Riders: Mean What You Say!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Juliana Zunde of Hillsborough, North Carolina as a BestHorsePractices guest columnist.
Zunde was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1981. She has managed large horse facilities, competed at high levels, and taught extensively, especially to hunter/jumper enthusiasts. She runs Trakai Farm in Hillsborough.
Zunde coaches harmony and balance for the hunter, jumper, and dressage ring.
She has studied with George Morris, Joe Fargis, Jeff Cook, Ann Kursinsky, Dr. Gerd Heuschman, Maclain Ward, Buck Brannaman, and Martin Black.
Read more about her here.

Zunde writes:

I’m with an acquaintance and she looks upset. I ask what’s wrong. The answer is, “Nothing’s wrong.” But the words coming out of her mouth don’t match the look on her face. My answer to her answer is often: “Which would you like me to believe, your words or your expression? They don’t say the same thing.”

As humans, we are very good at covering up how we really feel, saying one thing when we really mean something totally different. The strategy doesn’t work with horses. Their communication is literal and direct.

In training and riding horses, we need to use this inherent part of their nature and their way of “talking” with each other to communicate our needs to them. Horses don’t ever show one thing and mean something totally different. When ears go back, it means move or there will be a consequence. There are no discussions at the water trough as to who would go first. The alpha goes first unless he decides to let another join her. Either way it will be very clear. There is no saying one thing and meaning another.

This also holds true for our communication with them. If you inadvertently use your leg when it should just stay quiet, your horse will respond. He has no clue that you did not mean it.

I see riders and horses get frustrated because there is too much extra clutter in conversations:

  • a leg in the wrong position
  • a sequence started wrong and not in rhythm with the footfall of the horse
  • aids clashing rather than working in concert with each other
  • asking too little or too much at the wrong time

In order to truly have a conversation with your horse, you have to first be in a position to really listen. Read more here.

You have to unclutter your mind, tune into your horse, and feel where she is at that moment.

Secondly, you need to start asking questions. If you don’t get the right answer, look to yourself:

  • Did you ask the right question in the correct sequence?
  • Was it loud enough for him to respond?
  • Did you ask too loudly, causing him to overreact?

The well-trained horse can give you the right answer if you ask the right question with the right meaning and the right intent at the right time. In the same fashion, the green horse will never learn correctly if your aids keep changing or if you are giving him different cues at different times for the same thing. As you can see, there are a lot of things you must do correctly.

In your horse’s world, the right question asked in the right way with the proper intent, and then rewarded with the soft relief when it is willingly answered it something more gratifying, more satisfying than any food treat.

Horses know if you are truly their leader and with them all the way. They won’t believe you unless words, actions, and intent all say the same thing. Horses will always take you at face value. They have no ego that needs protection.

Learn to be true in your communication with yourself and the world around you. The same can hold true for human interactions. The next time someone asks you how you’re feeling, make your words and facial expressions match. Our relationships might improve if we tried to say what we mean honestly and politely.

Think Riding is Hard? Try Teaching It

In a recent BestHorsePractices post, we wrote about Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do. It discussed the challenges of thinking, balancing, and connecting with your equine partner.

We then heard from several clinicians who talked about the challenges of nurturing that complicated, multi-faceted horse-rider partnership and communicating effectively enough to be understood and appreciated.

West Taylor, who with Dr. Steve Peters will present at the Horse Science Seminar next month in Park City, helped articulate the challenges.

Taylor shared these thoughts:

My horse training program broken down to its simplest form is: Pressure, Release, and Seeking Relief.

  • Pressure motivates the horse to “find something.”
  • Release tells the horse “you have found the answer.”
  • Allowing the horse the time to “seek relief” after the release of pressure puts it together with a reinforcing dose of dopamine.

From the time I release pressure, that horse is the seeking relief. I don’t know how much value there would be in the release if there weren’t time for that relief. However, if at that time the horse and rider are in a getting-something-done situation, then it’s different. As horsemen, we tend to toggle between these two situations.

I focus on Timing, Balance, and Feel.

Read more about Mastering the Elements here.

There is timing with pressure, timing with release, and timing with balance.

What does the balance of pressure mean? That’s knowing for example when to put on a little pressure and when to add more.

West Taylor’s client at work with her horse

Feel is everything, right?

As in:

  • What do I feel like this horse needs right now?
  • What’s the feel in watching the horse seek relief?

