The Downside of Good Training

Well, shoot. My previous argument might have lost its weight, literally. I used to spend a lot of time convincing my sporty but non-riding friends that horseback riding was indeed an athletic endeavor. They assured me otherwise, that my horse was doing all the effort and I was just along for the not-so-aerobic ride. It was a pleasant pastime, they debated. A worthwhile hobby, but definitely not a workout.

IMG_0077My other pleasant pastimes, however, did not leave me red-faced and wrung out. Many times I peeled myself off an obstinate youngster, sweaty and over-worked, and wondered why so many people kept gym memberships when they could just ride a couple ornery Warmbloods. In fact, many of my days as a young trainer were spent on the higher end of the aerobic zone. Quadriceps and hip flexors throbbed as I shoved horses away from my leg cues, back muscles clenched to balance myself during some topsy turvy movements in trot-canter transitions. By day’s end I was purely exhausted sitting over a plate of dinner with droopy eyelids pondering the likelihood of staying awake past 8pm.

And then my mentors’ teachings took firmer hold. Finally as a not-young-anymore trainer I became a lot pickier about my horses’ responsiveness. No excused accepted, I insisted they respond to my aids well beyond a kinda, sorta way. And they did. And then I started to lose the debate with my non-rider friends. Riding was no longer such punishing exercise. In fact, I dismounted after most riders feeling pretty fresh, no sweating or aching. After several months of this consistent state, it occurred to me that all this had a down-side: I now needed a gym membership. I now had another activity (working out) to add to my schedule and budget. Shoot.

One time while auditing a clinic with the late– and very frail– Hans von Blixen- Finecke (The Art of Riding) I heard him say of a rider using forceful effort: “If it took strength, I could not do it.” He urged the student to not accept that she was putting in such intense effort with such little response from her horse. To make his point, the old riding master asked for some assistance up from his chair so that he could mount the student’s horse and demonstrate. My breath caught in my throat. If he could not even lift himself from his chair without help, how was this weak octogenarian planning to ride this woman’s Warmblood mare? A tense silence fell over the auditors around me who were obviously worrying over the same question.

Two assistants helped settle Mr. Blixen-Finecke in the saddle and threaded the double bridle reins through his clawed fingers. The old master wobbled around in the saddle as though he had no bones inside to hold him up. Nonetheless, he urged the mare forward past those of us still holding our breath, clasping the reins the best he could in his arthritic hands. Then with an expert timing of his frail leg and very weak hands, he aided the big horse sideways in a nicely angled and marching half-pass. Given that he was incapable of shoving of working too hard, the mare moved from appeared to be totally effortless guidance, just correct and insistently timed cues.

That episode obviously left a lasting impression on me, a standard for myself as a trainer. If a nearly crippled guy could get so much responsiveness from a horse, why was I using all my youthful vigor to get less results? Why not join my non-riding friends at the gym and adopt their view that horseback riding is a pleasant pastime rather than a dose of exhaustion? Of course this paradigm is one that requires constant honing, one that comes in to sharper focus each week. But in memory of the late Hans von Blixen-Finecke, I would like to say thank you for inspiring me to get my horses to do all the effort and sweating.