Inspiration for training can come from any aspect of your life and I think that if you borrow from what you already know, it can help you progress faster than you thought you could.
I grew up around horses and when I got older, I took a lot of pride at being able to develop them into athletes. Because I wasn’t able to afford my own horse, I paid to ride other people’s horses which meant that they were often not the best rides out there. They had usually been passed from rider to rider or had been left out in a field for months and would require a lot of re-training and development. For some reason, I had an easier time thinking of them as athletes than myself. Working with these beautiful, yet sometimes frustrating, creatures taught me a lot about what goes into building an athlete and I realize now that it has shaped how I think about my own training.
And these two horses were the last two that I rode. They both taught me so much but for different reasons.
I liked to keep the routine as consistent as I could because I found that it helped both of us focus. From the first moment I laid eyes on them, I was evaluating their mood, their movement, their posture. Are they running away from me? Pinning their ears? Or am I being greeting with snorts and perked ears?
Once they were in the cross-ties, I’d keep watching them as I groomed them, looking at everything from whether they were full of energy and dancing on their toes or so dull the barn could fall down and they’d barely twitch an ear. Are they standing squarely on all four hooves with weight evenly distributed? Are there any warm or puffy spots? Are they leaning into the brush to get a massage or pulling away because they’re sore?
Then I’d walk them to the riding area and see how they reacted there. If they were bouncing along, I’d consider working them from the ground before mounting up. I’d see if there was anything in the ring that had them spooked. The whole point was to set them up for success and to make sure they knew that they could trust me no matter what.
After a final tack check, I’d mount up and spend a minimum of five minutes walking on a long rein to start the warm-up. I’d check to see if what I had seen on the ground was translating to what I felt in the saddle. I also used this time to check myself. Am I sitting square and tall in the saddle? Is there any tightness in my hips that are keeping my legs from stretching down? Are my shoulders relaxed and fingers lightly holding the reins?
From there, we would begin the warm-up proper by moving into faster gaits with lots of bending and changes of direction. My coach liked to call this type of work yoga for the horse and soon I could feel the back loosen and the movement become more free. If they were really tight and stiff, the whole ride would just be stretching.
Then we would move into more collected work. That is like doing weights, especially squats, since the horse carries themselves from the rear. It’s like they shift from front wheel drive to rear wheel. There might be some lateral work to stretch thrown in as well.
Then I would finish with another long stretch session, especially if we had a tough ride. Then I’d hop off and walk them to cool off before untacking. They’d get a good long brushing which doubled as a massage and I’d stretch their legs and neck. I rode one horse that would pick up each foot so that I would stretch him. If the horse liked to roll and if I could do it, I would let them go for a nice long roll as a reward.
I never aimed for perfection; all I could ask for was better: better than the last ride and better at the end of the ride than at the start. To achieve this, I often spent a long time working on basics and various strength-building exercises. I wanted that horse to know that I would never ask them to do something that they were not physically or mentally capable of doing. And because of that, I had several horses that actually liked me and liked when I rode them which meant that we did end up progressing faster in the long run.
Morenzo was a retired Grand Prix horse which means he knew all the movements but he was old and had some soundness issues. After attempts to sell him (for waaaaaay too much) fell through, he was dumped into a field where he basically wasted away. When I started riding him, he was a shadow of his former self but with lots of slow and careful training, he still had lots of life left in him. Not only did he teach me a lot about correct riding but he made me realize how out of shape I was and I started running to be a better partner for him.
Then there was 40. He was not highly trained and didn’t do much more than start, stop, and steer. He was a pig in the cross-ties and pushy with food. But the work ethic he had was INCREDIBLE. In the span of just over a year, we progressed so far it was incredible. his owner even commented that she never saw him move as well as when I rode him. How’s that for a pat on the back?
So what does all of this have to do with running? One thing it taught me was the importance of being flexible when it came to the planned workout. There is a huge mental aspect to both running and riding. If the horse was jumping out of their skin, we’d skip the difficult stuff. There were days when I just couldn’t get my head in the game so rather than frustrate both of us, we’d have an easy day. If you’re totally distracted or completely bummed out and having trouble focussing, a tough session may not be the best thing.
It taught me to break down a workout and think about the purpose of a workout. For some reason, skipping a warmup for the horse is almost beyond comprehension, yet I have no problem with walking out my door and into a run (bad me I know). When I got into the saddle, I would always have an idea of what I wanted to work on, be it stretching or collection, or (if we’re having a bad day) just responding to the aids and sharpening reactions. When I go for a run, I know it’s either a long slow run, or an easy run, or some speed work. If I’m not feeling what I set out for, then I re-evaluate.
It taught me to pay attention to the little things. A tiny shift in my position would alter how the horse moved, so if they were consistently drifting in one direction, I’d have to check how I was sitting to see if I was the cause. Or if I’m feeling like I’m all over the place when I’m running, I do a position check and make sure my alignment is in order. On runs like that usually I’m doing something weird or there’s a spot of tightness that’s throwing everything off.
CORE IS EVERYTHING. The more our training progressed, the more I was able to influence the horse with just my core. And the horse’s core had to be worked too. You could feel when they were carrying themselves because it felt as though you had the ability to think about what you wanted and they would do it and it was all effortless and beautiful and graceful…and was usually gone within seconds.
It taught me the value of re-framing. If I’m running along and my stride is all flat and thumpy and strung out, it’s usually because I’m leaning too far forward. Sometimes no matter how many times I think to straighten up, it just doesn’t stay that way so I think about collecting myself. In riding, that means shifting the weight more towards the haunches. It doesn’t mean that I slow down but that I go back to rolling along. I feel like I have more power available to me and is one of the tricks I use for really technical terrain.
Cross-training is the best thing you can do. I worked all kinds of different exercises into our routine to help build strength, suppleness, flexibility, and to prevent boredom. I also worked it into my regime. I was one half of a partnership and I had to hold up my end of the deal.
Perhaps most important was that it taught me patience. Yes I wanted to do the fancy movements but if we hadn’t learned the basics, what hope did we have in doing anything beyond that? Riding is learning another language and then teaching that language to a very large, and sometimes very opinionated, living being. Getting angry and frustrated achieves nothing and will only set you back.
It taught me to be patient with myself as my training now is focussed on running. Yes I could push through a lot of things and I might progress. Or I might end up injured. Or I might end up hating it. Or I may get burned out.
It taught me to accept that there are those days when everything feels awkward and just putting one foot in front of the other feels clumsy. So rather than try for a land speed record, just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Then again, there are those days when you feel like you can go forever. Those are the days when you feel like you can fly.