Taking Care of Ourselves is Taking Care of our Horses
When my back is tense, my horse's back will be, too. When my back is relaxed, my horse's back will be, too.
Some time ago, I watched a video of myself riding a young horse. The horse looked good - rhythmic, forward, under control most of the time. I, on the other hand, looked terrible. My hands bounced up and down, my shoulders seemed stuck somewhere in the vicinity of my ears, the right one higher up than the left. My lower legs looked like they had a hard time deciding where they wanted to be - too far forward, or too far back. My entire body looked tense. If I had been a horse, I would not have wanted to ride myself.
I reacted with understandable horror. Not because I want to conform to a certain mental image of how a good rider should look. Only in part because I get paid to ride other people’s horses and don’t want to risk losing all my clients. Only in part because I want to be a good role model for my students. The main reason I felt horrified was because I know that a crooked, stiff rider creates a crooked, stiff horse. Horses reflect the way we sit on them. If my back does not follow the horse’s back, the horse’s back will stop swinging. If my hands are not able to keep an elastic connection with tthe horse’s mouth, correct contact will never develop. Horses go the way we ride them, which is why a rider’s seat is so important.
I did what I always do when my seat needs work. I called one of my mentors, in this case Ulla Hudson, a wise and kind teacher who has known me for over a quarter century. She listened to me whine for about fifteen minutes, then promised to come and take a look at the dire situation I described.
Ulla, introducing me and my students to the Balimo chair during a recent workshop. This time, even the Balimo would not have helped me.
Her assessment was swift, and surprising: “I can’t help you. You don’t need me standing here telling you over and over to keep your hands quiet. You need to get some body work.”
I stared at Ulla. This had never occurred to me before. Body work? Me? But why?
I am almost 50 years old. I have had two massages in my entire life, both gifts from my husband, who gets massages on a regular basis and claims they keep him from moving like a geriatric zombie. I never have enough time for that kind of extravagance. Why spend an hour lazing around when I could ride an extra horse instead? What will be next, a manicure? Of course, I’ve never had a manicure. Or a chiropractic adjustment. I ride seven to ten horses a day, six days a week, and run ultramarathons as a hobby, so there’s little time left over for other things, like stretching, foam rolling, or self-indulgent spa days, which is what body work sounded like to me.
We regained our balance right after this picture was taken, but I've had my share of involuntary dismounts.
Besides, my body is pretty tough. It has to be. Over the last thirty years, I have gotten bucked off horses more times than I can count. Horses have knocked me down, stepped on me, and dragged me across the arena. I’ve suffered bruises, cracked ribs, black eyes, broken toes etc. but never anything serious. I am proud of the fact that, so far, all my injuries from these mishaps have healed without medical intervention or much time off riding. I should mention here that, even when I’m not riding, I tend to get into wrecks. My crashes during trail races are so frequent and so spectacular that my facebook friends cheer when they see a rare finish line picture without bloody knees. But all my running injuries, like my riding injuries, have healed pretty much by themselves. I can ride and run through almost anything, it seems. So why would I need body work?
My knees at mile 45 of the Jemez 50-miler.
I generally do what Ulla tells me, so, in spite of my doubts, I scheduled an appointment with Randy Nakasone, a body worker with an excellent reputation. I know he’s good because I’ve sent students to him and seen the difference Randy’s adjustments make in the way they ride. I just never thought of going to see him myself. But here I was, being prodded and pushed and pulled on. He proclained me a total mess: “Your left hip is lower than your right. Your pelvis is out of whack. These vertebrae are out of alignment . . . the list went on. “Did you fall really hard on your left side recently? Randy asked. I thought of all my random gravity checks that might be responsible and just nodded.
When he was done, I felt better, no question. The niggling pain in my left hip I’d been ignoring for . . .months? years? was now much more manageable, as was the tightness in my lower back. I walked out of Randy’s office with greater ease than I had walked in. I even promised to come back for more. But the real revelation was the improvement in my riding the next day. My hips and lower back once again were able to follow the horse’s back, which in turn quieted my hands and legs. This was a major light bulb moment. I am now a body work convert.
Esperanza's back looks supple and relaxed, because my back is once again supple enough to move with hers.
We take the best possible care of the horses we work with. We make sure they balance hard work with rest. We schedule appointments with farriers and chiropractors. We know that warming up and cooling down are important parts of our horse’s workout. We feed them high-quality hay and monitor their weight and energy level. Why do we do all this? Because we owe it to them. Because we ask them carry us on their backs for hours at a time. Because they can’t move their bodies in unison with ours when they’re in pain - when their muscles are stiff or underdeveloped, when their spine is out of alignment, when discomfort interferes with their mental processes. We know that a horse’s mind and body are not two separate entities. A horse in pain will not be a happy athlete. While this seems logical to most of us, taking similar care of our own bodies often does not.
My resolution for 2020 is to treat myself more like I treat my horses. I will make time for body work, masages, warm-ups, cool-downs, stretching, and adequate rest. I want to keep riding for the next thirty years - until I’m eighty. And I want to do it in a way that won’t hurt my horses.
Taking care of our bodies is an important part of riding well. Riding well is an important part of taking care of our horses. It’s embarrassing to admit that it took me thirty years as a professional to figure this out, but late is better than never.