Be a Flexible Horseman
Riders, Instructors, and trainers know how important it is to be flexible – but each condition (trainer, instructor, rider) requires a slightly different use of “Flexible”. And where there is no flexibility but there is pressure – something is sure to “give”. The “give” in the case of a non-flexible horseman usually will not result in the desired out come.
- capable of bending easily without breaking.
- able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions.
- (of a person) ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.
Even though a rider has to make choices and changes, flexibility (or the lack of) for the rider deals more with the physical sense. The first part of the definition of flexible is applicable for the rider: capable of bending easily without breaking.
For example, tight hip flexors cause thighs that clamp. The hip flexors let the body bend in the hips (or not!) and have a direct effect on your core (abdomen, lower back etc) because they are located on each side of your spine in the lower back and also come around to the front in to the pelvis where they attach to the muscle that is at the top inside of your leg. I think everyone has felt that muscle when it’s had a little bit of over use! When the hip flexors are not flexible a rider experiences a myriad of difficulties; lack of balance, clampy legs, a seat that cannot follow etc.
Being limber is a little different than flexible. Limber is used for a body that has been brought into condition through training. Ballet dancers are limber.
Supple is another good word for riders. It’s used for what things that are easily bent, rolled, or folded without breaking or cracking , sort of like the leather in your saddle flaps.
No matter which word you use to describe the needed ability (Flexibility, suppleness, limber) they are all a result of stretching and conditioning your muscles. And the older you become the more you will desire any of these three words to be common place in your body, particularly in your hip flexors.
So how does a rider become flexible, or even maintain their youthful flexibility as they begin to mature? How does a dancer do it? They train their body. A dancer doesn’t spend all their time dancing. They spend lots of time stretching various muscle groups. They warm up with stretches and cool down with them and they do it every day. Stretching feels good and helps the blood flow to your muscles. Think back to waking up in the morning- you yawn and your body stretches- it feels good. It gets your muscles warmed up for getting out of bed. Stretching should be an important part of your pre ride (and post ride) prep.
For a rider, stretching ranks right up there in importance with getting the best instruction possible and finding a good horse. Stretching will help you ride better and will help prevent injuries. If you are not stretching on a regular basis, why not look into a program at the YMCA, or see if your local gym has classes so that you can get started correctly. Try to start out with guidance so that you don’t injure yourself by going to far, doing too much or doing a stretch incorrectly.
I used hip flexors as my example for this post but you’ll find some of my favorite leg stretches in my post Get Those Heels Down, part 3 And don’t forget about shoulder, upper body and arm stretches
I enjoyed reading this very helpful article from Injury Fix – Horse Riding Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
And I recommend Bob Anderson’s book Stretching. This book has exercises for every possible activity and body part; even a specific Equestrian Stretches section.
Flexibility for the instructor deals more in the mental/emotional category and the second part of the definition of flexible suits the instructor: able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions. Sound familiar?
Instructors need to draw hard lines when it comes to being flexible. Compromise is not the same as flexibility. While part of the definition for compromise talks about settling disputes and reaching a middle ground, one of the definitions of compromise is : the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable. This is how the instructor needs to view the word compromise. A first step in becoming a flexible instructor is to determine what you will and will not compromise on. If you don’t do this from the beginning, or when you first start to teach a student, you run the risk of eventually developing clients that walk all over you. You need to put your brain to work deciding what things are so important to you that you will stick to your guns with them, even if it means losing a potential student. And you need to decide what things are
It might be worth your effort to actually do this on paper. Take a blank page and fold it into 3 sections like a brochure, then run a line down each fold from top to bottom. This will give you 3 columns. Label the left column “No Compromise”, the center column “Gray Area” and the right “I can be Flexible”. Under “No Compromise” list the things that you can not teach without. These would be things that if you didn’t stick to them you would feel guilty, unsatisfied, unsuccessful or just plain wrong. I’m not going to tell you what to put in that category because it’s a personal choice. Here are some examples that would be on my “No Compromise” side: teaching a correct basic foundation, teaching humane ways to handle horses, the care and consideration of my lesson horses, every student wears a helmet, teaching safety, requiring polite treatment by my students, treating my students with consideration, etc
Write all of the things that you can, without remorse or guilt, be flexible with, in the right hand column. What can you be flexible with? Scheduling, lesson price, attire, someone not feeling well, needs in the lesson changing, breeds of horses, student goals, weather, sick horses, etc…make your own list.
While you’re working on both columns you may run across a topic that fits in neither. Put it under “Gray Area”. Maybe the topic is being late for lessons. You don’t want to be so flexible with tardy students that your lessons become messed up but at the same time, what if they get caught in traffic on the way; what if they have a flat tire? Or maybe it’s “24 hour cancelation policy” and you find out that Susie was vomiting on the bus from school right before her lesson. Or maybe it’s how to deal with bad attitudes or poor horse treatment or gossip or rumors. If you’re not sure what you want to do in those (or any other) situations, put them in the “Gray Area”. Once you have all three columns filled in take a good look at the “Gray Area” column and decide what you will do in those types of situations. Too many times we just skip the “Gray Areas” but they come back to bite us later as conflicts with out clients.
Once you decide which things you can not compromise on and where you can be flexible, you will find that your lesson program runs with a lot less conflict and you have less stress.
A good trainer has to be a flexible, in shape rider in order to help his horses learn. But the flexible trainer also must deal with the same type of issues that the instructors does in that he still deals with clients, who may want to learn to ride the horse that’s in training. When you are training a horse flexibility comes in to play in another, slightly different, way. Before I offend instructors every where, let me say that there are instructors who are great trainers, too. If you are an instructor/trainer I am including you in this conversation.
A good trainer works on a different level of communication because they communicate in signals, postures, and attitudes with out using verbal communication. For this reason a trainer has to be able to sort through the mix of signals and needs (both physical and mental) that are sent out by his or her equine partner. A good trainer is flexible with methods and theory and is able to read the signals and meet the needs of the horse. This requires the ability to mentally go through a list of possible solutions and helps for any given circumstance presented by the horse or it’s surroundings. There is no such thing as one solution, or one method for all horses. There are times that one method doesn’t even work every time with the same horse. Training horses requires that a person is able to change his plans and requirements at the drop of a hat in order to get the most out of a particular relationship on a particular day. It requires flexibility to be a good trainer. Unfortunately there are a lot of trainers who lack this trait. This is all too obvious at competitions where you see horses drilled over and over on the rail for a pleasure class, or lunged for long time periods to take the edge off, or horses who are recipients of all sorts of things to make them calmer.
Flexible trainers have good critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (Wikepedia) Flexible trainers hear and feel what their horses need and are able to adapt to the needs of the animal. They have multiple ways of approaching a problem or lesson with the horse, particularly those that train young, green horses or OTTBs.
Flexibility is important for the trainer in riding, training, scheduling, and of course in the muscles of the horse. The trainer fulfills all three parts of the flexible definition: The physical -bending easily without breaking- both themselves and the horse – The mental – able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions. And the physical/mental- ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.
Flexibility in our horse world is what makes us and our industry able to change with the times. It’s what keeps riders and horses going and doing for years and lifetimes. The more you learn about riding, teaching, and training, the more flexible you will become. As you gain knowledge, skills, and experience you’ll have more tools to work with, giving you more options. When you do what you do for the love of the horse, the sport, and the art, you’ll find yourself becoming more flexible.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox