Conditioning

Straight Forward Workout Wednesday 

  

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s a great day to get your sweat on. 
Try this circuit: 

20 air squats 

10 burpees 

5 push-ups 

30s plank

30s side-plank. 
Perform either as many sets as you can for 15 min (because who doesn’t love a challenge), or if you are feeling a little less motivated, do 3 sets of that circuit for a total body workout in a manageable time frame. 

Conditioning

Workout Wednesday’s: 15 minute HIIT

#workoutwednesday is here! Need a quick workout to fit into a busy day? Try this:  
X20 step-ups (alternating legs)

X15 plank jacks (jumping jack legs while holding a plank)

X10 air squats

X5 push-ups

Repeat this circuit as many times as you can in 15 minutes. If you’re working hard that entire time you’re burning 250++ calories and are guaranteed to get your sweat on.

And yes I realize I am a stick figure art protege!

Workout Wednesday’s will be a new feature every week with a quick workout to do at the barn, at home, or anywhere! Also new, starting next week, will be Mobility Monday’s.. Which will focus on stretching and/or correctional exercises.

If you share, don’t forget to use the hashtags #katmahtraining, #rebuildyourride and #rebuildingtheequestrian!

Athletic Therapy, Biomechanics, Chronic Pain, Equestrian, Motor Learning, Posture

Hinging and Locking: Finding true stability in the upper body

The human body is a fascinating thing. When one thing doesn’t work the way it should, something else will adapt to make movement as efficient as possible. The body will also always do it’s best to balance itself, in whatever way it can, which is also accomplished quite often by something doing what another thing should be.

Let’s talk today about the elbows and the mid-upper back.

One of those things should hinge and flow, while the other should stay stable through movement in the tack. One is compared to an elastic band, while the other could be related to the mast and supports on a ship (I don’t know the technical terminology…). One is a hinge point for two dynamic resistors (hand and core), and the other is the stable base point from which all control stems from.

spine_mast

Our elbows are pretty much a direct contact to our horse’s mouth (via the hands). Intuitively this means they should avoid being stiff and instead be fluid (even through resistance) and allow the hands to do their work on the reins. This is another reason why we are coached for thumbs up,or in an “A” position, and coached out of flat hands. Not only is the forearm better positioned with thumbs on top, it is a much more biomechanically efficient position for the muscles that control the wrist and fingers to work from. The ideal position is just a touch past the centre line with the thumb coming into very slight pronation. This also creates an optimal grip position for the ring finger on the reins. Why is this important? The hands and CORE should create active resistance through a ride, NOT the elbows. A firm grip and a steady, strong position is a better solution then a locked arm and a compensated torso position.

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Hand position is an important first step to establishing elbow fluidity. There are two reasons I find that the elbow locks up on riders and you see them riding with stiff arms.. sometimes even to the point of the arm being almost straight.

  1. Postural dysfunction/poor motor control in the upper body. This what we’re going to focus on in this article. What do I always come back to? Body awareness and core activity are a athlete’s best friend- especially for riding athletes. Let’s say the shoulder girdle is unstable. The muscles in the upper back aren’t doing their job and the shoulders are rolling forward. Combined with this, the athlete in question doesn’t have a clue how to stabilize their core through movement and doesn’t have great posture. This is demonstrated by a collapsed forward position, a slouch in the upper back, and in movement, a hinging in the mid-back. Something has to be stiff and stable.. so the elbows (and sometimes the hips) take over.
  1. Fear or nervousness. It’s human nature to stiffen up when we are nervous or afraid. Whether a rider is a novice, or is returning from injury or a bad fall.. underlying fear is completely understandable and I’m sure any rider can admit to being there at least once in their career. Unfortunately, the stiffness developed in the early stages can stick around long-term if it becomes a habit. So coaches, if you notice a returning rider with stiff elbows.. do them a favour and start assisting them in breaking the habit before it forms. The great thing about the musculoskeletal system is that it is under our control, so even if we have fear or an underlying emotional issue causing symptoms such as stiffness… we can learn to control them separately. We’ll discuss this in another post.

These two facts apply to all riders, right across the board. Dressage, hunter/jumper, western dressage, rodeo, western disciplines, and even recreational riders. If you’re stiff in your elbows, likely another piece of your posture puzzle is out of place.

