Hello my fellow equestrian fashionistas – we are back with the latest installment of the “Splurge Vs. Savvy” series! This week, I’m going to share some of my top picks for apparel for English riders, including showing, schooling, and everyday looks. No matter what the budget or discipline, there is something for everyone that is guaranteed to be fabulous.
I am OBSESSED with this jacket. The fact it’s lightweight and breathable while still providing the sleek, streamlined silhouette I want in a show coat makes the AA Platinum Motion Lite Jacket perfect for wear any time of the year. Suitable for the hunters and stylish for the jumpers or equitation divisions, this jacket is also available in a Shadbelly option for those Derby days (& Dressage rings, too!). While we carry this jacket in traditional Grey and Navy Blue, it’s also available in Black, Burgundy, Aviation Blue, Espresso, and Hunter Green. I’ve had my jacket for the past 2 show seasons and still get compliments on it!
This highly technical, modernized show jacket is perfect for jumpers and eventers, featuring maximum convenience with a fully machine washable soft shell/spandex material and stylish silver accents that provides fun style elements on an otherwise more traditional jacket. Available to orders in a variety of fun colors such as black, navy, hunter green, burgundy, and taupe, more traditional riders can swap out the silver buttons for more neutral look that’s suitable for the hunter and equitation rings.
A staple for generations, Tailored Sportsman were the “original” Euroseat breeches on the market for hunter/jumper riders. Today, TS continues to provide iron-like fabric that holds up for the most rigorous of rides; appealing, unique colors, and classic tailoring and fit that has proven superior for decades. When I say I’ve had the same pair of breeches for over 5 years and they still wash out just as well as the day I bought them, I mean it.
Made to look and feel like the $200+ options on the market, the Sarafina provides an amazing feel and modern styling, without breaking the bank. The Clarino knee patches t hold up to intense wear while the Euro Grip Silicone Knee Patches keep you held in place over fences, combining the best of durability, fit, and comfort. One of my favorite things about these breeches is the natural rise and how UNBELIEVABLY comfortable they are. I can be a pretty tricky fit when it comes to breeches (hello super-long legs and no waist!), but these have become my hands-down favorite – they’re amazing for any shape or size!
Splurge: DeNiro Custom Tall Boots; starting at $1,000+
Have you been drooling over having your own pair of custom calfskin tall boots, specifically measuring each point of your feet, ankles, legs, even toe length? Since 1981, DeNiro has produced exquisite footwear for Hunter/Jumper, Foxhunting, Eventing, and Dressage riders (both amateur and professionals alike), including stock and custom chaps, paddock boots, tall boots, and even tennis shoes. Whether your are wanting a bold, stand-out pair of boots for competition or a timeless, classic black field boot, let us create the boots of your dreams!
Made to create the illusion of a custom Italian boot, Ariat has stepped up their tall boot game with some of the best-selling, long-lasting, nicest looking boots on the market. Every time we fit someone in a pair of these at Big Dee’s, I get so excited because they look that darn good. I swear, these boots are magic, they manage to make ankles look so tiny and legs so long, even if the rider is 5′! The leather is supple, the stretch panel is super forgiving, and with calf heights and widths available to accommodate 99% of riders, the Heritage Contour II performs even better than they look. Available in men’s and women’s sizing.
I’ve been ogling over the Star Lady for quite some time now. Not only is it one of the safest helmets out there, with European and American safety ratings, but it is specifically designed for female equestrians. The sleek, low profile and wide brim highlights cheekbones, creating a lovely profile while offering superior safety. I love the oversized vent across the top to allow as much air to go through as possible when riding, which would definitely come in handy on hot days.
If you’re looking for a stylish low profile, wide brim helmet with great ventilation and various trim options, the Tipperary Royal Helmet checks all the boxes. If you’re a traditionalist like myself, the Carbon Leather top is a stylish option while the Gloss adds a subtle sheen without being overwhelming. There are plenty of great design elements to both helmets, including 9 strategic air vents for maximum air flow, adjustable fit, all necessary safety certifications, and a removable, washable comfort liner.
Stay tuned for our next installment featuring Western apparel!
