Saturday, November 27, 2010

After the Gorge

Thanksgiving is over and the leftovers are basically gone. Now that we’re not feeling like overstuffed pillows anymore it’s time to get back to reality.  For me anyway.   After this latest gorge-fest known as Thanksgiving, and with the rest of the holiday season's temptations not too far off, I've had to be honest with myself about where I'm at fitness-wise and ask myself what I can do to improve my own fitness, not only for good health, but to be a better rider - for both myself and my horses.  And I've realized I'm not as fit as I used to be and could be doing more to get myself in better shape for riding.  Usually I'd save this sort of thing for New Year's resolutions, but I've decided to get an early start this year.

After all, I make sure my horses are fit, but what about my level of fitness?  Once I've made the commitment to ride, I feel I should make the commitment to achieve a certain level of fitness in order to be a good rider.  As we are heading into the cold miserable winter months, there may be less riding and more down time.  It does not take long to pack on a few extra pound as we hibernate; don’t ask me how I know this, I just do....  But I feel to be a balanced, effective rider I need to have some degree of fitness, and this is maybe something that concerns all of us who ride.

Everyone knows we should eat healthy and maintain as close to ideal a weight as possible.  But let’s face it, losing weight is incredibly difficult and exercising is usually tedious, so what’s the best way to stay fit?  Using our horses as exercise machines has always seemed a tad unfair to me.  While riding can be part of a balanced exercise plan, we shouldn’t rely on it completely for our fitness goals.  Riding a horse is good exercise but, unless we ride quite a lot every day, riding by itself as our only exercise simply will not keep most of us physically fit.  This is just my opinion and I’m sure many will disagree with me, but that’s okay; opinions are just opinions and they are meant to be disagreed with.  And for some people, fitness comes easy and the riding they do is more than enough for them to say in shape.  Of course, I'm not that lucky.  And since this blog is basically geared to the aging rider, I thought that perhaps I would jot down a few exercises that I’ve done/do that I feel have worked for me and may work for you if you also find yourself needing a little extra help.

Getting older isn’t for wimps and I’ve noticed that, as we get older, we need even more exercise than we did when we were younger.  Nothing snaps back as quickly as it did in the past.  Ligaments and muscles seem to harden and contract and the best thing we can do to combat this is to stretch regularly.  It’s probably one of the best exercises we can do to keep our bodies flexible.  Stretching for flexibility is great for the stiffness and decreased mobility that comes with age.  I have personally tried the Equi-Stretch videos (below) and would recommend them.  I’ve also got to finally make the time to take up some form of Yoga. I keep meaning to, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.  I’m sure it will make a big difference.  I bought the Yoga for Equestrians DVD and book by Linda Benedik.

The experts suggest aerobics to help build endurance, resistance training with weights for strength, and stretching for flexibility and mobility.  Joining a gym or hiring a personal trainer would be a great way to get started on a fitness program if money or time is not a concern.  I’m not comfortable with having a drill sergeant in my face forcing me to exercise at this point in my life, but I’m not ruling it out for sometime in the future.

Another fitness option is Pilates, which is probably the best exercise system you can do as a rider.  Having tried the Winsor Pilates videos, I can attest to the fact that there is nothing easy about Pilates.  To be fair though, I never really gave it a chance and will have to bite the bullet and try again.  I’ve bought the book Pilates for the Dressage Rider by Janice Dulak.
Balance ball exercises are another alternative to compliment Pilates; however, keep in mind that staying on top of the ball during the exercises is so much more beneficial than sliding off and landing unceremoniously on the floor with a thud, which can be quite amusing to onlookers.  From now on, I will do the exercises without an audience with a sense of humor.

