It is nearly Christmas as I write this, and my house is full of presents to be distributed, decorations around the living room, and a regularly replenished store of mulled wine in the kitchen! Being the festive time of year, I also start thinking about my New Year’s resolutions. Long ago I gave up deciding on New Year’s resolutions which require me to give something up, and instead I try to focus on a positive challenge or saying to apply to my somewhat busy world. I seem to be more successful at looking to achieve something, than trying to give something up and perhaps that is true for many others too. Ironically, those bad habits I had previously focussed on in my New Year’s resolutions are far less prevalent in my life anyway, if I have a positive challenge to aim for!
For a few years, these challenges have been a little excessive, such as completing a marathon and attempting a 70.3 Ironman, so last year I resolved to just ‘smile and wave’ more and as a result I am a happy but slightly fatter version of me again. So next year’s resolution will be more physically focussed again, incorporating some charity fund raising to get me fitter as I ‘smile and wave’ each day. The benefit for my horses will be that as a fit rider I am far more balanced and comfortable to carry each time I ask them to go out jumping or hack out for hours at a time.
Rider weight is an issue for many horses, perhaps not so they show immediate clear symptoms of discomfort, but a heavy unbalanced rider prevents the horse from holding his back in a position where there is no additional stress placed on the vertebral column (spine) underneath. When researchers have looked at the position of the horse’s spine relative to the horse’s spine in full extension (dipped down) and full flexion (lifted up), the horse’s natural position which I call ‘neutral’, is much closer to its position when at full extension than full flexion. Therefore when you introduce rider weight, there isn’t much room for the horse to drop the back before the spine is at full extension, resulting in stiffness, discomfort and potentially long term degenerative changes in the vertebral column. A young horse without the core and spinal muscle development to support rider weight will soon become uncomfortable, hence the need for unridden work as well as ridden. Just because a horse ‘looks strong’ doesn’t mean it can immediately work for long periods of time, even if it is well behaved.
However, this isn’t just an issue for young horses. Many horses obediently struggle on, carrying riders who are not giving their horse the best opportunity to carry them correctly. So how can we address this to give all our horses the best possible chance of moving comfortably and extending their working lives? Firstly, we all need to recognise that no matter how many years riding experience we have, and no matter how good a rider we might be or might have once been, a lack of fitness makes us less co-ordinated and less well-balanced simply due to the fact that our muscle strength and nervous system co-ordination are weaker.
Riding more will help but we will still tend to favour certain muscle groups as we get tired in the saddle, so cross-training in other sports is definitely valuable. Running and cycling, (especially on rollers – look this up as I think it would make for a highly amusing post-Christmas dinner challenge!) all improve cardio-vascular fitness as well as core and lower body strength, and you can feel a difference within a few weeks of starting training. Swimming is excellent for overall fitness, or kettlebell exercises can be used to target different muscle groups throughout the body.
And the best part? You really don’t need to be doing lots of cross-training to feel a change in your own riding, and for your horse to get the benefits. Ten minutes of kettlebell a day, or 2 x half hour sessions running, cycling or swimming every week is enough to get a change which you and your horse can feel. Whatever you choose, (and yes there are plenty of other forms of exercise,) always make sure you are in good health before commencing a new exercise programme and if necessary, have a health check up with your doctor first. Then plan your new activity into your diary, make a commitment to carry it through for a whole month and then see how much better you feel by the end of January. With a bit of luck and good planning, you will have the results which encourage you to keep it up through the rest of the year.