Mastering the Art of Invisibility

Equestrians Master The Art Of Invisibility

One-day horse shows have a certain connotation with them; they tend to run longer, be slightly disorganized and are mostly less competitive. Barns generally use one-day shows to qualify for state and regional finals or to acquire enough points to be eligible for some of the larger national finals.

As the equestrian liaison at The Ethel Walker School, I felt compelled to watch our students show in the first competition of this academic year. We have students who have been training with barns across the nation and even in Mexico before they began riding with The Ethel Walker Equestrian Team, and today gave us a baseline to gauge against as our team embarks on the 2017-2018 training season.

As I watched trip after trip of hunter and equitation courses, from adults to juniors, I began to notice a trend. The riders who appeared to be more physically fit were able to produce more consistent jumping courses than those riders who had mastered the technical dissection of an over-fences class but lacked the fitness acumen to make the necessary adjustments while on course.

Today, I’m a jumper. However, I spent my entire junior equestrian career in the equitation ring. If I had to choose the most important thing to remember as an equitation rider, it would be: mastering the art of invisibility.

While you’re on-course, it doesn’t matter how you feel or what your horse is doing, your job is to make the ride you have, appear to be the perfect ride. Many riders mistake low hands and a quiet leg to mean soft hands and a light unbalanced. In truth, the only thing that changes between the schooling ride and the show ring is that your aids become invisible.

Part of mastering the art of invisibility is simply having the wherewithal to do it. The greater part, however, is having the physical strength needed to apply enough leg without kicking or twisting and to half-halt without changing your hand or body position.

Equestrians Need Some Time In The Gym

When you begin to think about training in the gym, you’ll want to consider these five things:

  1. Leg Strength
  2. Core Strength
  3. Back Strength
  4. Posture
  5. Flexibility

Leg strength helps you ride from your leg and support your horse to create a more connected and confident ride for both horse and rider.

Core strength increases a rider’s ability to hold their position and support their horse without relying on their hands. It also helps to cover up questionable distances by being able to hold a position no matter what your horse is doing.

Back strength comes in handy with stronger horses when a subtle, invisible half-halt is needed.

Posture goes hand-in-hand with core strength but takes it a step further as posture focuses on your position as a whole. Ballet and/or Barre classes are an excellent way to improve riding position without even thinking about it.

Finally, flexibility is important because it keeps your muscles from tightening and causing hip and back problems. Many riders become uneven and negatively affect their horse’s balance because their bodies are uneven or too stiff. My top recommendation for this is to pick up yoga at least once a week. It’ll improve both strength and flexibility, which you’ll be thankful for as your training intensity increases throughout the showing season.

Gym Exercises for Riders

Aim for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions for each exercise. For each workout, mix and match the lower body, upper body, and core exercises to create a five to seven exercise workout with three sets and 10-15 repetitions per set.

Balance Exercises – Yoga

Improve your strength and balance with yoga!

Lower-Body Strength Training:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Calf Raises
  • Leg Raises

*Use weights for an added challenge

Upper-Body Strength Training:

  • Tricep Dips
  • Bicep Curls
  • Chin-Ups/Pull-Ups
  • Push-Ups
  • Rows/Rowing
  • Wall Balls (Total Body)

Core Strength Training:

  • Abdominal Wall Sit-Twist (Use medicine ball or resistance for more of a challenge)
  • Planks (Regular, Side, Single Leg/Arm)
  • Reverse Crunches
  • Bicycle Crunches
  • Supermans (Lie on stomach with arms stretched forward and lift arms and legs up and back down)
  • Crunches/Sit-Ups

*See more from University of Kentucky equestrian coach, Sue Stanley, on 

Endurance Training with Cardio:

  • Running
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Rowing

I am not a fan of cardio, but there’s no way around it if you want to improve your endurance and keep your heart healthy. Every week, I try to switch my cardio routine to keep myself interested and committed to a stronger, healthier lifestyle.

I hope you’ll join me in the gym! #equestrianworkout

EFG Equine Equestrian Gym Workout A

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Back to the Basics

I recently picked up my life, and my horse, and moved us from Charlotte, NC to a small town outside of Hartford, CT. This isn’t a new place for either of us but it represented a change in our paths and our training.

Earlier this year, I was approached by the head of my former high school about a position in their Admissions Office. At first, I didn’t give it much thought as I had just started working with a digital marketing firm. However, as timing would have it, the position soon became my opportune next step and I am now an Admissions Associate at The Ethel Walker School, which included a stall for my mare, Honey.

