Why you should get back in the saddle

  • Elizabeth McGregor’s daughters recently started riding lessons and the envy of watching them became too much for her to bear. So she booked half a dozen to test the water...

    Twenty years have passed since the carefree days of my childhood spent riding, grooming and utterly loving ponies. My daughters recently started riding lessons and the envy became too much to bear. Reluctant to commit to lessons ad infinitum, I booked half a dozen to test the water and here is what I learned.

    Let’s get physical

    When you first ride or if it’s been a while, the chances of you dismounting and walking like John Wayne for the next 24 hours are high. Your pelvic and inner thigh muscles will steadfastly remind you of their existence. The good news is your body adapts quickly. It’s a comprehensive workout, burning between 200-450 calories per hour depending on what sort of riding you’re doing. Motor function and reflexes develop and your cardiovascular and lymphatic system are boosted. The abdomen, back and pelvis work together to stabilise your body giving your core the chance to join your arms, legs and bottom in a thorough workout.

    There’s lots to focus on — horse, head, hands, heels — I sometimes felt like I was doing the pat your head and rub your tummy exercise, badly. Evidence suggests learning new skills combats cognitive ageing. My coordination improved as I mastered movements that need to happen simultaneously as riding progresses.

    Feel good factor

    One of my favourite views is two fluffy ears pricking either side of a furry neck stretching out in front of me. It gives a different perspective, literally and figuratively. Work and family responsibilities means it can be hard to take time out for yourself. Notably, when I was up in the saddle, I was truly in the present. Noise from everyday life quietened as I rode. Focused one-to-one lessons provide time and space to progress at your own pace, meaning skills can be dusted off and sharpened up swiftly. Minutes into one lesson I was berating myself for being sloppy. My instructor urged me to forgo the finer details until my horse and I had both warmed up and worked each other out. It was allowing myself to be imperfect and just go with it.

    Remember this brilliant quote from Winston Churchill: “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle”.

    Increasingly, I couldn’t wait for Friday to roll around to play ponies. Studies show regular time with horses causes decreased levels of stress hormone cortisol in our bodies and increased levels of serotonin, a mood-boosting hormone. A study by the British Horse Society (BHS) found horse riding stimulates predominantly positive psychological feelings, reducing depression by 30%. Animals can be therapeutic, one theory says that the bigger the animal, the greater the benefits.

    Take a breather

    I forget to breathe when nervous or concentrating, which is never beneficial. I’ve learned it’s a common issue for riders. Whether whizzing over jumps or going large, my instructor reminded me to breathe when I was concentrating so much I forgot to. Breathing is grounding, increasing ease in the saddle. It relaxes the body making it supple, improving balance, stability and connection between horse and rider. A cascade of positive changes within the body are triggered by deep breathing, releasing muscle tension and calms nervous system. Horse riding highlights the differences small adjustments can make to you, both on and off the horse.

    Teamwork makes the dream work

    Good horsemanship; the art of riding, handling, and training horses calls for teamwork between horse, rider and instructor. The support of an enthusiastic instructor and use of dependable horses helped my journey no end. Knowledge and expertise of those around me at Lavant Equestrian not only instilled confidence, but led to a truly engaging and informative learning experience.

    Back of the net

    The positive practice of goal setting increases focus, providing measurable outcomes. On starting, I was asked what my goal was. Did ‘not falling off’ count? I decided feeling confident in all paces and jumping would be good to work towards. Week six was jumping in a relaxed, fun session linking fences together. I rode a spirited grey who was testing me at one point. He was napping and I couldn’t figure out why, my hand and leg aids were good. My coach reminded me to look where I was going and as soon as I did, we straightened up. An epiphany; with riding, as with life, you won’t get where you want to go if you’re constantly looking down, just trying to get through. Whether it’s over a jumping course, or something like learning a language or changing careers, it’s constructive to look ahead to where you want to end up.

    Continued below…

    From me to you

    Sound the ‘journey’ klaxon now, because I’ve been on one and I’m laying on the schmaltz. You ready? I’ve cherished every moment and am plotting to shoehorn riding into an already packed life. My daughters have seen Mama light-up doing something she once loved and the childlike enthusiasm for all things equine is only gaining pace within my heart. My confidence has increased and nerves have softened, leaving me with the sense of infinite possibilities.

    When everything aligns, there’s an alchemy like nothing else between a horse and rider. It’s addictive. Leave your ego at the gate and surrender to simply beginning. Progress is quicker if the fundamentals of riding are well rooted, so revisiting the basics is effective. Seek a reputable BHS-approved riding school who will ensure you learn in a supportive and safe environment — lessons can be as relaxing or challenging as you desire.

    The beauty of horse riding is that it’s never to late to start — The Queen rides regularly at the age of 93 — plus, no matter your experience, there are always new frontiers to conquer and skills to develop. An objective of horse riding, whichever gait your horse is in, is to maintain forward momentum at all times. I’m looking up and moving forwards. Giddy up.

    Elizabeth reignited her passion for riding at Lavant Equestrian, near Chichester, West Sussex. To find a school near you visit www.bhs.org.uk

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