Like most plus-size riders, whenever I see a new article or study about the effects of rider weight on horses posted online, I break into a cold sweat. Not because of the article content itself, but because of the inevitable comments that ensue on social media. They range from the insensitive to the stupid, and often venture into the territory of downright cruel.
So when Eurodressage recently posted an article titled "The Influence of Rider Size on Changes in Equine Back Dimensions, Muscle Tension, and Pain," I clicked with no small amount of trepidation. You can read the article yourself and draw your own conclusions about the limitations of the study design but here are mine: there are a few key points which plus-sized riders (and those who teach them) should take away from this study, even as the study acknowledges it’s hard to make clear correlations from the data gathered.
1. We all know this, but it’s imperative to ride a horse whose size, conformation, and soundness is appropriate for your weight. Check in with your vet and your coach / trainer regularly and ask for their honest feedback whether your weight is making your horse uncomfortable.
2. Ride in a saddle that fits not only the horse, but you as well. While this applies to all riders, it’s particularly relevant to those of us who are large / heavy. There are fewer saddles with large seat sizes on the market, especially in the used market, and not all horses have the back length to accommodate a bigger saddle. Big riders are used to sacrificing our fit for correctly fitting a saddle to the horse, but this study suggests that riding in a saddle that’s too small for the rider may create pressure points on the horse’s back, even when properly fitted to the horse. It’s worth the investment to get a saddle that fits you both.
3. Be prepared to face the uncomfortable truth - your horse might not always be appropriate for you. As age and injuries take a toll on your partner's strength and soundness, or if you weight increases, compromises might be required. This may mean reducing workload and / or ride frequency, committing to losing weight, or focusing more on activities like ground work or long lining.
Just keep showing up. Today wasn’t the first time I’ve heard these words of wisdom, but I was reminded why they are perhaps the most valuable words of advice for riders of every level in any discipline.
When things get too busy, too stressful, too cold, or just too hard, it’s tempting to put riding on the back burner and take a little break. Don’t. Just keep showing up.
When every ride feels like two steps backwards, keep showing up. When your mind is spinning from stress at home or at work, keep showing up.
When winter sucks away every ounce of your motivation, keep showing up. When you’re overwhelmed with anxiety or frozen with fear, keep showing up. When you suddenly have a breakthrough, keep showing up. When you hit that goal you’ve been working towards for months, keep showing up.
The only way to make progress is to just keep showing up, day after day, week after week. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
Did you make any New Year's resolutions for 2021? If you want to focus on fitness to improve your riding, you're not alone. Even Canada's Olympic hopefuls are hitting the gym and consulting with fitness experts to develop off-horse programs that enhance their performance in the saddle.
Fitness is something my own coach has asked all her students to focus on this year - ALL of us. We come in all ages, shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of injury and obstacles to overcome, but we can all improve our stamina, core strength, and hip flexibility - essential ingredients for anyone wanting to get better at dressage.
So when Horse Sport asked me to interview Team Canada rider Jill Irving about her fitness regime, the timing was perfect. Jill shared her top 5 tips for staying fit to ride:
1. Train for life, not just for a specific goal or sport
2. Make time for fitness every day
3. Engage your core when you are doing anything
4. Improve stamina with a cardio activity you love
5. Find balance between good nutrition and the occasional reward
For more details on Jill's personal plan and training tips, read the full Horse Sport article here.
In any clinic with two-time Olympian Jacqueline Brooks, two things are guaranteed: there will be lots of laughter, and there will be lots of analogies and images used. From asking riders to picture themselves as the pole in the centre of a carousel horse to imagining they’re riding a roller coaster heading up a steep incline, Jacqueline uses a creative approach to help riders create the feel she is looking for.
Jacquie recently taught a clinic at our barn at was fascinating to watch how she used the same visualization technique with every horse and rider and how it applied to each of them, whether working at First level or PSG. The simple idea of imagining themselves riding down a hill, or up a hill helped every rider improve their horse's balance and self-carriage.
It was so interesting, I wrote an article for Horse Sport about it - you can read it here.
Do you ever wonder what the judge is thinking as you're making your best effort to get through your dressage test without a mistake? Spoiler alert: No, they don't hate your horse, and yes, they can hear you cluck.
Canadian FEI 4* judge Brenda Minor recently shared some inside knowledge with me for a Horse Sport article titled 10 Things Dressage Judges Really (Really!) Want Riders to Know.
What's at the top of her list? Brenda really wants riders to know that judges are on our side. They want us to have a great ride and they love being able to reward great work with a great score. She also wants us to know that judges are human too, and mistakes do happen. In cases where the judge misses part of a movement (due to a sneeze, spilled coffee, flying test papers or any number of mishaps that can occur in the booth) judges are trained to give the rider the benefit of the doubt with a positive score.
Want to know more? Read the full article here:
In 2020, more than ever, it's so important to support our local businesses. That's I why I started highlighting Canadian equestrian products and services on my Instagram feed, and in doing so have discovered some amazing new products and brands!
To help everyone out there buy Canadian and shop local this year, I curated a holiday gift guide for Horse Sport. Part 1 covers tack and accessories, while Part 2 features riding apparel, grooming tools and horse health products.
