Newbie Horse Rider

Blog for new adult horse riders

Month: January 2017

Demystifying the Independent Seat

I had a friend in Texas who started riding in her late 30’s, but never received any kind of formal instruction.  In fact, she claimed that paying for lessons was unnecessary.  She was just trail riding, she would frequently remind me, not competing in any dressage championship.  Sadly, this attitude landed her on the ground on more than one occasion.  Every time her horse spooked she went flying.  Once, she was so badly injured that she spent the next two months in the hospital recovering.  My friend learned a difficult truth: that there is a big difference between sitting on a horse and riding a horse.

When I returned to serious riding a few years ago, my instructor would frequently watch me canter and observe: “You’re not riding him, you’re just sitting there.”  Yes, indeed I was.  Every stride my horse took caused me to bounce further and further out of the saddle.  I was bouncing at the trot, and bouncing at the canter. Not only was this not pretty to watch, it was dangerous for both me and my horse.  My lack of riding caused both of us to be out of balance, increasing the likelihood of a dangerous fall.  No matter what your riding goals, whether you trail ride or plan to show, knowing how to ride with an independent seat will make the experience more enjoyable for you and your horse, and decrease the likelihood of a fall in the event of a spook.

Knowing how to ride starts with deconstructing the independent seat.  This is one of those terms that everyone has heard, but many people have difficulty grasping.  In essence, having an independent seat describes a rider whose various body parts are able to move independently from one another in an effort to communicate with her horse.  A rider with an independent seat has the core strength, flexibility, and body-awareness  that allows her to move each part of her body separately, and subtlety, all while keeping in perfect rhythm with the movement of her horse.  Watching an expert rider with a fully independent seat is a magical experience; a graceful dance that reflects the subtlety of movement, and the physical connection between horse and rider.  Of course it can take years and years of practice to achieve this level of skill, but there are some exercises that can be done right now that will have a profound affect on your riding tomorrow.

1.  Stretch – As with any athletic pursuit it is important to warm up your riding muscles prior to getting in the saddle.  The best way to do this is with some simple stretching exercises that target the riding muscles that tend to get tight over time, preventing us from remaining balanced in the saddle.  Making stretching a part of your weekly routine will have a dramatic impact on your riding posture in a very short period of time.  I have found that using a stability ball to help with stretching is most effective as it mimics the barrel of a horse.  I have done a lot of internet searching for the best stretching exercises for equestrians.  Riding Through Thick & Thin contains some very simple but effective stretches.  Another place I urge you to check out is YouTube where you can find a number of videos related to stretching for equestrians.  My favorite is Warm-up off the horse by John Pitts in which he shows riders how to use a stability ball to gently stretch those muscles that get tight from riding.

2. Build Your Core – Having a strong core is essential to having good posture in the saddle.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to instruct you to go out and do 100 crunches (yuck!!).  Pilates is a wonderful way to build up those important muscles in the abdomen and back that allow the rider to remain upright, balanced in the saddle, and moving with the horse.  When these important muscles are strong our other body parts are able to move more freely.  It is not necessary to join an expensive Pilates class.  A quick internet search will uncover a number of wonderful videos, including this one from Kerrits, and another from eHow.  If you prefer to use a stability ball, then this video from www.riderpilates.com may be an effective workout for your core.

 Learning to ride with an independent seat is a goal that may take years to fully accomplish, but making small changes can yield big results.  Remember it is Not about being skinny; it’s about being strong and flexible.  Try these exercises for a week and let me know if you feel a difference in your riding.

 

 

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And the Verdict is….

My Sweet Austin

You may recall that I was having a very stressful day yesterday.  To calm my restless mind I decided to try some of the relaxation exercises outlined in Riding Through Thick & Thin.  My goal was to eliminate, but not hide, my negative thoughts and feelings prior to climbing into the saddle for my weekly lesson.  I started with a little meditation, closing my eyes and simply focusing on my breathing.  Taking deep breathes in through my nose and exhaling out through my mouth, while forming a mental image of the air moving through my lungs.  After about 10 minutes I felt much more relaxed.  Next, I went for a mindful walk with my dog, focusing on nothing but the sounds around me.  As we walked I listened to the sound my boots made on the pavement, the swooshing sound of my dog’s coat, the hammering coming from a nearby construction site, and the whistling of the wind.  A few times I had to wrestle with thoughts that came into my head, redirecting my attention back to the present.  The result was a very calm walk in which I simply enjoyed being in the present.  After the walk I felt completely relaxed, almost to the point of wanting to lie down and take a nap.  For the remainder of the afternoon I pledged to practice mindfulness whenever I felt negative thoughts or emotions taking over.  When anxiety reared its ugly head, I would simply tun into my surroundings and take note of what I could see, hear, and smell.  It worked wonders.  Each time I did this my body relaxed and my heart rate slowed.  Incredible.

