Serious riders, particularly those of us riding either older horses or horses we hope to get to a Big Level and then enjoy at that level for many years, spend a lot of time thinking about the fine balance between working our horses hard enough to achieve fitness and strength to minimize the risk of injury and not working them so hard that they get hurt along the way. And all of us, at every level, should spend some time thinking about keeping our horses’ minds fresh so they enjoy the work and can approach it with focus and energy without fizzling out.
But as a professional rider, I stink at those two balancing acts for myself. I, and so many of my professional rider friends, will push through the pain of injury because we have to keep going, or are too stubborn/poor/busy to address problems when they’re small. I know I should be doing things like yoga and stretching to keep my back limber, but that would require slowing my mind for five minutes, which is something I have such a terribly hard time doing. And along those lines, the constant fear of any self-employed person is where the next paycheck is going to come from, so I hustle to the point of exhaustion and am maybe operating at par when it comes to taking time to do fun things and have a life outside of the barn, but I’m certainly not exceeding the norm.
I spent my 20s working myself to the bone, ignoring aches and pains, and having a crappy work-life balance. It took a combination of things—the incredible personal and professional disasters of 2017 and 2018, and this recent back scare—to get me thinking about taking care of myself, both in mind and body. To say that I’m the poster girl for self-care would be a grand overstatement, as I still think that a) resting, and b) feeling my feelings, are both stupid, and I don’t have time for that nonsense. But I’m getting at least a little bit better at it. Here are a few of the things in my tool kit.
I learned long ago that the only way to get myself to commit to a life change was to make it a group activity, and a competitive one. I’ve done great on various weight-loss programs over the years as long as there was a group element, i.e. someone to beat. I love going to my Monday morning gym class back at home because I love the people … and also because I’m bigger and stronger than almost all of them, and I’m a jerk like that.
A few years ago I was introduced to an amazing yoga instructor, and her incredible classes were fun and realistic with no healing crystal mumbo jumbo, just real physical activity, and a class full of people who were in way better shape than me … so I needed to catch up and then (in my weird little head) overtake and destroy them. I never did overtake/destroy, but between my love for Sylvia and my competitive desire to catch up to my classmates, it was so easy and fun to go to class.
Then Sylvia moved away, and I tried a few different classes, and none stuck. My last yoga class was two years ago, and if you saw me reach for my toes, you’d have no trouble believing that.
It’s tough trying to be both strong and flexible. But this recent scare with my back has put a little religion back into me, so I’m actually staying SELF MOTIVATED to do some yoga at home ALONE (I know, right?!). I have a few poses I can do at home, and I also do this great class at my gym that’s by Les Mills, which does a lot of super intense fitness classes, so it’s a bit more workout than just stretching. I’m no angel, and I’m hoping that publishing this blog will make me a little more accountable to get my ass to class, so there you go.
I heard a great interview a few years ago with a broadcast journalist who had a panic attack while delivering the news live on television. He started meditating after that, and it changed his life, and blah blah blah, woo woo, healing crystals, poke my third eye out … except that isn’t the whole story. What I found so delightful about listening to this guy were his tales of how much he SUCKED at it in the beginning. In my experience, up until I heard this interview, the only meditators I knew were really zen, chill people who I didn’t consider to be all that competitive or ruthless or, well, pardon me, serious.
This guy was serious, and I mentioned this guy to a dear friend, who told me about a phone app called Insight Timer. It’s cheap, and it gives you access to a gajillion guided meditations. And one of the many gurus on the app is a guy named David Gandelman, and he is hilarious. I started listening to his meditations, mostly before bed to help me sleep, but occasionally during the day when I was feeling stressed or anxious. They were short and funny. And when I needed something new, I listened to other short and funny gurus. And slowly but surely I could stomach longer and less funny gurus.