To close out this three-part series of the most important investments you’ll ever make when riding, including your tall boots and saddle purchases, the last but certainly not least item is your helmet.
Every time my friends and I get together and the conversation of “who has the craziest injury story,” comes up, I always manage to win – or lose, depending on who you ask.
When I was a teenager, I was schooling a horse at a horse show during somewhat slippery conditions. My helmet was on and tack securely fastened, however no one could ever prepare for the “what-if” factor. Unfortunately, during the take-off at a jump, my horse completely lost its footing in the mud, falling forward with the impulsion of a jump behind it. Long story short, and many broken bones later, the horse had flipped over, and I crashed into the ground, experiencing what’s known as a rotational fall. I suffered a massive concussion, including bouts of blacking out, not knowing where I was, excruciating migraines, and my mood was constantly bombarded with changes of irritability, depression, and anxiety. Thankfully, my helmet was properly fit and ultimately, prevented me from severing my spinal cord, breaking my neck, or worse.
The most famous event that inspired riders around the world to advocate the importance of helmet awareness was the accident of Team USA Olympic rider, Courtney King-Dye. In 2010, King-Dye suffered a devastating injury after a young horse had slipped and fallen, resulting in over a month-long coma and her professional riding career coming to a tragic end. While her cognitive abilities recovered, she now spends most of her time teaching rather than riding, advocating the importance of wearing a helmet when handling horses – on the ground or in the saddle.
As I have gotten older, and less “bouncy” when I hit the ground, helmets have kept me safe and provided an overall sense of protection and comfort when dealing with hot youngsters, bad distances, and any time I get in the irons. In fact, helmet awareness and safety has become such an important topic throughout the equestrian community, the annual Helmet Awareness Day event hosted by Riders4Helmets springs up all throughout various tack stores, to further educate and ensure proper fitting of helmets to all riders.
Helmets developed today involve a variety of technologies in addition to various styles, finishes (matte, gloss, leather-look, Alcantara/faux suede, or even Swarovski-encrusted!), and brands. Regardless of what your budget is or purpose for your helmet (if it’s for schooling, shows, etc.), make sure you familiarize yourself with the different types of helmet safety certifications, and which one is required for your showing organization.
ASTM/SEI: The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is an organization that writes safety standards for various protective products, whose standards can be adopted by various organizations, such as the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Once those standards are in place, the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) follows the quality control of these standards, ensuring manufactureres are follwing them by doing their own in-house testing or other third-party options. Testing audits are usually performed on an annual basis. Helmets are tested through rigorously, analyzing shock wave, puncture, harness, and visor resiliency through a variety of scenarios. After freezing the helmet to -20 degrees Fahrenheit and submerging in water overnight, if the helmet still transfers no more than 300g (“G”-forces) and the strap is still effective, the helmet earns ASTM/SEI approval. Currently, ASTM F1163-15 is the equestrian riding helmet standard for the USA, Canada, and Mexico.
PAS015: Developed by the British Standards Institude (BSI), this organization is similar to the SEI, set up to test the safety and quality control of riding helmets. The certification standards for PAS015 includes crush resistance and protection against injury when landing on an edged surface as well as a stability test to limit excessive movement during wearing or in the event of a fall.
Kitemark: The Kitemark is another BSI certification, most notably found on Charles Owen and KEP helmets. British Standards Institute tests the helmets and the Kitemark includes batch testing and access to the manufacturer’s factory and offices.
VG1: This is a newer European standard for riding helmets that in addition to impact, retention, and visor tests, these standards demand that helmets withstand penetration and crushing. Many European-manufactured helmets, including KEP, Charles Owen, GPA, and Uvex offer this certification.
MIPS: Multi-directional Impact Protection System, or MIPS, which is a new, advanced technology inside the helmet designed to reduce rotational forces transmitted to the brain that can result from certain impacts. This technology allows the head to move 10-15 mm in all directions, reducing the rotational motion to the brain. Currently, MIPS is offered in Trauma Void and certain Charles Owen helmets.
