“ Once you remove the fear of examining your own feelings about your body and the role you are playing in allowing those feelings to sabotage your joy, you’re on the right trail.”
~ Riding Through Thick & Thin
When it comes to perceptions about our own body, it’s no secret these are mighty influences on how we feel and how we think we look to others. And what’s even more important to consider is how we consciously and unconsciously may be allowing others to influence what we think of our own bodies.
Here’s the truth, though. We often don’t have a very clear idea at all of where we are on the scale of things. We may think we are much larger or much smaller than we actually are. We may be spending so much time and energy bemoaning what’s wrong with our body that we’re completely missing what’s right — or what could be right with a little focused effort. In order to get to our best ride — through life or on the back of a horse — we have to first get real about how we’re built, the shape we’re in, and what our thoughts about our body are really saying.
In a recent study, conducted by Refinery29, 80% of millennial women avoid activities because they’re self-conscious about their bodies. Of the three things causing women the greatest amount of anxiety, going to the beach was a solid frontrunner — thereby launching a resulting #takebackthebeach campaign.
While these women are taking back the beach, I invite you to remember back to the time when having a bikini body meant nothing to you. When all you wanted from your body was to have fun, and participating in fitness activities carried the sole purpose of getting strong enough to enjoy your favorite activity was your only driver.
Now look at your body again right now through that lens. Ignore the lumps, bulges, and jiggles that normally strap you into the emotional roller coaster and just. Really. Look. For just this one moment, interrupt your current relationship to your body as well as your body’s relationship to the outside world, and objectively consider your body’s strengths. What activity have you put on the back burner because of body anxiety? What would you love to get strong enough to do? What is one step toward that goal you can take right now?
I want to hear from you. Tell me what it might take for you to to have more fun, do more of what you can do, and get strong enough to enjoy it even more. Share your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you!
“This [Dressage Today] article relates directly to what we have been talking about. There is even a part about how the body forgets to use some muscles and overcompensates with others, leading to tightness and strain. I feel like they are talking about me!”
And me! How about you? What unmounted exercises have you discovered to help build core muscles memory? I don’t know about you, but when we hear how “long periods seated such as at a computer or in a car create imbalanced patterns across the hip joints from muscle and ligament tightness, and lack of use (weakness),” I have to raise my hand in a plea of guilty. I’ve considered replacing my desk chair with a balance ball, but I fear of getting bucked off. (Bad previous experience with one of these unpredictable creatures).
So what do these “imbalanced patterns” mean to our riding — and our life?
Bottom Line: Practice doesn’t always make perfect — perfect practice makes perfect!
According to Heather Sansom, the fitness writer for Dressage Today who wrote this great article, when we have these imbalances it makes us engage our core muscles incorrectly. (And all this time, I thought we just needed to engage our core when we ride. But noooooo . . .turns out we have to find and engage the right muscles in the right way. The plot thickens.)
Apparently there’s a lot more to strengthening our core than just “zipping it up” (although that’s certainly part of it!) Unless we learn to pinpoint and engage these sneaky little deep muscles in the correct way (Denise says she thinks they hide. I agree.), we’re just perpetuating the problems created by the imbalance: “The rider’s body has less chance of responding correctly when it comes to the ride with imbalances or pre-disposed tendency to incorrect muscle engagement,” Heather writes. She goes on to say that, “lack of correct engagement of stabilizers in the rider’s pelvis can result in issues such as difficulty with leg aids, a collapsing lower back, weakness in lateral movement and even an overactive low back resulting in back strain and pain.”
Ruh Roh. Denise is right about that, too. Now it’s getting personal.
And even worse, Heather’s article goes on to say, these imbalances and weaknesses also create gaps in your neuromuscular communication. She compares this to a cell phone that only gets an intermittent signal and you only hear every other word of the conversation. (Who remembers that Can you hear me now?” commercial for Verizon? Some days, it’s my life.) Depending on the conversation you’re having with your horse, such as “Please don’t kill me now,” you’re probably going to want every single word to come through loud and clear.
So what do you do?
