Horseback Riding & CrossFit

Happy Friday! I wanted to stay within my horse-themed post from the other day, and talk about my two loves: horses and CrossFit. At first mention, you might be thinking “um, those have absolutely nothing in common, lady…” but NAY! You would be wrong.

As I mentioned yesterday, I have been riding and involved with horses for a whopping 23 years at this point. While I’ve been involved with CrossFit/weightlifting for barely two years, I have been able to take a lot away from both sports and have noticed some key similarities between the two. I am going to attempt to keep this relatively short and sweet, but if I can be honest…I am terrible at being short and probably worse at being sweet.

How CrossFit has helped my riding, and how my riding helped me with CrossFit:

  1. Body awareness. I started riding at a young age (5), and I will forever be grateful for that. It is much easier for kids to learn new things, as their muscle memory is insanely good, and they haven’t developed that pesky trait known as “fear” yet. Because I have been riding for so long, I am keenly aware of how one thing that I do with my body affects another: for example, if one shoulder is slouching, that more than likely means that my torso is collapsed or loose on one side, and that probably means my weight is distributed unevenly in my hip bones, which means my horse is probably going to be crooked and uneven. The best riders make it look like they’re not doing anything on top of their horse, when really they are doing close to 10 things at once; their inside rein, outside rein, inside leg, outside leg, seat bones and core are all operating somewhat independently to make what they are asking the horse as clear, fluid and easy as possible. By being aware of all the little nuances in a movement, or how one tiny adjustment can make an enormous difference in performance, this creates an astute body awareness as you are ALWAYS thinking about all parts of your body, and using them to make the picture prettier.This is very similar to the principles of weightlifting. If you look at someone who is great at snatching, they are able to sync and time all of their movements together to create the most explosive pull off the ground; they understand how everything they are trying to do ultimately works together to move the most weight around. Timing in weightlifting is everything, and by having great body awareness, you are once again thinking about how one small adjustment can have a domino affect on the rest of the movement. For me, once I realized what exactly full extension of the hips felt like, I realized how much more explosive I could be. By practicing a number of drills, I’ve been able to time my movements a bit better and to start connecting the dots and really see how different it feels when things go right. I am not saying ny any means that I am the best, strongest or most efficient weight lifter, but by being aware of my entire body and how everything works together, it has helped me make a lot of improvements in a fairly short amount of time.
  2. The devil is in the details. Again, this is somewhat harping on body awareness, but to a slightly more defined point. As I mentioned earlier, a lot about making a horse go nicely is about being subtle, effective and aware: the same goes for weightlifting. If my horse isn’t going straight or feels stuck laterally behind, chances are I’m not going to make some enormous adjustment and get perfect results. If I think in smaller steps, like “bring your left shoulder back ever so slightly”, that can make a huge difference. Horses are smart animals and are very in tune to the riders on their back; us shifting our weight around all the time is detrimental to their performance as it disrupts their natural balance and cadence of movement. Think about if you were giving someone a piggy-back ride, and you just wanted them to sit a little more forward so they would be closer to your body to stop them from moving around; them moving slightly closer and staying quiet would be so much easier than if they were constantly thrashing around. Sometimes the adjustments that speak the loudest are the smallest, and barely visible to the untrained eye – this is similar to weightlifting.When I first started snatching, I was pretty awful at it. I came to this conclusion for a number of reasons, mainly because I was inexperienced and this movement was completely foreign to me. Eventually I made some progress, but I had a tough time snatching from the ground (versus a hang snatch) because I would try to come off explosive from the very start, and would try to pull the bar off the floor with my arms. This created a number of issues, and was really ineffective –  I was focusing on the wrong part of the movement at which to try to be explosive. However, the second my coach said “come off the ground slow, then when you pass your knees, shrug”, something clicked. Whether or not I am being “slow” off the ground, the emphasis on a controlled first part of the movement while utilizing my legs really helped me break down the movement and feel the difference in how much more explosive (AKA easier) it was.

