Pulling No Punches: Caitlin Rantala Uses Krav Maga To Boost Confidence in the Saddle

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Caitlin Rantala is a writer and rider living in Nashville, Tennessee. She has been riding since she was 11 and is self-trained in hunting, jumping, and dressage. Today, she works with The Horse Rescue, a non-profit thoroughbred rescue that rehabilitates and retrains off-the-track horses for new careers.

1. What is Krav Maga and how did you get involved in it?

Krav Maga is an Israeli military form of self-defense. I’ve also had it described to me as “boxing but with no rules”. Additionally, I take kickboxing and train a little in Muy Thai, which is still combative like Krav, but it was developed in Thailand, teaches a different technique, and has less emphasis on self-defense.

2. How long have you been training?

I learned how to box when I was twenty-one, during one of my college summers. I really wanted to know how to throw a real punch (full disclosure: I was mad at a boy and needed a constructive outlet, ha). So I convinced a former boxing trainer to take me on as a client. He was a trainer at a community gym, but I heard he used to own a boxing gym in Maryland. I followed him around begging him to teach me how to box. He finally agreed, but warned me that his sessions weren’t going to believe me. I figured if I can handle 1000 lb horses, I could handle throwing some punches. Turned out, as someone who had never even done a push-up before, after the first session I laid on my living room floor for about an entire day unable to move. It was the most physically challenging thing that I’d ever done. I’m stubborn though, so I dragged myself back the next day and just fell in love with the training.

But there weren’t any boxing gyms near my school, so I put it on the back burner for a little bit when I went back to college. A few years later in 2013, I went to a Krav Maga gym open in near my home in Nashville, and that was even more fun than boxing for me! In boxing, you have very specific rules – in Krav the only rule is to get away from your attacker alive. So I was taught how to throw groin kicks, sucker punches, choke people out, etc. I trained there for a little over two years before switching over to kickboxing and Muy Thai, which from my viewpoint is more about technique and less about self-defense.

3. Do you feel that Krav Maga has helped you, physically, in your horseback riding? How so?

Absolutely. Combative sports like these activated muscles I wasn’t even aware that I had. Additionally, they really strengthened my legs and core (I suddenly had abs!), which strengthened my riding form overall. These sports also taught me how important aftercare is for your body – stretching out your muscles, yoga, using on foam rollers, etc. You only have one body – push yourself when you need to, but all rest and relax when your body tells you to.

4. Has Krav Maga helped you become a better rider mentally?

Krav specifically puts you in situations that are meant to induce panic – someone walking up behind you and choking you, someone much larger trying to carry you off or take you down to the ground, etc. And you have to teach your brain how to not panic. You remind yourself that you know how to defend this, you are capable of getting away, but only if you breathe and work through it. I apply that same principle when I ride. Maybe a horse has come unglued and is spooking, bucking, taking off. I take a deep breath because I know that I can get the situation back under control, but only if I don’t lose my cool too. I meet a chaotic situation with a thoughtful, controlled response, and the outcome is always more successful.

Also, in Krav or Muy Thai, I can’t just muscle through something. I’m a very petite person and I train with a lot of people who are physically bigger than me. If I’m paired with someone who weighs 70+ more pounds than I do, I’m not going to be able to out-muscle him. But I still can defend myself — I simply have to use my body correctly. I have to use proper technique. When I do that I create the power necessary to make it more of a fair fight.

Same thing with horses, you’re never going to outmuscle a horse. You’re just not. But if you work with your horse, practice good technique and good form, you can accomplish incredible things. I find this to be especially true on the ground. I’ve watched people try to manhandle their horses onto trailers or things like that – and there’s always a better way. Trying to force an extra large animal to do something is never the right way to approach anything, and it’s rarely a successful way.


5. Do you have other aspects of your fitness routine that you feel has made you a stronger rider, mentally and physically?

Krav, Muy Thai, and boxing put me really far outside my comfort zone all the time. I’m a pretty quiet, laid back person and I’m not naturally aggressive or confrontational. I can’t tell you how many times a trainer has asked me to do something and I’ve looked at them and said, “That makes me nervous.” The answer is always the same, “Do it anyway.” And even if it looks awkward or weird or feels off, I still do it; and the more I execute the drill, the better I get. So when I’m riding and feel out of my comfort zone, I remind myself do it anyway – even if it makes me look silly or I screw up, you gotta start somewhere. I’ve learned to be confident but be humble, while extending the same grace to myself that I give to others.

Physically, Krav and boxing push me outside my comfort zone as well. I’ve defended chokes or been paired with male training partners who listened when I said, “Don’t take it easy on me because I’m a girl, you’re not going to break me” and I went home with bruised legs and arms (although they did too). I’ve been told to keep going when I felt like I was going to throw up. And guess what, I lived! Not only did that make my confidence soar, but it also made me physically stronger. So the next time I did the same drills, they didn’t seem as difficult. Now, when I’m asked to work with a horse that’s going to challenge my riding skills and maybe even frustrate me, I say yes. Because I know it’s going to make me a stronger and better rider in the end.

If you’re not willing to push yourself, you’re never going to get to the next level or expand your knowledge.

That said, the last lesson martial arts have taught me is to listen to your body. There’s a difference between pushing yourself and ignoring your body’s warning signs. If I’m drilling something and my body starts hurting, telling me to take a break or rest, that’s what I need to do. You’ve got to do that with horses as well, except you have to listen to both your body and your horses’s. We’ve all experienced a horse who doesn’t want to do something because he’s being stubborn versus a horse that physically can’t do something at the moment. Knowing when to take a break is not a weakness, it’s a strength, and it’s going to help you in the long run.

Nicole is a writer for Heels Down Media. If she's not writing or editing, she's either running, doing yoga, or at the barn working on becoming a better, stronger dressage rider.

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