I might ask a horse at liberty to walk across a tarp. The feel to me here is in the observing and reacting:

  • Do I have to step back one step, two steps, five steps?
  • What do I need to do for the horse to be able to do what I’m asking it to do?

Will I need to take two big steps away in order for it to lick and chew?

That’s the feel to me. I see a lot of clients that miss the feel. What I want my clients to find is that feel, that observation. Rather than tell them A, B, and C, I’ll ask them, ‘What did you see?

With clear communication, you will see the results. But can the clients see it?

When something happens with the horse, I like to say:

  • How did you cause that?
  • What did you not support?
  • What did you not adjust to?

From a pro-active standpoint, we need to see how we set it up or how we got in the way. How did we cause an action or behavior? I just keep asking them. Often clients just don’t know. That’s why they are here. That’s what they learn. Teaching horsemanship is the most masterful game of chess that we can play. It’s leading the horse and person to the right moves.

Dorrance Protégés Join Summit Roster

Along with powerful academic and arena presentations, the Best Horse Practices Summit, October 8-10 in Durango, Colorado, will now offer an opportunity to hear from esteemed protégés of Bill and Tom Dorrance. The brothers are widely admired as pioneers of the superior, more mindful horsemanship we see practiced nowadays.

Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert, along with Neubert’s daughter, Kate, will join us in Durango for a very special evening, Celebrating the Dorrance Legacy. For Rieman and the Neuberts, it will be a relaxed dinnertime chat at the luxurious Strater Hotel Theater. For us listeners, it will be a night to remember where we can lean in and savor their memories.

Register now.

The BHP Summit is shaping up to be an impressive two-and-a-half days of learning to improve riding and horsemanship. For

Bryan Neubert

a limited time, the Summit organizers are offering a Bring 3, Get in Free!” incentive. When four attendees register and identify each other as part of the incentive, one will be refunded in full.

Rieman and Neubert spent many seasons with the Dorrances and attribute their successes to Bill and Tom’s tutelage. Kate Neubert was just a girl when she visited with the Dorrances, but she, too, is a product of their teachings.

Neubert and Rieman travel nationally and internationally as clinicians and colt starters. Rieman is also a master storyteller and a regular presenter at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Kate Neubert focuses on young performance horses and this year competed at the Road to the Horse event in Kentucky.

Amy Skinner, another young and talented horsewoman who will be coming to Durango, was thrilled to hear about the addition of the Dorrance Legacy evening to the program.

“The Dorrances worked on a refined feel that focused on what the horse was about to do, then either confirming or redirecting it.  That makes for a more relaxed horse, which, in turn, fosters a better relationship between the horse and rider.  It’s an approach that benefits riders of all disciplines.

Randy Rieman

“It wasn’t just about horsemanship for these men. It was about a better way of life. For those of us who want to dig a little deeper into our relationships with horses, hearing from Dorrance students will be an unbelievable opportunity.”

Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and starts colts under Jim Thomas at the Bar T Ranch in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Steve Peters, who with Martin Black will present a BHPS session on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, said the Dorrance Legacy addition was a perfect fit for the conference.

“When Martin and I first started working on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, we looked at giving the horse enough time to ensure optimal learning and to its receiving of dopamine reinforcement.  Martin, who also worked with Tom Dorrance, would regale me with stories of Dorrance’s grasp of what we now know to be the neurochemical makeup of the horse.

Kate Neubert

“It seems Tom was a master at dialing up the horse’s arousal or dialing down its anxiety as needed.  Although I never met him, I am convinced that he was truly a great equine behavioral neurologist,” said Peters.

Register now.

2017 presenters include:

  • Wendy Williams, author of the best-selling The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, will give the keynote address.
  • Dr. Robert Bowker, former director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, German veterinarian, rider, and author of the best-selling book, Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage.
  • Dr. Sheryl King is a popular international presenter on equine behavior.
  • Warwick Schiller, NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) Reserve World Champion and represented Australia in reining at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. He tours internationally and has a popular video subscription.
  • Jim Thomas runs Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has started scores of BLM wild horses and competed in multiple Extreme Mustang Makeovers.
  • Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Additional Summit offerings:

  • Fresh, fine dining Strater Hotel meals
  • Meet-and-greet receptions
  • Autograph sessions
  • Trade Show
  • Rider Fitness workout and core fitness elective with David Stickler
  • Post-BHP Summit field trip to visit a wild horse herd in nearby Spring Creek Basin.

