A friend of mine is literally an Olympic athlete. Actually, she has earned several gold medals in the Olympics. If that’s not a testament to athleticism, I don’t know what is. There are things she can do that I’m not sure I would ever be able to do, no matter how long I might train and try. I am not an athlete. I can do these athletic things, but I may never be graceful and things may never feel easy. It doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it right and getting better, or that I shouldn’t do it. It is just how my body, and likely my brain, to some extent, work.
I want to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to be in my body. Athletic endeavors do not come easily to me. I did not do many sports as a kid, and by the time I was an adult and figured out I better keep on the move if I wanted to stay in my clothes and in the saddle, I learned that adulthood did not magically grant me with increased athleticism. Don’t get me wrong - I can do lots of stuff with my body. Bike, run, swim, lift weights, box, dance, you name it. And most of the time, miraculously, my body generally does what I want it to do, at least in spirit. But here’s the thing - it’s not easy. I do not easily gain muscle and strength and speed. Even though I exercise, outside of riding, at least five times a week, it takes a long time to see the benefit. I see improvements over months and years, not in days and weeks.
Here’s the thing, though. Just because exercise and athletic pursuits are hard for me, it does not mean that::
I can’t do it
I shouldn’t do it
Exercise is too hard for me to do
Many of the horses I work with and see have bodies that are somewhat similar to mine. For them, exercise is also pretty hard, and maybe not something they are naturally inclined to do, or even built to do. That does not mean that learning to use their bodies correctly and go correctly is:
Something they can’t do
Something they shouldn’t do
Watch me work out. Even if it is a move I have done before, I will be shaking and sweating and need some rest. Some days are harder than others, but the vast majority of the time, it’s just plain hard in general. But with time, varying exercises, and doing things I enjoy, things do get a bit easier. I can use bigger weights, do more reps, or feel like an activity is just a hair easier.
It is the same way with your horse. She may not be built to do the job, but she can do it, just the same. It may take more time, it may be harder, and you may have to work harder and take more time to achieve it. But she can get there, too. Every horse has their maximum ability somewhere, and you may bump into it. For most, though, this is beyond where we as riders will ever go.
Here’s the other kicker: the horse didn’t sign up for the exercise we ask them to do. They were drafted. I am often asked, if dressage is better for the horse’s muscles, why doesn’t the horse just naturally do it? Let me ask you this: is a push-up good for your body and muscles to do? Is it easy? Is it easier to go down only a few inches, or bring your nose to the floor? Is it easier to keep your body parallel to the ground, or stick your butt in the air? Why not just do push-ups all day long if they are good and natural for you to do?
It is much easier for us to lay on the ground than do the push-up, but the push-up is indeed better for us. It is easier for the horse to plod around, even though it is better for her physique to engage the abdominal muscles and bring the pelvis under. I have never yet sat on a horse who said, yes! Let me collect more! Let me work harder! I am sure they exist (and cost lots of money), but even those natural athletes need guidance and education. And let’s be real, if I had the option to get the same feelings and results from exercise by sitting on the couch...it is tempting.
So is your riding hard? Does it feel strenuous? It’s okay. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Be reasonable and kind, just like you are to your own body, and the improvement will come.
Which leads to the next question - how hard is too hard? How do we know what is normal athletically-induced discomfort and what is too much? Some questions I ask myself to better answer this question are:
Am I asking the horse clearly? Or are my aids unclear and muddled?
Does the horse know how to do what I’m asking? Have they been taught clearly and thoughtfully, or is it something they are unsure of or actually don’t know how to do?
Do they have the cardiovascular fitness for this activity?
Do they have the muscular fitness for this activity?
Are there confounding factors, like hot and humid weather or a hard workout yesterday?
These questions can help you to determine if you are asking a reasonable question of the horse’s mind and body, and to determine if you need to push through some athletically-induced discomfort in that moment. It is also good to keep in mind that the horse typically does not volunteer to work harder than the minimum threshold you determine for them. So to progress, you need to ask for a little bit more, a little bit at a time, and be cognizant of your goals to help you understand how to push. If we can ask for a little bit more collection, expression, straightness, and throughness in a reasonable way each ride, we will see progress - again, typically over months and years versus days and weeks.
So what does this look like in practice? Everyone structures their rides differently, but I usually do ten minutes of walk warmup, with another five to ten minutes of trot and canter warmup in a stretchier, looser frame, and then about 25-30 minutes of work. Depending on what I’m asking, I will give walk breaks at least every eight to ten minutes. If I am doing something harder, those breaks might come every three to five minutes, even if it is just for 30-60 seconds. And then of course comes another five to ten minutes of walking, depending on if the horse is hot, the weather, and if the horse will be turned out back into a stall when I am done (in which case I will walk for more time).
This stuff is hard. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad or too much. Use good judgment, ask for a little bit and a time, and keep asking! If I can run a half marathon and bike 50 miles and even do push-ups and pull-ups, your horse can do her little bit of work, too.