When I was growing up as the Fat Girl (TM) I loathed exercise. Gym class was an exercise in Medieval Torture. Moving my body was unpleasant and foreign. Particularly during the four years of high school when I stopped riding entirely. In Cambridge where I grew up, they had a very enlightened and humane physical education program. You could take skiing or hiking and get your quarter's credit in a day. But I had no coordination (or so I believed) so I'd fall down on my skiis and end up parked somewhere nursing a wrenched ankle or knee. But I had showed up, so the gym credit was secured.
Regular sports were something I would do if I wanted to get mocked and show people what my face looked like when it was hot pink.
There were a couple things I didn't know that would have really helped me. I had asthma.One of my triggers has always been exercise. When I sat there gasping like a fish, my mother would offer sudafed and herbal tea and go about her day. "Just breathe in the steam," she'd advised. I often wonder if some of the 1970's and 80's laissez faire parenting we experienced when we were kids causes us to over compensate. But I won't expound on that. This is not a parenting blog! But somehow I survived their lackadaisical approach to pulmonary care. But as a result I shunned all aerobic exercise until I got the damn asthma diagnosed and was proscribed albuterol somewhere around my sophomore or junior year of high school. But by then the damage was done. I hated exercising with a passion. I was rather large but healthy and that was where I was going to stay.
Later I would discover I really loved hiking and general outdoorsey stuff. I kept trying aerobics in the 1980's and I'd stick with it for a couple weeks until I discovered that I absolutely hated aerobics. All that jumping up and down in the same room. Foot cramps and general discomfort. I noticed recently that nobody seems to teach straight aerobics any more. It seems to have crawled into a hole and died. Good riddance.
So what's this got to do with riding? I'm getting there.. Stay with me. Good riding is about fitness. The fitter you are, (and I don't mean thinner) the easier it is to ride a horse well and stay in balance. Fit people come in all shapes and weights. There's women much larger than me that can run circles around me and run triathlons and shit. Horses can carry a full grown man and a suit of armor, so balanced weight is not a problem for them. But fitness is key to actually getting them to do what you want.
Before I got sick my son and I were working through a Couch to 5K program and miracle of miracles I learned that I could run. I actually liked running through the woods near my house. I got a real buzz from just being able to do it. And after about a month of running consistently, I could do a real sitting trot. For a whole minute.
But the thing that has been my go to fitness/sanity thing for the last ten years or so has been yoga. I just wish I had found it sooner.
In about 1995 I went with some friends to a yoga class in New York City. I had never been to a yoga class before. I knew nothing about it. I'm very sad to report that I really, really ended up in the wrong class. I don't remember much about it other than it was crowded, I couldn't follow it, the teacher didn't offer any modifications or show me how to use blocks or straps and I remember watching a tiny woman hovering in a low plank position. I vaguely recall letting the teacher know I was a beginner at the beginning of the class and she completely ignored me and left me to struggle through some advanced poses. I left the class placing YOGA neatly on my list next to AEROBICS of the list of things I DO NOT DO and left at that for the next ten years.
Then when my son was a baby and I was having a Bad Day my friend convinced me to come to a yoga class. She knew the teacher. She had taken the class before. She promised me it would be relaxing.
It was the most stretchy yummy hour and a half of my life. It was like all of my muscles got a massage at once. And suddenly I knew what all the fuss was about. This was deep into the 12 years when I had stopped riding to have all the babies and marry the husband. I did yoga off and on for the next few years. The year before I got back into riding I started doing yoga regularly through a course at work. It was a wonderful class. At the end the instructor would shake out and align our bodies so we would be completely neutral for Savasana.
The amazing thing was when I started riding again it didn't hurt. Before when I'd tried to ride, I'd be gimping around taking advil for days because my legs hurt so much from the assault on the unused muscles.
Yoga and riding are completely symbiotic. All of the alignment you learn in yoga can be applied to riding. When you're on a horse you must have your chest open and your shoulders back and your shoulder blades "dripping down you back" at all times. Yoga strengthens your core which is essential to riding.
So now, I grab a yoga class whenever I can. I tend to avoid the super athletic instructors that use words like "glutes" and "abs" during the class. I find that antithetical to relaxing. I like yoga classes with "restorative" and "feel good" in the class description. It works for me.