    Sometimes the biggest improvements we can make come from the smallest differences. Both riding and weightlifting are extremely technical skills, and require a lot of practice and patience. The best at each sport know how to make it look essentially effortless for a really good reason.

  3. The importance of a good warm up. This one has been particularly resonating with me lately, as my body has been feeling pretty beat up. There are days when I feel great, days when I feel ok, and days when I feel awful. Some days I get more sleep than other days; other times I’m better about hydrating…there are a lot of things that factor in to how one is feeling that day, and it’s important to be able to adjust your warm up to how your body is feeling that day. By spending a little extra time on areas you know might be getting more work/volume that day can really pay off . For instance, if I know we’re going to be doing heavy deadlifts in the programming, I want to incorporate more hamstring and lower back stretches than I might normally do. Or, if I’m really sore just about everywhere, I like to do jump on the rower or the AirDyne for some easy cardio just out shake everything out before I start stretching.

    The same goes for horses. There are certain days when I need a 10 minute warm up to get my horse going nice and freely, and there are some days where we don’t actually have a supple horse until 35 minutes into the ride. There’s nothing wrong with either, but it’s crucial to be able to feel how the horse is moving, how it is different than the day before, and to be an advocate for them. Obviously (sadly?) horses can’t talk, so it is up to us as riders to be in tune with their movement and take the time to provide them with a beneficial warm up that allows them their natural movement. I have also found that, like humans, doing mobility work and stretches with horses is also really helpful in creating and encouraging flexibility; unsurprisingly, this aids in their freedom of movement and makes everything move correctly – sound familiar to humans? Mobility work is really important for athletes, should they be human or equine.

    By having experienced the benefits of a great warm up tailored to what I’m doing that day, I make sure to give my horse the same courtesy. He is an athlete and will have days better than others, and as a rider it is up to me to do my part and set him up for success. If I want a happy horse and a successful partnership, I need to do everything on my end correctly with whatever is in my tool box, so to speak, so he can do his part. For myself, if I want to succeed and continue to improve as an athlete, I need take advantage of all the things I can do to help my body perform what I am asking of it.

  4. A willingness to be open-minded and always looking to learn. This is applicable to all sorts of things in life, but I feel as though a lot of people stop learning as soon as they get comfortable. Barbell Shrugged did a wonderful podcast/YouTube video on this topic, and if you have the time I highly suggest watching it. They talk about how the most successful coaches/athletes/students never stop learning; even those who are considered to be experts in their field should always aim to keep an open mind and ask questions. I have been around horses and riding for the majority of my life, and I think technically could be considered an expert by the amount of time I’ve been involved, but I still feel as though I am only scratching the surface. Even the athletes who go to the Olympics still take lessons, as each person involved in the sport has a unique way of describing a feeling or a concept, and with so many different learning styles and personalities amongst both horses and riders, it’s wonderful to see such a variety of ways to teach.

    It’s ok to be confident in yourself and to know that you “know” something. However, it’s also important to know that nobody ever failed from learning more, or learning something different, and keeping an open mind in all areas of life is pretty damn important. I wish I had gotten into weightlifting or sports at an earlier age, because I feel like I could be so much further along than I am now; I can’t go back and change that, but I can push my pride aside and realize all because I am “technically” an adult doesn’t mean I’m not a beginner. Admitting you are a beginner is hard, especially for people who like to be good at things right away – I am definitely guilty of this and get discouraged easily. However, I feel like there aren’t very many opportunities to learn something for the first time as you get older – relish it, and immerse yourself in something that you are passionate about. Keep an open mind and know there is always more to learn, and be a good student – ask questions, ask different opinions, and try things out for yourself to see what works for you.

See, I told you I was terrible at being short and sweet! I think I actually had five bullet points I wanted to address, but I know that the internet typically prefers pictures and videos over long, boring text-heavy posts – I’ll try to get better about that!

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