Motion, a bodywork and movement studio in Sherman Oaks, California, for a decade and recently moved to Cortez, Colorado with her adopted mustang. Her post here is part of our Special Section on Riding & Lady Bits.

Read more on her mustang advocacy work here.

She writes:

Since the pelvis is our major means of communication with our horse, one can’t underestimate the importance of good pelvic biomechanics, including well-functioning hip and sacro-illiac joints.

Fluid movement and high function are what make an “independent seat.” It’s also what makes for beautiful riding, a horse-and-rider team melded together without any extraneous movement.

There are many overlooked muscles in the pelvic area

Success in this area is not just about that most popular of exercise terms, “core strength.” Nor is it about Kegel exercises (especially considering the fact that Kegels are very often performed incorrectly). Many pelvic floors are actually too tight and most people mistakenly rely on their extrinsic, prime movers (think big, outer muscles) rather than their intrinsic (small, inner) stabilizers.

Tight muscles are weak muscles. And clenching doesn’t help.

What does help:

  • Releasing those too tight muscles.
  • Retraining correct sequencing of the subtle, deep, stabilizing muscles. These are the pelvic floor, deep spinal stabilizers like multifidus and erector spinae, as well as the deep abdominals, transversus.

Other areas of concern for riders are the psoas (a hip flexor and lower back stabilizer) and the adductors, or inner thigh muscles, which are contiguous with the pelvic floor. Generally speaking, tight adductors equal a tight pelvic floor.

So, the rehabilitative goal is first to release, secondly to increase awareness (what we might call neuromuscular intelligence, learning proper sequencing of this whole family of deep stabilizing muscles), and lastly, to strengthen.

There should be no gripping. Gripping is working from the outside in. The proper action comes the inside and if done correctly then riding can actually strengthen the pelvic floor and reduce incontinence.

It’s challenging to teach but it can be accomplished in most cases. Several years ago a study assessed the effectiveness of teaching pelvic floor exercises. Even after instruction from a physical therapist, eighty-five percent of patients did the exercises incorrectly. Considering that most often one is simply given a handout, the odds of correctly activating your innards are pretty slim.

I once had a male cyclist client who was very depressed because in spite of performing his pelvic exercises religiously, he was still incontinent months after prostate surgery. I suggested he return to his physical therapist to check if he was doing them correctly. Sure enough, he had been doing the exact opposite of what was required. Once the PT was able to clarify and correct, he was able to alleviate his incontinence almost immediately.

Good pelvic biomechanics can be learned and trained and best to do it off the horse. But riders can experience the benefits once horseback. I will say that my own years of training and learning to sequence independent movement from the inside out has made me a better as a 60-something rider than I had been decades earlier.

Work smarter, not harder!

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