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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

Ride and Train from the Inside Out
by Mary D. Midkiff

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The Women & Horses Newsletter - July 2005

Dear Fellow Horse Enthusiasts:

I have been involved in clinics, training horses and getting the Women and Horses Essential Oils product line up and running in the last two months, and I apologize for not getting a newsletter out to you sooner.

The Sheridan, Wyoming clinic held June 3-5 was the best clinic I have ever been involved with. What a great group of women and a beautiful part of the country. All of the participants were excited and eager to learn and partner with their horses. Represented were an Icelandic horse, a Friesian, a few Quarter Horses, and a Morgan over the two days. I used the "Balance" oil on each of the horses as an experiment and the results were very positive. Each horse relaxed and released tension and worry with the aromatherapy that "Balance" offers. To the owner's and my surprise, we even had one horse easily load in the trailer that had refused to load away from home in the past.

From this clinic and from my recent work with Peggy Cummings, I feel I need to further emphasize the importance of partnering with your horse or horses and, most importantly, riding and training horses and riders from the inside out. Yes, from your core muscles and alignment and free joint movement to the corollary, a natural consequence or effect, in your horse.

The riders body must be able to assist, embrace, lift and motivate the horse in any movement: the walk, trot, jog, lope, canter, gallop, jump, lateral, bending or in backing or turning. The rider must have strong, deep abdominal core development and accessibility to that core strength, plus have an awareness of their spinal alignment, their shoulder alignment, connection from the horse's mouth to the rider's elbow and the independent use of the legs. All of this is obtainable by every rider. Some will be able to incorporate this work into their body more quickly and readily than others. This is what every rider should aspire to in partnership with a horse under saddle. It is not an elite level of fitness but rather a high level of body awareness and core strength that will establish a new level of communication, effectiveness, safety, comfort and performance all riders at many levels are trying to achieve.

Age, injury, conformation, body type, fitness level will all come into play in your riding, but the basics lie in your ability to effectively use your biomechanics on your horse. You cannot be effective simply by changing or using external parts of the body without the inner muscles and alignment supporting the outer limbs.

There are many ways we compensate for lack of inner strength. We move our waist and hips to drive the horse, we arch the back to sit up straight, we drop the rib cage to try and relax, we grip with the legs to try to get "more" from the horse. In biomechanical terms, these techniques interfere with the horse's ability to lift and move forward and connect with the rider. There are hundreds of ways in which we disable the connection between the horse's body biomechanics and our own.

The only way to truly connect and allow the horse to come through and meet us is by working from the inside out. The horse's middle up through his back needs to lift and connect with your seat in order to carry you -- less work for you and more performance from him -- otherwise you have a hollow-backed horse that is sending you from front to back or side to side with no support to carry your weight in lightness and freedom. You can drive the horse from behind and contain him in the front all you want, however you will not have a horse in self-carriage moving through his whole body.

This false set-up can cause so many problems it's hard to name them all. You get behavioral issues, a horse that is "bound up" in his muscling, stuck in his body, sore in his back, lame in his front end, etc.

The horse needs to be taught to work from the inside out as well as the rider. The horse needs to utilize his hocks and hind end muscles and joints fully to push forward and lift the rib cage, which will lift the back up and through into the neck and poll. If the horse is trained without these considerations, if the saddle does not fit or allow this movement, or if the rider's body does not allow this movement, then everything begins to break down from that point on. This is how Peggy and I (and many others) address "problem" or "project" horses that have gone to some point of not "behaving" or not "performing". They have shut down somewhere in their body where movment was inhibited and injury began. We start the process of "undoing" which can take years of rehab and re-education work.

All horses need to be started with a tremendous amount of supportive ground work and continue that work throughout their career as tune ups, warm ups or maintenance work when they are not being ridden.

Ground work does not mean conventional lunging (with or without side reins). Ground work means connecting with the horse by starting with a snug fitting halter on his head and a soft lead line weaved across the nose to one side of the horse. Even weanlings can benefit from this.

Check out Peggy Cummings' books "Connected Groundwork 1" and "Keys to Connection: Connected Riding Exercises for Riders" on her website, www.peggycummings.com. They explain and illustrate a great deal of this work.

First you need to make sure your back is released and you are not tight in the back muscles. Your horse will feel your tightness in every step. Learn to release your back by sitting on the exercise ball and watch yourself in the mirror. Stay very tall in your upper body and put your hand on your lower back. Now begin to feel your lower back sink into the ball as you breath in and out. You will need to be able to do this while standing and with your horse.

If you are on the left side of your horse, slide your right hand all the way up the line to the horse's head and set your hand. As you are standing there slowly send the head away from you and then back toward you with a soft, hinging elbow and repeat this pattern in a slow way until the horse drops his head. Next try walking with the horse in the same way. Send his head away from you and take a step with him. When he moves, keep moving with him and start the "S" movement of sending his head away and back toward you as you walk together and watch as he relaxes his neck and lowers his head. You can do less and less of the movement as he begins understanding about releasing his head and neck as you walk together. This is illustrated in my book "Fitness, Performance and the Female Equestrian."

The S movement is just the beginning of all the ground work exercises. And all of it will translate into the saddle. You can always go back to the groundwork to help you establish anything in the saddle.

The horse will always need to work from the hind end, through the abdominal core muscles to lift the rib cage and the back and carry through to the neck, poll and head. This is the only way you will achieve true self-carriage and correct development for any horse, any breed in any discipline. They all must develop in this manner with a rider who is supporting and maintaining with her inner body development.

Very, very few horses are started this way and have riders riding them this way. That is why we see a lot of horses used up and finished early on in their active lives, white trauma spots on their backs, front end lameness from going on the forehand, and bad behaviors or inexplicable changes of personality and performance.

It is up to you to seek out books, videos, instruction and clinics that promote this kind of approach to working with horses. Our horses are not disposable, dispensable beings; they are worth the time and investment to be everything they can be with us as partners. It is up to you to hold up your end of the deal by staying fit, taking a Pilates or Yoga class once a week, wearing protective headgear, researching saddles that will give you and your horse the best possible fit, and providing holistic health care and body work. It all pays off in a very deep relationship and fun riding partnership with your horse that will last many years.

Maggie Parker and I are currently putting a workbook together which will help you develop the inner riding muscles you will need as well as the understanding of each body part as it applies to riding. Our first installment should be ready by the end of August.

We have everything set up to begin offering the Women & Horses Essential Oils. If everything goes as planned we should be open for business by the end of this month! So stay tuned!

Check out the Q&A section of the website for an interesting discussion about a difficult racehorse.

Sincerely, Mary

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