I was fortunate to spend 3-1/2 days at the US Olympic Training Center recently, with equestrian fitness and conditioning coach, Daniel Stewart, and nine other equestrians from around the country. We ranged in age and levels of riding proficiency, but we all had something to learn from everyone else in the group — and from ourselves. Our days were a combination of work outs and discussions. Altogether, they added up to some great new friendships, a ton of fun, and a workout plan with accountability that we all took home.
If you’re not familiar with Daniel Stewart, I must warn you! He’s a well travelled, and well studied man, who has probably forgotten more about the mechanics of riding and fitness than I will ever know. He actually rides, so this isn’t just theory. He’s got the saddle time to be credible. Plus, he has coached the US Olympic teams in many different disciplines of riding. So he’s got the elite level competition experience you would want. That said, he’s super high energy, and is unapologetically addicted to alliteration and rhyme. So at times, he can sound a bit like Dr. Seuss after a too much coffee. Don’t let that throw you. It’s worth the work to keep up with everything he has to say.
OK, full disclosure: I’m not much on working out. I never really learned how, and now, at age 51, am having to acquire this new skill to further my riding. As a result, working out has never been purposeful or fun, so I just didn’t do it. I’d rather throw hay bales and feed sacks at the barn. So as ridiculous as it sounds, you could throw me in the gym, and I really wouldn’t know what to do, or how to get it done.
That’s where the SOAR program comes into play. It stands for Specificity of sport, Overload, Add equipment, and Responsible.
Specificity of Sport
Specificity of sport, in our case, means that your exercises should replicate the motions you make riding. Our problem is that so many of the standard gym exercises don’t have any resemblance to riding — or worse, they instill habits that are the polar opposite of what we should do. So we unintentionally create muscle memory for doing the wrong thing.
Think about a rower. During the off-season, they will go to the gym and use the rowing machine, in large part because it exactly duplicates the motion they make pulling the oar in the boat.
Now, as a rider, think about a standard jumping jack. It’s just not a motion you want to repeat on your horse because your elbows are out, your hands are above your head, and your knees are straight. Aaack!
Instead of a jumping jack, meet the “Jumper Jack.” Start in the standing position with your hands in front of you like you’re holding the reins (thumbs on top of course!), knees slightly bent, like you would be sitting atop your horse. Then when you jump to take your feet shoulder width apart, fold at the hip and release your hands forward to mimic a jump. Now we have specificity of sport!
Daniel has several pieces of inexpensive, small, and travel friendly workout equipment. I ordered mine from Amazon for less than $100. They include a pair of balance pods, an agility ladder, a speed rope, and a resistance band. They will all fit into a small duffel. I have mine in a little drawstring backpack I got as a giveaway at a tack store.
If you want to go whole hog, then you can add a BOSU ball (~$120 on Amazon), a medicine ball (err on the side of lighter, mine is 6 lbs.), stability balls (95cm to use in place of a chair, and 35cm to simulate a horse between your legs at the calf), and a Stable Board ($75 from Riding Right). But those will tend to stay at home, because they are bigger and too bulky to travel easily.
Where we began with a simple Jumper Jack, Daniel then added the agility ladder to it. And we did strings of Jumper Jacks getting our feet into every step of the agility ladder without looking down, and without getting our feet tangled.
The idea behind overload is to make the workout so much tougher than it has to be, so the ride seems easy by comparison. And there, Daniel did not disappoint! I’m not sure what made it harder — Daniel, or the altitude! He had us doing ten station circuits, full-out effort for 45 seconds, with a 15 second break to change stations. By about station five or six, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into, but Daniel made the rounds, screaming encouragement to all of us. At the end of our ten stations, we were all heaving for breath, but feeling very successful at what we had just accomplished.
Remember, as equestrians, we want long, sinewy, supple muscles — not bulk. So go for more reps at a lower weight or resistance, not fewer reps at a higher weight. Both might get you to the same level of exertion. But the former gives us the build we want, not the bulk we don’t want.
The literal translation here is don’t try to work out through pain. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. So listen! Treat your body with respect, and do what you need to allow the injury to heal properly.
This also means you need to understand the difference, and be able to feel the difference, between being tired, being sore, and being in pain.
It also means remembering to stretch after your workout, when muscles are warm. A static stretch is all you want. Stretch, take a breath, wait for the initial pulling sensation to subside, then deepen the stretch a little bit. Don’t feel compelled to bend like a yoga doll. And do not bounce, because you will most likely injure yourself.
We were privileged to work out in the Fitness and Conditioning Center, right alongside the other athletes who are training for the Olympics. Their work ethic was a sight to behold, and really inspired me. My other main source of inspiration was my classmates. I’m old enough to be most of their moms. But don’t think for a minute I was going to let them finish, and me not. I may not keep pace, but I was damn sure going to keep up.
One of the big things to remember when you work out is to be ambidextrous. We expect our horses to move equally well on both leads. Well, it’s going to be hard for them to do that when we aren’t balanced on both sides ourselves. We all (horses included) have a strong side and a weak side. So work your weaker side first, then your strong side, then the weak side again (so it gets extra attention, and can improve).
Breathing and Music
The motivational music pumping through the gym was also quite a revelation for me. I grew up watching sports on television, and not necessarily playing them. That meant I was never exposed to all the banter going on during practices or games. So I tend to ride quietly. I don’t talk to my horse much, and we don’t play music during our classes. But fear not. That is about to change.
I’m now hard at work on a playlist for my schooling rides, and another for me to use during workouts. I also need to put together a playlist for my pre-performance routine, and my prime ride routine (more on that later).
Music, or singing to yourself, is also a great way to make sure you continue breathing. I have a tendency to hold my breath, and it makes me stiff. Now that I know that, I can be more conscious about working on changing it.
Change It Up!
Variety is the spice of life. Apparently, it’s also the secret to a good workout. If you do the exact same workout every single time, then two things happen: 1) you get bored (and are less apt to keep working out), and 2) your muscles start to anticipate the workout so you won’t get the results you’re after. So don’t do the same thing every time. Change it up!
My approach is to do my resistance work outs every other day, using just two pieces of equipment at a time. So one day might be balance pods and the agility ladder. The next day will be an active rest day (no couch sitting here) where I work on balance, without the oomph of plyometrics (where both feet come off the ground). And the next workout could be the BOSU ball and resistance band. This way, my body doesn’t really know what’s coming next. I will likely have to ratchet up the intensity level, because I’m no Olympic specimen, but that’s OK. I’ll still be ahead of all those riders who aren’t even working out.
Use Good Form
Our class did a challenge, where each of us sought to do five repetitions of an exercise on each of five pieces of equipment, in the shortest amount of time. What quickly became apparent to all of us was that the more we rushed, the more our form deteriorated, and the longer it took because we tripped on the agility ladder, or botched the speed rope.
When it was my turn, I knew there was no way to beat the time that my younger classmates were putting in. So my goal became different: to do a clean run with excellent form in each exercise. And while my time wasn’t the best, I felt like I got more out of it in a couple of respects. Daniel pointed out that this approached showed a respect for the task, and a desire to get more out of it than just speed. That really meant a lot to me. Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve ever really felt like an athlete.
Frankly, my goals for the workouts during boot camp were: 1) to not pass out from the altitude (Colorado Springs is at an elevation of 7,126 feet above sea level so the air is pretty thin and the humidity low), 2) to not throw up, and 3) to finish all the exercises even if it took me a little bit longer. I am proud to say that I accomplished just that. And it only took a total of six Advil over the entire three and a half days to keep me mobile. But truth be told, my quads and I are not yet back on speaking terms.
Now that I’m home, I have a weekly check-in with Daniel and our group. I have committed myself to three workouts a week, and four active rest days. It’s going to take me three to five weeks to develop this into a solid habit. So I’m starting with day one, and building from there. And while my accountability partners are around the country, I’ll be checking in daily to make sure they are doing their part too.
If you’re interested in participating in this program, Daniel has sessions coming up in July and August. Check out his website at pressureproofacademy.com/ to enroll. If you can’t make it all the way to Colorado Springs, consider joining one of the online academies for conditioning, confidence, and coaching.