Going the Distance: Tips for Keeping Your Riding Skills Sharp When Your Trainer and Horse are Far Away
A couple of months ago, we spoke with top amateur exhibitors about what they had to sacrifice to get to the top and stay there. All of the people we spoke to indicated that time was a significant sacrifice they needed to make to find and maintain success – time spent riding, practicing and fine-tuning their skills and communication with their mounts.
So, what do riders do when they can’t take lessons on their horse regularly due to their horse living at a trainer who is far from them?
It’s not uncommon in this industry for owners to live hours, if not states, away from their trainers. We asked top exhibitors who live far from their trainers and top trainers who have many long-distance clients, how similarly-situated exhibitors can keep up their riding and showing skills from afar.
Lisa Ligon (2L Performance Horses): Ligon is a successful AQHA and ApHC trainer and multi-carded judge who focuses on Hunter Under Saddle and All-Around horses. Her numerous successes at the Quarter Horse Congress, NSBA World Show and AQHA and ApHC World Shows have attracted clients from around the country to her facility in Aubrey, Texas.
Ligon says the best advice she can give any long-distance client is to “just keep riding.” Specifically, she recommends her clients continue taking lessons with local trainers so that they can keep up their muscle strength and comfort level on a horse. In addition, she suggests that riders video their lessons or work on specific skills and send the videos to their trainers for pointers and advice moving forward. Lisa says open communication is critical. Often, local trainers are happy to help you take videos of your lessons and work on skills recommended by your show trainer.
Lisa says that novice riders benefit most significantly from riding at home, while more established and older riders often miss out on the fitness and habit-building benefits of regular lessons with their trainer. Therefore, she recommends experienced riders make an effort to keep up their fitness at home.
Ligon advises clients to walk on a treadmill wearing a posture harness to help them build the muscle memory of keeping their shoulders back and square. She also recommends that you do ankle stretches and toe raises on stairs at home, as she finds older amateur and elite riders often struggle with tight ankles and cannot keep their heels down through a long class.
Another way to improve both strength and riding skills is to have a friend or local trainer longe your horse with you in the saddle. Ligon recommends you ride this way without stirrups or ride in the standing position to pull the legs back and keep your calves strong. She says, depending on the longe line without reins is also an excellent way to work on balance and core strength. Finally, she recommends that you raise your inside arm while riding around a circle (either on the longe line or independently) so that you practice not dropping your shoulder to the inside and sitting up tall in the saddle.
Karen Qualls (Premier Performance Horses): Qualls has built a name for herself in the Paint Horse world by training horses and amateurs to the highest successes at the highest echelons of the breed. As a result, she’s attracted many clients from all over the country to her base in Southern California. Qualls is, therefore, no stranger to the “out of town” client and has some tips for exhibitors to stay in “show shape” despite being unable to ride with their trainers as often as they may like.
Qualls admits that most of her travel clients have a horse at home or access to a horse near home. She suggests exercises for her clients to practice while away like riding without stirrups, riding with their legs back in a strong horsemanship seat (without focusing on whether the horse is moving correctly), riding with a tall, straight back and tight elbows, for the horsemanship and practicing picking up the proper diagonal without looking, for the hunt seat riders.
Karen says that the key to practicing at home is focusing on your form as a rider without worrying whether your “at-home” mount moves like a show horse. This will better allow you to hop on your horse, which the trainer has prepared and maintained while you were away, without sacrificing form and muscle.
Qualls also recommends that long-distance clients take basic equitation lessons at local jumping barns for strength and conditioning. However, she says taking lessons at outside barns can be a little more complicated when preparing for western pleasure because the spur control and leg use are more unique to the discipline. Therefore, it can sometimes be counterproductive to the discipline and posture to take outside lessons. As such, she recommends speaking with your trainer and getting their input before committing to lessons outside their programs.
