Martial Arts and Equestrian Sports…They Have More in Common Than You Think

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Picking up an entirely new and different sport with the goal of equestrian fitness in mind may seem unreasonably daunting. After all there is a big difference between exercising or working out and participating in a sport. Exercising is done solely for the purpose of becoming a stronger and healthier individual. A good work out session is one that provides the maximum amount of cardio or strength improvement with the least amount of detrimental taxation on the body and joints. Sports involve a competitive aspect, and while many sports require exercise for one to become skilled in his or her respective sport, the main focus is on the techniques and attitudes that lead a competitor to become successful in his or her discipline. For example running is exercise, but, if you decide to become a sprinter or marathon runner, it becomes a sport. Being a marathon runner requires a much bigger knowledge base along with physical fitness. You have to know the ins and outs of preparing yourself for competition. Being physically fit just won’t cut.

After that long-winded explanation you may not be jumping out of your saddle to start a whole new sport just so that your legs aren’t ready to give out after your next gallop set, but hear me out.  I participate in MMA or Mixed Martial Arts. This is a sport, and it requires not just physical effort, but also time and training. So why is this a better option than mindlessly running, lifting, or putting yourself through those fifteen minute Pinterest work outs? I believe the mental stimulation received by doing something both physically and mentally tasking poses an incredible benefit to the equestrian competitor. In addition I believe martial arts in particular poses many mental benefits.

Honestly, whether you do eventing, show jumping, dressage, or any other equestrian sport, martial arts, at first glance, seems so far removed from equestrianism that it couldn’t possibly be helpful, but for me that is simply not the case. Physically, the many forms of martial arts involved in MMA like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Muay Thai, Judo, and others, provide both cardio and strength training rolled into one lesson. How convenient! There are workouts that provide both of these, so why should you take the time to learn a whole new discipline when you can just run through the Insanity DVDs? Well, I can honestly say that MMA has drastically improved my competition mindset. While I do not compete in MMA, I train multiple times a week. Every time I step into the gym, I’m nervous. I don’t like ‘fighting’ and I don’t really like physical contact with people I don’t know. It makes me uncomfortable. Often times I end up grappling with men that are much larger and stronger than me, with women and men that are much more skilled than me, and with people that could injure me in seconds if they wanted to. Now my fellow gym mates would never, ever hurt me. As soon as I tap out, they immediately stop what they are doing. That does not change the fact that the main objective of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to make training partners put themselves into positions that would either tear a joint, break a bone, or suffocate them they did not tap. This understandably makes me nervous even though I know whatever they are doing will stop as soon as I tap.

I realize I am not making this sport sound pleasant in any way, but hang in there! MMA, specifically BJJ, has taught me to remain calm and think under stressful situations. The entire point of BJJ is to be able to use skill and technique to beat a stronger, bigger opponent.  I have to call on skill to help me escape from a chokehold. I have to think through step-by-step, movement-by-movement to thwart an arm bar. I have to learn to react to my partner and think ahead of them. I must understand that certain movements I make will make my partner respond in different ways. I must think ahead and be prepared for them to react to what I do, and, to be good at MMA, I have to think two steps ahead of my opponent. If I do this, then they will do this. When they do that, then I will do this. Does this thought process sound familiar?

In equestrian competition, when I am nervous and stressed out, I must be able to break through that nervousness and think. You do not have to be big and strong to bully horses into doing what you want them to do. You have to use skill and technique. You have to learn to ride the horse you have that day in competition. There is no ‘well in my last jump school my horse wasn’t backing off of liverpools.’ Your horse is backing off of liverpools today. Are you going to ride more aggressively to liverpools so that you get over the jump? Or are you going to pull your horse all the way up to the fence and have no leg on because last week ‘he wasn’t backing off of liverpools’? With horses you must understand that your actions affect their actions. You have to be two steps ahead of your horse. ‘If I get a big jump into the tight five then I need to half halt the first three strides to make sure he doesn’t get into the out tight, but if I get a nice round jump from the base then I can just keep a supportive leg and sit pretty for the out’ type thinking. Simply put, MMA teaches you to react in a calm rational way when under stress.

I am not an expert in MMA. In fact I am very, very new to the sport. However, I can attest that it has helped me immensely in my competition mindset. Above everything else, I enjoy doing MMA, and it makes working out fun. Exercising is so much easier to do when you enjoy what you are doing. If you have a goal to become more fit for your equestrian discipline, then starting another sport to accomplish that task may just be worth it.

Diane Portwood

2015 NAJYRC CCI** champion. I'm currently competing at the advanced and 3* level of eventing, and am a huge proponent of rider fitness.

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