For the first thirty years of my life, I didn't consider myself an athlete.
I was the kind of kid who preferred books, animals, and blackberry picking to any kind of team sport. I had good parents who made me try all the things: kiddie soccer, basketball, ballet, softball, swimming, track. I liked some better than others, but nothing stuck. By the time I hit high school, I had no interest in trying out for any kind of team.
In undergrad, I became what I'd call an "exerciser." I jogged or went to the gym, maintained a healthy bodyweight, and had no trouble meeting the demands of farm life. I rode horses and rowed rafts and spent a lot of time outdoors. I even completed a half marathon once, but that was mostly about running away.
For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that I felt like an athlete.
An athlete! Me!
But...was I really? My only official sport was endurance. Try as I might, I couldn't get comfortable with the notion that distance riding, in and of itself, was what made me an athlete. In truth, endurance riding was one of the easiest wilderness challenges (physically speaking) that I was engaged in at the time.
I also noticed that, for whatever reason ~ advancing age, cumulative injuries, chronic illness, family responsibilities ~ a lot of riders made it through distance events on grit and knowledge, despite an absence of noteworthy fitness.
That's not a moral judgment; it's just a fact. And it made me consider: If someone who doesn't especially condition herself can do as well or better than a fit person in the same event, then simple participation in that event does not make me an athlete.
Back in my "exerciser" days, I was reasonably fit. But I didn't intentionally train to improve my physical stamina and skill to better engage in sport. I wasn't an athlete yet.
On the flip side, one of the athletes I respect most, ultra runner Tommy Rivers Puzey, recently spent months in a hospital bed, enduring a grueling race against a rare cancer. He could scarcely open his eyes, let alone run, but he was an athlete still.
That said, I think it's fair to say that fitness and athleticism do tend to correlate, especially over time. An athlete may not appear fit at a particular moment, but he or she will usually manifest change in that direction as months or years go by.
Indeed, this sport is special because it allows non-athletes of all ages to play a thrilling, glorious, risky, challenging game. It is a gift from the horses, really, that most of us cherish and none of us deserve.
But what if you do want to approach riding as an athlete? What does that look like? What does it mean? What would it cost, and what might you gain?
We equestrians have a way of getting prickly about the physical demands of our sport. We brag to our officemates about pushing wheelbarrows and hefting oats. I've even heard riders compare posting 25 miles to doing squats for hours at a time. (To that one, I'm just going to say it: If you really believe that, sister, you're either posting wrong or you're squatting wrong, or both.)
Ouch. I know. Ouch.
I'm not saying that endurance riding isn't hard. It is. It takes knowledge, persistence, and courage. Riding 100 miles in a single day hurts like hell. But I'll bet it doesn't hurt like doing about any other sport for the same length of time. (Except maybe golf. Or baseball.)
Hell, I'm middle-aged, short, and about as genetically average as it's possible to be. I can't imagine running or swimming or rowing or sailing or cycling or climbing for 20 hours straight. But even I can ride that long.
Being an athletic rider means that I eat well, I sleep lots, and I cross-train hard. Hard enough to build my body, my character, my feel. Hard enough to honor the effort with which my horse honors me.
I run for my horse. I lift for my horse. I stretch and fuel and recover so that I can be there for him ~ really be there ~ in the dark hour on the mountain when it's just the two of us surging over unseen trail, my hands in his mane and his body in my mind, melting together into a single, sweat-soaked creature that is worthy of being called Us.
What kind of rider are you?
There's no wrong answer, as long as you're fair and inquisitive and kind.
If you happen to be the type who wants to be an athletic rider (or even if you're just athletic-curious), the upcoming series of posts on Building a Better Rider is for you. Over several weeks, we'll explore how endurance riding benefits from running, strength training, yoga, and nutrition. (In case you're wondering, it has almost nothing to do with weight loss.)
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Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog is about distance riding, training, and the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride.