Easing Back In
Returning to riding after a number of years away? These 12 steps will help you get confidently back in step with your horses.
By DEBBIE Moors
Can you identify with being a "re-beginner rider," with fears and anxieties that somehow hold you back? I sure can.
In my case, fear as a rider hasn't come from a singular event or a terrible wreck. It's evolved over the last 15 years, while I was immersed in being a mom and working, and not spending much time in the saddle. Little by little, my confidence with horses began to fray, like strands of a rope pulled by distance. A combined loss of physical condition and lack of self-trust cut away at those strands until there wasn't much left to hang onto. Where I was fearless, I'd become fearful, and what used to feel like second nature now felt like unfamiliar (and treacherous) ground.
Back in the saddle again, I know that I'm a different rider (physically and emotionally) than I was 15 years ago. I feel, if not like a true beginner, like a re-beginner.
If you find yourself returning to riding after a long time away - whether because of an injury, life commitments, or financial constraints - you might be wondering where to begin to rebuild confidence, strength, and trust. I've been wondering the same thing. So I asked trainer and author Mary Midkiff the ins and outs of staging a comeback.
Here, she offers 12 steps for building confidence and easing back into the saddle. They're making a difference for me, and I'm betting they will for you, too.
1. Take Stock - Evaluate Your Lifestyle
"You have a different body than you had 10 to 15 years ago. It's like coming back to riding as a beginner," Midkiff says. "Safety, comfort, and approach are all of great importance."
To get in the saddle, you have to start with your feet firmly on the ground. "First," says Midkiff, "evaluate your lifestyle." Be realistic and look at how much time you can devote to riding, how physically active you are, and what your commitment level is. "Are you hoping to ride competitively, or wanting to ride recreationally? Write down what you're willing to do, and what you're not willing to do," she says. "Decide on your level of comfort. Maybe jumping or riding a young horse or going out for a six-hour ride in the mountains are no longer considerations," she adds.
By intentionally focusing on what you want to do, you'll begin to see where you need to start.
2. Begin With a Horse You Trust
"Start out with a good, solid horse-rider partnership," says Midkiff. "Your horse should be well matched to your expectations. If you were interviewing this horse, would he fit the job description?" If you feel a little over-mounted with your own horse, try starting with a veteran lesson horse. Build your confidence and get yourself saddle-fit on an unflappable horse in a comfortable setting, then gradually work back to former levels of horsemanship. (If you
can, consider putting your own horse in training so that when you're ready for him, he'll be fit as well.)
Midkiff also suggests that if you have a mare, you should be aware of her hormonal cycle. "Mares cycle every 21 days. In the winter, some go dormant, some don't; and in spring, some are very hot. Mares can be flighty and hyper or distracted and unfocused. You may have a hard time with a mare that isn't paying attention to you, so make sure she's on some sort of hormonal support." She adds that herbal support can help balance a mare's hormones.
3. Keep Safe on Top
"Always, always wear a helmet," says Midkiff. "Safety is No. 1, and there are lightweight, well-ventilated, comfortable helmets available." Wearing a helmet may also give you a measure of safety that will lessen anxiety.
4. Get Geared Up
"Your saddle has to be supportive of you. Women should look for a female friendly saddle," Midkiff says. She suggests you choose a saddle that will line your body up biomechanically so you can sit comfortably and securely. "As we age, our ability to recover quickly from a spook or jump is not as instantaneous as we'd like, and our reflexes slow down," Midkiff points out, adding that the right saddle will give you a secure base to optimize your reactions.
"Men can sit in virtually any saddle and the majority of saddles are designed and made for men. Women can't ride securely in a man's saddle. Women need their stirrup bars set farther back from the front of the saddle and a seat that's a little wider. The rise from the pommel to the middle of the saddle is not as severe in a woman's saddle as it is in a man's saddle. These design considerations are essential for the female rider's safety, comfort and effectiveness."
Midkiff also recommends using a rope halter with a 12-foot lead rope. "I like Clinton Anderson's rope halters," she says. "With a long lead rope and that stiff rope halter, I can do amazing things, and the horse respects that."
If you haven't used your gear or equipment in a long while, now's a good time to pull everything out, inventory what you have, clean and condition it, and check for any cracks or damage that might make it unsafe or unsuitable for use. You'll feel more confident if you know that everything is in good, safe working order.
5. Get Fit
When you rode before, you may have had a stronger core, or you might have been more fit overall. Fitness and strength can affect how solid you feel in the saddle and how well you react to a situation.
"Start looking at how to get back in shape," says Midkiff. "You should be able to walk 30 minutes four to five times each week, and walking hills is even better. Walking gives your bones the impact they need to stay healthy and strong, and low-impact aerobic exercise stimulates brain function and gives
your heart rate a chance to rise."
To build your core and overall strength, Midkiff suggests taking a Pilates class. "I've been doing Pilates weekly for six years with a personal trainer. This gives me the absolute confidence of knowing I have that core to rely on. In my riding, it gives me strength to withstand those little baubles that horses give us.
6. Watch Your Weight
"If you're very heavy, you need to consider losing weight to ride. Understand that it does matter to your horse how heavy you are," Midkiff says. "And it can affect your responsiveness and ability to move with your horse."