We’ve talked about the upper back and shoulders before, so for anatomy and correctional exercises here I’ll refer you back to this post. Also, if you need a reminder on how to properly activate the core and a few exercises for that.. check out this previous post.

What I haven’t discussed is the hinging effect in the mid back. The exact location is different for everyone, but it is commonly where the thoracic spine and the lumbar spine meet (T-L junction)… right around here:

It’s easiest to see this in the sitting trot. Look for any movement through the mid-back that seems excessive. Many riders, due to not understanding how to use their core appropriately resort to what I like to call “jello-spine”, clench their glutes (locking the hips), round their shoulders and lock their elbows. This creates a false sense of stability, but really it is a very unstable position. I also see this in jumping athletes, both in flat work and in over fences during a release. Arching and hinging in the back makes them feel like their sitting up tall and strong, and while they are sitting up tall, they are taking away efficient stability in the core because of the hinge and opening themselves up to wear and tear injuries in the upper body. This hinging habit is commonly formed early in a rider’s career. “Shoulders back” is a commonly used cue for riders, but coaches need to be aware that athletes like to cheat (whether they know it or not) by hinging the back instead of moving just the scapula (shoulder blades). Missing the correction of this early on enables the habit to be formed. That’s when you meet someone like me down the line when you have chronic pain in your back and shoulders!

Why do we care? Hinging in the spine causes undue stress on the vertebrae/discs/tissues which will cause pain over-time. Postural dysfunctions as a result of that hinging (poor shoulder posture/motor control, head poked forwards, locked elbows during movement) can cause pain, muscular tension, headaches, and stiffness that will translate into our horse’s health and movement. Check out this study done a few years ago that relates a rider’s posture back to the horse’s health.

So, now we know whether we’re locking our elbows or not, and why that’s not a good thing.. How do we fix it?

The first approach I use with my clients is building their awareness of the stiffness. Working at a gait their comfortable in, or even off the horse completely, we first improve their position overall. Then, I like to relate the elbows to the hip. They should be equally fluid. The posting trot is the easiest to demonstrate this in. If the hips are moving appropriate, pushing up and forwards and then down and backwards, the elbows should coordinate to open as the hips open and close as you sit back down. Same pace, same elasticity. Some clients have been so reluctant to let those elbows go that I put them on a lunge line and practice “jello-arms” while holding an activated core. Here the rider is instructed to let the arms hang loose while maintaining the rest of the position correctly. This encourages them to relax, let the arms specifically loosen, and build awareness of how tense they get otherwise.

In the video below, we see the rider in the top frame (before instruction) bouncing and very stiff in the tack. This rider does have a history of fear in the tack and has developed an overall stiffness to compensate. You’ll also notice that her horse is on edge with his head high and back hollowed. The bottom frame is after instruction (keep in mind this was all within a 45min session, so changes are small). You’ll likely notice less bounce in her seat. This was after teaching core activation and encouraging hip movement. Her hands and elbows are better, but not great yet.. but you can already notice her horse beginning to relax with the small changes to her seat.


Awareness is always the first step. Then rebuilding posture, then improving fluidity. I’ll will discuss the relationship between emotions and false stability (stiffness) in the body in another post, as it is also an important piece in the posture puzzle. Having somebody there to help you build your awareness of hinging and stiffness in the upper body is a great first step. Then trying the Wall Slides and Retraction exercises, along with the core exercises is this post and this post are the first steps in postural correction and improving fluidity in the tack!

Contact me at katmahtraining@gmail.com if you have questions about your position and how to take the next steps in bettering your performance for you and your horse!

Athletic Therapy, Biomechanics, Equestrian, Motor Learning

The Heels Down Conundrum

From the day we start riding we were told to get our heels down as far as we can. Keeping the heels down and the toes up is a common thing to want to instil into a new rider, mainly for safety reasons. Us riders spend most of our time functioning off of the ball of our foot in the stirrup. Though it’s common to see even the most advanced riders jamming their heels down and keeping them that way. The forced rigidity in keeping the heels down this way is not necessarily a benefit to us in the tack (or in the rest of life).