Even though I felt pretty relaxed, I sat down for 15 minutes to practice visualization before heading to my lesson.  Closing my eyes I pictured every step along the way, from getting dressed to climbing into the saddle.  I pictured starting off my ride at a walk, feeling relaxed and confident.  Next we would practice a jog, and I imagined what that would feel like in my seat and hands.  By the time the 15 minutes were up I felt completely at ease and full of confidence.

I can say without a doubt that all three exercises helped me immensely, and I will aim to make these exercises a part of my daily ritual.  Did they result in a perfect ride?  Unfortunately, no.  This was largely due to circumstances that I had not planned for in my visualization, and which had the consequence of throwing me off my game.  My instructor was in the arena with a new assistant and I was keenly aware of their conversation during the duration of my ride.  However, this kind of distraction would be a perfect time to employ mindfulness as a way to redirect my attention back to my horse.  Perhaps with time mindfulness will become second nature and I will be able to call on it whenever I need to refocus my mind.

Give these exercises a try and let me know if they worked for you.

 

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Unwind Before You Get in the Saddle

I’ve been feeling a little stressed out lately.  It’s nothing major, just the usual stuff made up of kids and work.  Most of the time I handle stress pretty well; over the years I’ve definitely learned to roll with the punches.  But not today.  It started on Saturday morning and has gradually built up bit by bit, until this morning when I woke up and felt like…well, I felt like that hamster in the picture.

What is not helping my stress is knowing that I have a lesson this afternoon.  Riding my horse Austin is akin to being hooked up to a lie detector machine – no matter how hard I try to conceal it, he always knows if I’m feeling stressed and anxious.  As much as I want to be able to clear my head of life’s noise, some days it is next to impossible.  Consequently, I ride without focus and take my anxiety out on the reins which I clench with unyielding hands.  This is not a good way to start the week.

It’s easier to fake an orgasm than to hide anxiety from your horse.

I am very thankful that I read Melinda Folse’s book, Riding Through Thick & Thin, because she provides wonderful tips on how to relax and clear your head of negative thoughts.  Today seems like a perfect time to put some of these exercises to good use.  Here’s what I am going to try:

  1.  Meditation – There are a number of ways to meditate and it’s important that you find the method that works best for you.  Many people are hesitant to try meditation, but it can be the single-most powerful tool to combat stress and negative thinking.  You don’t have to sit on the floor and chant ‘ommm’ to successfully practice meditation.  You don’t even have to entirely clear your mind.  Since I am new to meditation I will take the simple route first and simply sit still in a quiet room and breath.  Taking deep and meaningful breathes is a wonderful way to regain control over your mind when it’s spinning out of control.  Simply taking the time to focus on our breathing can be a therapeutic way to refocus our energy when the stress of life seems to be getting the better of us.  If you prefer a more structured meditation experience, check out one of the many apps on iTunes that guide practitioners through a series of exercises.  Melinda Folse suggests stopbreathethink.org which can help you regain focus in only five minutes a day.
  2. Mindfulness – This is probably one of those terms you’ve heard but don’t quite grasp.  In Riding Through Thick & Thin, Melinda Folse quotes the mindfulness definition from Psychology today: “a state of active, open attention on the present.  When you’re mindful you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance without judging them good or bad…mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”  As with meditation, there are a number of ways to practice mindfulness in our everyday lives.  The basic idea behind mindfulness is to create a moment-to-moment awareness of the thoughts that are passing through our minds.  Today, I will go on a mindful walk where I will only think about the sounds that surround me – my feet striking the ground, the wind blowing, the sound of a car passing by, the sound of my breathing.
  3. Visualization – Taking the time to visualize our ‘perfect ride’ can have a profound affect on our time in the saddle.  Melinda Folse suggests we try to visualize every step we take along the way, including what our bodies look like before we get dressed all the way to climbing into the saddle where we move into our perfect ride.  This can be a wonderful habit to practice whenever we feel anxious about an upcoming event.  I have even encouraged my daughter to use visualization when she is feeling anxious about an upcoming test.

