Dressage Queen Goes Rogue

Preparations for the Ride & Tie World Championships began the week before with weighty deliberations. The primary agenda item? Which knee-high socks to wear to prevent chafing in the saddle. The neon green ones with bright red mushrooms embroidered on them? Or our tried and true rainbow striped ones from our only previous Ride & Tie event? The decision had nothing to do with how we would complete the race and everything to do with how good we looked in the photos.

In the end, we settled on a pair of neon striped leg warmers, which would not only photograph well but would allow us to wear regular running socks with our sneakers. Voila! A perfect pairing of vanity and function. On a short practice ride before race day, our mount Courage proved himself to be fresh, fit, and ready to tackle a tough course. My partner, Siobhan, proved herself ready to ride like the wind, quite an improvement from her floppy intro into riding one year ago. On a 3-mile downhill single track, I yelled ahead to rein them both in. Tomorrow was race day, after all, and we had no business tearing like hellions on a practice run. Spouting advice like the consummate dressage trainer I am, I lectured Siobhan to take it easy with Courage, keep his heart rate low, feel for any unevenness in his stride, and all sorts of other details.

By 7:30am on race morning, I had consumed enough coffee to forget about the pain in my lower back from sleeping in a tent. I was focused on one thing: having a controlled start with Courage and keeping my team at a sensible, reasonable pace. It was already a stretch for this Dressage Queen’s comfort zone to be suiting up in a riding outfit comprised of Lycra tights and striped leg warmers, never mind the fact that our “warm-up” included a river crossing and narrow trail through some brambles. We strapped on our helmets and headed to the starting line– an unmowed meadow at the bottom of a fire road that headed straight uphill. Being the more experienced rider on our team, I would ride Courage for the start; Siobhan would start on foot. We anticipated that Courage might get a little wild, as is normally the case at a starting line of an endurance event. My strategy for these kinds of situations is not so much about what I intend to do but more about avoiding what EVERYONE ELSE is doing. The leaping grey Arabian to my right, for example? I already have an exit strategy, should he head this direction. Same thing goes for the rearing bay and the frantically prancing brown one, too. As the officials count down to start time, my primary goal becomes survival. If I can survive this meadow scene, the race might actually be fun. I give Siobhan a meek wave on the hillside above. Someone shouts “GO!” and we’re off. Courage is perfectly composed under me, listening, obedient, eager.

Right as we are clambering up out of the meadow, flanked by snorting, crazed horses, I feel something unexpected happen inside. Suddenly, I feel like a teenager again, full of spunk and speed and who-cares-if-my-horse-is-on-the-bit. After lecturing my partner yesterday about pacing and our necessity for a cautious start, I am leaning forward like a jockey, pushing my heels into Courage’s sides. He moves out faster and we are now chasing the front runners up the fire road. I give him another squeeze and he offers more speed. Now, we’re flying fast enough to make a thundering sound. And I am surprisingly in heaven. My form stinks, Courage is definitely not on the bit, and we are careening around turns like a barrel racer.

For the next three hours, I never resemble a dressage rider. I am the horse-obsessed teen with two gears: fast and faster. I am the grinning, flopping girl somewhere unrecognizably between posting trot and two-point position. Courage’s spirit never lags, nor do his gentlemanly qualities. He is a racing machine. Siobhan and I trade places, running and riding. Inspired by Courage, we both try to run like the track stars we never were but might still become. We streak through the vet check with ease and then begin the steep second loop of the 22-mile course.

I let Courage walk parts of the hill as he huffs and puffs and climbs his way to the ridge top of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a place so high and remote that your only company is the whooshing sound of wind through the trees and a lone bobcat. Standing in the stirrups, I grab a handful of mane to lean my weight forward off Courage’s back. Eventually, the trail opens into a field spotted with white wildflowers. Across a narrow valley to our left, three hillsides fold into each other thick with Redwoods.

This is sublime, I think. Late morning sun warms my face, drying my salty forehead.

Courage gives his head a shake, his signal that it’s time to pick up the pace again. We speed down a single track that curls back and forth like a ribbon through a thick forest. Courage leans into the turns like a motorcycle racer cornering at the track. We dart left-right-straight, left-right-straight. I was 10 years old the last time I let a horse lean into turns like this, before learning about bend and balance, inside leg and outside rein, poll flexion and all that fancy stuff I have honed for the past 20 years. Briefly, I consider asking Courage for more balance and less speed on these turns. But the thought disappears as quickly as it arose.