HOT TIP: It’s important to note that helmet manufacturers recommend that helmets be replaced every five years. However, there is a big loophole to that rule: Helmets are only designed to protect your head for one impact – regardless of recently you might have purchased it. This includes any falls off your tack locker shelf, so make sure you properly store your helmet when it isn’t in use. In other words, that dusty Titium helmet you’ve been using since 2003 should be retired.
Big Dee’s inventory of riding helmets from exclusive, popular brands like Charles Owen, One K,GPA, Trauma Void,KASK, Uvex, KEP, Troxel, IRH, Ovation, and Tipperary meet or exceed safety standards required for riding and showing. Our certified helmet fitting experts are here to help find the perfect helmet, the perfect fit, and the perfect price, in addition to answering any questions you have to make sure your helmet is worn correctly every time!
It can be overwhelming to decide which helmet is right for you, with so many options on exteriors, dial-fit vs. single size, and price points available. Currently, a smooth, matte finish or “Alcantara” fabric (a faux micro-suede) are the most popular finishes due to their ease of cleaning and finished look. Schooling riders have the option of choosing fun patterns, colors, and designs, like the Troxel FTX line, inspired by World-Champion barrel racer Fallon Taylor. For showing helmets, black and navy are the most traditional colors, but brown and gray have become increasingly popular finishes for the dressage and jumper rings.
Dial-fit helmets are wonderful options for young riders or those that offer lesson programs with their ability to adjust to a wide audience and ensure a proper fit. Regardless of which helmet you choose, make sure that you wear your hair in a similar fashion as you plan to ride (in a bun or ponytail or tucked underneath your helmet) to allow a consistent fit. Not all helmets fit the same, due to different head shapes (round or oval), hair thickness, and head size, so I recommend trying on several helmets until you have the “Goldilocks” fit that’s “just right.” Certain manufacturers like Ovation and KASK are known for their oval shape, while GPA and Trauma Void and KEP fit heads with a rounder profile. Some manufacturers, like One K and Charles Owen, offer round, oval, and long oval shape options to cater to a wider variety of riders.
Tips for a Perfect Fit
Fitting your helmet is just as important as wearing one. In the event of a fall, your helmet is the only thing protecting your skull and brain, and ill-fitting equipment can potentially cause greater damage. NEVER guess your helmet size or buy a helmet that is “roomy” for a child rider. Helmets are not designed like shoes where they can be grown into – and there are great options available like Dial-Fit helmets that can offer longevity for growing riders.
Helmets should sit level on your head with even pressure throughout and an almost “suction-like” fit. Because different manufacturers have different designs for their linings, the feel can be a little different, but it’s important to check a few things when trying on a new helmet. In the same vein, helmet manufacturers have different size charts, so the size you may be in one brand may differ from another. Knowing your actual head measurements will be useful when selecting where to start.
There should not be any pressure points and should sit level on your head. A comfortable, snug fit is good; a red ring around your forehead and a headache from too tight of a helmet is not. Conversely, you don’t want your helmet so loose that it can easily move around and covers your eyebrows – that means the helmet is too big.
The harness does not make the fit! Often, riders think that if they tighten the chin strap on a helmet it can correct a poor helmet fitting. Helmets should fit properly without the fastener attached and are only designed to keep it on in the event of a fall. When adjusting the chinstrap, it should sit under the chin and gently touches the bottom of the ear lobe. Ideally, you should be able to fit two fingers between the strap and under your chin. A good test to check is yawn with your helmet on – you should feel a gentle pressure pulling the top of the helmet down.
Removable, washable liners have become more common and available in many of today’s helmets. They allow ease of cleaning and the ability to adjust helmet fit for riders that alternate wearing their hair up or down or perhaps recently got a major hair cut. Check with a helmet fitting professional any time you make adjustments to your hairstyle, as your fit may change.
Use Your Noggin – Wear a Helmet!
No matter your discipline, experience level, or how bombproof your horse may be – always, ALWAYS wear a helmet. Not only is it the cool thing to do, it’s the easiest way to stay safe in and out of the saddle. Plus, with so many options to pick from, you can find one that coordinates with any riding outfit you choose!