The Best Horse Practices Summit is a Colorado 501 (c) (3) non profit corporation with a five member board of directors and nine member steering committee. Its goal is to advance ideas to improve the horse-human connection.

See you in Durango this October!

 

Amy Skinner’s Young Horse Basics

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit!

Here, Skinner shares some notes on starting young horses.

She writes:

Starting a horse is about providing a good foundation for the rest of its life. To help prepare it, I want to make sure it’s exposed to as much as possible and to instill confidence and curiosity at a young age.  I can’t prepare it for everything it will encounter, but if I can get a good mix of curiosity and confidence overall, the colt will have what it needs to tackle new obstacles.

The Challenges

Whether it’s a future dressage horse, jumper, cutting horse, or trail horse, I believe every young horse should know how to:

  • walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein
  • ride out alone and with friends on the trail
  • move a cow

All part of the process. A young horse learns the feel of a saddle

When a young horse is getting started, it can overwhelmed with new information quickly.  It has to learn to:

  • carry a saddle,
  • wear a bridle and bit
  • carry a rider

It has to learn to interpret the scary, funny feeling in its mouth when the rider tries to direct it. And it needs to do this while managing the rider’s moving weight on its back.  It has to handle being exposed to new and scary things: different places, obstacles, scary corners in the arena, cows, and more.

I hope to provide the horse with plenty of information for it to digest and to learn in a productive and confidence-boosting way. Starting, no matter how well you go about it, can be stressful on a horse. Young horses are still learning to balance themselves and you’ll often see them move in silly, awkward ways.  Their bodies aren’t fully developed and they can experience fear or concern while carrying the extra weight of a rider.

Providing Advantages or Dealing with Handicaps

Horses raised outside in a healthy herd dynamic and exposed to varied terrain and diverse situations are invariably easier to start.  These horses have a better sense of balance and a better awareness of their surroundings.  This is a totally natural development for a horse.

Unfortunately, many young horses are born in stalls, brought into stalls daily, and spend most of their time in small, groomed pens or sterile arenas with flat and soft footing.  This scenario offers the young horse no advantages. I’ve found these horses to be more nervous and less capable than a young horse raised outside in a more natural environment.

Horses raised in ‘positively unpredictable’ environments are also quicker learners, as they have had to adapt faster and learn to trust their instincts.  Stall-raised young horses are often shielded from unpleasant stimuli and never have to adapt to survive.  While learning to tolerate fly-spraying and blanketing may have some small benefits, humans take the more crucial adaptive abilities away from these horses, making them worse off.

If you want to have a super learner, an athlete, and a brave and curious horse, do him the favor of being outside without interference.

  • Let him deal with herd members, bugs, wind, hills, and rain.
  • Let him manage around the holes in the pasture. Horses and holes have evolved together over millennia and horses have not been wiped out yet because of them.

‘Going natural’ like this will not only make him healthier, happier, and more mentally balanced, it will make him a better learner and better athlete too.

 

Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do

If riding simply entailed proper movements to speed up, slow down, and steer the horse, it would be elementary. Like riding a bike.

But cyclists don’t often talk about how much they are still learning 30 years after they picked up the sport. Horse riders, even those doing it professionally, DO say they’re still learning.

It’s essential to be an open-minded “learnaholic” if you’re interested in advancing your horsemanship. The reason riding is the hardest thing in the world to do? Our education has so many angles and it comes in so many forms. To note a few:

Horse movement

One must have an understanding of how the horse moves in order to ride well. Before you start talking about long trots or collection or transitions, you need to know how your horse can move and how it then moves with a rider aboard. It’s about anatomy, conditioning, muscle strength, flexibility, etc. It often helps to just watch horses in a field or paddock, especially with other horses.

Horse behavior

The more you understand what’s going on in the horse’s head, the more you’ll be able to incorporate that knowledge into better riding. For instance, it’s essential to know about prey instinct, herd instinct, and the neurochemical craving for homeostasis.

Awareness

All around the world, humans are trying their best to be more “mindful.” But in horse work, the need for awareness is amplified and multi-form:

— Body awareness

It’s essential to know what you’re doing with your body and how it is impacting your horse’s movement and behavior. Some riders go for years without realizing that they are out of balance. Others blame their horses for missteps when it has everything to do with rider position.

Generally, horses have a harder time if their riders are out of shape and inflexible. Fitness and range of motion, therefore, become essential components of good riding.

