Straight Sailing: Thoughts on Fitness for Endurance Riders
I’m about to offend some people. I find that I don’t care as much as I used to. You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to read this post. If you choose to do so, pull up your big girl panties and get on with it. All I ask is that you listen to my opinion and form your own.
I’ve been thinking about rider fitness. No, not the flame-singed, popcorn-strewn “how fat is too fat to ride” debate that refuses to die on equine forums across the net, but fitness specifically for endurance riders. It seems to me that those of us who ask our horses to haul us fifty miles or more over sunbeaten mountains and through mudslicked valleys ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the average equestrian.
How high a standard?
Let me put it this way: If I were training for a relay marathon with a human partner, I’d sure as hell expect him to work as hard I did to prepare. If I found out he was spending his afternoons kicked back on the couch with a diet soda while I logged set after set of agonizing miles, I’d be downright irritated. In fact, I’d probably pull my race entry — or else find myself a better partner.
How many endurance horses would do the same? Judging by my own observations at rides in my area, I’d have to guess at quite a few. Too bad the ponies don’t get a choice. Their riders choose for them — and some of those choices are less than honorable.
A good friend of mine, who is considering getting into endurance, summed up my feelings on the subject nicely: “I wouldn’t even attempt it if I weren’t in top condition. I believe I have to earn the privilege of having a good partner by being a good partner.”
But what, exactly, is a “partner?”
I looked up Webster’s definition and found it largely unsurprising:
Partner (n): 1. One that shares; 2. One associated with another, especially in an action; 3. a member of a partnership, especially in a business.
But the final entry that caught my attention.
4. One of the heavy timbers that strengthen a ship’s deck to support a mast.
Being that my maritime experience is exceedingly limited, I had to read up on mast partners. It’s a simple concept. Basically, the opposing forces of wind and water upon a ship’s mast create pressure that is too much for the ship’s deck alone to bear. Without partners — stout timbers fixed between the deck beams around the opening in the deck through which the mast passes, distributing loads across the deck and into the hull — both mast and deck would suffer damage sufficient to endanger both craft and crew.
Take a look at this image of the mast partners installed while rebuilding the raised vessel Irene. The partners are the cross-pieces between the longer deck beams. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what would happen if you used a substantial joist on one side and a toothpick on the other.
And yet, many endurance teams attempt to sail through the sport with exactly that handicap. The horses are beautifully, admirably fit, and the riders are…not.
Now wait a minute, you say. I care about my horse. I work hard to keep her fed and watered, floated and ice-booted, vaccinated and massaged and trimmed and clipped and supplemented and stretched.
I’m sure you do. I’m glad you do. That’s important. But when was the last time you busted your butt as hard as she does? You know, the butt with those fifteen extra pounds attached. Aren’t you supposed to be an athlete, too?
Listen up. I’m not talking about mediocrity here. I’m not talking about lacing up your tennies for a 20-minute walk during your lunch break, maybe throwing in a couple of those tricep kickbacks you read about in the latest issue of Cooking Light.
I’m talking about pure, focused, physical and mental effort. Huffing and puffing, nauseating, self-disciplined, self-denying, self-fulfilling, barrier-breaking workouts that sculpt you into the kind of fit that makes strangers on the street turn around for another look.
You know — the kind of effort your endurance horse makes for you.
All right. Raise your hand if your hackles are up. Anybody preparing to hammer out a scathing comment about how I’m trying to turn endurance racing into an elitist sport? Take your finger off the trigger, folks; that’s not my point.
In fact, one of my favorite things about endurance is that it’s a rare sport in which kids can compete alongside their grandparents, and some of its top riders excel despite physical ailments that make them look like everybody’s last idea of a champion athlete.
What I am saying is that if you’re settling for mediocrity, you’re failing your horse. Even if your fitness level is “not that bad.” Even if it’s “above average.” If it’s not your personal best — and that’s a moving target, ladies and gentlemen, so keep striving — it’s not good enough.
You don’t have to be an elite athlete to compete in endurance. It’s a welcoming sport. Care for your horse and give her the credit she deserves, and you’ll find friends in ridecamps everywhere. But hear this: Unless you’re making a real, concerted, consistent effort to remodel yourself to the best of your ability, you aren’t bearing your share of the burden. You aren’t the partner you ought to be.
Your horse didn’t sign up for this sport. You did. You wanted the fun, the challenge, the adventure and glory. Good for you. Now earn it.
I don’t claim to be a nutrition and fitness expert, but for those who are interested, I’ll share in subsequent posts a few things I’ve learned about diet and exercise that have recently honed my personal fitness to an unprecedented level. If I can do it, you can, too.
Fit to Ride, Part One: Going for the Goal
Fit to Ride, Part Two: Vice and Advice
Fit to Ride, Part Three: Eating Clean
Fit to Ride, Part Four: Sweet Surrender
Fit to Ride, Part Five: Eating Green
Fit to Ride, Part Six: Milk Got You?
Cross Training — for you, not your horse by Liz at Equine Ink
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