Looking After Ourselves

We all put so much effort into the wellbeing of our beloved equines, that it’s ironic how little attention we pay to our own bodies and lifestyles.

Recently I’ve been giving myself a kick up the butt and taking time for self-care.

I have a Friday evening routine of chocolate, wine and a hot bath. Except last night apparently when the hot water has all been used up… Which is downtime for me, where I process the week, think of and plan the weekend, and as much as I can, relax. That along with my early morning rides are my emotional self care and everyone knows not to disturb me during this time!

I used to regularly visit a sports masseuse and osteopath, but post pregnancy it’s gone out the window and then I tried a new osteopath and came away poorer, but not feeling the benefit. However, with shooting pain running up my femoral nerve when I rode anything wider than a hat rack, I took the plunge and tried a Mctimoney chiropractor. Who incidentally treats Phoenix. She declared me very broken, with a tilted pelvis and tight muscles; but a couple of (painful) sessions later and I can feel the benefits. Definitely won’t leave it as long to get myself straightened up and I instantly felt the benefits to my riding. I’d been struggling with Phoenix’s right half pass, which retrospectively isn’t surprising given that my seat was blocking her. It’s still her weaker side but at least now I’m helping her.

At the beginning of the year, a friend told me that their metabolism had slowed down as soon as she’d hit 30 and she’s fought her weight ever since. Bearing in mind that I hit the big three-oh this year, her comment stuck with me. I also feel fairly big on Phoenix; I’m not too big, but I’m very aware that I don’t need to weigh her down with extra baggage. During the first UK lockdown and into the summer I tried to do more exercise, but lacked the motivation to watch a Joe Wicks YouTube video. No one held me accountable if I didn’t do it, and I hadn’t lost out by not doing it. Equally, I didn’t particularly push myself on the few that I did do because no one was cracking the whip.

So I decided that really I should join a fitness class and get myself a personal trainer of some sort. However, I already have an active job and go to Pilates weekly so I needed to compliment this. Plus there’s the whole time, childcare juggling act to factor in.

I’ve also been teaching a lot of children recently, involving a lot of lead rein work, which made me aware that I’m not fit from a cardiovascular point of view and running in canter was far more tiring than it should be!

I eventually plucked up the courage to ask a trainer, recommended by a client, and who I vaguely knew, if I could join a weekly class of hers. This coincided with lockdown #2 so became an online class, as did my Pilates.

I’m not sure how well online exercise classes will fare long term. For me, I gain a bit of extra time in the day – that spent travelling to the class – and I don’t have to worry about childcare. Just some strategic planning with snacks and activities. However, if you aren’t used to doing exercise, or have previous injuries I can imagine you could do yourself some damage as your trainer can’t monitor you as closely on screen as in person. You also miss out on the social side, and if you’re an office worker, the outdoors time. Neither of which affects me, as I can moan about the number of burpees we had to do with my client who signed me up and actually enjoy the opportunity to be warm and dry for an hour! There’s probably a balance to be struck between online classes and face to face ones; but it will be interesting to see what happens when restrictions lift and social distancing reduced.

The first week was agony. It took me three days to be able to walk upstairs. But each week is feeling easier and I can definitely feel muscles developing. I’m sure this cardio and strength work will help my overall fitness, and I think one class of this and another of pilates combined with more than ten hours in the saddle a week is enough focused exercise.

It’s amazing the difference a little bit of self care makes in terms of energy levels, quality of sleep, quality of work and enthusiasm. I’m also having two early morning rides at the yard each week which takes the pressure off me needing to ride when a certain toddler isn’t feeling cooperative, and means Phoenix gets two decent workouts which means she’s less of an activated grenade to ride for the rest of the week should work and weather limit my opportunities to ride. Plus, I enjoy those mornings of peace.

I tend to make small changes to create new habits rather than going all in and causing problems, so after Christmas my self care resolutions will be to adjust my diet to help maximise my energy levels and then having my hair cut (sorely neglected because I don’t like going to salons and the whole pandemic situation). Maybe I’ll cut it all off and donate it to charity to make a wig…

Anyway, make a couple of changes for yourself, and put as much effort into making yourself feel and perform at your best that we do with our horses!

Pilates

I’ve been promoted recently in Pilates, to the exercise ball. Well, I like to think of it as a promotion, but really it’s just special treatment.

Pilates is really good for your core muscles, so along with yoga is highly recommended for pregnant women. As I already went to a weekly Equestrian Pilates, I just told my instructor on the quiet and we just carried on as normal until sixteen weeks. She told me to go steady and listen to my body if and when I felt tired … well we all know how good I am at doing that!