If you have a lot of weight to lose, you may find that riding gives you a stronger incentive to lose it. Walking and groundwork with your horse are not only great forms of exercise for weight loss, but also can help you build confidence and trust with your horse.
Yoga is another core-strengthener. It also can improve your flexibility and is mentally calming. It can help you learn strategies for relaxation that may transfer to your horse and improve your sense of ease in the saddle.
And how long has it been since you tried a Hula Hoop? "A Hula Hoop is really great for freeing the hips and lower back, says Midkiff. "Sitting on a big physio ball and doing hip circles and pelvic tilts in front of a full-length mirror also improves flexibility." (Note: Always check with your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.)
7. Go Back to Basics
Don'ft be afraid to start at the very beginning. If working with your horse on the ground has you uneasy, think about what you can do easily. For example, start with grooming and groundwork, then, as you gain confidence on the ground, build on it step-by-step. Go from grooming to having a trusted friend longe you and your horse in the arena. You'll begin to build strength and fitness without anxiety over control. Then, you can transition from longe-work to riding in the arena.
"You don't want to set yourself up for being afraid and nervous and hesitant about things. Your horse will pick that up," Midkiff advises.
8. Ease Up on the Caffeine
Some foods and drinks can ratchet up your nervous energy level in ways that your horse will sense as well.
"If you know you're going to be with your horse choose decaf coffee, herbal tea, juice, or a smoothie rather than coffee or energy drinks, especially if you already have jitters. Just keep caffeine out of that part of the day," Midkiff says.
9. Answer Yourself
"I'm 57,"says Midkiff, "and I find that I do think, what if. But you could say 'what if' every time you go for a drive in a car or every time you cross the street."
To try to quiet that voice, answer yourself with a positive. "Go back to a time when you had a big 'what if' that you made it through and recovered from.
Fit that memory right into your narrative, almost like a friend standing there reminding you that this happened, you handled it, and you were OK. Re-instill your confidence," Midkiff says.
Even if time has passed since that incident, remind yourself that you are capable, and your horse isn't out to hurt you.
10. Stay Focused
When you arrive to work with your horse, be present, Midkiff says. "Focus yourself by leaving gadgets and work and other thoughts behind. You'll be amazed at how much more learning (in less time!) your horse can take in when his human partner is present, participating, and positive."
Midkiff also recommends another helpful aid that you can keep with you in your purse, your car, tack room, anywhere you might need anxiety relief. Bach Flowers' Rescue Remedy or one of their many tinctures switch your nervous energy to a calm and quiet sense of being. It also is outstanding to minimize shock if you have an accident or get injured. Put 4 drops under your tongue as you get to the barn and if you like give it to your horse too! It's all natural and does wonders in calming emotions and nerves. You can find Bach Flower tinctures in any natural food store, or homeopathic or holistic provider in your area.
If you've had a really intense day, or you just aren't feeling your best, Midkiff suggests going back to basics. She emphasizes, "you always have options."
"Do some simple groundwork for 30 minutes or so. It'll make your time together constructive and relaxing for both of you."
11. School for Strength
Even if your aim is to trail ride, and not compete, schooling your horse in an arena will strengthen your endurance and fitness and sharpen your reaction time.
"Try trotting your horse over poles; going around and over obstacles; and doing figure-eights, serpentines, and lateral work to build strength for pleasure rides," Midkiff advises.
12. Set a Peaceful Intention
Midkiff points out that it's important to learn to release tension and to relax and focus, not just with horses, but also in your daily life. "If you aren't able to do so, your frantic, stressful existence will come across to your horse," she says. Yoga and meditation cultivate deep breathing and relaxation, and there are meditative and visual techniques that give you a sense of peace. Midkiff also suggests using Bach Flowers' Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic tonic that involves a few drops under the tongue.
A strong proponent of aromatherapy for horses (page 47 "The InBalance Horse" essential oil blend), she also recommends aromatherapy for riders.
"When you go to the pasture or barn or pull into the stable area, begin some deep breathing exercises and rub a few drops of calming essential oils into and around your nostrils and on your pulse points. You can use a tiny amount of The InBalance Horse providing lavender, basil, sweet marjoram, neroli, petitgrain, sweet almond and sesame oils which are analgesic and calming. This will begin the shift you need to meet your horse and step into his world," she says.
"Pretend you are entering the world's greatest psychiatrist's office and it's required that you spend a few hours with nothing else on your mind but healing yourself and enjoying your horse. When you meet and work with your horse with peaceful intention in your mind, body, and soul, you're grounded and fully engaged with your horse."
Next Month: Brazil!
I spent a week in Brazil at the end of November riding many, many horses and learning more and more about their horse culture and observing their process of selection for breeding and showing. I will be reporting to you on this trip and some of my plans with bringing the Brazilian Mangalarga (Paulista) (MP) to Kentucky in the next newsletter.
A beautiful young stallion
from Haras Lagoinha
I hope you will follow from newsletter to newsletter insights, observations, questions and solutions to numerous inquiries around horses and the world they live in. The resources, web links, experts, books and articles listed here will give you lots of options to pursue.
The Women & Horses newsletter stands for all horse and pony breeds, as well as donkeys and mules, all disciplines and uses of the horse and wild horses.
Past newsletters have been archived on the web site for you to check out anytime and I'm always open to receiving your inquires via email.
Mary D. Midkiff