The answer, surprisingly, is one you’ve seen before (especially if you’re a fan of Clinton Anderson and Downunder Horsemanship as I am): Groundwork. But this time, it’s groundwork for you, not your horse. (Here comes the equine snickering I told you about. After working my horses on the ground for so many miles, they are obviously enjoying this cosmic turn of the tables.) But, just as is is with training our horses, this groundwork pays off big in the long run:
“A rider interested in bringing maximum self-carriage to their ride, avoiding injury and prolonging their riding career should do some ground training,” Heather writes. “Riding is a sport that can be engaged in right in to senior years, and riders can improve their entire life. This means that a rider can be improving technically, at an age when their physical preparedness for sport is actually reducing due to the normal aging process which reduces suppleness in ligaments and causes muscle fibre atrophy. Riders over 40 should definitely be engaging in supplementary exercises to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the pelvis and spine, so that the riding itself does not actually wear your body down. Most riders want to be able to ride as long in life as they possibly can.”
Go check out Heather’s groundwork exercises for humans and let us know what you think — or if you have any others we ought to add to our mix. Let’s all go back to Rebecca’s Garanimal workout schedule and add these in–you be the judge of which workout energy level category they go in (walk, trot, canter, gallop), but wherever you put them in your own personal regimen, be sure to plug and play!
We’ll be revisiting this in the near future with some fun posts and activities inspired by my riding group’s work with Cassandra . . . stay tuned. And, as always, please chime in with the exercises and routines that help you most! Comment here, email me, or post your thoughts on this topic to our Facebook page, Twitter feed or YouTube channel. Misery — and obsession — loves company!
My insides hurt. A few weeks ago I started going to a Pilates class (Cassandra’s Absolute Pilates) devoted to moves that will help us ride better. I also have a nagging hip and lower back issue I’ve been trying to resolve, and these Pilates exercises seem to be helping.
But yesterday’s class was more intense than usual. And today (and likely worsening tomorrow) I pay. For one thing, yesterday it was all high level riders. Except me. I was just a glutton for punishment with an exaggerated idea of my own core strength and the erroneous thought that I could actually keep up with these women. And I did, for the most part. But my guess is that they are all able to move today.
Why is Pilates in particular so good for our riding? What makes this kind of pain so necessary? The object of Pilates exercises is to build long, strong, flexible musculature that will help us hold our frame steady (“locked and loaded,” as Cassandra says), and make clear and deliberate cues that will help our horse understand what we are asking him to do as we move fluidly with our horses in a relaxed, but powerful way. (Think Zena, Woman Warrior. On Horseback.) While we all know we need to be strong to ride well, it is the kind of strength we develop that makes all the difference. It is strength without tightness — supple, loose, and powerful.
And between here and there, apparently, lies the undeniable pain of hard work.(Good news, Advil!) OK, maybe not actual pain (although I’m not sure I can stand up right now without whimpering),but just the extreme muscle soreness, way deep in your innards, that tells you that you’ve found some tiny little muscles in there that have never worked an honest day in their now miserable lives.
Finding, isolating, and working these little tiny muscles, many of which comprise the “pelvic floor” and some of the harder-to-reach muscles that live under and around the “big guns” of the quads, glutes and hamstrings that normally get all our attention in more conventional workouts, is apparently the name of this hideous but effective game.
Now, I’ve heard of some of these muscles before. The pelvic floor is loosely defined as the interconnected “hammock” of muscles that supports our internal organs and (ahem) surrounds the openings of our personal parts. I’ve had two babies and a hysterectomy and have endured the Kegel exercise explanation (and how neglecting this crucial exercise leads to unspeakable and annoying problems that only get worse as we age) more times than I’d care to count.
But here’s the real news I learned yesterday about that group of muscles known as the pelvic floor. When this web of muscles and ligaments is strengthened and trained to work in concert with the abs and lower back, we can significantly improve not only our riding, but also whatever structural imbalances we may have. For most of us at this time of life, the muscles of our abs and lower back and hips have learned to compensate for any natural imbalances by staying tight in an effort to protect our hip joints and spine. Not only does this inhibit our ability to relax our hips when we ride, but it is often the source of increasing aches, pains, and tension in the hips and lower back that plague us in every area of our life.