Gone is my inner dressage rider. Gone is the woman who trains horses for a living. In her place is a trail-loving rag doll in the saddle. A girl whose cheeks are cramping from smiling so much. A rider with neon rainbow leggings and running shoes.

I give Courage’s neck an affectionate rub as he negotiates tree roots and hops over a ditch. I love this horse. But not for the reasons I typically would– that he has a smooth sitting trot, that he shows aptitude for collection and flying changes, or that lateral work comes easily to him. No, I actually love this horse because he’s none of that. He’s all trail horse and that’s it. He’s a trail-winding, hill-climbing, river-crossing, hoof-thundering trail horse that reminds me how exhilarating it feels to ride a horse like him. Courage reminds me about a different kind of harmony than what we arena riders seek. For one, he reminds me not to take myself so seriously or obsess over details.

Siobhan, Courage, and I speed to the finish line in 2 hours and 50 minutes, hooves and neon stripes flying. All of us feel strong and giddy, like we could have kept our pace all day through those Redwoods. Hopefully, we will have the chance to some day. For now, I’ve pulled on my breeches and boots again to resume life as a dressage trainer, albeit a much looser and smiley cheeked one. My horses here at the training center undoubtedly appreciate Courage’s affect. Sometimes we need these little reminders, whether they be a silly horse show, a trail ride, a group outing, to refresh why we love this life with horses so firmly, so unshakably.

Joyfully on the Forehand

Being a dressage rider means possessing a few rare talents, not the least of which is a fine-tuned feel of the horse and the ability to subtly manipulate his body. The bummer is that once you hone these talents, it becomes nearly impossible to ride with wild abandon as we did as kids. Gone are the loose and sloppy romps through the countryside or the bareback yee-haw arena rides. Until very recently, I believed one could be both refined AND a little unbridled. But I had to admit last week that that might be only an ideology.

You see, back in my youth I was a fairly decorated competitive trail rider. I logged tremendous mileage every week and was darn good at it, evidenced by a pile of trophies now collecting dust in a box. All these years later, I assumed those skills– and mindset– remained intact. Once a trail rider, always a trail rider. Right?

Zipping along single track trails in the Santa Cruz mountains last week, I had to admit that’s not so. Underneath me, a sturdy bay Arabian aptly named Courage trotted along the twisting trail, never losing his footing even when the path grew so narrow I thought for sure I would lose both kneecaps to the Redwoods on either side. Courage hopped over tree roots, rated himself on the descents, plunged powerfully on the climbs. He never spooked or balked or even thought about those things. Honestly, everything about him was perfect. Except for his rider. Like a stereotypical quasi-neurotic dressage rider, I couldn’t just enjoy the ride, never mind that we traipsed beside a gurgling creek on a trail dappled with light beaming through majestic Redwood trees on a warm sunny afternoon.

No, my mind calculated how much Courage weighted his forehand and how hollow his back became on the descents. I obsessed about how he bulged his right shoulder out in the turns and how he ignored my half-halts, albeit politely. Then, I fretted about my position after clambering down a series of short drop offs that rattled me around in the saddle. As the miles snuck past, I became certain that Courage had never been on the bit in his entire life. Like any good trainer, I started listing the exercises that might help Courage lift and swing through his back more. I scouted some flat ground where I could teach him leg-yields to supple his rigid topline.

In the middle of this anal processing, I reminded myself to chill out. Let this horse do what he’s good at, I reminded myself. Let him be the trail horse that he is.

You might ask what I was doing flying down the trail on a horse I didn’t know in the first place. That is a great question. Through an interesting course of events, my girlfriend and I are entered in the upcoming Ride & Tie World Championships. A quick disclaimer: don’t be fooled by the “World Championships” moniker– there is no qualification process for this event. We have done a grand total of one other Ride & Tie before. At first blush, the sport seemed like a perfect fit for me. It combines two of my passions– riding and running. At our first and only event, however, it became clear before the race started that my comfort zone had been exceeded. First of all, horses were snorting and rearing all around me. Next, I abandoned any good dressage form for what I call the “survival seat,” adopting a gripping-for-life hold on the reins as I curled forward into a fetal position. Lastly, I knew I would have to dismount my horse in order to start running before I could get him to relax and stretch on to the bit. This just plain bugged me.

For the initiated, let me give a quick explanation of the sport. For Ride & Tie, teams of one horse and two runners race a course in leapfrog fashion. Rider A starts on the horse, for example, and rides for a mile or so before jumping off and tying the horse to a tree, then takes off running on foot. Meanwhile, Rider B, who started the race on foot runs until she spots her horse tied to a tree. She then mounts up, zips past rider A, proceeds another 1/4 mile or so up the trail and jumps off to tie the horse to a tree. The first team of two humans and one horse to cross the finish line wins.

