What Do the Two Sports Have in Common?
You might be thinking, “How strange.” I know, it is, actually. But I have learned, over the years, how the sport of road and mountain biking can help the equestrian rider understand the simple mechanics of how our horses need to use their muscles. In addition, becoming an experienced cyclist causes we, as riders, to evolve with a ‘hands on’ feel for what our horses need to succeed and be comfortable.
Besides the obvious benefits for us, such as, toning our legs, back, buttocks, hips, and abdomen, there’s many more pros for both horse and human. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to condition and learn while having fun? In order to get the best performance from our critters, we need to give them every advantage. That’s where biking comes in.
To begin, don’t forget the warm-up! Some haven’t grasped the necessity, but as I struggle through the first five miles on a bike thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’m too tired for this today!” Our horses are feeling the same way. It isn’t until after a while that my heart rate speeds, I breathe faster, blood flow is increasing, and the energy-releasing reactions to my muscles are beginning to give me strength. Asking our horses for collection too soon might be futile without the stamina achieved through the warm-up!
Now think about the road bike posture. In order to use the longest and most massive muscles in our back and legs, we have to become a round shape. How many times have you heard that your horse needs to have a round back? Well, if he can’t lift his ribs, and tuck his hind end in, he can’t drive from behind with optimal power. Every action will be forced, not natural, and with no smooth transitions and lofty/light front ends.
What position is your neck in on the road bike? As you lean over in the racer stance and are looking through the top of your sunglasses, you are conditioning your neck to gain strength. Compared to your horse’s neck carriage, as you feel the strain below your head and into your shoulders, you’ll understand how imperative it is to properly equip your mount using the bitting rigging and long lines. Without sufficiently building up those muscles, (and consequently, those along his topline) he won’t have the ability to collect.
When you are pushing hard, trying to beat your last clocked time around that thirty-five-mile lap, you regulate your breathing with every pedal push. As you focus your energy into your legs, you elevate your back to open your lungs and elongate the muscles delivering strength into your buttocks and down your thighs. When you feel the burn in your back and can’t wait for the next intersection, hoping for a red light, you know that your muscles are getting stronger.
On the contrary, when you take a breather to slow for upcoming traffic, you sit up, relax your back, which will dip a little, and coast. Now think about it for a minute…if you expect your horse to collect and drive from behind, do you want him resting his back and butt like that? No, the muscles are not engaged. He can rest when you’re done working. But remember, don’t push him too hard. If you’ve properly conditioned him in the bitting rigging and long lines, the extent of his toning will just be for a naked horse! Give him time to build upon those back muscles carrying the weight of a rider.
How about mountain biking? There’s many more intricacies with that one. The most dangerous incorrect position can occur when you’re speeding down a hill, or crawling downward over boulders. In those cases, if you don’t drop your seat post and hang our buttocks off the back of the ‘saddle’, you’ll set yourself up to do an end over end! Eek! Been there, done that!
It’s imperative that we balance our weight on the back of the bike and take any pressure (except for just enough to steer and use the brakes) off of the handlebars. As you maneuver the bike with your hips with feather hands on the handlebars, it’s not much different than horse riding.
If our hips and buttocks are driving the horse, our hands are light on his mouth, he’s able to round his back, and he’ll be free to collect and use his most massive muscles. Our heads are looking in the direction that we’re going, toward the next turn, and our shoulders slightly open as our hips give guidance.
There’s one factor that I’m going to just brush by because it’s a whole blog in itself…saddle fit. If your horse lifts his back and hits the saddle bars, he says, “Ouch!” and drops his back down, raises his head and sticks out his nose. If your saddle has a banana bar shape, you won’t achieve collection and the horse’s back and haunch muscles will never develop properly. The easiest giveaway is seen when longlining your horse, (with many months of collection teaching and the right rigging) he collects beautifully, but when under saddle, he loses his shape.
So, seeing my illustrations and reading this discussion…why isn’t it a great idea to take up biking? One only needs to feel the muscles working on ourselves to appreciate how crucial it is for your horse to move accurately. As we become an experienced biking athlete, we understand the needs of our horses more fully. Our thoughts change from, “He won’t, to, he can’t without our help and teaching.”
In the first novel, The Life of Lexi, the mare entertains us all as she plays for countless hours in the bitting rigging and long lines. Making education a game, the ladies at the ranch clown around with her as they encourage Lexi to build muscles without her even noticing that she’s learning.
So, begin to ride a bike! In time, you’ll begin to feel that the advantages are amazing!