Out of the Saddle: Keeping Yourself in Top Form
There are times when you find yourself with no or limited ride time for a variety of reasons: Your horse might be on stall rest, you may be horseless due to financial troubles, you may have decided to take a break, or perhaps you simply want to find every opportunity you can to get better. Whatever the reason, being out of the saddle does not mean that your improvements as a rider needs to stop. There are many ways to keep playing the game and getting better without having to break the bank. Many of these suggestions may prove to be useful even when you do have a horse to ride.
On the horse’s back is not and should not be the only place where you get a workout. Afterall, good riding comes from a good fitness level of both the horse and the rider. Having off time for a busy barn life is perhaps the best time to explore what works for you. The ideal fitness regime for the rider includes cardio and strength (Baker). It would be best to adopt a fitness program that you can do three times a week in order to improve form, such as the one detailed in the book “The Rider’s Fitness Program” By Dianna R. Dennis, John J. McCully, and Paul M. Juris. Most strength exercises needed don’t require weights, as for riders it’s not so much about the bulk but being generally fit. For cardio (on days between strength training), pick up lower intensity activities, such as yoga, pilates, biking, swimming, or a light jog. The overarching aim is to improve your core, balance, and flexibility.
Just like a saddle is paired with a saddle pad, physical activity goes with diet. Make sure you are getting the correct nutrition because that is key for your mental and physical well-being (Baker). Good food will keep your energy levels up and provide you with your much needed vitamins. This is vital in order to prevent illness and tiredness after a long day at the barn. When at home, take the time to look at your fridge and cabinets in order to really understand what your current diet is like. It may be tempting to grab instant noodles and call it a day, but having foods that you can cook with ensures that you are keeping track of how much sugar, salt, and processed foods you are eating. You are an athlete after all, so just like your horse gets certain types and amounts of grain and forage, you need to make sure that you are getting all of the correct nutrition to perform at your best.
Riding is a mental sport almost more than it is physical. As a matter of fact, most athletes competing in any sort of sport benefit from strengthening their mental game. Mental coaching may be a good activity to look into as this can help with areas such as anxiety, lack of confidence, improvement of focus, etc. (Baker). However, going in for another expense is not the only route to go. Consider taking up meditation: Meditating is not easy to do initially, but keep in mind the idea that some is always better than none. Meditation looks different for everyone, so try new activities and see which suits you best. The most important part is that you can do this for free, and there are plenty of recommendations out there. If traditional meditation does not interest you, attempt activities such as reading, coloring, walking, or gardening. While you do these activities, try to avoid bringing electronic devices with you as this will help keep your mind in the present moment. The purpose of meditation is to slow the mind down, teaching it to stay present; an important skill for any athlete.
Your eyes are a powerful tool, and not just for mindlessly scrolling through images on the internet. Therefore, read, read, and read whatever you can about anything you can. This will give your brain many tools that you will be surprised you had no idea about. If you are more of a visual learner, watch shows, clinics, and lessons. Start checking your local equine calendar and marking the dates, even if you will just be a part of the audience. You will pick up useful lessons from just about anything and anyone: whether it be about what you should or should not do. Another great idea with no less value than a clinic is to just watch horses frolicking in the paddock. Watching the natural motion of a horse without any rider restriction is always useful. Fluid and natural movement is what any good rider dreams of feeling from a horse under saddle. When it comes to watching videos, there are countless equine related subjects that you can search for (Baker). Think veterinary talks, how-to’s, clinic demonstrations, etc. Besides YouTube, good videos and information can be found on FEI.org and USEF.org. On both of the websites, membership is free for fans. To access USEF however, you do have to find the promo code in one of the livestream videos to get a free fan membership. Once you get to the bingeing, don’t just limit yourself to videos about your discipline: remember that just like dressage is the basis of any English riding, there is also a surprising amount of information that we can take from other disciplines.
Improving your sleep schedule and habits is something that a surprising amount of people struggle with, because the importance of sleep is often overlooked (especially by the younger generation). Start by keeping any electronics off the bed in order to engrain the idea in your brain that the bed is a place for sleeping (Cordeiro). Electronics keep our brains flowing more rapidly, usually preventing the mind from relaxing immediately, which puts you in a restless state of mind. Make consistency a priority when it comes to sleep, even if it means pushing certain activities back. If you are used to falling asleep at a late or irregular time, this is perhaps the most difficult part. There are just so many things we want to do before the day ends, but nothing can be more important than sleep. Sleep literally recharges you and allows you to start your day off with a clean slate. Horses value consistency and routine, and we, like athletes that work with them, should realize the importance of that as well.
Being out of the saddle does not mean that your education has halted. Besides keeping yourself fit and filled with nutrients just as you keep your horse, picking up activities to aid the mental game will only make you stronger as an equestrian. Additionally, as many of us who have been in the industry for years already know, the equine world is humbling. You can never know everything or too much as there are so many different concepts, ideas, and methods. Lastly, but probably most importantly: fix your sleep schedule. This is the backbone of health, and will allow you to be healthier as a person, and thus more efficient as a rider. Be creative, but disciplined in what you do out of the saddle, and you will be shocked to see the translation of your actions into your riding
Baker, Sophie. “5 Tips to Improve Your Riding While Not in the Saddle - Fei.org.” FEI, Fédération Équestre Internationale, 12 Nov. 2019, https://www.fei.org/stories/lifestyle/teach-me/5-tips-improve-riding-horse.
Cordeiro, Brittany. “8 Healthy Sleep Habits.” MD Anderson Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, 1 Oct. 2013, https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/healthy-sleep-habits.h13-1589046.html.