If it sounds insane, that’s because it is. According to legend, the oddball sport got its start as a mode of transportation. In 18th century England, writer Henry Fielding documented a trip made by two impoverished men forced to share a horse on a 120 mile trip to London. In the 19th century, riding and tying also became a form of travel in the American West. Over the years, several different people told me I would like the sport, assuming it would sort of allow me to get my running workout while simultaneously riding a horse. What they– and I– failed to realize is that my definition of “riding a horse” has been altered by being a dressage trainer. For me nowadays, riding means putting a horse in the right balance, yielding his body this way and that, having him stretch on to the bit. It doesn’t generally include jostling in the saddle like a rag doll as my horse slides over wet tree roots.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I totally love Ride & Tie so far. I’m merely conceding that it’s not what I expected. Or, more accurately, that my anally retentive, micromanaging, uber-dressage style of riding was not expected. I am the weak link here, not the horse or the zany sport of running and riding. We entered the Championships obviously not based on our qualification to be there but because this phenomenal horse Courage was offered to us and the race is in a beautiful place on the coast that I’ve never been to. It all seemed too good to pass up.

Several factors will need to sway in our favor for us to do well. My teammate– a novice rider– is polishing up her horsemanship skills. Courage is logging four conditioning rides a week. And I, meanwhile, am working at squelching the obsession about whether my horse is on the forehand. To prep for the race, I am unearthing my inner yee-haw, my repressed talent to giddy up. I am re-acquainting with some long-lost wild abandon. In three weeks from now, let’s hope Courage is barreling down the trail on the forehand… at the front of the pack. Stay tuned.

Equine Conditioning Plan

Now What? Having a plan when you’re in the saddle

For goals to become achievable, riders must operate by what I call the 50/50 Rule. This means understanding the difference between schooling repetitive movements versus conditioning. Fifty percent of your riding time should be devoted to continually conditioning the horse’s muscular and skeletal systems. Contrary to common belief, horses do not maintain fitness on their own without the rider making frequent deposits into their fitness bank accounts.

Many of us tend to focus the bulk of our time on skill refinement, or schooling: executing movements and patterns, practicing half-halts, getting the horse on the bit, etc. While this does help the horse learn how to respond to our aids, it doesn’t do much to condition or develop his body. In order to become stronger and more supple, coordinated, and balanced, his muscles and metabolic system need strategic stress. When a horse is treated and trained like an athlete, the demands of schooling become easier for him. His muscles are able to produce quicker, powerful, and more efficient movements. In other words, he’s far better able to do what you’re asking of him.

This is where the 50/50 Rule comes in. Riders must not get overly fixated on skill refinement at the expense of weekly conditioning workouts. Instead, they should spend 50 percent of their saddle time on basic conditioning needs. I encounter many riders who assume their daily schooling, in whatever form that takes, satisfies the horse’s need for muscular and skeletal improvements. The thinking goes: “Heck, I’m out here trotting around and doing all kinds of stuff; doesn’t that make him fitter?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Sure, it contributes to maintaining a baseline of conditioning but it doesn’t improve his current level. Without getting into complicated physiological explanations, it helps to understand a few basic fitness principles.

In a nutshell: the horse needs to recruit different muscle groups outside his normal routine and then use those muscles at varying intensity levels day to day. This is the only way to teach his muscles to contract with more force and then to recover quicker. This allows him to make gains from, rather than be worn down by, his training sessions. When he makes these gains, his strength, stamina, focus, and energy improve. This in turn allows him to derive more from schooling.

Unless your daily schooling contains a lot of cross-training, the horse is not meeting these conditioning needs. In order to fully bring out your horse’s athletic development, commit to devoting 50 percent of saddle time to conditioning. Below, I’ve outlined the simplest ways to do that.

Consistency

First, try to exercise your horse at least four days per week. Physiological studies have shown that muscle fibers need to be recruited with sufficient frequency in order to remain adapted to and strengthened for their job. That number is at least four days per week. If you are not able to ride that often, do your best to see that your horse can get on a hot-walker or be turned out with a buddy to move around.

