To Sit or Not to Sit?
As an equine fitness specialist, my job is always to ask how we can improve the horse’s body. One of the simplest ways we can do this in daily riding is to think about how we ride the trot: posting vs. sitting. Certain disciplines tend to prioritize one method over another, but regardless of a sport’s traditions or fads, we need to consider our force impact on the horse’s physical structure. On the whole, I see many horses’ backs suffering the effects of too much sitting trot. Gaits could be improved, muscles bloomed, and energy restored by spending more time posting.
A collaboration of U.S. and Dutch researchers recently confirmed this by using motion analysis cameras and electronic saddle pressure mats to study the effects of riders’ weight. While there is always some degree of pressure on the horse’s back when carrying a rider, forces were significantly lower during posting trot as opposed to sitting. During a lighter seat, or two-point position, forces on the horse’s back were even less. The general message here is that sitting trot creates the most impact and force on the horse’s back, while posting—and lighter seat variations—create much less.
Further, the same researchers found that the horse’s back extends more (vertebrae move away from each other) when loaded in sitting trot. During posting trot, the back flexes more. These findings validate the long-held belief by many trainers that posting trot is much better for a young horse’s back, in order to allow him to round and flex it (moving the vertebrae closer together). Posting trot should not, however, be reserved for only youngsters.
What we can derive from this research is that, even with a well-muscled and mature horse, periods of posting trot with allow him to work with a flexed back and less burden. There are indeed times to add more load or force to his workload, and spend time sitting the trot. This is also obviously necessary for developing a rider’s skills. But do not forget to intersperse these bouts with periods of posting. You will keep a horse’s gaits fresher this way and avoid having his back adopt an overly extended pattern or create hard/tight muscles from consistent force impact.
Interestingly, preliminary research has also indicated that total range of lateral bending is greater during posting trot compared to sitting trot. Further research needs to be done, but for now this might indicate that posting trot during lateral exercises may offer advantages to the horse. This thrills me, because I have felt such a difference in my own horses when, years ago, Manolo Mendez urged me to school lateral movements while posting the trot, not sitting. As a devout dressage student, I felt uncomfortable about this at first; it felt like a violation of strict dressage code—a rider MUST sit the trot during lateral movements. But when I made the switch, the improvement in my horses convinced me that posting during lateral movements was better for their backs. And now science just might be proving this true. Stay tuned for study results. In the meantime, trot on!
Cross Training Fitness Test
Get in the habit of performing a fitness test every 6 to 8 weeks. This will be your check-up and time to assess which cross-training exercises to utilize over the next several weeks. Remember that the goal is to avoid getting stuck in a rut where no progress is happening. Without using a fitness test, you cannot accurately monitor improvements or setbacks in training and fitness. This practice will help you stick to your plans and timelines, which is when progress happens.
Under the same environmental and footing conditions, evaluate sweating response, respiration, coordination, energy levels. Fitness tests should be sport specific, incorporating exercises and movements specific to respective to your chosen discipline. To get started, though, use the following one which tests basic fitness for most arena horses. Use a watch; do not rely on estimations of time. If you have access to a heart rate monitor for your horse, use it. During none of this test should his heart rate get above 130 beats per minute. At the end of your test, after a rest, his heart rate should be down to 60 beats per minute. If it isn’t, this is your indication that the test was stressful for him. Your regular workouts, therefore, should be quite a bit less difficult than the material in this test. You should plan to re-test him every few weeks, with the goal of seeing improvements. In other words, the test should stress him less and less each time you do it. This will give you accurate feedback on how difficult—or easy—he finds this test. You can then assess where he lies on a fitness spectrum. A word of clarification: this fitness test is designed for horses who have been in regular work (3-4 days/week for 3 months) at the time of performing it.
- Execute a warm-up as follows: 5 minutes of loosening up riding the horse at a walk on a long rein all over the arena. Then, warm up his body by executing equal amounts of working trot and canter on 20-meter circles and straight lines for 10 minutes.
- After this warm up, go immediately to the workout (do NOT pause or take a walk break): ride 2 minutes of trotting serpentines. This should be done with a lively trot and asking the horse to bend his body on the curved lines.
- Then immediately canter for 2 minutes. While cantering, ask your horse to get a bit more collected in the corners and short ends of arena and then extend his gait down the long side. Do this in both directions until your 2 minutes is completed.
- Then, perform 5 minutes of trotting over ground poles*.
- After this, ride 2 sets of trot-canter-trot transitions in EACH direction.
- Now walk and observe your horse. After walking for 3 minutes, dismount and take horse’s heart rate. His resting heart rate should be at or below 60 beats per minute. Compare to previous executions of fitness test. Each time you do your fitness test, the horse’s heart rate should drop more quickly after exercise. It may also begin to drop lower (which is what you hope for!) than his former “resting rate” after exercise.