So remember when I said after losing Caprice that I wasn't planning to get another horse again? But if the universe wanted to send me another super sweet, super safe schoolmaster I probably wouldn't say no? Well it did, and I didn't.
Just two weeks after Caprice died I met a lovely lady while scribing at a show. And just a couple of weeks after that, her horse unexpectedly became available for lease when his long-time leaser got the opportunity to purchase her dream horse. When I received an email asking if I'd be interested in leasing him it didn't take me long to say yes! And my longtime friend and part-boarder Kim said yes with me, so we are both delighted to share the lease on this very special boy.
His name is Ronan, and he's a 2000 Hanoverian gelding by Rotspon. Apparently the defining quality of Rotspon offspring is their wonderful temperament and work ethic. This certainly seems to be to true for Ronan so far. He's an absolute sweetheart - just a gentle, wise old soul who never says no, makes even me feel safe hacking in the hayfields, and not only tolerates all our snuggles and kisses, but genuinely enjoys them.
He settled into life at Nobleton Dressage like he's lived there forever and we are looking forward to learning a lot from him. He competed at Fourth Level with his previous leaser last year, so our learning is picking up right where it left off with Caprice, which is exciting.
But most of all, he's helping to heal the giant hole in our hearts, and for thank I am so grateful - both to him and to his owner for giving us this incredible opportunity.
It's been 45 days since Caprice died and I won't lie; it's been tough. I've always had the gift of choosing when to let my animals cross the bridge and the utter shock of losing her so suddenly is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I think of myself as a pretty stoic and practical person, but still burst into tears when I walk past her empty stall or see another horse in her paddock. I knew we wouldn't be together forever. but she seemed invincible, even at age 23. She lived a wonderful life and was happy, healthy and adored every single day from the moment she arrived in Canada right up to her last day on earth. But it still hurts.
I've learned a lot in the past few weeks, most importantly that people really are kind. For that I'm truly thankful. The support from my barn family, friends, and complete strangers is really touching. I've received so many messages from others who have gone through the same thing. Horses always break our hearts, but it seems we can't live without them.
I've learned a lot riding-wise too, with the chance to ride several different horses in lessons with several different coaches. For that I'm grateful as well. One of my barn-mates generously offered me the ride on her handsome Canadian gelding in a weekly lesson with our trainer and that's been fun. He is completely different than Caprice in just about every way. And at Nancy Maclachlan and Alan Young's lovely MacDay Farm, I was lucky to ride another friend's older schoolmaster a couple of times under Nancy's skilled and watchful eye. He is very much like Caprice in many ways, and yet still totally different in others.
The biggest test of my skills (and maybe the most fun) was the incredible opportunity to take two lessons from Esther Mortimer at M2 Dressage on her Grand Prix schoolmaster. I have always dreamed of doing tempi changes and passage and yes, it feels just as amazing as I imagined! And on this horse, at least, those movements seem ridiculously easy, yet I struggled with simple tasks like cantering a 20-metre circle. On a horse where every weight shift, a too-grippy leg, or an inadvertent poke with the spur means something, you really learn to be as quiet and effective as possible.
Walking into strange barns and riding unfamiliar horses with new-to-me trainers has been a test of my anxiety but also a confidence booster. Stepping so far outside my comfort zone showed just how much Caprice (and Meredith!) taught me in just a year. For that I'm incredibly grateful too.
Everyone who welcomed me into their barns and onto their horses was so kind and so patient. The chance to see how other programs operate, figure out new horses, try difficult movements and exercises, or just hear fundamental skills explained in a slightly different way has been a gift - a silver lining in the dark cloud of the past 45 days. It's been like going on vacation and seeing incredible sights, tasting new foods, and experiencing different cultures. You love it, and you learn from it, but at the end of the day you still look forward to going home.
More than anything, this experience has taught me that my barn feels like home to me. I will be back there sooner, rather than later, with a horse to love and call my own again.
So what happens now? It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot this week and one I ask myself as well. First off, I need to heal. Losing Caprice so suddenly feels like I’ve been hit by a truck and I don’t think the reality has begun to sink in yet.
A wise friend gave me some great advice: “Don’t be sad that it’s over; be happy that it happened.” I’m both, and that’s ok.
I always said after Caprice I wouldn’t get another horse, that it would be time to be financially responsible and maybe just take lessons or find a part board. That’s definitely an option. But I also had no intention of getting another horse after retiring Gus, and the universe sent me Caprice less than a day after he left!
So if the universe wants to send me another super safe schoolmaster that’s ready to step down but not ready to retire...or really any super safe dressage horse suitable for two middle-aged ammies with lots of love to give but no budget...I probably wouldn’t say no
And just like that, the dream is over.
I can’t even believe I’m typing this but we lost Caprice today after a devastating colic. Our barn staff were all simply amazing, and our vets did a great job stabilizing her so we could safely get her to Guelph, but there was really nothing they could do.
My heart is broken and my mind is just numb from shock right now, and it hasn’t begun to sink in. But she had the most wonderful, long, and pampered life and was happy, healthy and loved her job literally right up to her last day. I only had a year with her but it was the best year ever.
Run free my love, you were one in a million
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.