As part of my fitness routine, I try to run 2-3 times a week. I got winded easily, which I chalked up to lack of cardio fitness and thought it would improve with more running. I also struggled to maintain a decent tempo and sometimes had a sore lower back after running.
My boyfriend and I like to exercise together when we can. He helps motivate and educate me, always showing me how to maintain good form and alignment and ways to use my body more efficiently. I never can keep up with him on a run, and he’s always been good natured about slowing down while I huff and puff behind him with legs that feel like lead. Today he asked if I’d like some help on my running form, and of course I was interested.
He showed me how to run on the balls of my feet instead of my heel so that my joints didn’t take so much concussion. I learned how to lift my knees instead of dragging my legs behind me. Suddenly I had better posture, being able to keep myself straighter. The first thing I noticed was that breathing became infinitely easier. I wasn’t winded. He explained that the jarring motion of landing on my heels caused my upper body to get compressed under its own weight from the immediate impact, causing my lungs to get compressed for a moment and forcing air out of them. Running on my toes allowed for better shock absorption through my joints and upper body, making it easier to breathe. Because of this, I had more energy and could run farther and faster with less energy exertion.
The next thing I noticed was that my calves, thighs and butt were getting tired much faster. This was because I was using my leg muscles to propel myself forward, rather than dragging my legs onward. I didn’t feel any pain in my lower back or knees, just muscle fatigue from muscles that weren’t used to as much work. Though my muscles were tiring, I still felt like my whole body was being used much more efficiently and running became much more of a pleasurable experience. I felt like I had a brand new take on it, and instead of dreading it, I suddenly looked forward to it.
The whole time, I kept thinking with amazement about the horses I get in training that feel heavy in the bridle, get winded easily, or seem lazy. So many of these horses are in the habit of using their bodies inefficiently, and in order to perform the tasks we ask them, they have to use so much more energy. They become dull, resentful, or just tired. Once they start to learn better ways of carrying themselves, their whole attitude often changes. Things feel better, they start to look forward to their work instead of resentful. And they can start developing the muscles they need to carry themselves correctly, a little at a time. As long as we allow them frequent breaks to help with muscle fatigue, the experience for the horse can change quickly from unpleasant to very enjoyable for both horse and rider.
I encourage all my students to find themselves a fitness routine. It helps plenty with riding, and if you want your horse to use his body correctly, it’s absolutely imperative that we aren’t in the way. Our own physical imbalances and weaknesses block the horse from developing symmetrically as well as reinforce their imbalances. Aside from this, embarking on a journey toward fitness allows a rider a better understanding of what a horse goes through physically while trying to do what we ask. To be fair to our horses and to get better, lighter results, we need to understand why they’re struggling and how to help them carry themselves better. As we experience our own strengthening and balancing with our own bodies, we can learn so much about how to better connect to our horses physically.