From sixteen weeks pregnant you aren’t supposed to lie on your back. Which is easier said than done as I keep waking up in the night flat on my back. So I had to be propped up on a beanbag for any exercises involving lying on your back. Luckily I still have the bean bag my Granny gave me when I was ten, so I dug that out and got some funny looks when I first turned up to Pilates looking like Santa Claus. As well as the fact that I don’t look pregnant.

On the positive side, I’m now excused from balancing on the roller and doing various leg lifting and arm waving exercises. My friend is very jealous! But I need new challenges.

I’m fine to do all exercises on my side, well all the easy exercises. I haven’t made up my mind if I mind being excused from the tougher ones!

Obviously you also can’t lie on your front whilst pregnant, so I get alternative exercises for this section. Usually on all fours, they are exercises which flex your spine, check your core stability and or those which work your gluteals – the “dog on a lamppost” exercise is particularly embarrassing. Especially when no one else is doing it!

My instructor has had her work cut out thinking of different exercises for me, which are physically easier but still challenge me. She’s already given me some arm weights so I can tone the baby carrying muscles.

Last week she produced an exercise ball for me, and I have to say that I think all riders should have a go on them.

Even just sitting on the exercise ball makes you aware of your core muscles and your balance. Which is so important because if you load one seat bone more than the other on the ball you will wobble off, and we know how much rider crookedness can affect a horse’s way of going.

Exercises such as pelvic tilts feel very different on a wobbly ball. I also did hip circles in both directions, which are really useful for anyone needing to improve their canter seat. You get a similar workout to hula-hooping, which I’m sure I’ve told you before, is a useful way of suppling the hips to sit to the canter.

I also did leg lifts, which are a good test of balance on a wobbly ball. Moving very slowly is the key to not losing your balance, and I’ve been threatened with pain of death if I fall off. And there’s also this exercise where I had to push my knees forward alternately, which simulates the movement of your pelvis whilst trotting.

The hardest exercise I had to do, by far, was squats against the exercise ball. Place the ball between your back and the wall, then place your feet hip width apart and prepare for some pain! As a harder exercise, you can hover in the squatting position and raise your heels alternatively. I only managed ten lifts on each heel before feeling exhausted. If anyone has a ball to hand, give it a go – I dare you!

I’ve put an exercise ball on my Christmas list (hopefully I only get one!) but beware clients, I may be getting you to sit on it to develop your awareness of your seat and to improve your hip flexibility so that you can sit deeper in the saddle and absorb every movement.

Pilates

During  the summer a friend told me about an equestrian Pilates class she goes to. I’ve often thought I should try it as it’s supposed to be really good for riders. I got as far as asking for the DVD for Christmas last year but after a couple of tries in the living room feeling like a complete idiot and not really understanding how my leg is supposed to move there, I gave up.

Anyway, with the knowledge that this class was aimed at the horsey, and we all know how ungainly we can be without our horse holding us together, I signed myself up.

The lady who runs the classes was very friendly and gave me a quick low down before the class started so that I knew what the neutral position was and how to engage my core.

It would appear that I already know how to put my pelvis in neutral – so I did learn something from the DVD – and it stays there most of the time. The part I’m not so keen on is when we have to close our eyes to find out where the weight is in our body – whether we’re using one leg more or balancing on our heels more than the toe …

I understand the principle of removing vision as a sense for uprightness, but I hate closing my eyes in front of people. I feel like an idiot and worry someone is going to prank me …

I was surprised in the first session how taxing I found the exercises and the following day I definitely had an ache in my tummy from riding. And no, it wasn’t hunger pangs.

Anyway, over the last month I’ve found the exercises have gotten easier and I’m definitely more aware of asymmetry in my limb coordination and strength and my flexibility has improved. I’m yet to be able to place my hands flat on the floor with my legs straight like my Dad can, but the muscles in my neck and shoulders aren’t becoming as tight and tense.

In terms of my riding I think my posture has improved, but it’s quite hard to say really. I’ll have to have some photos taken so I can compare.

I’m going to keep going to Pilates as it’s also quite a nice way to relax in the evening – once you’ve rushed there of course – and I’d definitely recommend going if you have any aches and pains or want a gentle form of exercise, especially as there’s someone on hand to correct your technique. Or prod your bum to make sure you aren’t using your gluteals instead of your hamstring. Just be warned, some Grannies will show you up! And obviously there’s the social side of things, although I’m yet to say more than “hello” as I scuttle in to unroll my mat as the clock chimes eight o’clock.