Hand Gallop Blog Hop: Fit to ride

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Thanks to everyone who participated in the last blog hop! I found some new blogs to read (always a plus) and I loved reading about how everyone’s horse got their name! 
This week I have a human-related question for everyone: What do you do to stay fit to ride?

I think we can all agree that riding is an athletic endeavor. It takes a lot of strength and stamina to ride a good dressage test, gallop through a cross-country course, or guide a horse through a fast and clean jumper round.
Sometimes I think we don’t take our fitness as seriously as we take our horses’, but I hope this blog hop can be an opportunity for the equestrian blogging community to share tips, successes, and even struggles! 
Sweaty selfie, you guys. I’m the coolest!
I’ll be the first to admit I am not the fittest rider out there. I generally enjoy exercise, but I sometimes neglect to make time for it. I generally try to eat a balanced diet that makes me feel good but on a late night drive home from the barn, Whataburger just sounds so good and it’s so easy.
As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that my diet and exercise regime is just as important as my horses’. Here’s what I currently do to help myself become fitter and give my horses a better ride:
  • Jogging: I am the world’s worst jogger. I am lucky to run a 12 minute mile and I don’t really enjoy the activity itself. I continuously get side stitches and feel close to death. But every other day, I drag myself onto the streets of my neighborhood and jog for 20-25 minutes. (Very occasionally I’ll jog for 30 minutes. Very occasionally.) 
  • Strength training: As soon as I get in from jogging, I come inside and do some form of basic strength training. A typical routine for me is 3 sets of: 10 pushups, 20 crunches, 15 squats, 60 second plank, 90 second wall sit. 
  • Diet: Way back in March, Johnny and I did a Whole 30. I lost 8 pounds (with zero exercise) and felt awesome. Since then, I’ve been eating whatever; it’s easier and less expensive to plan meals that include pasta and grains. Plus, I sometimes enjoy drinking alcohol. Even though it probably sounds like I eat at Whataburger every night, I usually cook dinner during the week. Our dinners usually consist of a protein-rich entree (ranging from pork chops to tofu) and a large vegetable side dish (usually steamed broccoli) plus a salad. I love cooking, so this is not a big deal for me. However, Johnny and I have gotten kind of lax about our eating (let’s not talk about how much wine I’ve had lately), so we’re embarking on another Whole 30 next week.
I’m far from a svelte equitation rider- for someone who is 5’9, I’m awfully stumpy and stout. But I try not to stress about it too much; negative self-talk is useless. Every time I think “Ugh, Stephanie, those white breeches aren’t doing you any favors,” I firmly squash that thought and tell myself “I’m glad my legs are strong enough for me to hold a galloping position for a long time!” It sounds really silly, but it’s helped me feel grateful for what I can do instead of feeling disappointed that I don’t look like Charlotte Dujardin. 
So there you have it, fellow equestrians! That’s my fitness regime- a steady diet of slow jogs and squats, coupled with a mostly-good diet. I’m really looking forward to hearing about what you do to stay fit for your riding endeavors!


Workin’ on my fitness

At the Glow Run last August with a friend, her sister, and Johnny.
I’m in the orange.

Riding has been my primary source of exercise for most of my life. In elementary school, my parents enrolled me in dance, gymnastics, and soccer in addition to riding lessons. I had a brief stint of competitive swimming in middle school, which was given up when it conflicted in both time and money with riding. I was on my school’s track team in high school, but only so I could have a school-sponsored sport to put on my college applications. I ran 400M hurdles and threw shotput; I was terrible at both.

As a member of the collegiate equestrian team, I had a rigorous gym and riding schedule that kept me reasonably fit. I also did Muay Thai/MMA for the last two years of college, swam a couple times a week, and dutifully played on many of my sorority’s intramural sports teams. After college, I lost most of that fitness and gained some weight after I discovered that when you live in a city, you can get Chinese food delivered to your apartment. (This was a revelation, y’all.) My workplace in Wichita had a gym onsite that I rarely used (because I wanted to get away from work as quickly as possible), and though I played polo a couple of times a week, I was definitely feeling tubby and lethargic.
Now, I’ve never been a svelte person; as a kid, I dominated the top of the height and healthy weight charts. (True story: my dad, who I love very much, used to tell me “You ought to play basketball, you’re good and stout! Those other girls won’t knock you down!” Thanks, Dad, all teenage girls want to be called stout.) But I’ve always managed to be mostly happy with how I looked and felt. I’m also 5’9, which is a pretty forgiving height. 
For the better part of the last three years, I worked as a therapeutic riding instructor, which required a lot of walking. (We’re talking 20,000+ steps per day.) It also required some low-activity level riding. I also did self-care on my horses three days a week, which meant more walking, hay bale carrying, stall mucking, etc. However, I didn’t lose much weight and I still felt out of shape. 
Johnny was in a similar boat- in college, he played Ultimate Frisbee, jogged, and walked everywhere. Now working 40+ hours a week at a desk job, he’d put on about 40 pounds since 2009 and felt miserable. (We won’t mention his out-of-control sweets addiction.) At 6’6, he still looked pretty skinny, but he was definitely feeling bad. 
So starting on March 1, Johnny and I completed a Whole 30. We didn’t buy or read the book; we just read the website, thought it sounded doable, and jumped right in. Whole 30 is an eating program that strips away foods that may potentially have a detrimental effect on your health. For 30 days, we ate no added sugar (no honey, maple syrup, etc.), no alcohol, no grains, no legumes, no dairy, no white potatoes, and no ingredients we couldn’t pronounce/weren’t sure what they were. Basically, we ate meat and vegetables for every meal for 30 days.
We both felt way better after completing the program; I lost 8 pounds and my skin (which has been doing this weird, rosacea-like thing) has cleared up. I stopped feeling so lethargic and bloated. Both Johnny and I found reserves of willpower we didn’t know we had. As a result, we’ve loosely stuck with eating that way. (We now eat small amounts of dairy and grains sometimes; we also indulge in giant cheeseburgers every now and then.)
Doing the Whole 30 sent me off on kind of a fitness rampage. I’ve realized that just riding isn’t enough for me to stay fit and healthy. So I’ve taken up Couch to 5K for what feels like the millionth time. Running isn’t my favorite form of exercise, but it’s reasonably cheap, widely available, and thanks to RunDouble’s Couch to 5K app, I don’t even really have to think about it- I just have to listen to the little voice in my headphones tell me when to walk and when to run. Johnny and I will be running the Rainbow Run in Tulsa in June and the Porter Peach Festival 5K in July. I am a terribly slow runner who gets side stitches constantly, but when I think about giving up, I tell myself that I went a whole month without eating any cheese. If I can do that, I can do anything.
In addition to the (very slow) running, I’ve started doing a little bit of strength training at home. I’m mostly doing stuff like pushups, situps, squats, lunges, bicep curls, and tricep extensions. I realize strength training is important; I feel a little lost with establishing a routine, though, so any advice is welcome! 
I’ve also started doing a yoga video once a week; I enjoy stretching and I love the soothing voices all yoga instructors seem to have! 
I can already tell a difference in my riding- I can stay in two-point longer, I don’t lose my breath as quickly, and I feel way, way better. I’d like to think the horses appreciate the the 8 pounds I lost, too. 
What kind of workout routine do y’all have? Any advice on strength training at home? 