I’ll report back tomorrow and give you a full report of my lesson.  Check back to see if the above methods worked to clear my head.

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Book Review: Riding Through Thick & Thin

Riding Through Thick & Thin, by Melinda Folse

In her latest book, Riding Through Thick & Thin: Make Peace with Your Body and Banish Self-Doubt – In and Out of the Saddle,  author Melinda Folse asks a question that gets to the heart of her thesis: “How can we move beyond any concerns we have about how we look or what we weigh or whether or not our breeches are too tight and just get that feeling?”  This is not a self-help book strictly targeted at plus-sized equestrians; it is a life-changing guide for any woman who is weighed down by negative body issues that hold her back from living the life she longs to live.

Folse makes her intentions clear from the start – to help women overcome their real or imagined body image by encouraging us to make small changes in the way we act and think, thus improving our self-esteem and our connection with our equine partners.   In an age when youth and thinness are worshiped like golden idols on every media platform, is it any wonder that women of all ages suffer from a debilitating affliction of self-doubt?  Is it possible to turn off the negative chatter in our heads and find peace with our true authentic selves?  After reading this marvelous book I can honestly say yes, it can be done.  Melinda Folse’s book is an ambitious one, and one in which she tackles sensitive issues of weight and self-esteem with sensitivity and compassion.  Starting with a determination to banish the myth that larger women cannot be successful riders (personally, some of the riders I admire most are considered plus-size), Folse helps us to understand how our weight has little to do with the ability of our horse to move freely underneath us.  Learning how to find that sweet spot where we are perfectly balanced in the saddle is far more important than the number on a scale.  In seeking to debunk the widely held belief that a horse should only carry 20% of its body weight, Folse points out that finding a suitable horse goes far beyond rider weight vs horse size.  When searching for that perfect match we also need to consider our level of fitness, the horse’s level of fitness, our level of experience and ability to remain balanced in the saddle, the horse’s conformation, as well as the job we are asking the horse to perform.  To prove her point Folse demonstrates how an experienced well-balanced rider will have far less impact on a horse’s back than a thin but unbalanced rider.

Compare your shape with that of a horse breed. We all have a unique shape that renders us strong in some areas and in need of work in others.

While Folse aims to stop the self-doubt that penetrates our minds on a daily basis, she clearly recognizes the importance of fitness and nutrition to help our bodies remain strong and balanced.  By providing simple nutrition fixes and exercises, Folse encourages readers to open their minds to small but necessary lifestyle changes that can significantly improve life both in and out of the saddle.  Of course keeping our bodies healthy and fit is only part of the equation.  To find true peace in the saddle we must learn how to “undo” the negative thought patterns that prevent us from becoming positive and productive riders.  To help set us on this path toward positive thinking, Folse suggests incorporating moments of mindfulness and meditation into our daily lives which has the potential to be “a new and different game-changer in the battle against negative body image because when we focus on our authentic selves rather than our (often-imagined) flaws in our appearance, we free ourselves of what’s been holding us back from the experience with our horses we’ve been looking for.”

Melinda Folse (image courtesy of Horse & Rider Books)

Like a close friend offering support and encouragement, Melinda Folse knows what it takes to find peace within.  Chocked full of exercises for working our bodies, minds and souls, together with helpful tips from a variety of experts, and personal stories from “our sisters”,  Riding Through Thick & Thin  will become your closest ally in the fight to banish self-doubt and find peace in the saddle.

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“Dear Me…” Write a Letter to Your Younger Self

Just as I was getting ready to post a book review, I came across this story on Victoria Beckham.  Coincidentally, this article fits in very nicely with the book I will be reviewing on Monday, and together they fit in with the topic of self-acceptance that I have been covering as of late.

