Conditioning, Equestrian

The Agile Rider: Mind and Body

Agility- Defined as the ability to control direct of the body, or body segment during rapid movement, agility is a commonly used training method in many sports.  Agility has also become common in the equestrian world as a way to work with horses, training obedience and giving riders a fun way to work with their partners. Unfortunately, it isn’t as common to see riders doing agility training for themselves. Agility is related closely to reactivity, and any rider can appreciate the potential of being reactive in the saddle. Reaction time is the time between the onset of a stimulus and completion of the action, the stimulus could be your horse falling to the outside and your resultant action of using correction aids to re-balance around a corner.

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Athletes of all sports, riding included, rely on complex neural pathways and biofeedback to keep them performing at their best. This is where reflexive habits and motor patterns are born.. a topic that will frequent this blog quite a bit. It could be argued that as agility training is meant to improve quickness and reactivity in sports where athletes are asked to do a variety of quick movements with their bodies and riders are sitting on another animal doing majority of the movement that agility isn’t a key aspect of our sport. However, while riders do have four extra legs moving us through space- riders are required to react to a variety of things throughout the course of a ride. The decision making process involved with the sport can only be enhanced by training the body to speed up the neuromuscular response.
Recent research has shown that agility like training can help improve concentration and focus in athletes (and general population). Moving your body in quick sequence in reaction to any given stimulus takes brain power-  it’s something I do a lot of with my older adults class. Working on the agility ladder every week, giving them new patterns to do- they always tell me they can feel their brain working just as much as their body is- trying to coordinate their movements and focus their mind on the task.
I talk a lot about confidence and how improving fitness can lead to increased confidence. One of my favourite quotes related to this comes from Harvey Penick:
 “If there is doubt in your mind…how can your muscles know what their supposed to do?”.
A rider’s reaction to any given thing while in the saddle (or on the ground or that matter) can mean the difference between a clear round and knocking a rail, or a perfect transition and a sloppy one. The horse’s performance is a mirror of our own, how can we expect them to be sure-footed and agile, if we are slow and uncoordinated with our cues. From another point of view, reaction and agility can make a big difference when it comes down to staying the tack during unpredictable incidents. Yes, there is only so much a rider can do if a horse decides to bolt, stop, rear, etc. They are large animals with their own thought processes. But a rider who has trained their body to react quickly and efficiently no matter the situation is much better prepared to make a good recovery then one who is a few milliseconds off of the movement. You find a long spot to a big oxer half way through a course- wouldn’t you rather be able to react appropriately and not be left behind, compared to the sketchy alternative?
Much of athleticism is thoughtlessly performing complex movements and making split second decisions. Often the difference between good riders and great riders is in the subtle decisions. Finding that perfect distance every time doesn’t just take an ability to see the distance, it takes appropriate timing of cues, and following through with each decision before, during, and after each jump. The same can be said for riding a dressage test, performing a reining pattern, on the endurance trail, or any other sub-division of the sport. Each has its own set of decisions to be made. Decisions are much easier to make when there is efficacy behind them.
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While riders aren’t required to directly move quickly, change direction, and transition through movements- they are indirectly responsible for coordinating all those things through appropriate use of their body weight, fluidity of their joints (requiring stability), effective use of aids, and good timing. We’ve all seen riders who are lacking in any of the above qualities, and it’s not always nice to watch.  Agility incorporates many factors from the body: balance, coordination, joint stability, strength, power, and flexibility. It asks the mind to focus and builds reactivity throughout the entire body as a result.
If we expect it from our horses, we have to expect it from ourselves.
Biomechanics, Chronic Pain, Equestrian, Posture

The missing piece in rider performance

What defines an athlete? A unlimited dedication to the betterment of themselves and their sport is the first thing that comes to my mind.

The equestrian athlete is no exception. Through all levels of the sport, countless hours of schooling, grooming, and monitoring the horse’s nutrition, conditioning, and movements are normal requirements of any rider with competitive goals. Lessons and clinics are attended with the goal of improving equitation, position, and ability on the horse.

And, like any other athlete, equestrians run into aches and pains. Whether it be from a nasty fall, or a long competition. A recent research article by Kraft and his colleagues in 2014 stated that 88% of equestrians across the dressage, eventing, and show-jumping disciplines experienced some form of chronic low back pain. Even more troubling then that statistic is their introductory statement that implied equestrian athletes accepted chronic pain, especially back pain, as a part of their sport.

Wait… what?

To the rest of the world, athletes often seem to be one of two things (or both simultaneously): superhuman and/or insane. Every sport requires it’s own unique dose of crazy. Riders have the extra shot of nutty by being the athletes who climb aboard large animals and ask them to move quickly and leap over large objects, do complex patterns and movements, and not throw us into the dirt. With this being said, it does seem likely that pain comes along with the territory.

But does it have to?

The specific reasons behind why back pain is so prevalent in riders is whole other post. I’ll get into that another day. What it really comes down to is the way we sit, stand, walk, and move. Chronic pain is usually a result of muscular imbalances, compensations left over from old injuries, or faulty biomechanics. All of these things are fixable. So.. why do most riders accept them as normal? It may be for a lack of opportunity and education into how to fix them.

Something that I think is beginning to change.

In 2014 a handful of new research was released specific to the riding athlete in areas of biomechanics, exercise science, and pain. Finally! A step in the right direction!

Coaches all over are great at giving tips on how to improve position in the tack. But what often gets forgotten is that most equestrian athletes spend more time out of the saddle then they do in.. and any postural habits that occur out of the tack are probably going to factor into how you sit in the tack. Why is this important? That whole faulty biomechanics factor in what causes pain and dysfunction. Posture is the basis for how we move, and how we move is an integral part of how we function in any aspect of our lives.

This site will be dedicated to giving equestrian athletes a resource to bridge the gap between what seems to be missing from classical riding training. On a regular basis I will explore the latest research and practices in helping the rider achieve their best in and out of the saddle. If you’d like a particular topic explored, or have questions about your biomechanics I can be reached at katmahtraining@gmail.com.