Lets start with a brief anatomy lesson.

ankle

There is a whole bunch of stuff in the foot and ankle, but the joint we want to focus on today is the “talocrural joint” which is the joint that moves the foot/ankle into “dorsiflexion” (heels down) and “plantarflexion (pressing a gas pedal). The muscles that do dorsiflexion include the muscles at the front of the leg, the main one being tibialis anterior, while the big meaty calf muscles at the back (gastrocnemius and soleus) do plantarflexion. The talus bone fits into the Mortise (shown well on the picture on the left), a dome like joint that allows for a rolling/gliding when the ankle moves into dorsi and plantarflexion. There are ligaments surrounding this and tendons running above and around this joint as well.

Got all that? Good.

heels down1When the heel is forced downwards and locked there rigidly the tibialis anterior muscle (and it’s helpers) are contracting while the gastroc and soleus muscles in the back are stretched. Not only is this overkill for both muscle groups, when you add in any amount of force travelling through that lower leg and into the ankle (gravity plus your weight plus the force created by your movement and your horse’s movement) we get a not so happy combination for that ankle. Rigidity in any joint creates resistance for force through the tissues. If there is a resistance it means the force won’t travel very efficiently and the joints starting in the ankle, all the way up to the knee and hip will take on more strain then they might otherwise.

Now if we take the example of the rider above who is riding without stirrups, but still forcing those heels down as if her life depended on it we encounter another issue of rigidity in the leg. While she is dead focused on that perfect position and heels locked down.. she is locking in that dorsiflexed position which means she has her tibialis working to it’s full potential and the calf on stretch. Holding that position with no support from the stirrup takes away some helpful physics, and I’d bet that as a result her knee is also quite stiff and her hips aren’t moving very well either.

So while there won’t be much rebound force from the stirrup travelling upwards due to stiffness in the joints.. the muscle tension alone will restrict movement at the ankle, knee, and hip.. and when those guys don’t move well something else has to.. and that’s where we run into compensation pain.

So.. we know we need our heel down for safety and function… but now I’m saying don’t try and get them down?

Yes. After the initial learning phase where none of us can tell if our heels down or not (hence the constantly being told to get those heels down).. we need to learn how to relax that ankle too.

When the ankle is fluid all the force travelling down the body and up from the stirrup will be absorbed into the tissues and repurposed to aid in movement. Let’s imagine trotting. As the horse’s feet meet the ground force travels up from the ground, through them, and into you via the stirrup. Here you want to have a nice neutral heel position and let gravity pull your heel down as the tissues take the force. The heel will then naturally move back up to the neutral position as the weight and force move on.. until the next step. If the ankle is rigid in this same example, the force has nowhere to go and gets trapped in the first joint it encounters.. sending stiffness up the rest of the leg and making for a rougher ride.

This same example can be visualized when landing from a jump, or cantering…

Fluidity is a big thing for certain joints. The ankle, knees, hips, and elbows all need to have a certain degree of relaxed functionality to allow for force absorption and repurposing. With this in mind, then all those joints can move very efficiently and allow for the core, upper back, and hands to be stable.. Check out this video of some slow motion dressage. There are some great examples of the rider letting his ankle be fluid with the movement.

If you’re having trouble visualizing this, remember that as riders we have to mirror our horse’s movements.. and not interfere with them. If you look at a horse’s ankle as they move.. you’ll see a significant amount of flexion towards the ground as they impact, and a spring back as they move on. This is exactly what we want for our own ankles. Without this everything get’s much bouncier.

downward_dog_hamstring_R While the best way to develop this fluidity is practice in the saddle and getting a feel for it.. “Walking the dog” as shown in this picture is good for feeling out your ankle mobility (and stretching your hamstrings and calves while you’re at it!). To do this, get into a downward dog position and alternate bending your knee and relaxing your legs. Then, next time you’re riding a trot or canter.. focus a bit on your ankles. You may find that as you develop the ability to be conscious of your subtalar joint your sitting trot gets much easier to sit!

As always, if there are any questions or you’d like to submit a video for me to analyze of your riding.. shoot me an email at katmahtraining@gmail.com

Athletic Therapy, Biomechanics, Conditioning, Equestrian, Motor Learning, Posture

Why hours in the saddle isn’t enough

The way we train riders (and consequently horses) needs to change.