“Get your tack and equipment just right, and then forget about it and concentrate on the horse.” – Olympian Bill Steinkraus
As mentioned in my previous blog, “These Boots Are Made For Riding,” I briefly mentioned the importance of 3 purchases any rider will make to benefit their riding ability – and safety – when working with horses. Saddles are the second item on that list.
Besides being a much more secure option versus riding bareback, saddles are designed to allow us to better communicate with our horses, giving us the ability to focus on pinpointing our aids and supporting us for various tasks – whether it be jumping, running barrels, flat work, pleasure riding, or hitting the trails. However, if the right saddle isn’t used, more harm can be created than good. Imagine putting on a pair of shoes that’s a size too small. Now imagine you’re put into a marathon and told to run in the same pair of too tight shoes. That same level of discomfort, pain, and contorting our body, attempting to find relief is the same scenario your horse goes through when being asked to perform in an ill-fitting saddle. No wonder some horses behave badly or develop “cold-backed” symptoms!
Your Riding Doesn’t Suck – Your Saddle Might
Do you remember the childhood story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? First, her bed was too hard, then too soft, but the third was “just right” The same concept applies to saddle fitting – both for horse and rider. What may be the perfect fit for you may be too tight in the shoulders for your horse; or the next saddle may not bridge/breach in the middle but is overly flocked in the panels, making the saddle tip down and throwing off its front-to-back balance, interfering with your ability to center yourself correctly in the middle of your horse’s back. It’s important to make sure the seat size and depth; as well as flap length and size are measured to fit your body type, rather than the other way around. Riding in a saddle that’s too small in the seat will create tight hips and drive uneven pressure into the pommel, while too long a flap will make it hard to communicate aids to your horse.
I struggled with finding a saddle that fit both myself and Rotti, due to my height and longer-than-average femur. As a result, I often sacrificed my needs in order to find something that supported my horse’s back, shoulders, and tree size. However, that negated any benefit due to the fact I was constantly “shimmying” in the canter, never seemed to find a comfortable two-point, and always felt trapped when doing flatwork and lateral aids. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I was fighting my body until I rode bareback! Riding in a saddle that didn’t work for me created problems with my riding, making me work twice as hard to fight against my own body to create the illusion of “correct” in the saddle and confusing Rotti with the aids I was trying to convey.
The FIRST thing I want to emphasize when finding a properly fitted saddle is that you do NOT need to go custom. Of course, we all would love to choose that option and have the funds available to make an investment purchase like that, but that often isn’t the case for many riders. In addition, you may be using the same saddle for multiple horses. Therefore, it’s important to understand the basics of what constitutes a proper saddle fit and have the necessary adjustment pieces available in order to make your saddle fit correctly on each horse. In that instance, I highly recommend working with a professional saddle fitter.
How To: Fitting Your Saddle
In my mind, a proper saddle fitting starts with the horse. Become familiar with your horse’s build and unique features. Is he a “shark-finned” Thoroughbred? Straight-backed or swayed? Are his topline muscles well developed or is he a younger horse new to training and will be filling out over time? Checking for sensitive spots like bulging disks and sore muscles, “collapsing” at certain points when you run your finger down his spine, and rubs will provide more information to determine how your horse has been using its body up to this point. Working with a chiropractor to adjust your horse around that time will help you be aware of any changes, pressure points, or conformation issues to address before the saddle fitter comes out.
At this point, you can slip your hand under the saddle and feel if there is even contact and pressure throughout. Pay attention to any gaps, rocking, or “bridging/breaching” in the middle of the saddle, as this can potentially mean there is uneven pressure distributed to the front and back of the saddle and once a rider is introduced, the center could sink down and possibly cause a disruption in the balance from the front and back. In this instance, check with a saddle fitter, as some bridging is could be normal depending on the saddle maker, conformation of the horse and the expectation that they will be rounding their back during exercise.
Another thing to check is the natural balance of the saddle. Look to see if there is a straight line from the top of the pommel to cantle that is parallel to the ground. The seat should also be level on the horse’s back, as an imbalance will make it difficult for you to sit correctly and without struggling to naturally maintain a proper position. A good rule of thumb is to put a piece of chalk on the saddle, if it rolls slightly forward or too far back, the saddle is not well balanced.