It’s also kind of a chicken and egg thing. We have to be able to get these muscles to relax in order to strengthen them enough to correct our alignment; however, it is the problem with alignment that’s keeping them tight . So to target and work these key muscles, we must learn to find them and then teach them to hold correct alignment. When we strengthen these muscles with Pilates exercises, we teach them to work with the surrounding glutes and abs that will then help create and maintain better overall structural balance. The bonus here is that supple strength that makes us so much more effective in the saddle. I don’t know about you, but I’m in!
So how do we find those muscles? And then what?
The image Cassandra put in our heads yesterday was the best one I’ve ever heard. She described it as “pulling the sit bones together like the foot of a zipper,” then “slowly zipping up the muscles of your core from that base, moving straight up the midline of your body, all the way to your sternum, keeping your shoulders back and down (‘locked and loaded’) and neck relaxed.” Then she had us hold that “zipped-up core” while we did each of the Pilates exercises in that particular series. (Ow, it even hurts to write about it this morning!)
If you’re new to this idea, I’d advise that you practice “zipping up” your core and seeing how long you can hold it, just sitting there, whenever you think about it. Then try doing it as you go about your normal daily activities. Trust me — ease your slacker core muscles into this. Or go buy yourself the BIG bottle of Advil and, while you’re at it, a little Tiger Balm. (and remember, no matter how good it may sound, Tiger Balm is not intended for internal use.)
This, I think, is a great example of how our midlife horses propel us to find levels and types of fitness that we would otherwise never pursue — for beyond-riding benefits that will continue to pay off in every area of our life for years and maybe decades to come. What new fitness levels and motivations has your horse led you to? Chime in and tell us your stories about fitness you’ve found at the hooves of your midlife horses. Post a comment here, move it to our Facebook community, re-tweet your favorite exercise when you see this headline pop up on my Twitter feed, or share a video on our YouTube channel.
You just haven’t lived until you’ve met a faux horse constructed of a swim noodle to help dressage riders develop feel for how their posture affects their horse’s alignment. I do wish I had thought to take a picture of SiMoN™ (he even has a brand), but you can find out more about this unique breed of pony at another of my new favorite resources, Dressage, Naturally, a site hosted by Karen Rohlf that bridges classical dressage and natural horsemanship. I know. It kind of sounds like a conflict of interest at first, but truly, it works. Check it out!
How did I come by this spectacular bit of information? I went out to visit Ironstar Farms in Aledo, Texas last Saturday at the invitation of Jennifer Fulton who hosts a little women’s horsemanship group there several times a year. These are the kinds of groups that feed the midlife soul, and if you’re not in one, get one. Seriously. Getting together online as we do in our Midlife Horses Facebook community is good, but gathering periodically in person with a group of midlife horse friends to eat great food (chocolate is a staple here), drink wine (or in this case, Mimosas) and talk about our horses is a true delight! Here we can talk to our collective hearts’ content about what we want to do next with our horses, what frustrates us, and those tiny but monumental victories that only other midlife horsewomen truly understand. (Have you ever tried to share the elation of a perfect canter departure with a non horse friend or family member? It just doesn’t work. No matter how much they love you, how happy they are that you’re happy, and how interested they are trying to be, they just don’t get it.)
So on Saturday we met for one of these gatherings and Jennifer shared with us a couple of Karen’s video presentations. (You have to subscribe to view these, but there’s also lots of great free content on this site, and the video series is WELL worth the membership. Also, Karen’s free newsletter is archived, so there’s a lot of great stuff there, as well.) My favorite takeaway from these presentations had to do with the way we ask our horses to do things. (As my mom always said, “sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it that makes the difference in the reaction you get.) Karen’s advice here (and I did write down these first letters as a sort of acronym to remind me) is:
1. Get Silent before you ask for something new. If you’re like me, and your mind tends to chatter, it can be hard for your horse to realize you’ve even asked for anything at all.
2. On that same note, be sure you have your horse’s Attention before making your request. That’s because as fascinating as we think we are, our horse may actually be tuning us out.
