The Equestrian Athlete (Excerpt from Riding For Life)

From Chapter 6: Fitness and The Female Equestrian

The Equestrian Athlete
If you're a seasoned equestrian, you know how physically demanding and mentally challenging riding can be. Even if you're a newcomer to the sport, it probably didn't take you long to realize riding is much more than just sitting on a horse. Equestrians are athletes, just like dancers, golfers, and tennis players. Some folks might argue that riding is even more difficult than the vast majority of other sports, and they'd have a good point. Riding effectively requires the athlete to perform her skill while she's astride a moving animal that may easily weigh in excess of 1,000 pounds. To make matters even more challenging, the animal has a mind and a will of its own, in contrast to, say, a golf club or tennis racket. While the rider is coordinating the movements of her own body, she must simultaneously direct the movements of her equine partner.

People who have never ridden a horse--or those who have never ridden in earnest--often have the misconception that riding is easy. You just climb aboard, sit back in the saddle, and let the horse do all the work, right? It's true that skilled equestrians make riding look effortless, in much the same way that an Olympic gymnast makes a double-back somersault dismount from the balance beam appear as simple and as natural as rolling out of bed in the morning. In many athletic endeavors, including gymnastics and riding, the more accomplished the athlete, the more subtle her effort.

Skilled riders may appear to be virtually motionless in the saddle, but, in reality, dozens of muscles throughout their entire bodies are actively working at any given moment. Excellent muscle control, flexibility, and balance make their movements so precise and so fluid as to be practically imperceptible. Extraneous movements, on the other hand, are practically nonexistent because any action that doesn't help the horse do his job only serves to hinder him.

It's all easier said than done, of course. While you're riding, you're using the muscles of your body to communicate with your horse on a moment-to-moment basis. You're relying on many of these same muscles to keep you safely astride so that you don't end up on the ground. It takes hours of practice to master the ability to do both simultaneously.

Practice and Patience Make Perfect
When you're learning any new skill, especially one as challenging as riding, it's important to be patient with yourself. You may have been born to ride, but that doesn't mean that you were born knowing how to ride. Expert riders aren't created overnight, but only after countless hours of practice and years of experience. Because becoming a skilled equestrian takes time, you might as well relax and enjoy the ride--and the learning process.

No matter how simple the overall act of riding may seem, in reality, it consists of the synchronization of hundreds of smaller, individual tasks. A beginner is acutely aware of this phenomenon. As soon as she focuses her attention on maintaining proper leg position at a particular gait, her hands drift up and apart. When she concentrates on repositioning her hands, her head drops. In the early stages of the learning process, it's practically impossible to pay attention to the position of every body part at the same time although our instructors often admonish us to try. Our brains and bodies just aren't designed to learn several tasks at once, and for this reason it is necessary to learn one skill--even if we don't gain complete mastery of it--before attempting to learn another.

Research shows that in the first five to six hours after a motor skill is learned, there is a period of vulnerability during which that skill can easily be unlearned, or forgotten, by attempting to learn a second skill. During that five- to six-hour window, the brain and the central nervous system are busy consolidating a unique pattern of neural pathways that control the performance of the task. These neural pathways form the "motor memory" that will allow the body to perform the task again at a later time.

Once this memory is established, it is transferred from one part of the brain, where it is temporarily held, to other parts of the brain, where it is placed in permanent storage. The good news is that after five or six hours, even without practice, the blueprint for the task is virtually hardwired into the central nervous system. The passage of time serves to cement new skills in our brains. This may explain why we're able to surprise ourselves with significant improvements in a particular aspect of riding even from one day to the next.

Learning any new skill is an intricate and complex process that requires you to use your brain, nerves, and muscles in new ways. It involves chemical and physiological changes in the molecules and cells of the brain and body. Sometimes, even after your brain and nerves have established the correct neural pathway for a particular task, your body isn't fully cooperative. You might be able to perform the task to some degree, but you may not be able to execute it perfectly, or even smoothly. It could be that you don't have sufficient muscle strength or that you lack the necessary flexibility, coordination, or balance. These physical attributes will improve with time and practice.

About the Author

Rallie McAllister, MD

Rallie McAllister, MD, grew up on a horse farm in Tennessee, and has raised and trained horses all of her life. She now lives in Lexington, Ky., on a horse farm with her husband and three sons. In addition to her practice of emergency and corporate medicine, she is a syndicated columnist (Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister), and the author of four health-realted books, including Riding For Life, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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