Emily Hamel and Tyler Held met when Hamel was working for Phillip Dutton and Held was working as a vet tech for Sports Medicine Associates of Chester County. They quickly realized they had much in common, including their passion for self-improvement through fitness, nutrition, and meditation.
Hamel is a four-star eventer dedicated to the practices of yoga and Pilates, while Held is a professional groom that practices CrossFit and Brazilian jiujitsu. While they have different methods of getting up and moving outside of the saddle, they agree that it is a crucial part of any rider’s training. “Riding is hard on the body because of the repetitive movements and concussion it has on your tendons, ligaments, nerves, and muscles,” Hamel said. “The biggest effects that I personally see are muscle tightness that decreases flexibility and back pain that can be caused by a lack of core strength. I know that these are common problems for riders and the best way to fix them is by exercising out of the saddle to target your muscles in a different way.”
“[Exercising outside of the saddle] boost motivation and confidence,” Held continued. “A lot of times it’s hard for us to see our own progress inside of the saddle because our horses come out feeling different every day, but if you have a cross-training program and you’re able to hold a plank for 10 seconds longer than you once were, lift five more pounds of weight, or stretch one more inch towards your toes, the progress is obvious. And having those obvious improvements helps instill the belief that progress is inevitable through hard work.”
For Hamel, her day always starts with some form of yoga or Pilates, followed by meditation. “I tailor this morning exercise based on how my body is feeling that day based on workload in the previous days and also knowing what is in store on the day,” she shared. “If I’ve been riding 8 or more horses a day for the past week and my body is feeling a bit tired I like to focus on a more gentle practice with lots of slow and steady stretches. If I know that I have a lighter day of riding I like to up my fitness game and do more movements that involve strength and stamina. No matter what, after I’m done moving my body, I like to sit for a few minutes to meditate and mentally prepare myself for the day ahead.”
“Yoga is absolutely wonderful and I would suggest it to anyone who wants to increase their flexibility and mind-body awareness,” Hamel continued. “It has been an integral part of my fitness plan for years, but this year I started Pilates and that has been a real game-changer for me. I’ve always considered myself a fit and active person but when I started taking Pilates classes I was shocked to find I maybe didn’t have as much strength and stamina as I thought . . . Being more aware of how I’m using certain muscles and activating the necessary ones to give me true stability in the saddle has without a doubt improved my effectiveness as a rider.”
Held, on the other hand, may not ride every day, but makes a point of doing some sort of extracurricular fitness six days of the week. “CrossFit and Brazilian jiujitsu are my go-tos because they provide me with the strength, agility, and adaptability I need as a groom, but on a particularly long day I try to focus more on mobility and stretching – the benefits of a good yin yoga session are undeniable.”
“I’m always drawing parallels between fitness and riding,” Held elaborated. “One of the biggest struggles I had throughout my riding and competition career was body awareness, and I think that’s something that a lot of riders struggle with. I enjoy CrossFit and jiujitsu because the way you move your body is going to affect your ability to move weight – be it a barbell or another human – but when you really think about it, if you become intentional about what you are doing any exercise done consciously can help you to control the way you move in the saddle. I’ve gotten to catch ride a few horses in my barn recently and have found that my ability to feel where my own body is on the horse has been enhanced by all I’m doing to figure out how to manipulate my body outside of the saddle.”
Both Hamel and Held explained the importance of good nutrition alongside a fitness program, because as Hamel said, “You are what you eat! [It’s cliché but] what you put in your body matters and affects your ability to function throughout the day. There are a million ideas out there on what is the best diet and it can be confusing. No matter the specifics, I think it’s hard to deny that at a basic level eating whole foods consisting mainly of plants is the way to go. Being mindful of our nutrition is the first step in making healthy decisions regarding our food choices.”
“Physical exercise absolutely needs to be fueled properly – whole foods and plants are a must,” agreed Held, “but so is listening to your body. Learning to distinguish boredom from hunger and also what nutrients you need to allow you to thrive with energy throughout the day.”
Equally important as a good fitness routine is to Hamel and Held is the practice of mindfulness. “I meditate daily even if I only have a few minutes because creating a mindfulness practice has been incredibly beneficial to my life in and out of the barn,” said Hamel. “Taking the time to sit in silence and just be there in that time and space without judgment has helped me to understand what’s going on around me without feeling like I have to engage. This is very useful at shows when there are lots of distractions and you need to be truly present and in the moment with your horse.”
Held, who has her masters in sports psychology, wrote her thesis on Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE), a system that uses mindfulness training to encourage athletes to experience peak performance states. “Exercise is just as important for your mind as it is your body. When you can be mindful of physical activity outside of the saddle you’re training yourself to be mindful inside the saddle. Negative thoughts and over-analyzing what you are doing can prevent you from executing tasks properly. That’s why mindfulness – moment to moment non-judgmental awareness – can have such positive effects!”
Their advice on how best to add some additional cross-training to your routine? “Find something that challenges your problem areas that you also enjoy” and “Make it fun!”
“I’m not saying that working out should always be fun because there are days that it will be hard work to achieve your fitness goals or you just don’t feel like doing it,” Hamel clarified. “However, you are much more likely to stick with a routine if you like it at some level. Maybe this means you need to find a workout buddy to keep you accountable or you need to find an instructor that really resonates with you or whatever it is you need to find something that will keep you inspired to stay on track.”
“Don’t make cross-training a chore,” Held reiterated. “If you are stressed out about cross-training the negative effects of stress are going to undo any positive benefit you might get from exercise. And remember that there is no one size fits all plan. There are some things that require a bit of ‘embracing the suck’ for sure, but be realistic about where you’re starting from and try not to compare yourself too much to others.”
Hamel and Held release a new podcast every month, covering the topics of fitness, nutrition, mindfulness, and community. Check out their website or download episodes from your favorite podcast app.
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