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!

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