I am not a follower of celebrity news, but when I came across this story about Victoria Beckham I just had to take a look.  The article, which first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Vogue,  is simply a letter written by Victoria Beckham to her 18 year-old self.  Prior to reading the article my knowledge of Victoria Beckham was limited.  I knew that she is married to soccer star David Beckham, has some kind of a clothing line, and was once a member of the British pop band The Spice Girls.  It is easy to look at someone like Victoria Beckham and wonder what on earth she has to stress about.  She’s beautiful, rich, skinny – tough, right?  But reading her honest letter illuminates the same fears and insecurities that plague all of us well into adulthood.   In a very honest voice, she recalls her struggles over weight and acceptance among her peers.  In addition, she candidly admits the mistake she made when opting for breast enlargement surgery, acknowledging the low self-esteem that guided her decision.

By writing a letter to her younger self, Victoria Beckham is signaling that it is o.k. to acknowledge past pain, heartache, and insecurities, but know that who you were then is not who you are now.  No one gets to adulthood without making a few mistakes along the way.  Luckily, we can learn from the past and move forward with greater self-awareness and a determination not to repeat the past.  Many times I have dreamed about going back in time and reassuring my younger self that things will be all right.  Like Victoria Beckham, I experienced bullying in school (also in England at a British boarding school ) and carried the hate of my aggressors around inside of me for a very long time.  Well into adulthood I believed that I was fat, ugly, uncoordinated, and stupid.  Of course I know now that none of this is true, but for a long time their hateful words held me back and prevented me from doing things that I longed to do, i.e.:  horseback riding.  I shied away from doing anything that would put me in the spotlight for fear that I would look ridiculous.

Victoria Beckham enjoys a day riding with her family.

Over the years I have overcome most of these negative images of myself, largely through writing and by pushing myself to participate in activities that were otherwise outside of my comfort zone.  By doing so I have discovered physical and mental strength I never knew I had.  Each new achievement has boosted my self-esteem, allowing me to often wonder what I would say to my younger self if given the chance.

Now it is your turn to write a letter to yourself.  Don’t worry, nobody has to see it but you.  Hopefully, taking the time to revisit the past will afford you insight into the negativity and self-deprecating thoughts that are holding you back from becoming the best horse person you can be.  Whether your goal is to show, or simply to become the best trail rider you can be, looking at the past can be a therapeutic means of moving forward.  When you’re done writing put the letter in a box and walk away.  Then, move forward with a new sense of purpose and determination.

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Is Horseback Riding The Anti-Aging Elixir We’ve Been Waiting For?

No, horseback riding won’t keep you from turning grey, but it just may prevent age-related cognitive decline.  Most likely we all known someone who seems to defy the rules of aging – that one person who, despite their advanced age, has the energy and mental capacity of someone in their twenties.   Now, an article appearing in the New York Times last week suggests a possible reason for this phenomenon may lie in the activities favored by these ‘superagers’.

The article explains the findings from a recent study of superagers  conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in which functional magnetic resonance imagining was used to scan and compare the brains of 17 ‘superagers’ with those of other people of similar age.  The imaging illuminated regions of the brain that showed obvious differences between the two groups.  These regions, located in the ’emotional’ parts of the brain, were thinner in the brains of regular agers, likely the result of age-related atrophy.  However, these same regions in the superagers were nearly identical to those from young adults, seemingly untouched by the passage of time.    This same research found a strong correlation between the thickness of these areas of the brain and high performance on tests related to memory and attention.

So, how do we become superagers?  The answer is both simple and not so easy: work really, really hard at something.  According to the Times’ article, that something can be any task that challenges us either mentally or physically.  Sounds simple enough, right?  The catch is that in order to build up this emotional part of our brain we must be willing to feel a certain amount of yuck.  The problem is that when we feel this way it is tempting to walk away from the thing that is making us feel miserable.  But know that these bad feeling are only temporary, and pushing through the unpleasantness will result in a more youthful brain.   So, remember the next time you are feeling frustrated because you cannot seem to trot on the correct diagonal, or you feel exhausted from trying to keep your heels down, these emotions are signs of brain activity that will keep you mentally astute well into old age.

Pauline Diadick – ‘Nana’ and my father

I have been very fortunate to know a number of superagers over the years.  My beautiful grandmother, who passed away last year at the age of 102, was a definite superager.  Nana, as she was fondly known by her family, refused to use a cane because she claimed that they were “for old people.”  Without a doubt in my mind, Nana remained as sharp as a tack due to the hours and hours she spent playing Bridge.  In addition, she followed a healthy diet and walked regularly when weather permitted.  Nana remained independent, living in her own house and driving a car, until the age of 96.

