Fitness With a Barn Twist: Marcella & Nessi

Riding and regular barn chores, unfortunately, aren’t actually enough to make us fitter if they’re the same thing we do every day: Marcella Gruchalak builds a fitness regimen that any rider can do at the barn!

For 673 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover has begun! Over the training period, three of those trainers will blog their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Horse Nation readers. Marcella Gruchalak faces a tough truth in this week’s blog: she needs to get fitter.

Photo by Marcella Gruchalak

How many times have you heard the phrases “USE MORE LEG;” “SHOULDERS BACK;” “HEELS DOWN;” “TUCK  YOUR BUTT IN;” “WE’RE NOT TRAIL RIDING;” “I SAID MORE LEG!”?

These frequently-used phrases are enough to make my trainer leave the arena with a hoarse throat and a headache. No matter how many days a week I ride or how long my rides are, I continue to feel like I’m using all the leg I have to offer and I’m using all the muscle I have to tuck in my butt and keep my shoulders back.

After each lesson I tend to get discouraged with myself and how far behind Nessi and I are. Both of my previous Makeover horses were entering shows at this point in the timeline, but I realize that Nessi’s health is the most important investment and if she’s feeling good, the outcome will be a better one.

I strive to put Nessi’s health first, which often means I end up putting my health on the back burner. Over the past several months, Nessi has had a lot of down time. Presently, Nessi is lame with an abscess which results in her being pampered with hoof soaking and painted on hoof products. This keeps me down in the barn for longer periods, giving me plenty of time to dwell on my less than stellar riding posture and cues.

Ruminating over my lessons and sessions, I realized that everything I was doing for Nessi, I also needed to be doing for myself. That’s when it popped into my head… the F word.

Fitness. I’m out of breath just thinking about it! Riding Nessi nine to eleven miles to prepare for endurance and competitive trail rides is enough, right? Unfortunately, it is not. All day, every day all I thing about is Drumstick ice cream cones, macaroni and cheese, and Sheetz meatball hoagies. How was I ever supposed to get into a routine that didn’t leave me needing an emergency room trip?

After watching and participating in countless Beachbody and YouTube videos, I was finally able to make a routine with variations I could perform while in the barn. While the horses are eating and Nessi is soaking her hoof, there are three exercises I perform almost every evening in the barn.

The first exercise I like to do is what I call hay bale burpees. Burpees are one of my favorite exercises because they work several muscle groups. When doing a burpee, I start in the standing position, then go to the squat position. Once in the squat position, I place my hands on the ground, kick my feet back into a plank, do a push-up, and jump back up. I added the hay to give me more of a work out so I start the burpee by jumping up onto the hay bales. I have attached a video below.

The next exercise I like to do is saddle presses. This is where I lay on a bale of hay and bench press my saddle. A bench press is an exercise where the individual lays on a bench with her feet on the floor and raises weight with both arms. When doing this, I use my saddle as the weight. I make sure to secure my stirrups to that saddle. If I don’t, they will hit me in the face. I speak from experience.

Lastly I like to do water bucket curls. This is a barn variation of a bicep curl. A bicep curl is an exercise in which you curl weight from a position where your arms are at your side to a position where your elbows are bent and arms are facing upwards. To do this exercise at the barn, I fill two water buckets half way and curl them. I started off with extremely minimal water and worked my way up to half way full.

By doing these three exercises, I have noticed a major difference in my physical riding abilities. Just over the past several months I have become a more balanced rider with improved flexibility, endurance, and strength. Prior to starting these exercises, I had a difficult time with simple riding tasks such as mounting Nessi. I did not have the strength to pull myself up into the saddle and I felt like I pulled muscles every time I swung my leg over my saddle. With continued hard work and effort into my 15 minute workout routine, horse-related tasks that were once difficult quickly started to become easier.

Not only have I noticed changes in my physical riding abilities, but also in my mental abilities. Exercising allows me to clear my mind and concentrate on the task. This is usually a difficult task for me. I have so many different thoughts going through my head at once. “What’s for dinner” is usually the most important, followed by horse care and the occupational stress I keep telling myself not to bring home. Being able to clear my mind and put it into my current task is a huge improvement for me and it’s showing in my riding. Clearing my head allows me to focus more on Nessi and what I’m trying to teach her.

I’m not the only one improving from my homemade fitness routine. Nessi is improving remarkably as well.  She is becoming a more responsive horse. Her seat and leg cues are becoming more subtle and we are communicating with minimal body movement. Better utilization of my body is allowing Nessi to better utilize her body giving her the opportunity to move more correctly.

While I am so happy that I have lost fat and gained muscle and Nessi is becoming more light and responsive because of it, it DID NOT help me during my lessons. For some reason while Nessi and I are obtaining instruction I still hear, “USE MORE LEG,” “TUCK YOUR BUTT IN,” and, “HEELS DOWN” just as much. I REALLY thought becoming fit would eliminate those phrases but I guess no matter how in shape I get, it will NEVER be enough leg!

Photo by Marcella Gruchalak

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