Vary Intensity

The best riding programs for horses, both mentally and physically, are ones in which the intensity of workouts varies throughout the week. Just like with humans, in order for a horse to reach a higher level of fitness and therefore performance, he does occasionally need to be exercised to the point of fatigue. A workout program that is consistently too easy will not improve him. On the flip side, one that is too rigorous or inconsistent will also not improve him. The horse should work through an equal amount of easy days AND fatigue days. Keep in mind that difficulty rating of a workout can be determined by either intensity OR duration. Try following the simple schedule below to avoid the common pitfall of riding every day through the same set of patterns for the same amount of time and level of intensity.

Day 1: Easy Workout
Day 2: Moderate Workout + Cross-Training
Day 3: Hard Workout
Day 4 Moderate Workout + Cross-Training

Commit to Cross-Train

Set aside two days every week to cross-train. Choose exercises that ask your horse to perform exercises that are outside his average routine. For arena horses, the best options are to work on sloping terrain, different footing surfaces, or ground poles, and to include un-mounted calisthenics that increase the horse’s range of motion in his limbs (turns on forehand, rein-back up a hill, exaggerated side stretches that bring his nose around to his flank, etc.). Other beneficial routines for arena horses include bouts of galloping, gymnastic jumping (with or without rider), and interval formats for maneuvers they commonly perform—such as 10-second reps of shoulder-in with 10-second rest intervals. It’s a good idea to stick to the same two days every week that you’ll do your cross-training. Otherwise, it’s easy to let a week or two slip by without getting it in. Again, you can follow the sample schedule above to make sure you stay on track.

Make Your Warm-Up Count

Remember that the aim of warming up is to raise the temperature, pliability, and relaxation of the horse’s muscles. This is different than loosening up (walking or jogging around on a loose rein for 5-10 minutes) which you will want to do before warming up. Once you begin the more active phase of warming up, you want to energize and activate the horse to adequately push blood to his muscles. This doesn’t happen at a leisurely pace. A sufficient warm-up will prevent the horse from ‘fading’ part-way through your workout. It plays a direct role in how much his muscles will—or will not—derive from your session. In your warm-up, focus on loosening and warming up the horse’s muscles. Do NOT jump straightaway into practicing skills.

5 Minutes of Calisthenics a Day

Do the following five exercises each day you work with your horse, no matter what discipline you do. By doing so, you’ll effortlessly be blending some cross-training elements into your everyday routine. Think of it as yoga for your horse. These should not take you more than five minutes total, so there is no reason to be overwhelmed by them.

Backing Up

Aim to back up 30 steps every day, either mounted or unmounted. It can be as easy as having your horse walk backwards to the cross-tie area before you ride him.

Once you and your horse get proficient at backing up, find a gradual slope and back him up the hill. At first, aim for a few decent steps before you will likely need to stop and remind the horse to lower his neck. Gradually build the number of uphill backing steps to 30 over a few weeks.

Walking Ground Poles

Lay five poles on the ground parallel to each other, spaced approximately 3 feet apart from one another. Spacing is such that your horse will take just ONE step between each pole. For smaller horses, use a shorter distance than 3 feet.

Walk slowly back and forth over the poles for a few minutes on a loose rein or un-mounted, passing over them a total of at least 10 times. There’s no need to go any faster than a walk. Just allow your horse a casual pace for a few moments.  It’s like medicine to his body, especially his back and pelvis.

Tail Pull

Remember that the horse’s tail is an extension of his spine. Gentle traction on it stretches his back by elongating his spine and encouraging mobility in his vertebrae. This prevents them from getting “clumped” together. I like to do one tail pull both before and after I ride, done while saddling and then unsaddling. Grab the tail at the end of the tailbone, hold tightly, and lean back with your body weight pulling the tail straight out from horse’s body. Hold traction for 20 seconds and gradually release.

Mobilize Front Legs

Ask the horse to raise his leg as if you are going to clean his hoof. Holding the leg with both of your hands (one hand is under his knee, one hand under his fetlock), gently draw the leg straight out in front of his body, keeping a slight bend in his knee. Hold 20 seconds and return foot to the ground, then stretch the other front leg. You can also make small circles with the forearm of the leg after stretching it forward, before returning the foot to the ground.

Side Stretches

Use a cookie or carrot piece to encourage your horse—while keeping his feet immobile in one place—to bring his nose around to his flank. Ask him to reach as far as he can. Some horses can only reach to their girth area; others can nuzzle their stifle joint area. Find your horse’s limit. Then, give him the treat slowly, trying to keep him in stretched position for 10 seconds. If he tries to shuffle his feet, you may need to put his opposite side along a wall or fence to prevent him from swinging around. Execute both sides.