Other check points of ensuring proper saddle fit include the 2-3 Finger Rule. English saddles should have 2-3 fingers clearance on the top and around the side of the withers to accommodate shoulder rotation. A horse whose saddle pinches at the withers may be reluctant to go forward – and in some cases can cause nerve damage, leading to patches of white hairs or sores on the wither area. Also, consider the channel/gullet width of your saddle, accommodating to the width of your horse’s spine and vertebrae so that it’s positioned straight and centered on both sides of the horse. Next, check how your billets lay. These should hang perpendicular to the ground in the girth area – too forward or backwards will create unnecessary pressure on the panels or drive the girth into the elbows, creating sore spots. Lastly, ensuring the tree is either wide or narrow enough as well as follows the same angle as the shoulders are things that can be noted and corrected by a saddle fitter.
Correct Saddle Placement
Once the saddle is removed from the back, introduce a saddle pad and girth then fasten the saddle and note any changes that may occur. Note: a lot of times, people think that placing the saddle directly behind their withers is correct – DO NOT DO THIS. Once you introduce a rider, the additional weight will press into the saddle’s tree points and directly into the horse’s shoulder blades. Not only will this hinder your horse’s shoulder movement, it can result in pain and a very uncomfortable pony! To avoid this, I like to place my saddle slightly forward on the withers, then slide it backward until it stops at the natural resting place. This can vary from horse to horse depending on their confirmation, if the panels are too low, and topline development. Repeat this process until you find the “sweet spot,” located behind the horse’s shoulder blades. For English saddles, check that the rigid points of the tree are behind the scapula’s back edge. You can double check the positioning by sliding your hand down to where your girth is fastened. While your horse is standing square, you should be able to fit your hand’s width – roughly 2” – 2-1/2” – in this armpit area between the elbow and front of your girth.
I recommend checking the fit of your saddle at least once a year, as the fit can sometimes change due to various factors like exercise routines, illness, topline development, and weight changes. Thankfully, there are so many products available today that can adjust a saddle fit like shims and riser pads. In addition, a saddle fitter could recommend sending your saddle out to be reflocked or panels adjusted to refresh the fit. At the end of the day, your horse’s comfort and performance are the most important things to consider, and a properly fitted saddle will help to ensure that. Happy horse = happy human 😊
Email Big Dee’s Sporthorse Specialist and Professional Saddle Fitter, Lisa Gorretta, today to schedule a fitting for you and your horse at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve always considered myself fairly proficient when it comes to cleaning my leather tack and boots. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn more – and that was the case this past weekend! Big Dee’s very own, Lisa Gorretta, bestowed her knowledge of all things tack cleaning upon an eager crowd.
She started her presentation by reminding everyone that any time we purchase a piece of tack, whether it’s brand new or dug out of a “diamond in the rough” bin at a tack swap, that it is an investment. The better we take care of that investment, the longer it will last us – and the safer it will keep us.
While some leather items might have a standard cleaning process, like halters or horse boots, items like saddles and bridles require a little more consideration. Lisa emphasized that if you are buying a brand new saddle, check that saddle’s warranty information BEFORE you start cleaning! Several brands will come with a small cleaning kit, but everyone has a personal preference when it comes to tack cleaning products – that’s good and well, as long as it follows the warranty! A quick check will save a lot of hassle down the road.
Before even getting your spot ready to clean, make sure you have the basics down! Did you know that warm water helps the process go a little easier? That doesn’t mean cold water is bad per say, it’s just a helpful bonus to use warm water. Strongly emphasized throughout Lisa’s presentation was – moderation is key! Prepare yourself for the time needed to clean your tack the correct way. If you need three coats, do three light coats, versus one massive gooped on swipe of cleaner or conditioner. Remember, leather should be supple, flexible, and sturdy. You don’t want saturated tack or brittle, dry track. Lastly, leather does not like extremes – when selecting cleaning products, search for one that is pH neutral so it is not harsh on your tack.