3. Then you phrase your request in the form of a Question, such as “Are you ready to canter now?” Often, with my horse, Trace, the answer will be “Um, no,” and that presents a different sort of issue, but it does offer me a milder course of action than when I force it first and ask questions later.
4. The next thing to do, Rohlf says, is Listen for the answer. (Or in my case, the eye roll) There again, this step gives you a chance to deal with any resistance early and in its mildest expression.
5. Finally, you need to give Feedback. (Such as “Yes! That’s it! Good Boy!!!” or “No, that was a good try, but not quite it. Let’s practice it again.” Or, in my case, “Nope, not even close. Let’s keep working on this until you either give me an honest try or one of us dies.”
After telling us more about Karen’s work and showing us her book and DVD that outlines her Dressage, Naturally program step by step, (book also available on Karen’s dressagenaturally.net website) Jennifer then brought out her new horse, “SiMoN” After that, the place pretty much turned into a bowling alley. I will say two more things about SiMoN and then I promise to leave it alone. First, it is incredible how much this mental picture helps keep you straight in the saddle and mindful of your posture and hip and shoulder alignment. I didn’t even “get on” this fine blue steed with the wooden handles sticking straight up out of his withers, but the next time I rode my own horses I realized the power of having this picture in your head, both of the handles coming straight up out of his withers and how any shift in your seat or shoulders affects his alignment. The second thing is, if you do purchase one of these noodle horses, you might want to consider “riding” it only in the privacy of your own home. Preferably when your family is away. I’m not kidding. As profound a teacher as SiMoN really is, I can’t begin to describe the visual. To a casual observer, especially those uninitiated to the subtleties of dressage, it’s mental picture you will probably never be able to live down.
But for the rest of us (especially those of u s who have recently come to understand that “dressage is crack,” as Jennifer is known for saying to her students), SiMoN and creator Karen Rohlf have sent us off on a new quest. Go check out Dressage, Naturally and let me know what you think! And if you DO purchase a SiMoN, please tell us what you learn!
I have a new favorite radio station. It’s an Internet station (who knew?) called the Horse Radio Network. If you, too, are among the horse obsessed, go check it out immediately! These people have way too much fun talking about all things horses and beyond— all day, every day!
In preparing for this morning’s interview on their Horses in the Morning Show, which they describe as “The first live morning show with an equine theme. A light, lively, entertaining daily look at the horse world and the people in it. Hosted by Glenn the Geek and Jamie Jennings and produced by Jennifer H. The show will include entertaining conversation, out of the ordinary guests, numerous regular horse related segments, listener call in, contests, giveaways and so much more.”
SO, I clicked back through a few of their archived programs (I heartily recommend this, by the way), and to my delighted surprise, I completely lost track of time in the most fun research I’ve had since attending Clinton Anderson clinics! (If this horse thing doesn’t work for Clinton, I’m pretty sure he has a solid career waiting for him in stand-up comedy.)
Scrolling through past Horses in the Morning shows, I laughed at the horse situations I related to all too well (especially Jamie’s BAD day), got ideas of where to look for better deals on horse stuff, got a great gazpacho recipe (barely fit the hot pink Post-it note I hastily scrawled it on), picked up a few horse business marketing tips (not that I’m in the horse business, per se, but I am trying to reach the same audience with this book!), and generally got that “barn time feeling” without leaving the cool comfort of my twirly desk chair (it IS 110 Texas degrees out there, y’know)
When you visit this great fun and informative Internet radio network, you can listen to my recent interview about The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses and see how I did! They really liked the book, I think. It was my first radio interview and I was plenty nervous to start with, but Glen and Jamie put me at ease almost immediately and the next thing we knew we were just talking about midlife horses — my favorite subject!
If you do go listen to this interview and have any feedback, questions, or suggestions for me for future interviews, post your comment, along with your mailing address and email and I’ll send you a limited edition Saddle Up your Midlife Horses! T shirt.
Happy Trails — and Midlife Horse Lovin’ Cheers to the Horse Radio Network!