I now listen to a guided meditation almost every night and every time I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, something that happens often. I sleep better, and fall asleep faster. And while I’m hardly great at it, I’m even doing better about listening to them in the middle of the day when I’m really in a bad headspace. I end up either riding dressage tests or working on my grocery list in my head about 50 percent of the time, but that’s a marked improvement, and I’ll take a marked improvement.
3. CBD Oil.
I have many feelings on the subject of the criminality of marijuana, but this is not the place for them. What I can tell you is that, after really struggling with Fender and Danny’s deaths last year, and needing some help, a friend suggested I try taking a few drops—yes, drops—of CBD, a tincture made from the marijuana plant but containing no THC. It’s not terribly well studied, but my friend—and many others—said it helped him with stress and anxiety, just a bit, without making him feel groggy or drunk.
I gave it a whirl, and sure enough, a few drops were enough to just lift the bottom of my brain and my heart just a bit. It made the world seem just a little less scary and dark.
Caveat emptor: It’s a supplement, and as such you need to make sure before you try it, that you do your homework on quality and purity because it’s an unregulated industry. And I am not a doctor, so if you have concerns, you should talk to one before trying it. AAAAAND because this is the internet, I’m sure someone will chime in about how the research on CBD hasn’t been overwhelmingly convincing, blah blah blah. Maybe it’s real, and maybe it’s a placebo. I don’t care, because I take it on the days where I think I’m going to be at my wit’s end, and I take it when I can’t sleep, and it helps me out in both circumstances.
4. InForm Fitness.
A kid I used to teach a million years ago is now an adult—something I do not approve of—and she was telling me about the fitness studio with whom she works. She said it was a 20 minute a WEEK strength training protocol, and I should give it a try. Psh, 20 minutes a week? I hit the gym for a few hours a week! I did triathlons! I sit Puck’s trot! What can 20 minutes possibly offer to me?
But I was offered a trial session, so I went. And Laura kicked my ASS. Not in the kind of way that left me crippled and useless, but in the kind of way that left my muscles cheerfully shaking on the day, and feeling incredible two days later. The protocol comes from an osteoporosis program, so it’s slow and adjustable to all levels of fitness and strength. The gym isn’t full of ripped people sweating and showing off their big guns, and there isn’t crazy music or ridiculous posters of people with 8 percent body fat and chiseled abs like Adonis. In a super-cool twist, the studio has just added a mobile gym, a bus full of fitness equipment that now comes to my farm once a week to see my clients, who range from teenagers to knocking on the door of 70, beginners to Grand Prix. (So if you’re in my neighborhood in Virginia and want a great workout on Thursdays, shoot me an email. I’m sponsored by Inform now, and I’m partners with them because it works!)
Combine and heal with these two awesome products from my sponsors Uckele and Multi-Radiance, respectively. You’re welcome.
In this job, this crazy life I’ve picked for myself, I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of doing anything else, but I also see people in my line of work who get consumed by it. I’ve always tried to have other things in my life— triathlons, running, volunteering my time to various things—but I’d noticed that I’d stepped back a bit after my back and my feet told me no more running, and my volunteer causes became time prohibitive. I haven’t been hiking in my beautiful Shenandoah National Park yet this year. I can’t even take my dog Nike to the dog park because he’s recovering from injury and can’t play.
But I’m finding new things. My latest obsession is with gardening. I am nearing the end of my spring veggie garden, as lettuce, spinach, strawberries and cilantro don’t love the Virginia summer heat. But I put in my summer garden comprised of baby tomatoes, a beautiful purple bell pepper variety, jalapeños, basil (pesto, anyone?) and rosemary (make into an infused simple syrup and add bourbon and lemonade. You’re welcome.), so we should have stuffed peppers and cocktails any day now at the Sprieser residence. Come on by.
They’re little things, but they’re providing perspective and fitness. I hope they give me 30 more years of soundness!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF Gold, Silver & Bronze Medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, her own Gretzky RV, her and Beverley Thomas’s Ellington, and a yet-to-be-named 2019 Dutch Warmblood filly with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook.