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Time off from riding. What I've learnt.

The last six months I’ve had to slow down, do a lot of resting and rehabbing due to two disc protrusions in my lower back. When exercising I’m usually a go for the burn type person but nerve pain is not something you can push through, so I’ve had to really take things slowly and back off when my leg starts to go numb. The first three months I was using a Zimmer frame to walk and it was the longest time I’ve had off from riding.

During my non-riding time I kept up Fletches stretches, played with proprioception exercises (sure foot balance pads), walked him in-hand, lunged him (including over poles and the occasional small jump) and did some in-hand schooling to maintain his suppleness with shoulder-in, leg-yield, light aids in a halter, and when I had recovered enough to get back on he was still supple and responsive to very light aids. So, if you have to have an extended period off riding for you or because your horse is recovering from an issue there is plenty that can be done other than riding. Not to mention agility/ handy pony/ trail obstacles you could train, liberty work, working on any groundwork or behavioural issues - float schooling, tying up, worming, holding hooves up for farrier… that you never had time for before. (Don’t forget to reduce your horses feed as with less exercise they will gain weight.)

Not riding also gives you time to reflect on what you really enjoy about it, and your horse, to build and maintain that special connection between horse and human. It is nice just spending time with your horse, going for walks together, hand grazing, giving him a thorough massage like grooming session, scratching his itchy spots, and just learning to read his individual body language better.

In the last newsletter I mentioned visualisation. There is good evidence for the benefits of mental rehearsal. Visualising myself riding a cross country round helped motivate me to keep going with my rehab exercises and remember what it feels like. Amongst all the other worries that come with an injury I did have a tiny fear that by the time I was able to get back on a horse I would have forgotten how to ride! Through mental practice and improving my groundwork skills I overcame that fear and having watched more horse training videos, youtube lectures, books… I actually came back to riding knowing more.

Another thing I realised is how many skills I have; even just rugging a horse. Trying to explain to someone else which is the front and back and how to put it on etc, makes you realise how proficient and expert you have become at lots of little things and we just take it for granted that it is easy and don’t even think about it. I’m very grateful for the assistance, as to start with I couldn’t even lift the weight of the rug let alone throw it up on. Going slowly and building up from scratch also raises awareness around habits, some habits are successful and useful – like the particular way I fold the rug to hang neatly on the rail so the straps aren’t hanging down in the stable, but some are bad habits, like not paying attention to body mechanics when picking up and throwing rug on. Having to slow down and really think about how to approach each part of the task of putting a rug on, how I’m going to cope or manage to do this, has helped me form a new better for my back and shoulders habit.

Don’t get back on until you feel safe to do so. Whilst I wanted to ride as soon as possible I was aware that I wasn’t physically capable and that if something went wrong it would set me back even further. You need to allow a safety buffer. Rehab exercises on the ground are controlled, getting on a horse there is an element of uncontrolled due to another living being. So, make sure you can do more than the minimum. This principle of allowing for a safety buffer applies to competition too, eg. Training at Elementary level dressage and competing at Novice to allow for nerves, tension, distractions, pressure... Training over 90cm and competing at 80cm, so that if your horse gets a long spot and does a massive leap you can go with it … especially important cross country when the jumps don’t knock down if you make a mistake.

In terms of the horse-human relationship riding really is the icing on the cake.

I was thrilled that last weekend Fletch and I managed a training dressage test at Dust and Diamonds. I’m slowly improving and continuing to put effort into my rehab I will hopefully be able to return to eventing later this year, either way I still love my horse.

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