1. THERE ARE 101 WAYS TO RIDE A HORSE, FIND YOURS
After mastering the basics, a lot of taking things to the next level involves instinct and experimenting – finding your own way, what works for you and your horse, and importantly a trainer who understands those dynamics. Not just on skills, but also in gym work and technique. For example, some people say you have to use a lot of leg, but I can’t use my legs so it might be great for them but it’s wrong for me, whereas someone who can’t use their arms might find it really helpful.
2. YOU DON’T HAVE TO RELY ON THE GYM
I really struggle in the gym. Because of my disability, I can train hard but instead of improving myself I can inadvertently injure myself, mainly because I can’t physically feel I’m doing it so I don’t notice the problem and keep training. If you can’t train in the gym, or don’t enjoy it, there are a lot of other options so don’t be put off. Swimming, yoga and pilates are all fantastic alternatives.
3. SIT LIGHT IN THE SADDLE, NOT HEAVY
4. STEER WITH YOUR BODY
A common misconception is that you steer the horse with your hands and the reigns. Actually, you steer with your body, using your core and subtly angling in the direction you’re going.
5. THE ‘CLICK’
You need to click. If the horse isn’t right for you, you need to find one that is. Giving up any horse you’ve created a bond with is always going to be difficult, the same with selling them because you really don’t want to give them away but sometimes you don’t have a choice if you want to progress. That happened to me just before Rio 2016. My owner brought me a young horse and despite working together for 18 months, I didn’t feel that ‘click.’ He wasn’t the right horse for me so as much as I loved having him around, I knew that if I was going to win medals I needed one that was right for me.
‘There are so many different ways to ride and every horse is different.’
6. BODY AWARENESS
Having a strong core is the most important thing when riding, but especially in Para. I can’t use my legs at all and I don’t use stirrups so I rely on my core stability and balance. Riding without stirrups is a great way to strengthen your core and improve balance, as are core stability exercises and yoga. Practicing independent limb movements helps massively too, especially for separating your hands and arms from the rest of your body.
7. RIDE WITHOUT STIRRUPS
Great to practice regardless of ability. Personally, I ride without stirrups all the time, both for training and competing. I had an accident when I was younger and because I can’t feel my legs at all at anytime my foot got stuck in the stirrup and twisted and I was dragged by the horse. Because I can’t get myself out of a situation like that, if I fall off it’s better to fall from a distance early and have a clean fall, then at least there’s no danger.
8. LEARN TO BE CALM
Psychology places a big role in your performance, confidence, approaches to training and competing, how the horse feels and more. Find that inner peace so that you can go out and win, staying focused and really working with the horse without any tension or distraction.
Swimming is one of the best workouts to improve whole body strength, body awareness, coordination and aerobic capacity, whilst taking most of the weight off and protecting your body. I absolutely love it. It helps me massively, even simple exercises like swimming laps help to mobilize my hips in ways that I wouldn’t be able to on land (with hip rotations etc.).
Never underestimate the importance of a good physio in any sport. I have really painful physio sessions every week – they nearly kill me – but they’re vital for putting me back in place, removing any knots, conditioning the muscles and spine and generally facilitating good recovery and progression. They make me feel so much better.
11. PILATES REFORMER
I spend a lot of time working on the Pilates reformer with my physio. It keeps my body in-tune and centered, and is a great way to practice using your arms independently, working from left to right, front to back. The key is to maintain a strong core, but to keep your arms and forearms loose. That stabolises you as you let your forearms take the weight.