Honey seems to like her new stall at The Ethel Walker School Equestrian Center
I think Honey likes her new home – it’s a princess’s life for this chestnut mare!

As I settled into my office, Honey seemed to be taking in the horses around her. Instead of only lesson horses, she was now surrounded by A-Circuit show horses. After spending years as the largest horse in the barn, Honey now lives as one of many warmbloods instead of being the only one. While I can’t say this definitively, it certainly seems as though Honey’s competitive nature and desire for attention have put an extra suspension in her stride and scope to her jump. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Honey was showing off.

So, how does this culminate into a lesson about going back to the basics?

Sometimes, when in a new place or taking on an uncertain adventure, the basics are where you will gain the most. While jumping the new fancy course or trying your hand at exercises left from earlier lessons may be enticing, the real work happens by perfecting the most basic movements.

Exercise I:

Begin by trotting a 20-meter circle at each end of the ring. Once perfected, modify the exercise by trotting a 10-meter circle in each corner of the ring.

If you pay attention during this exercise, you’ll notice that your horse’s balance may differ from straightaway to circle and from one point of your circle to another. This is an issue of self-carriage and straightness. Many riders, myself included, forget the importance of focusing on the simple things, like making a perfect circle, but it’s the simple things that make all the difference later on.

Exercise II:

Part A: Down the long side of the arena, show three transitions of your choice. Modify this exercise by adding the canter. Transition to a sitting trot around the short side of the arena.

Part B: On the short side of the arena, begin to incorporate shoulder-in and haunches-in, alternating between the two.

This exercise is one that every rider from beginner to advance should have in their tool box. It tells you how well you and your horse are listening to one another and it reinforces lateral movements that help with balance and straightness.

Horseshoe_72dpi_RGB (1)An important thing to remember is to not let your horse get frustrated. If that happens, do something else; figure-eight the arena, and diffuse their frustration before any conflict can occur. Transitions will force your horse to use their hind end so it’s hard work for your horse.

Exercise II:

Just because we’re going back to basics doesn’t mean we ignore the jumps. Instead of working a full course, try incorporating trot jumps in your ride with the emphasis on rhythm and balance.

I’ve included a workout that Honey and I recently did to keep the jumps in our routine but still work on backing off, balancing, and finding our rhythm.

*Our video equipment is still in storage so the iPhone was our only option this time.

Share your #backtobasics videos and photos with me here and on social media @BettaBeYou so we can keep this conversation going.

Teaching a horse to jump: From cross-rails to stone walls & more

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One of my students recently decided that it was time for her to invest in a horse of her own. She did her research and brought home a twelve-year-old OTTB that she hoped could be a pleasure horse for herself, and an equitation horse for her daughter. Standing between 16’2 and 17 hands, Baker is a handsome boy with the potential to become exactly what they’re looking for. Continue reading “Teaching a horse to jump: From cross-rails to stone walls & more”

Gamify Learning to Ride

As anyone who owns lesson horses knows, it’s a constant struggle, and balancing act, to keeping your horses conditioned and keeping your lesson kids happy. This is an exercise that I used to do with my former trainer and while it sounds simple, my students really started to get a feel for what it’s like to have an adjustable horse simply because we made a game out of it! Continue reading “Gamify Learning to Ride”

“You Can’t Make Everyone Happy” – No Longer Applies

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After a few weeks of teaching riding lessons, I’ve come to truly realize and understand what my trainers went through every day. It’s a constant balancing act between loving your students, wanting them to truly excel, and keeping in mind how far they actually want to progress compared to how much fun they want to have. Continue reading ““You Can’t Make Everyone Happy” – No Longer Applies”

Trail Riding

My mare has done a lot in her lifetime; mini prix showjumping, dressage, foaling, and now back in the showjumping ring.

While it’s important to keep show horses in a regular workout routine, it’s also important to get them relaxed and out of the ring. Your horse should love their job and you don’t want their sourness to the ring getting in the way of that.

Especially after a hard ride, I love to take Honey out of the ring to stretch her muscles, relax, and get used to being ridden outside the confines of an arena. Plus, it’s a great way to continue to build your relationship with your horse…after all, a horse and rider’s success is based on mutual trust as a team.

Still worried? Think of it this way: if your horse doesn’t get used to being ridden outside of the ring, you can’t blame him/her if they act up while riding them on a show ground.

Always trail ride with a buddy, or at least a cell phone, and always be sure to stay alert and aware of your surroundings. Safety first!

Cheers!

Flatwork Matters [Even When You Jump]

Every time I tell people I’m a jumper, especially when I talk to people who mainly focus on the dressage, I can see their expression change to a smirk & it’s almost as if they’re thinking, “yeah she can jump but she probably let her flat work go in order to get there”.

Unfortunately, at one point in time that assumption would have been correct. It took my years to realize just how important your flatwork can be when you’re jumping. If I could sit with you and watch all the grand prix riders go through their courses I would love it! Since I can’t, let’s imagine for a moment that we’re at WEF in Wellington, FL & we’re watching all the top show jumpers from around the world.

Watch their approach to the fences; their positions; their seat & their aids.

It’s even better during the jump-off rounds. You can see the adjustments more clearly since they’re trying to both go clear and jump the fastest time.

Your flat work matters because your flatwork could be the reason you knock the rail, your horse stops, you get a bad distance, or you miss the jump completely. You and your horse are a team when you ride, whether you’re jumping or flatting your horse should be listening to your aids and you should be listening to your horse. If you do your flatwork properly, then you’ll be able to respond to any changes that may occur in your course.

I remember I was riding a 5-year old on his first trip down to Palm Beach, FL for WEF & he spooked at everything! It made it that much more important that I used my seat & did my flat work in the corners not only to set him up for the next fence but to also bring his attention back to me so that he was listening to me and not the spectators, announcers, food stand owners, or other exhibitors.

The horse I have now requires flat work in order to bring her back after every fence. She’s a hot horse & a jumper meaning I don’t have the luxury of wide turns to re-group and focus on flat work so I have to be direct & clear with her in a short period of time without becoming too reliant on one aid or another. Here’s where “flatwork” as a whole comes in. I can’t just pull a horse’s teeth out or spur her to make her listen to me…I have to work with her, as a teammate, and communicate using all my aids. With proper flatwork training at home, it’s a lot easier for me to make corrections quickly AND properly in order to ensure a clean and quick show jumping round.

Need some flatwork exercises?

  1. True-bend & Counter-bend: try changing the bend every 8-10 trot steps and make sure that you’re not only changing the bend of their neck but rather you’re changing their entire bend using all your aids (leg, seat, & then hands last).
  2. Transitions: I know it may sound simple but the more transitions you do, the better. Not only will it build muscle for your horse but it will also improve responsiveness between horse and rider. Try doing transitions between gaits as well as transitions within gaits. To really challenge yourself, you can set two ground-poles 7 (this number is up to you) canter strides apart. Go through the poles in 7 strides, then lengthen the stride the next time through to get 6 strides, then lengthen more to get 5 strides, then go back to 7 strides, then shorten the next time through the poles to get 8 strides, then shorten even more the next time to try and get 9 strides. Remember, the key here is not to ride like a bat out of hell for fewer strides or ride like you’re going to pull your horse’s teeth out to fit the additional strides, rather ride from your seat and leg for both with your hands as an additional aid. Your body can do wonders in terms of communicating with your horse so try and open that line of communication.
  3. Spiral Circles: You can do these at the walk, trot, and canter if you want depending on your level of experience. Start on a 20-meter circle and as you keep going around the circle you continue to make it incrementally smaller. Make sure the inward movement is coming from your leg asking your horse to move its whole body in, like you would if you were asking for a leg-yield. You’ll feel what movement is right for your horse. As the circle becomes smaller and smaller it will be harder and harder for your horse to continue the forward movement and will require immense support from your seat and leg as well as immense work from your horse’s hind end (you’re essentially asking for haunches-in). When you’re ready, use your inside aids to push your horse outwards to incrementally widen the circle (now essentially asking for haunches-out). Then switch directions and do it again after giving your horse the chance to trot on a loose rein and stretch their neck and back out.
  4. Counter Canter: This won’t be easy for many horses but it’s an excellent exercise for both horse and rider. Start with trying to counter-canter (hold the canter intentionally on the wrong lead) all the way around the ring. If you’re already there, here’s an exercise that will be helpful if you’re showing in upper-level equitation or if you’re just looking for a challenge. Pick up your counter-canter up the long-side of the arena. Hold it around the short end through both the corners. Continue you’re counter-counter half-way down the opposite long-side then push your horse onto the quarter-line before turning them in towards the rail to change direction (while holding the same lead) to end up on the proper lead & halt in the corner.