That word & concept, FITNESS, has changed for me over the years as a result of my professional training and my personal journey. Now, fitness is the ability to feel good in your skin, to move in ways that you love, and the ability to recover afterwards while listening to your body. Fitness is not 1 body shape, 1 body type, or 1 athletic goal. In horse sport, our fitness and our horse’s fitness are intimately entwined with each other.
Many equine athletes have never truly had to plan a fitness program. Many of us started riding when we were very young and muscle pain was a fleeting sensation. When I was 17, I would muck 40 stalls and then ride 3 horses every day, and I never felt sore!! Likewise, the horses we rode were school horses or horses in training that were already at a certain level of fitness before we started with them. We never had to think about their muscle groups and their cardiopulmonary capabilities.
As we all start to return to our sport and our horses after a couple of months of a global pandemic, some people may for the first time be recognizing the struggle of ‘returning to fitness’. This isn’t just for the riders, but also the horses. Some of them have never had that length of time resting and will need to work hard to return to fitness.
This return to fitness takes planning, it takes thought, and above all, it takes forgiveness for our bodies and our horses’ bodies when we can’t immediately do something that used to feel so easy.
In my own journey, I stopped consistently riding when I went to university. A few years later I had the opportunity to ride a friend’s horse. I remember getting on and being so confused why my body wasn’t responding the way I expected and wondering why I felt so off balance and floppy. The next day I had a lightbulb moment, I called my friend and said “I figured it out! EVERYTHING is sore EXCEPT for my abs! I wasn’t engaging my core at all!” It turns out you need your core to ride properly…
About a year ago I was having a lot of shoulder pain from dental floats so my chiropractor and I discussed the body postures I was holding during that procedure and also the strength training I was doing to stabilize and support my shoulder – which at the time was ZERO. So, I joined a gym and had an introductory meeting with the head instructor. I told her, “I have no idea how to work out, I have never been a gym person because I was always active growing up. You could put me in the middle of the best equipped gym in the world and I would probably just get on the treadmill.” Luckily for me this gym in Guelph is a class-based format and they have been amazing, not just in helping me figure out the ways that I like to move to get fit but also in understanding my fitness journey. When you challenge new muscles it burns and it is HARD and your muscles will try to cheat when they get tired so you need to back off and really intentionally focus on correct movement. Then, the next day, you are SORE. After a few months of commitment though, an amazing thing happened – classes weren’t as hard (until I picked up heavier weights), I recovered more easily, and my shoulder stopped hurting! From these experiences I have had to step back and take a look at what we ask of our horses and how we allow for their journey to fitness.
Recently, I also pursued further education in Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy at the Veterinary Chiropractic Learning Centre. There I was challenged to look at the biomechanics of the horse differently – how are they using their muscles, how are they balancing their body, how are they moving through their joints and transferring energy for movement? Anyone who has spent time with me for a VSMT appointment knows that I feel strongly that what I do in the treatment is only a small part of the approach, it is the targeted exercises in between treatments that make the most difference. We need to teach both the rider and the horse to change their routine to encourage different patterns of movement and development of correct muscle groups and balance. This approach has to be horse specific, the movement and muscle balance of endurance horses, jumpers, and reining horses are all going to be drastically different. Just like the muscling of a marathon runner, a football player, and a dancer are all going to be different.
So as I put these experiences and thoughts together and as we all return to the horses and riding that we missed so much, I have some very general advice.
- Don’t expect either your horse or your own body to jump right back to the level of riding that you were doing before the lockdown. We aren’t all 17 anymore and that’s okay.
- Make a plan, and be ready to be flexible if it isn’t going perfectly.
- Take this opportunity to build the correct muscle and movements from the beginning.
- Forgive yourself and your horse for being sore, for being tired, and for needing recovery time.
- Use the soreness as a road map: if you are sore in your shoulders and arms but not your abs and gluts, how are you riding? If your horse is sore in the latts and neck but not in the gluts and hamstrings, how is he carrying himself?
You, your horse, and your goals together are individuals so I’m not going to give specific exercises here. Find a professional that you trust to help you navigate that planning stage. I will only add my opinion that everything starts from a good, engaged walk – the walk is the most under-appreciated gait.
The world hit a big reset button this year, let’s take it as an opportunity to really embrace the fitness journey that we go on with our horses.