New Saddles and Cleaning
Most new saddles come with a wax layer that needs to be properly removed. This is done to open the pores of the leather and prepare the surface. You should start with a pH neutral cleaning product like a Castile Soap. With a little water and a little soap, gently work into the saddle with a sponge to clean off the wax or buildup from a used saddle. Another product that works well is the Leather Therapy Wash. This cleaner is safe to use on just about any leather item and won’t darken the leather over time. Also be mindful of the water used when cleaning – hard water is not kind to black and dark leather. For tough to reach areas or heavily tooled tack, try using a toothbrush (you will be pleasantly surprised how much easier it is).
Balsam or Oil?
After cleaning the tack, the next step is conditioning. However, you need to make sure the product you are using is the correct match for that particular part of the saddle. There are two surfaces on leather – the raw side (or open side) is rough like the underside of fenders and flaps, and the sealed side (or closed side) is the smooth leather surface, like what you sit on. Oils are used on the raw side of leather only, they WILL darken the leather and they WILL soak through if applied too heavily. Conditioners like Effax Leather Balsam and Colorado Leather Conditioner are made from beeswax and lanolin to bring out the suppleness of leather without making the surface slick. Other great conditioning options are Leather Therapy Conditioner, Amerigo Balm, Walsh Oil (if you want to darken the leather) and Bates Leather Balsam (if you want a slightly tackier surface).
One thing to consider when conditioning, is to be mindful of the seams of your saddle. English saddle panels are flocked, foam filled or a combination of the two. These materials do not like getting oil or moisture in them. So when conditioning, be careful not to heavily cover the area.
Remember, use light coats regardless if you are using an oil or balsam. Let the tack air dry naturally. If there is any excess conditioner, wipe it off with a rag. If your leather is still dry, apply another light coat. Repeat this process until the suppleness is back in your bridle or saddle.
Chrome and Bits
For Western riders, whether their entire saddle is silver or they have a few pieces – keeping the silver shiny is actually very easy if you make it a part of your routine cleaning process. Never Dull is a fabulous wadding polish for all metals. My personal favorite is Simichrome Silver Polish, but it is a very aggressive cleaner and should not be used on bits. However, it does the job of cleaning up even the most corroded and tarnished silver on saddles and bridles!
If you want to clean up bits, the Herm Sprenger Diamond Bit Polish Paste is the product to use. It is non-toxic, non-acidic and brings back shine to not only bits, but spurs and stirrups as well. With any silver cleaner, use a small amount on Q-tips or throw-away sponges to apply, then buff out for a lustrous shine.
Most of us don’t have the time to deep clean and condition our tack after every ride. But you should at least wipe the tack down, especially the inside of bridles and reins. Why? Well, have you ever tried to clean your horse’s bridle after you’ve ridden him in it all summer, and there’s that layer of gunk that just will not come off? That’s the horse’s natural oils and sweat, built up from many rides. You can easily avoid this by using a cleaning wipe like Oakwood Wipes. Simply wipe down your tack and put away – easy breezy! You could also do a quick wipe-down with an all-in-one product like Lexol Quick Care.
You should strive to deep clean your tack at least twice a year (more is always better), this includes pulling every piece apart, making sure it is structurally still safe to use, clean, condition and then put everything back together.
How we store tack, whether used daily or put away for the winter months, is important to consider. If you keep tack in a moist environment, you might start to see mildew. Removing mildew requires either more layers with a mild cleaner, or a more aggressive leather cleaning product. Just remember that after really putting elbow grease into cleaning, your tack will need a conditioner to keep it from getting dry. If you are storing tack for extended periods of time, go through the regular cleaning process, then cover the tack in a dry place. You can put a very light layer of vasoline on bits, then store them in a small unsealed plastic bag.
If you want a light protective coat on your tack, you could as a layer of glycerine. Using a Glycerine Bar Soap, dip it into water, then take the sponge over the bar. Apply the sponge onto tack in a light layer. Using too much glycerine can clog the leather’s pores and dry out the tack, so be careful. After applying, let the tack dry naturally, then wipe away excess with a cloth.