Having had experience in the horse world, and the strength training and conditioning world- it’s becoming clear to me why some riders become great, and others reach a plateau and don’t progress past a certain point.

In my experience, the level of a rider is often based on experience levels and results. Obviously, in any athletic endeavour (when one is competing anyway), consistent results prove who has got it and who doesn’t. So.. how do many coaches and riders choose to train potential winners? By having them ride as much as possible, schooling a variety of scenarios (on a variety of horses) to train performance. High level riders often also end up training or riding horses to aid in making a living, to further their skills, or just for the pure joy of it. All this builds experience and gives us the technique as equestrians we need to excel.

But it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

You don’t see elite hockey, football players, dancers, runners, cyclists, tennis, or any other brand of athlete focusing on only what they do as the core of the sport. That’s how you burn out a career, break down a body, and limit potential.

A rider who trains themselves only in the saddle, to fatigue, with elicit faulty movement patterns (if they aren’t there already) and exacerbate postural deficiencies. These will translate to their horses. Have you ever gotten on your horse after a long day at work, or after riding a few other horses, and been frustrated with how your horse performs?

Yeah, me too.

But what did you do next? Did you work that horse harder in an attempt to school the little glitches out that day? Thats usually the first instinct… but what about looking at you’re own performance? How was your position? What was your energy level? What was your posture and musculature telling the horse?

When I work with riders, often the first thing that happens is I watch them ride. I can predict what their riding position will be like just by looking at their movement and postures on the ground, and I can give them cues to fix their position on the horse.. which help in the short term. Having a coach, or someone, there to continuously remind them to correct postures in the saddle every time they ride is an asset as well. But… the greats don’t have someone constantly reminding them of the fixes they need to make. It’s instinctual. It’s in their neuromuscular patterning. This is the same across all sports.

How do you get that into the equestrian athlete?

It won’t happen on the horse.. right away.

The first example that pops into my mind is those suffering from low back pain. One of the common motor errors I see in those riders is a locking of the hips, and absorbing and moving from the lumbar spine (incorrectly thinking their using the hips). Taking this rider and showing them how to correctly stabilise their core, locking the ribcage through to the top of the hips, then relaxing and allowing fluidity through a hip movement (i.e., teaching them how to hinge at the hips instead of the low back) will sometimes rapidly change their pain and greatly change their function. When you show them this off the horse, in a stable (no pun intended) learning environment (on the ground) they can build the appropriate motor patterning from their brain to their tissues. THEN we can put them back onto the horse and recreate the experience. Now you see them riding in less pain, with improved functionality in the saddle…. and you usually see a big difference in how the horse moves as well! This is one of endless examples of retraining movements in our athletes.

Taking them off the horse and doing specific training to re-train the motor patterns that are best suited to their body, movement, and goals is how you do that. Not by having them school more, train harder in the saddle, and ride more rounds.

I’ve said it over and over again, the sport is lacking professionals and guidance in exactly that. Riding athletes usually have to source out their own professionals to help them with that side of things, but then those professionals can only take them to a certain point because the professional is often unfamiliar with the equestrian disciplines. The resources are growing, slowly and steadily, but it comes down to riders not getting stuck into old fashioned training patterns, coaches resourcing, learning, and accepting outside help from trained movement professionals (preferably those who have an understanding of what we do as riders!), and an overall desire from all of those involved in the sport to better ourselves.

PS- while I’m not a horse trainer, I would place a large bet on the fact that moving towards a more holistic view to train the rider (of any discipline or performance goal) will directly and hugely impact how our horse performs and reacts to training.

This weekend I’ve had the luck to do some extensive movement and training workshops with one of the world’s best when it comes to spine biomechanics research (and training world class athletes of all varieties). I’ve found myself madly scribbling down notes and ideas during lectures and workshops on how to bring fresh air into the world of training the equestrian athlete. My head is so full of inspiration for the riders I’ve seen and am working with- and I’m bursting at the seams to share and grow my ideas. So forgive me if this post sounded like a rant! We may be unique in our sport, but as always we need to treat ourselves like athletes and desire to better ourselves in every way! Those of you who train with me, or are attending future workshops with me… I hope you’re as excited as I am to bring some new ideas into the sport!

