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The Fine Art of Hurting — Er Horsemanship

Since I came to California to ride I guess I ought to talk about how that’s been going.  Very well.  Very exhausting.  What I have sadly begun to realize is that if I’m going to ride at the level that interests me — FEI (which includes Prix St. George, Intermediare I and II, and Grad Prix) — I have to be in incredible physical shape.

I had joined a health club in New Mexico and had started working with a trainer just before I left for L.A.  I found when I got back on Vento that first day I was riding better.  I could “hold him on my back”, and use my seat to control his impulsion much more easily.  That meant the combination of weight and sprint training was working so I took out a one month membership at a club that is just around the corner from my hotel.

I’ve been getting up early and hitting the club at around 6:30 for an hour of training.  Then back to the hotel to change into riding clothes and then off to the barn.  I talked with Lauren to see if this got any easier.  It doesn’t.  She told me when she came back to L.A. to ride Gunter Seidel’s horses for a week she felt like she’d been beaten with clubs.  

In New Mexico there were no upper level horses to ride.  She was training youngsters or riding people’s horses for them that weren’t trained or were unable to do the upper level movements.  When she had to ride eight upper level horses a day she found her core strength was gone.

Which means that unless I just hold at the reins at the buckle and amble off for a trail ride I’m never going to be able to let up on the physical training.
What exactly am I talking about.  I need extremely strong back muscles, primarily my lats.  I need enormous abdominal strength, but I have to keep my hips very flexible.  I need the outer muscles on my upper thighs to be strong enough to close on Vento when I want him to slow down.  I need a strong lower back to keep him pushing forward.  We call that “having a horse in front of your leg”.  I need stamina to do this for forty-five minutes to an hour six days a week.

So here’s my routine to try and achieve all this.  I arrive at the club, and stretch briefly.  Then I hop on a bike and ride hard for seven to ten minutes finishing with a two minute mad sprint.  I then head to the first set of weights, and do three rotations on the rowing machine, or curls, etc.  After three sets I return to the bike for another three minutes of fast hard riding concluding in  a sprint.  I then go to the next set of weights, and so on and so on.

After thirty minutes I move to core strengthening.  I use a balance ball, and set up so it’s tucked against the small of my back, feet pressed against the wall.  I then start my sit ups.  At home my trainer has me holding onto a bungee, and he’s creating resistance.  I do a set of twenty-five sit ups.

Then I get on the mat and I do the plank for one to two minutes.  It works the deep muscles in your abdomen.  Then I get back on the ball and do another twenty-five sit ups.  I alternate those until I’ve done three rotations.
Then I get one of the heavy balls, lay on my back on the mat.  I stretch out my arms behind me, lift up my legs, and bring the ball to meet my ankles in a strong crunch.  I do three sets of those.

Then I stretch out again, and I’m done.  I drink a lot of water during the hour.
So now I’m on the horse, and I pretend I’m pulling a weight now behind my back or I’m in the rowing machine.  I concentrate on pulling my lats down and together.  I keep my core muscles very engaged an “on”.  Vento has this huge, floating trot, but to get it and keep it means my gut muscles are working overtime.  In addition to using my back and stomach to push him out in front of me, and to encourage him to drop his hindquarters, and lift his front end I’m also timing little tiny half-halts so he doesn’t just run from my leg which is encouraging him to move forward.

My leg says “go”, by my upper thigh and my fingers on the reins says “wait”  These half-halts have to be timed to correspond with when his inside leg and shoulder steps forward.  

My ring fingers are also vibrating the reins, moving the bit gently in his mouth to soften each corner of his jaw.  If either one of us gets stiff the whole thing falls apart.

I’m also reminding myself to ride him off the outside rein and shoulder.  When you turn a horse you don’t use the inside rein and pull them into the new direction.  You point your knees (and thus your seat bones) where you want to go, and you use the upper thigh to push him into the new direction.  So if I want Vento to turn right.  I use the left rein and left leg to make that turn.
Meanwhile my right hand is encouraging him to flex right, and my my inside (right) leg especially the knee is giving him something to bed around while my right leg pushes him into the left rein so that I can better control the turn.
Add to this that I’m hyper-aware of where his hind legs are tracking.  The outside hind leg can’t swing wide or it ruins his balance on the turn.  His hind legs have to come straight up beneath my left and right seat bones.  Which means I have to have equal weight in both stirrups and on each seat bone as I sit in the saddle.

When you are riding at this level you are literally riding _every step_ and making tiny adjustments to keep the rhythm, the suppleness, the softness over his back, keep his belly up, poll up and nose out so he’s not muscling himself off his under neck, but using the muscles that run along the top of his neck.
And now I have to go to the gym (ugh), so more about horsemanship later.

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