Other Kinds of Oils
There are other kinds of oils available for leather goods. One mentioned often is Mink oil – but it’s not as strong of a conditioner as it is a waterproofer. Mink oil can be used on winter boots or as a barrier, but it will not supple up the leather like other oils or balsams. Olive oil can technically be used, but it was not designed for leather and it not recommended. Murphy’s Oil is also not the top pick for cleaning, but if it must be used, use it in very small amounts. Leather should not be saturated when cleaning. Also be wary of products with petroleum, as they are not kind to the stitching used in tack.
At the end of the day, the main point of having tack is to it keep us safe and secure when riding, driving, working or leading horses. We should make it a priority to not only check our tack regularly, but keep it clean and conditioned so it can perform the best for us. Once you get familiar with the products and routine, it becomes less of a chore and more of a point of pride. Clean, supple leather not only keeps you safe, but also looks incredible!
“If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it..” -If, Rudyard Kipling
We all know that riding and horsemanship in general is a physically demanding activity. From cleaning stalls, lifting heavy water buckets (or breaking up frozen ice buckets if you don’t have a heated option), and no stirrup work, riders must be in tip-top shape in order to keep their cores strengthened and their cardio in adequate levels to keep up with the task of riding their horses regularly. If you compete, that regiment of keeping in shape for riding and competition might include flexing your muscles at the gym, going running a few times a week, yoga for core strength and balance, and more.
However, stress-relief and anxiety management may often be put to the wayside when it comes to the things a rider carries in their “fitness” arsenal. As a result, all the hard work you might put into your equitation, position, adjustability of stride, and more might fall apart as soon as you step into the schooling ring, the show ring, or maybe try a new skill in your next lesson.
Ask any equestrian who their biggest critic is, and the answer 99% of the time is themselves. So often, we put unnecessary pressure of where we are vs. where we “should” be, compare ourselves to other riders who seem to win everything, fancier horses, or think “I’ve been riding for so long, why are riders half my age doing better than me?” Then we sit and dwell on these negative thoughts, beat ourselves up over and over, that by the time we go into the ring we are shocked when we get a refusal at a jump or a dressage test that falls apart as soon as we salute at X. Our negative thoughts get affirmed and we are stuck in a vicious cycle of thinking “I’m never going to get any better, maybe I should just quit” – or something along those lines. We beat ourselves up, we punish our horses with our tension and nerves, that so often riders wonder, “How can I get out of my own head?” Add into the fact that a lot of riders in the hunters and equitation world voluntarily walk into a ring where the first words uttered over the loudspeaker are, “You are now being judged.” We immediately stiffen our spines to sit up straight, make sure our heels are at the correct level of “down,” and strive to create the image of perfection for the sake of a blue ribbon.
I know that riding and performance anxiety plagued my equestrian career for a long time. I always read different books and articles, watched videos, and attended clinics on what “correct” riding should be even before I started taking lessons over 16 years ago. I tried so hard to emulate the greats like Beezie Madden, Geoff Teal, Ian Miller, and others. Unfortunately, I was so set in a black and white ideal of what is “good vs. bad” riding. I developed a bad habit of not finding “feel” but rather trying to “force” horses into a correct carriage, even if their own physical or mental abilities weren’t at that point.
As a result, I would get frustrated with myself because I assumed I was doing something wrong, or my equitation was incorrect. At one point, I was riding in a clinic, nervous because I was riding a young, unfamiliar horse. By the end of the clinic, I felt accomplished and proud of the tools I added to my riding toolbox. However, all that crashed down when I was told my trainer at the time had deemed me “untrainable” to parents and auditors in the viewing area. At that point, I was at a crossroads – why should I even continue trying if my own trainer didn’t even believe in me?
It’s very easy to internalize and dwell on negative memories. It’s even easier to get stuck in those thoughts, and think we aren’t capable with more. Speaking in my own experience, I’m was told (or gently screamed at) by my trainer to “Get out of your head!” However, it took me many years of practice and hard work to eventually get out of my inner critic mindset.
Flex Your Brain
Developing your mental skills and emotional fitness is a lifelong journey. It’s not a matter of eliminating fear – fear is a good thing. It’s what keeps us from putting a beginner rider on a 6-year-old stallion in the 1.30 speed showjumpers. The difference between fear and anxiety is that one is a response to an actual threat (fear), and the other is a response to a perceived threat – or one that we make up in our own minds (anxiety). Just like training horses, results will not happen overnight, and you can’t do too much too soon, otherwise you’ll only end up forcing, which will result in more stress/anxiety.
