“Nobody’s a natural. You work hard to get good and then work to get better. “ Paul Coffey
Cross training is how I have developed as an athlete, not just a rider. (And yes, the first exercise is at the bottom!) In what other sport do you find athletes only willing to practice their particular sport with the expectation of achieving a fully trained and complete specimen. Shoot, we don’t even expect our horses to be complete dressage athletes by solely practicing dressage! We trail ride, hack, jump, gallop and what have you, all as a means of developing the well-rounded athlete.
So I must remind riders that if they expect their mounts to be an athlete, and they certainly should, then as the leader of the dancing pair they must first become athletes.
Merriam Webster definition of an Athlete: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina
The words I take from this definition are trained, physical strength, agility and stamina, all words that require an action to develop. Put another way, its not so much talent, but hard work that develops the athlete.
What? Dressage riders must commit the act of physical work to develop as an athlete? “Wait a minute”, one might ask… “whatever happened to the sport of dressage that I picked because of its grace and ease?”
Lets not forget that to get grace and ease, we must “crack some eggs” as Dale so kindly puts it. And as Kourtney King-Dye put it “You go through a lot of ugly to get pretty”. The process of egg cracking takes athleticism folks!
Training the upper levels of dressage proves that dressage takes balance, a certain amount of strength, agility and the endurance to “stick through a tough spot” for the duration until you and your horse can wade out of your particular situation. This all takes physical fitness.
As a fellow area trainer complained to me in exasperation: “I’m just getting them (out of shape student) started when they look at me, out of breath, and ask to take a break. How are we to get any real work done?!”
So this is my aim, to develop myself and other riders with the result of attaining physical strength, agility and stamina resulting in a trained athlete that has worked hard and achieved the highest level of the sport possible to them.
On to the first exercise for the dressage athlete.
Before we ever begin any real work, it’s a must to loosen the body and breath. So the first exercises is simple yet very important. This is an opening exercise, and great to do just before your ride as it begins your deep breathing, gives you a chance to focus on the ride and get rid of any “extras” running around in your brain from that days chaos (no thinking about paying bills, chores that need to be done or family troubles!). Begin to sanctify your ride as your “happy” place. When you enter the barn, you are problem free! I find that riders need to take a specific action to clear their mind and enter this place of calm, so this is why I picked the “Standing Opening” as our first exercise.
With your shoulders square to your hips and your hips square to your feet, raise your hands directly overhead. This motion in itself stretches and opens your chest. Pull your shoulder blades together, keep your back straight and engage those abs. Now, with your hands directly over head reaching up as far as is comfortable, sink your arms deeper into their sockets and begin deep breathing. While you breath, begin to focus on the ride ahead and stop thinking of the “extras”.
My disclaimer: I am only sharing what has worked for me and fellow students. Exercise at your own risk! If done incorrectly, injury is possible. Please consult your physician first, and especially if you have any previous injuries, back pain etc. Some of these exercises may not be recommended with previous conditions. Always stop all exercises if you feel pain!