— Mental awareness

Distracted? Stressed? Nervous? Apprehensive? Angry?

Those human emotions have very real consequences when we interact with horses. Not only do horses sense them, those feelings affect how we move and react to horses’ movements.

Good riders learn to shed those mental hang-ups when they interact with horses. Some seem to walk away from daily people problems. Others develop strategies to use mid-ride, like singing when galloping or leaving the cell phone at home, to ensure a focused, mentally-healthy ride.

There’s also another level of mental awareness. It has to do with being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and faults as a human being. Clinicians often note that life’s challenges and baggage will impede horsemanship improvement. Amy Skinner explains: “Problems in our day-to-day lives carry into our riding lives. We can’t fix our riding problems without fixing our lives.”

While we work hard to shed detrimental elements of our humanness, we must nonetheless retain the smarts gained from research and experience. It’s a challenging duality unique to humans: how to be smart, savvy, mindful, and adaptable all at the same time!

[Skinner noted that teaching horsemanship doubles her challenge: “It’s hard because you have to figure out your student psychologically and physically. What are they doing and how might I get them to move their bodies differently? Then you also need to see what the horse needs and help the rider feel that and follow directions,” she said. Read more about the challenges of teaching riding here. ]

Amy Skinner

This spring, renowned horseman Warwick Schiller had a “full-on epiphany.” He tried giving a horse more time to think, decide, and relax. The results astounded him:

A troubled horse laid down and napped for hours in the middle of a clinic. ‘”And I really think that horse had not had a relaxed moment in his captive life,” said Schiller of the horse, a mustang who had been rounded up, split from his herd, and sold to adopters.

With another horse, haltering was always a problem. Schiller would see his jaw tighten and turn his head away. Again, the Australian looked to make changes in the most basic elements of his horse work.

“What I’m after is so much more microscopic than I realized,” said Schiller. “When horses can’t calm down, it’s up to us to let them find it. Often it’s just slowing down and waiting.”

In October, you’ll have a great chance to learn more from Schiller and fellow world renowned presenters. Check out the Best Horse Practices Summit roster.

Warwick Schiller will be at the BHP Summit

Extra reading:

Juliana Zunde on testing your harmony.

Check out HorseHead: Brain Science to improve your horse work

Rider Fitness articles

Read more on Balance

Multi-tasking as good horsemanship

His Rearing was the Tip of the Iceberg

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a frequent guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. She works with Jim Thomas at Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, NC, and runs Essence Horsemanship. Here, she writes Part One of an ongoing project with the beautiful horse, Bellus.

Skinner writes:

Bellus, a 10-year old Lusitano gelding, came to the Bar T Ranch for training in January with a rearing problem.  He was schooling 3rd level dressage (which involves advanced lateral movements, flying changes, and extended gaits – movements requiring balance, rhythm and self carriage) and his trainers were fed up with him.

“Everything else was fine,” they said, except when Bellus decided he was done he would stop and rear.  Bellus was brought to us so we could “fix up that one little problem,” then he could go back to schooling.  He was expected to start getting good scores in shows and then he could be sold.

Yet everything else was not fine. In the short time that Bellus was in training, the poor horse was exposed to quite a different world than he was used to:

— Bellus was used to going in a stall.  As a stallion late to being gelded and having been isolated in his earlier years, his social skills were underdeveloped and he was kept separately from other horses.

— He came off the trailer wearing shipping boots and a fleece-lined halter. He snorted at the cows over the fence and the cows snorted back at him.

— At the Bar T, he did not live in a stall, but in a private paddock next to five other horses.

— His clipped coat stood on end when the wind picked up or when it rained. Because of this ill-advised and prior grooming, I needed to blanket him when the weather was bad.

At first, Bellus struggled to adjust.

I rode him out on the trails, through water, with the cows, and I did very little dressage.  I wanted to avoid dressage because the gelding had been drilled half to death with the movements which were a) not done correctly and b) had no meaning or value in his life.

Dressage can help a horse with balance and relaxation. The way it was presented had made him backward and resentful. I thought it’d be better for him mentally to avoid schooling in the arena and learn a different type of balance. 

But the gelding had so little confidence on the trail that he shook with trepidation and could not will himself to go forward.

With the cows, he trembled and tried to whirl around or stop and rear when he saw them.  His response to everything he didn’t understand or thought he couldn’t do was to shut down. In doing this, he’d sull up. He’d slam on the front end hard, refuse to move, and then come up in the front end.