In order to be successful in your quest for fitness, I’d choose an aerobic exercise that appeals to you and one that you will actually do such as walking, swimming, bicycling, jogging, etc..  Since my knee surgery, it’s easier for me to use the recumbent bike as much as possible when I’m stuck inside because of weather or time constraints.  Personally, my favorite exercise is to walk for thirty minutes at a moderate speed on the treadmill or outside; this is the easiest and least expensive exercise to do - a good pair of sneakers and you're off.  Always warm up and cool down before and after your preferred exercise.  Additional things you might want to try if you have arthritic joints would be the elliptical machine, or the dreaded NordicTrack ski machine, which I absolutely despise.  When this machine is not collecting dust, it actually makes a good clothes rack for your workout attire.  Except for the fact that it really works, I would never recommend it - it’s boring and pure torture.
As for other exercises, occasionally I will do an exercise tape for aerobics and one for working with weights. I’m sure everyone knows that as we age we need to keep our bones strong and lifting weights is one of the best exercises we can do to keep bone mass. I’ve requested a weight machine for Christmas; I hope Santa can fit it under the tree.
Aerobics will keep your heart pumping, stretching should keep us limber, and weight training should keep us strong.  All of these combined should keep us in fairly good shape and a big plus for me is that, on the days I actually get to exercise, I sleep better at night.
In conclusion, I think many of us who ride could benefit from some out-of-the-saddle exercise to help get and/or stay fitter.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep on riding in the meantime, it’s just that the extra effort out of the saddle can help make time in the saddle more productive and more enjoyable (and hopefully less painful the next day! ;-)  It’s not easy and it doesn’t come overnight.  Of course, anyone who plans on starting an exercise plan should check with his or her doctor first.  My doctor insists on 30 minutes of exercising everyday; when I told him I didn’t have the time on certain days because I had to get up early to babysit or whatever excuse was handy at the time, he told me to simply get up earlier (easier said than done!)  It’s especially hard to get motivated on dark, cold mornings instead of snuggling under a warm comforter.  But we do what we have to if we want to stay healthy and fit enough to ride and enjoy our horses well into the future.  Increased fitness reduces your chance of injury; if your horse takes a misstep or spooks, you will be more able to handle the situation and stay in the saddle (or at least you might bounce better if you hit the ground!)  The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience - that's what I keep reminding myself.

I’m interested to know what you do to keep riding fit.  I could use any tip to stay in shape.  Although, I know that there are no shortcuts to a healthy fit body, I’d sure like to find one.
I’ve listed some books and videos below you might be interested in for getting in shape.  Be sure to start slowly and work your way up to the level of fitness you desire. 
One last helpful hint: before you put a foot in the stirrup, take the time to warm up and stretch your muscles.
Until next time

Quote for Today
Wild oats aren't meant for sowing - but they make a nice trail snack
Equi-Stretch--Strengthening and Stretching Techniques for the Rider ~ Dan Weltner
Equi-Stretch--Strengthening and Stretching Techniques Level Two ~ Dan Weltner
Equi-Stretch--The Seated Workout ~ Dan Weltner

Product Description
Equi-Stretch is a home workout video series designed primarily for, but not exclusively for equestrians, these videos offer a great 40-minute low-impact workout. Equi-Stretch consists of exercises designed to enhance muscular efficiency. These exercises help both riders and non-riders learn to improve their strength and flexibility, as well as overall body awareness, by developing a greater range of motion, building stronger abdominals, and learning isolation. Learn more at

The following two videos are a good introduction to yoga and easy to do. Relaxation and balance are an integral part of riding that all equestrians should strive to achieve. Linda Benedik has also written 'Yoga for Equestrians' books if you prefer the book version.

Yoga & Riding: Balance and Symmetry Techiniques for Equestrians
Product Description

Riders are introduced to the author's yoga methods and learn how to achieve a balanced and symmetrical position on the horse.
Yoga & Riding Volume 2: Breathing and Relaxation Techniques for Equestrians
Product Description
In this video, riders build from the yoga lessons they learned in Volume 1, with the focus on learning to relax in mind and body.

Pilates for the Dressage Rider
by Janice Dulak
Product Description

In this beautiful new book, dressage rider and Level 2 Pilate's Instructor Janice Dulak has compiled a program of Pilate's exercises specifically designed to help the dressage rider enhance her ability for success in dressage. While they use different terms, both Pilate's and dressage share an emphasis on the torso, or the "Powerhouse" in Pilate's-speak, and achieving core strength, good posture and muscle flexibility. The goals of Pilate's program are often identical to what riders try to achieve in the saddle in the sport of dressage.

(I cannot vouch for this book, as I have not read it yet. Even if you are not a dressage rider, I am sure that this book will benefit any rider no matter what your riding discipline.)

While we are speaking of fitness, let's not leave our horses out; stretching is beneficial for them as well. There is a great book on horse stretches and the proper techniques to use.

The Path to Perfect Suppleness
by Karin Blignault

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