Often, people think that by simply avoiding anxiety-related thoughts or not allowing your brain to have these thoughts is the solution to not being anxious. However, that thought process is like avoiding the annoying neighbor who lives next door or the creepy aunt at every family reunion. Eventually, you’ll have to face those thoughts head on and acknowledge that they exist. However, you are ALLOWED to have these thoughts and they do not define who you are as a rider. Just like lifting weights, you’ll have to take time to flex your brain to develop the skills needed to tolerate those uncomfortable thoughts and realize. With regular practice and repetition, it’ll be as effortless of knowing what the correct posting diagonal is.
First, it’s important to build an awareness of what creates anxiety for you. Maybe it’s the fear of falling that stemmed from a bad accident years ago. Maybe it’s being afraid of your own horse due to him reacting poorly in the cross ties or spooking on the ground when you weren’t prepared. For me, I’m at the point where I’m not working through a horse or riding-related fear, but rather wanting to bring my competitive edge to the next level. Battling the monster of perfectionism, if you will, and defining the delicate balance between overthinking, not thinking at all, and being totally in sync with my horse at every exact moment of my ride.
Learn to stay focused on yourself. Comparison is truly the enemy in any aspect of life, but especially in riding. Learn to stay focused on your horse and what he needs helps you to not get caught up in other rider’s performance, giving you a clear mind to be fully present on what your horse is telling you in that moment. Trust that where you are now in your abilities did not happen by accident – that can not be taken away from you. Trust that each time you step into the irons, you firmly believe you have the best plan to success. As soon as you start second guessing is when you lose focus and things start to fall apart. A lot of the times, we can get hung up on a particular fence, a particular dressage movement, or a particular scary corner in the end of the arena that our energy and our mind is so isolated.
Instead, the trick to avoid getting hung up on those potentially scary situations is to create a mental film of seamlessly blending all your horse’s steps together from start to finish. Imagine a magnet pulling you toward the finish line at a comfortable pace, rather than rushing like a train off the tracks – frantic and scattered. That way, all those tools you have in place will help you adjust if there is a certain screw you know has a tendency of coming loose (ie: your horse loves to cut the corner on his left lead). Being mentally aware about 3 to 4 seconds before you reach that corner will help you prepare and set your horse up for success.
Don’t anticipate and focus on him cutting the turn, but that he is quietly lifted and balanced down the quarter line with plenty of encouragement in the outside rein to keep him square between your legs and hands. Keep focusing on that mental movie you have in your mind and set yourself up so that the magnet pulling you toward the finish line doesn’t have any bumps or shimmies.
Second, remember that your horse is your mirror. If you’re working a green baby, it’s especially important to be that reliable holding hand that is always present during particularly “scary” moments. Keeping focus on your breath will help him stayed cool and collected, the plan you have in your mind will give him a soft, safe place that he will want to stay inside. If you feed off your horse’s tension, it will become a nasty, vicious cycle, and your mental movie will quickly turn into a horror film. If he spooks or bucks, keep your deep diaphragmatic breathing and continue without a second thought. Keep your focus on the seamless line you have in your mind and come back to the teaching moment later. I find that keeping a journal in my riding backpack is helpful because I can “dump” all my thoughts on paper rather than holding everything in my mind without a structured way to see them, and can ultimately come up with a course of action after my lesson, ride, or show round.
I want to mention that these tips are not a hard and fast rule. Some people prefer more of a “tough love” approach, while others prefer to work things out quietly in the privacy of their own meditative states. Even so, once a person masters these techniques, it’s important to mention that it doesn’t mean the thoughts will vanish into thin air. However, you’ll have the confidence to know the tools you have in place are meant to set you up for success. And if you screw up, chocolate-chip your distance, canter when you were supposed to sit trot, or whatever else, tell yourself, it’s okay! Go back to your mental toolbox and give yourself and your horse a pat on the back. Tomorrow is a new day to try again.
Enjoy the ride, Colleen
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