Bellus had no idea how to use his body properly as he had always been pushed into a false “collected” frame.  He had always been ridden on a tight rein, spurred, and whipped into the contact as he continually lost his forward momentum. Shutting down became the only option he could summon.

With me riding him on a loose rein, he tripped, stumbled, rushed, and jolted to a stop. He did not know how to handle not being held up by someone’s reins and driven into them.  He had no balance of his own, and without being confined by the reins, he fell forward on his front end heavily.  He felt unbalanced and often panicked.  He did not have any of the fundamental qualities that a well-started horse should have: confidence, try, balance, ability to go forward, and relaxation.  In my mind, without these qualities, Bellus had no business competing at 3rd level dressage.

After a month in training here, Bellus made marked improvements.  He would walk, trot, and canter in a forward manner on a loose rein.  He would ride out on the trails, and I had many beautiful long trots with him where he loosened and lowered his scrunched-up neck and lifted his back, extending his stride over the hilly fields.

In the minds of his owners/trainers, however, Bellus was still a long way from where they wanted him. I suspect his owners had been strung along by many trainers trying to do the right thing, and after years of spending on trainers who had only muddled him up worse, they were at the end of their rope.  They asked me to take him. I was glad to.

My first order of business was to improve his physical and mental well being. I pulled his shoes and to turn him out onto a field with my three-ear old filly.  He was pretty tender footed after having worn shoes for his entire riding life.  As for his living situation, I think Bellus must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.

Bellus returns to the arena with more relaxation

Welcome 5 Star Equine Products and Durango realtor Rebecca Balboni

This week, we’re thrilled to announce two new charter sponsors to the Best Horse Practices Summit.

Meet realtor Rebecca Balboni of the Wells Group and 5 Star Equine Products. Both new sponsors are excellent fits for our exciting conference to be held this October in Durango, Colorado.

Terry Moore, owner of 5 Star Equine products, is sending a fantastic range of pads to the Summit for attendees to feel, smell, and purchase.
We’re huge fans of 5 Star wool pads and mohair cinches, handmade in Arkansas. Research shows wool is superior to other materials when it comes to the gear that’s closest to your horses. Wool breathes. Wool molds to the horse’s contours. The 5 Star wool felt holds up to thousands of miles of wear and multiple washings. Read articles here.
The horses of Unbranded traveled 3,000 miles over five and half months without back or belly sores. What greater testimony is there than that?
Come to the Summit and check out 5 Star pads!

Realtor Balboni, of the Wells Group, loves Durango and would love to show it off while you’re here at the Summit. From the friendly people, the breathtaking landscape, to the 300 average days of sun and limitless opportunities for trail riding, Durango is a grand slam.

Visit her Wells Group page here.

When not in the office, she can be found riding one of her two horses. She’s pictured at right on Rosie, “the wonder horse.”  The photo was taken as a recent Durango area competition. Balboni is quite active in the local equestrian community. She serves on the board of the Four Corners Dressage and Combined Training Association and also works with the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Check out some listings:

Bayfield land for $139,000

  • A stunning waterfront equestrian escape. The property includes an indoor arena and two homes on Hermosa Creek. $1,995,000. (see photo below)
  • A turn-key ranch with 150′ x 300′ lighted outdoor arena, 20 stall barn, indoor arena, cutting pen, shop, and 3 bed 3 bath home on 35 acres in Dolores. $695,000.
  • A picturesque 35 acres of mixed pasture and timber acres in the Bayfield area. A creek running through the land which is ready for your dream home. $139,900. (see photo at right)

Email her rebecca@wellsgroupdurango.com or call (404) 376-6392.

Summit Special: Bring Three, Get in Free!

We’re excited to have Best Horse Practices Summit registrants coming from all around the globe. So far, we have attendees

The Summit will be at the Strater Hotal (pictured) and the LaPlata fairgrounds

hailing from Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, Canada, and more!

Beginning in late May, we are offering 4 registrations for the price of 3. It’s an ideal opportunity to bring friends, team members, club members, colleagues, or even strangers with the same passion for horses and horse education. Save $325!

Already registered? No worries. If you contact us with three additional registrants, we’ll refund one delegated registrant (who can always share the savings with his/her fellow travelers).

Not sure if your friends can make it? No worries. Just check the box when you register.

Looking forward to seeing you in Durango!

Register here.

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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