** ground pole arrangement: for our purpose here, set up five ground poles in a row, spaced approx. 3.5 feet apart or the distance of your horse’s trot stride. Arrange them in an arc or fan shape on the perimeter of a 15-meter circle. Be sure to ride an equal duration of time in each direction of the circle.
For successful assessment of fitness, you’ll want to monitor other feedback besides the horse’s heart rate, although that is perhaps the most important bit of data you’ll want to collect. You also want to assess his energy levels start to finish; his respiratory rate (which should be around 20 breaths per minutes after 3 minutes of walking/cooling down after exercise; his coordination (did he trip or stumble? Did his gaits stay springy or did his strides get flat and unanimated?). Also make note of where and how much he sweat. Monitor if this is any different than last time you did the fitness test. Lastly, observe how he seems. Following this test, he should—if he is in moderate fitness—be perky and plenty eager to do lots more riding that day!
After removing his expensive magnetic therapy blanket, I hobbled around Corazon’s backside to begin his daily hamstring massage. My own hamstrings barely operational following a long run the previous day, I stood through the throbbing sensations to work on my horse’s already pampered muscles. And, yes, the irony struck me. As absurd as this scenario seemed, it fell within the norm of numerous horse-human relationships I could think of right then. For reasons unexplained, we horse folks have a more natural time caring for our steeds than for ourselves.
If anybody in that moment needed a hamstring rub, it was decidedly me, and not Corazon who spent the day before lounging in his grass paddock. While I was out running on steep rocky terrain, he was rolling in the sun, supervising the family of deer next door, and enjoying a mid-day bran mash. The irony of massaging him—and not myself—caused me pause. It seemed like I treated the horses to the indulgences of wellness that I fantasized about for myself but never got around to. A quick survey of the farm right then supported this notion.
My Warmblood mare stood placidly in her pen, rump muscles traced with kinesio tape, a product so exceptionally designed for athletes that I had not even tried it yet on myself. Remnants of a flax seed and electrolyte snack dried on her lips. Her Quarter Horse pal, meanwhile, nibbled from a hay net in a stupor of lavender essential oils.
A few years ago when I got involved with long distance running, I figured I could abate the stresses it brought my body. No problem, I would take the same care I do with the horses. That was what I told myself, anyway. I bought a foam roller that sits in the corner of the room collecting dust. I got compression socks that I mostly forget to wear. I stocked up on a magnesium supplement, but then took it to the barn to feed Corazon because I thought he needed it. It’s not that I don’t see the value in these things for myself. It’s just that I struggle to keep a regular routine with them. And why is that? I pondered this while massaging Corazon’s hamstrings, a consistency of practice from which I never deflect.
I arrived at the simple and logical conclusion that, for folks like myself, one’s own self-care is just not as satisfying as pampering one’s horse. Consider foam rolling, for example. When I roll around on that firm log that is allegedly good for my muscles, I experience only the wincing agony of trigger points. When I use a roller on Corazon, on the other hand, I get to watch his big sweet eyes relax and his rubbery lips slacken. I get to hear his happy sigh of relief when a knot lets go. I can stand back and admire this powerful beast that has just turned to putty in my hands.
I used to admonish myself for not taking the same good care of my own limbs and muscles and joints. But as of this sudden clarity, I have changed my thinking. I don’t need to take better care of myself (because, really, what fun is that?). What I do need is a handler to do it for me. Just like Corazon, I need someone playing my shadow who stretches my tweaked hip flexors, someone who rubs pleasant little circles down my back, tugs on my compression socks, and pats me for a job well done, even when that ‘job’ was lounging around my room. I’m grateful for this new realization and clarity. It turns out that we horse folks are not such an odd lot. Our behaviors could make a lot more sense if we all just had handlers.
Are You Fixing It or Working on it?
The physical training of horses finds us trying to resolve issues so much of the time that we must be careful not to get trapped in them. What I mean is that we can devote such efforts to rooting around in these issues—stiffness, postural habits, one-sidedness—that they can become a daily norm. Our consistent toil then forms a familiar reference point. We can lose sight that these issues are in fact fixable. As in, we fix them and then move on.
A reputable trainer once said something that stuck with me. Noting how riders can cultivate a prolonged obsession of niggling with the same challenges every training session, she said, “There are problems that you ‘work on,’ and problems that you fix.” She added that the majority of problems are fixable. Some challenges, like refining the timing of flying change sequences, require consistent ‘working on.’ But most of our daily training focus—weakness, crookedness, acceptance of aids—should be treated as fixable and moved past.
If your horse is stiff on circles to the right, for instance, fix this. Aim to not still be tinkering on it a year from now. Much of our time in the physical development of horses is spent teaching them postural habits. These habits that make them stronger, balanced, and looser can often be accomplished more swiftly than we think. A horse that frequently hollows his topline, for example, can make measurable improvements in a week or less. Often, though, I see riders still struggling with this issue fo months down the road. It becomes a reference point they orbit around.