Finally, Karen recommends an exercise regimen whereby long-distance riders can stay in shape, despite missing regular lessons. She advises you to squeeze a workout ball like riding a hunt seat horse with your thighs and calves to use the ball for balance and mimic posting and squeezing a horse to lift their back. This strength exercise is beneficial to both hunt seat and western riders. Finally, she says you can’t go wrong with squats, hip exercises and core exercises. She admits that she does a lot of hip exercises and flexing to keep herself fit as a trainer. She also believes that a strong core is the foundation of proper horsemanship posture, so a good ab workout will never hurt anyone.
Maddie and Allie Rippeon: Maddie and Allie are successful youth exhibitors who live in Maryland and travel great distances to ride with their trainers. To complicate matters even more, the girls’ horses are with two different trainers in two other states – Maddie’s horse Romeo (Fashion Statemant) is trained by Keith Miller in North Carolina while Allie’s horse Molly (Itzonly Make Believe) is in training with Shannon Walker in Iowa.
First and foremost, their mother, Deanna Rippeon reminds exhibitors that trust in your long-distance trainer is a critical component of having your horse far away. She says that no amount of at-home practice or exercise can make up for a trainer who does not hold up their end of the bargain while away. Instead, she advises that you have a relationship founded on trust and open communication to make sure that you can prepare for top-level shows from a distance.
Maddie typically brings her horse home over the winter to spend more time bonding and working together to build their connection. But, she advises that if your horse is broke enough to come home in the off-season without falling apart, you bring them home to build on the intangibles, like communication and relationship, which are very difficult to establish or maintain at a distance.
Maddie also advises that you make sure to give yourself an option to keep learning and riding at home. She has found it helpful to her horsemanship skills to ride different horses and disciplines, which she hopes will also set her up for success on an equestrian team in college.
Allie, who rides a young horse that cannot come home for the winter, advises you to make sure to use your time with your trainer wisely. She says it becomes even more critical to stay focused and on task during your lessons with your horse because every minute is crucial to preparing for showing. In addition, Allie finds it helpful to visit her trainer with a plan already in place to work on her struggles and take notes on what needs ongoing work to practice at home and work more effectively with her trainer while she is there.
Together, the girls take lessons with local trainers to work on their seats, ring awareness and fitness to ride so they are ready to go at the top shows.
Tali Terlizzi: Terlizzi is a top amateur exhibitor currently based out of Ocala, Florida. However, Terlizzi has horses with Jason and Jamie English of Georgia and Kelby and Kaitlin Hutchison of North Carolina.
Terlizzi admits that she typically has a horse at home that she can go and ride and keep up with, if for nothing else but keeping her muscles strong and flexible. However, this past year she was on the road so much that she couldn’t ride at home as frequently as normal.
Typically, she will go and stay with her trainer for a week before she begins showing to put in some intense practice right before a show. She advises knowing what needs work and what is already “show ready” in advance of these training sessions to focus on improving weaknesses or tweaking strengths right before a show.
Terlizzi works out about five times per week to keep in shape and make sure that she does not lose muscle. She advises that home workouts also focus on flexibility to help with the muscle soreness post-ride because “no gym exercise can fully work all of the muscle groups necessary for riding your horse.” She believes that lunges and squats do the most to help her remain fit for the hunt seat from home. She also recommends core workouts for both balance and posture.
Finally, Terlizzi reminds long-distance riders not to forget to take time to visit their horse outside of the “horse show crunch” because one of the most significant disadvantages of being away from them is losing relationship-building time. She recommends spending some time visiting your horse to cruise around and have fun with them so that your visits don’t become a chore for you both.
Riding is fun and a hobby for many. Still, at the top levels of showing, it is undoubtedly a sport that requires discipline, dedication and a fitness program outside of the arena to be successful. With exercise, practice, a plan and a trustworthy and dedicated trainer, it is possible to win at the most significant shows despite living far away from your horse and trainer…if you are willing to go the distance.
About the Author: Megan Rechberg has been riding horses on-and-off since she was in sixth grade. She works as a full-time mom to son Jackson and daughter Sterling, part-time litigation attorney, and social media manager for up-and-coming APHA stallions.