Biomechanics, Chronic Pain, Equestrian, Posture

Highlights from Hi Point Horsemanship

This weekend I was lucky enough to do a clinic at Hi Point Horsemanship for the Western Dressage Assoc. From the first minute on I was met with pure enthusiasm and focused attention on my words on biomechanics, posture, and my rebuilding the equestrian project. As someone who is new to being a clinician/speaker.. it still amazes me sometimes how word of new ideas travels fast, and how dedicated the athletes in our sport are to bettering themselves however they can. I didn’t give myself too many guidelines to follow for this event, as it was the first time I’d worked with this many people in a day and I wanted to let the experience guide me a little. After giving a short lecture on the basics of chronic pain, posture, biomechanics and the rider (similar to what I did earlier this month for the Dressage Assoc.), I demonstrated the first level of “rebuilding” exercises for the rider on the ground. It was great to see the riders excited to try these “simple” exercises out.. down on the barn floor and everything! We then moved on to the one on one sessions. Here I did a brief postural/movement screen of the rider before they got on and warmed up.

I was really interested to see how what I saw in the rider’s posture manifested into their ride. A common thing I saw in a few of the riders that day were rotations at the femur, which more often then not manifested as one of two things: a rotation at the foot (turning the foot to the outside in the stirrup), or a shift at the pelvis in the saddle.

The most common complaint from the riders was a history of low back pain, which didn’t surprise me. What I saw in many of the riders once they were on their horses and moving was a tendency to move more from the mid-back area then from the elbows and the hips. One rider in particular had set a goal for herself that day to improve her fluidity in the tack, especially in her upper body. When she started she tended to lean her torso forward, stiffen at her elbows, and in her posting trot was very quick and rigid. My first goal with her was to slow down her rhythm. Going back to the basics I asked her to just slow her posting until her and her horse found a more relaxed pace at the trot. From there we worked on visualising she was sitting in a chair instead of on a horse. This worked really well to help her decrease her hip angle and relax back into her posting rhythm. The next step was to get the elbows more elastic. What worked for her was picturing her elbows being in co-ordiation with her hips in the posting trot. As her hips extended forwards in her trot, her elbows opened slightly as well, allowing for a relaxed movement with the trot.. as her hips sank back into the saddle, her elbows lightly flexed following the movement. Slowing the positing rhythm was a big part of the equation for a few riders… everything else gets much easier to control when we’re not moving at hyper speed in the saddle!

Another cool moment for me was working with one of the last riders of the day who overall had a good position. She did have a slight shift to the left in her torso (collapsing at the rib cage and hiking the hip up), so to help build awareness of this I had her raise her left arm straight in the air. In this position while moving it’s next to impossible to let the rib cage collapse into the hip. It’s a good warm up for the rest of the ride if this is a known problem. This next thing with this rider was practicing getting a neutral spine while at a strong trot and canter. This is where some magic happened. Being a rider who is very aware already, both of us noticed this right off the bat. When she focused on getting her posture right: tucking the belly button towards the spine, sitting tall and keeping her shoulders back, with her eyes ahead.. her horse’s trot transformed from really nice to powerful and gorgeous to observe (and I’m sure sit on!).

Every rider I worked with had unique postural stuff going on, on and off the horse.. and it was inspiring to see how hard they worked and took my advice to correct it. I spent about 30-40 minutes with each rider, and by the end they all had red faces and increased breathing rates.. which tells me they were working hard and focusing on them through the simple exercises we did.

I got lots of practice making my voice loud and talking at a pace that was fairly audible for normal human ears, and as well built my tool-box of things to build a rider’s awareness and improve their ride. For example, the one arm in the air to help with a collapse in the torso was a complete experiment earlier in the day. After it worked on every rider after that.. it’s proved to be a good tool. Same with the “sitting into a chair” visualisation. I used that one two of the riders at this clinic, both immediately responded to it. I feel like I learned as much as the riders did this weekend. And I’m addicted to this feeling. Hoping that I have the chance to work with many more dedicated riders soon and continue to build my own skills.. and “rebuild the equestrian”!

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.