In order to not get lost in all there is to work on with a horse at any given time, I like to set priorities and apply absolutely all my tools for a prescribed time period. I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s go back to the horse with a habit of hollowness. For the next two weeks with this horse, I would incorporate specific bodywork maneuvers, un-mounted calisthenics, and ridden gymnastic patterns all aimed at fixing the problem. This trifecta of body mechanics and movement will resolve the problem much quicker than any one of those tools alone.
At the end of my brief timeline, I should see measurable results and then be able to shift my attention to a different issue of his physical development. If for some reason I do not see measurable results, I will assess and alter my current toolbox and routine and set a new timeline for moving the issue under the “fixed” label.
As we begin a new year, think about your horse’s physical needs. Rank them on a priority scale. Then, think about fixing them rather than ‘working on’ these issues, and resolve to make a measurable difference. Make sure you don’t get stuck in habits of “working on” issues that should be moved past. Here is a helpful checklist for you. Let’s say you have settled on issue X to fix. Now ask yourself:
- Which specific 2-3 riding exercises are going to help solve this physical issue?
- What 3-5 complimentary maneuvers (i.e. bodywork techniques, stretches, calisthenics/groundwork) can I do to help?
- What lifestyle changes can I make to help the horse? (access to turnout, diet, socializing, etc).
By answering the three questions above, you will have a plan to follow. By executing this plan, you will be well on your way to fixing problems that might otherwise linger around for months or years in a semi-solved status. Happy new year!
How Mindful Are We (Not)?
It was possible, I thought, that such distractedness arose from some evolutionary necessity. But I could not figure out how such fractured focus would have served us in the wild. In any case, it never fails amazing me how often during a 20-meter circle we riders drift off purpose. It seems like a small, clear task of this sort ought to keep us hooked with laser concentration. And yet our focus drifts so frequently, I wonder how any of us manages to drive from our houses to the supermarket without forgetting our destination. Or, for that matter, how do ever finish tasks like brushing our teeth without spacing out and wandering off?
I recent years, a surplus of skillful horsemanship information has hit the market. An eager student can now study videos and books and blogs to her heart’s content. And then, in theory anyway, she can go apply it to her horse. If it were it that simple! Likely, her horse does not pose the biggest challenge to implementing that new knowledge. Her human brain is the trickier beast to tame. As she heads to the barn, it will settle for a moment on her new skill set… and then bounce to an unrelated thought, then back to horses… and then to her plans for the weekend, and then…
During a recent lesson, I sounded like a stuttering machine. I reminded my student to keep her horse’s body bent inside for the duration of the 20-meter circle. She kept him bent for the duration of two or three seconds. Then her body and effort shifted, her eyes fogged with different thoughts. Her gelding bent to the outside and clambered out of balance. Again, I reminded her to bend him inside for the entire circle. Once more, she bent him as desired for a fleeting few seconds, and then—remarkably—drifted off task. I wondered if she were an airplane pilot if we would have struck a tree by now. Or if we would have ever cleared the runway to begin with.
As frustrating as these scenarios can be for instructors, I have full empathy for scattered human thought in the saddle. A few days ago, I was trying to access just the right parts of my body to ride a more successful half-pass on Corazon’s difficult side. I felt myself—and him—find the sweet spot of balance and the movement flowed sublimely. For two seconds. Then somehow I didn’t sense it happen, but obviously my brain fidgeted and fled off that wonderful focus. Corazon and I both fell apart. I became my own internal stuttering machine chanting reminders in order to find that feeling again.
Desperate to not sound like a repetitive nag with students, I started using patterns of cones to keep riders focused. In fact, way back in 2005, my attempt to conquer the ping-ponging nature of the human brain resulted in writing a whole book of exercises to keep focus: 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider. Give the mind some visible points and it tends to attach to each moment a little longer. Sometimes, with wavering concentration, prescribed exercises end up like collision courses (though cones are forgiving and scatter on impact), but mostly they have helped me harness riders’ minds.
A pattern with visual targets allows riders to self-correct when their brains scamper off to unrelated tasks. They can regain focus and offer more sustained clarity to their horses before wham!—they hit another cone and realize their distraction. Then they’re back on task and determined to execute the requirements of not hitting the next one. Occasionally, a rider will wince that it feels like a crutch to use cones and markers to stay on an exercise. But crutch or no, until riders can prove they can tame the ping-pong activities in their brains on their own, I keep giving them targets to pull them along. And I should add that I’m still waiting for an evolutionary explanation for our hyper thought patterns. Until then, you’ll find me chasing cones, repetitively spewing dressage terms.