Saturday, May 21, 2016

When to Push and When to Rest

In training when the horse isn't feeling the way we want it to, we are faced with the decision of whether to keep pushing harder to get the desired execution of an exercise/movement, or to back off and take a short walk break to reevaluate the process of what we are trying to do. The toughest question to answer is "do I need to ask more to push past this block or boundary this horse has put up, and make it work harder to move the training onwards?" or "is this too much for him, does he need a break to let his muscles recover from this hard work?". When we know more about the implications of either decision it is easier to make a judgement based on what we feel.

By pushing the horse harder to create the feeling you want, lactic acid builds up in their muscles and fatigue sets in pretty quickly as the horse is obviously struggling with the movement. You haven't got long before that fatigue starts to hinder performance so you need make sure you work with intent and efficiency in that short period that you decide to push them harder. 

If you immediately come up with an exercise that will help fix the problem you're having, then its best to use that exercise as accurately as possible with extreme concentration on one thing you want to achieve, not six things that you decide need to be better right at that moment. It is better to achieve one prioritised thing in that short period of intense work than to try and address too many things for the horse to cope with, resulting in a tired yet unlearned horse. If you don't have an immediate solution to what is happening, instead of tiring the horse out while you rack your brain for what to do, just take a walk break, clear your mind and then start again when you have a plan.

If our ego starts to take over and we want to achieve an advanced movement  with a horse that isn't ready, then the heavy work that is involved in that causes micro-tears in the muscles because they don't have sufficient strength to deal with that work yet. The micro-tears can form scar-tissue in the muscle and become extremely tight, and very difficult get rid of with a normal stretch routine. This is how horses end up tight and locked up, and need massage or physiotherapist attention to work out all the knots. Sure it isn't the end of the world, but it does slow down your overall progress - slow and steady wins the race!

The best way to achieve advanced movements is to keep working on basics and foundations and build up slowly from there, when the horse lets you know it is ready. If you truly listen to your horse, you will be able to feel when he is ready for anything more advanced because his muscles will be sufficiently strong enough.

A problem that creeps in when we decide to push harder is that us as riders also start to fatigue. We can't seem to use our leg as strong, stay upright and strong with our upper bodies, and we compromise our position in order to make the horse move the way we want it to because our neutral riding position just won't cut it in terms of needing the strength to make the change. When we start to feel compromised it is always best to stop and take a breather. I really struggle to understand how anybody expects the horse to do the work sufficiently if not even the rider is able to keep strong and composed on its behalf. A floppy, uncontrolled rider will only throw the horse more off balance and create stress and tension in his mind, again causing muscles to tighten as a panic response.

In every session always try to put yourself in your horse's shoes and try to imagine what he could be feeling by the little signals he is giving you. Horses are very transparent, we just sometimes end up looking straight through it in order to find something more. Ride what you feel, push when you feel the ability is there and rest when the quality of work decreases.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mastering the Art of Independent Riding and Practice

A lot of riders struggle with knowing what to do when they ride by themselves at home. Some people say to make a plan before you get on and stick to it, others suggest having a set routine for every training session for consistency. Everyone will have their own preference for how to do it (once discovered) but from working on my own yoga practice at home, I learnt a few things that I definitely now apply to my training sessions with the horses.

It's easy to be motivated to go to a lesson with your trainer or get in the car and go to a yoga class because we are getting told what to do and have more mental capacity when the structure of a session is put into someone else's hands. But  on a day-to-day basis sometimes I don't feel like riding a particular horse. Sometimes I don't feel like getting on my mat at home and doing yoga. For me, I get that feeling of "I can't be bothered to work that hard today" because I always have high expectations of myself. Most equestrians do, which is why we get back on our horse day after day to try and improve. But as humans we can't possibly put in that same amount of high energy and great effort every single day, whether it be because we didn't get a good sleep the night before, our body aches from exercising, we are hungover, or perhaps we just aren't in  the best mood, we have to learn to just accept what is at that point in time and work with it, not beat ourselves up because we aren't performing "as we should".

My favourite yogini Kino McGregor says that if you're struggling for motivation to do your daily yoga practice, just set an intention to stand at the top of your mat and take five deep, slow breaths. If you've done that and you really don't want to do anything else, that's fine, because at least you achieved something. But more often than not you will keep going because you're already there and focused. So maybe it's five more breaths, maybe it's just one sun salutation, maybe its three. You must listen to your body, feel your way through the practice and your body will tell you what it needs.

This is much the same for riding. Every time I get on one of my horses I listen and feel. I don't come at them with orders and demands for what I want that day, I let them tell me how they are feeling. As weird as that sounds, trust me, you can feel it. I pick up my reins and see how their back feels, I do some leg-yields to unveil any stiffness, then move into trot and discover if they are in front of my leg, tight over the back, rigid in the jowl and mouth, stiff with one hind leg etc. I don't like setting an intention before I get on, because I could get on and feel something completely different to what I expected, then get frustrated that my plan isn't working and then feel like I failed to have a productive training session. It's like us going to the gym or doing yoga and forcing ourselves to do handstand practice when our arms are sore and we are a bit dehydrated and feeling light-headed. It's never going to work.... Then what is the plan?! We have to make a new one, however we already feel exhausted and disappointed in ourselves - not a great vibe to create a session from.

I never want to get off a horse feeling like I didn't make it better than when I got on, therefore I need to feel what is wrong as a first priority in order to fix it. And then from there, my intentions set in and I get to work on fixing and creating. I say creating because our sessions shouldn't revolve around stopping the horse from doing everything wrong. It should be proactive and encouraging, making adjustments while helping the horse to achieve more with itself. Gareth Hughes once told me that if while I'm riding around and I get the feeling I could do a half-pass, do it. If the idea of a line of tempi changes comes into my head, go for it. The idea obviously came into my head for a reason - because I'm feeling like the horse is capable at that moment in time - therefore I should move forward to that and try it, work on it, create something out of it.

This is the same with yoga practice, where I may be working on some forward bends and start to feel congestion in my hip flexors so the idea will come into my mind to do some backbend work, because it feels good for my body at that point in time. I may be doing some hip-opening and I get an idea to flow into an arm balance, because it feels good to use the newfound openness for a more advanced pose, and therefore move my practice forwards.

You have to have faith in yourself that you can fix whatever you are feeling is wrong, and be brave enough to use what you have just fixed to create something stronger and push it to a higher level. Be humble with your beginnings and set small intentions, but believe in yourself enough that anything is possible with the work you are doing.