Ellen Stanton, 86 Years Young

Another superager I’ve been very blessed to have known is Ellen Stanton, owner of Tanglewood Riding Center in Central New York.  Without a doubt, Ellen is my aging role model.  At the age of 86, Ellen continues to manage the successful barn that she and her husband, Dick Stanton, have owned since the 1950’s.  Ellen is up every morning at the crack of dawn to oversee the staff that she employs to clean stalls, feed, and turnout.  Ellen continues to ride, working her horse Amos in the arena during the cold winter months, and enjoying his company on trail rides during the summer.  She doesn’t stop there – Ellen also teaches numerous lessons during the week to children and adults.  Recently, I peeked into the arena and saw her running (yes, running) a dressage pattern in order to demonstrate to her students what the pattern should look like.  Ellen, you are my hero and my inspiration.  When I grow up, I want to be just like you!!

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Go Naked: Make a Resolution to Love Your Body in 2017

If there is one thing that makes me feel sad it’s the constant and unrelenting critique of women’s bodies.  What is truly sad is that most of  these disparaging comments come from ourselves, directing resentment at our own bodies.  Why do we do this?  What’s more, the older we get the more critical we seem to become of the way we look.

The more I ride the more aware I become of how sensual horseback riding is.  I use this term not in a sexual way, but rather to describe the delicate communication that exists between horse and rider.  Every twitch of our muscles, the slightest shift in our hips,  a delicate movement of our shoulders,  is all felt by our mount and communicates to him our desired expectations.  How then are we to make the most of this intimate relationship when we are so full of self-loathing that it clouds our ability to truly connect with our equine partners?

We don’t start off life hating our bodies.

This is a very deep topic, and not one that can be explored in a single post.  However, let’s start with a basic lesson in self-acceptance and love.  We will start by going naked.  That’s right – you need to look at yourself in front of a mirror without clothes.  Why do you need to do this, and how does this relate to riding?  Well, multiple studies have demonstrated that learning to appreciate yourself naked does wonders for self-confidence in every aspect of life.  Think about it – we don’t come out of the womb bemoaning the size of our thighs and rear ends.  Yet, something happens between birth and middle age.  We forget to love ourselves and appreciate all that our body has done for us.  Learning to love and appreciate your body will translate into better communication with your horse and will thus improve your riding.   So stand in front of a mirror sans clothes and ask yourself the following questions:

  1.  Why do I feel uncomfortable looking at myself naked?  Try to dig deep to uncover the reasons why you find it difficult to look at yourself.  Most likely you are comparing yourself to unrealistic images from various media sources.  Remember, the images you see of these ‘perfect’ bodies are not real.  Almost all of the photos seen in print ads are photo shopped and do not represent a realistic portrayal of the human body.  Women are supposed to have curves, that’s why all the great Renaissance painters favored women as their subjects.  Have you ever seen a Renaissance painting of a waif-like model?  Of course not!
  2. Can I use small movements to communicate?  Move your shoulders slightly, tilt your hips, or tighten your ab muscles and you will see how the smallest movements can be felt by your horse.  The most beautiful and graceful riders are not the slimmest – they are the ones who understand how their bodies communicate with their horse through the most subtle of gestures.
  3. What has my body done for me? It is time to thank your body for all that it has done over the course of your lifetime: perhaps it has beaten illness, or taken you on an adventure; maybe it has given and received pleasure, and brought forth new life.  Embrace these experiences that would not have been possible if it wasn’t for that marvelous body of yours.
  4. Do I embrace aging, or am I embarrassed by it?  Unfortunately, we live in a society that expects us to be forever 21.  Personally, I have no desire to ever be 21, or even 41, ever again.  Why?  Because with each new year comes new experiences.  No, my body doesn’t look like it did when I was young, and why should it?  Even though I eat healthily and exercise, age has taken its toll.  Remember that when we are gone from this earth we will be remembered for the lives we have touched and the things we have done to make this world a better place.  No one is ever remembered for the size of the jeans they fit into.

So, make 2017 the year that you start to love your body and all it has done for you.  Know your body so you can use the smallest movement to communicate with your horse.  In time this self-awareness will have a positive impact on all of your relationships, including those we love with four legs.

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