Gina Is Internet Famous

Last week, I shared this picture from Gina’s back with one of my favorite health and fitness sites, fitbottomedgirls.com:

Lo and behold, Gina and I won some goodies from FBG- on top of that, we were featured on their Twitter and Instagram accounts! 
I’d kind of forgotten they were having a contest; I was really just excited to share a riding picture with them. Sometimes, the un-horsey among us don’t realize that riding can be a demanding athletic activity for the rider! (Well, that is, if you’re doing more than sitting up there like a sack of potatoes.) 
I’m sure Gina’s excited to be internet famous…I’ll share the news with her as soon as the snow, ice, and sleet clear up and I can get back to the barn! 

Rider Fitness

Riding for UTM at Auburn, 2007.

I rode hunt seat in college for my school’s NCAA equestrian team. When I tried out and signed on, I thought my exercise and diet program would stay the same as it had when I evented: pretty much nonexistent. I was not prepared for the rigors of collegiate athletics! Two very early mornings a week, I met my teammates and the school’s athletic trainer in the special athletics gym for weight training. All areas of the body were conditioned-after all, riding is the type of sport where all muscle groups are engaged! Leg press, calf raise, leg curl, bench press, shoulder press, bicep curl, leg raise, back extension- you name it, I was probably doing it at 6 AM Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 2005 until 2007. Of course, I also had riding practice two to three times per week. It always included lots of riding without stirrups, sitting trot, and two-point. I received diet advice from the athletic trainer (which, as far as I can remember, included things like “eat as much salsa as you want, but don’t eat the chips” and “protein, ladies, protein!”). Factor in kickboxing and mixed martial arts two to three times weekly, and you have a relatively lean, extremely strong rider.

Fast forward four years to January 2011. A lot of fast-food, a lack of regular exercise, and far too many chips have packed on the pounds and the muscles have nearly given up. Instead of cranking out fifty push-ups, I struggle to complete five. I haven’t ridden in nearly a year. Riding at a brisk trot causes me to be winded after ten minutes. Two-point feels uncomfortable. Somehow, my calves are too fat for my tall boots. Worst of all, it feels like I don’t know how to ride any more. Everything feels wrong. I know my heels should be down, but they keep creeping up. I’m pinching with my knees, despite my best efforts to use my thighs and calves. Two point feels really bizarre, like I’m rounding my shoulders and roaching my back. I shudder to think of what George Morris would stay about me in Practical Horseman‘s “Jumping Clinic”. I have never had these problems before. I used to be strong, confident, and extremely secure in the saddle. Huge fences never scared me, because I knew I could stay with my horse. I wasn’t a perfect rider, but I knew damn well I could stay aboard Moe while jumping a 3″ oxer bareback. No problem…except now it was.

I’ve been struggling with this out-of-shape feeling all year. It’s been especially noticeable while riding Gina. She’s the sort of horse that you really have to ride. Yesterday was the first time I’ve felt comfortable and confident in the saddle in a long time. It’s one thing to hack on the program horses- they’re bombproof and reliable. Gina is neither of these. Maybe that’s why I feel so accomplished. I rode my horse well. Anne commended me on it. I could feel it. My leg was secure. My heels were down. My upper body was turned toward the next fence. I was riding well. Not spectacularly. Not as well as four years ago. But I felt good. I felt fitter than I have in months.

I attribute the change to eating healthier (limiting caloric intake, adding more protein, eating fast-food less), riding more often (2-3 times per week), and exercising more (weekly- hey, anything is more than nothing!). I feel inspired! I’m going to work hard to get back to a healthier weight and make my body stronger. I owe it to Gina- and myself- to be the best, fittest rider I can be.