While discussions of fitness in the eventing world so often center around the horse, rider fitness is just as important to the success of any horse-and-rider combination. Top eventing professionals including Allison Springer, Sinead Halpin, and Sharon White all stress the importance of choosing some sort of fitness activity that you enjoy so you’ll be more likely to stick with it. For hunter/jumper and equitation instructor Kathy Davidson, that activity is Nia.
Davidson began riding at the age of 10 and continued pursuing horses through high school and into college. She earned her associate degree in Equine Science from Cazenovia College in New York and then attended Virginia Intermont College (VI) in Bristol, Virginia, where she received her bachelor’s degree in Horsemanship and has been working as a rider, trainer, and barn manager ever since, even returning to VI as a member of the staff. She has stewarded at numerous Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) competitions, has her United States Hunter/Jumper Association (USHJA) Trainer Certification Program (TCP) certification, and is working on her “r” USEF judge's license. She also volunteered at the 2014 and 2015 USEA American Eventing Championships at the Texas Rose Horse Park in Tyler, Texas and has traveled to Florida as a groom.
“Fitness OFF the horse is important so that you are more fit ON the horse,” Davidson asserted, “but that form of fitness has to be one that works with your lifestyle and be one that you will do regularly. My choice for fitness as an equestrian has been Nia. As a lifelong equestrian, and particularly as an equitation-based riding instructor, I can honestly say that Nia has changed my life!”
Davidson first began attending Nia classes in 2010 as part of a new year’s resolution to be more active. “As a mom, I was busy doing things with my kids and I wasn’t at the barn doing what I call passive fitness – lifting hay bales, filling water buckets, walking back and forth in heavy sand footing – the cross-fitness part keeps you fit enough to ride well.” She joined a studio that offered Yoga, Pilates, dance classes, and Nia classes. After her first Nia class, she was hooked.
Nia (pronounced nee-ah) originally stood for “non-impact aerobics” when the practice was created in the early 1980s by Debbie and Carlos Rosas. As high-impact aerobics instructors, they couldn’t help but notice all the injuries their clients sustained. After their first encounter with Tai Chi, they were inspired to create Nia.
Nia incorporates fitness and conditioning practices from Martial Arts (Tai Chi, Tai Kwon Do, Aikido), Dance Arts (Modern, Jazz, Duncan Dance), and the Healing Arts (Yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique). Over the years, NIA came to stand for “neuro-integrated activity” because, as Davidson explained, “One of the biggest points of the practice is that it sparks the cross-body pattern coordination that keeps our brains sharp and working at optimal levels. It is all about anatomy, it’s about spinal alignment, it’s about the joints, it’s about tendons and ligaments and how they all work together – it’s really in-depth body-conscious stuff.”
One of the main factors that drew Davidson to Nia, who became a certified Nia instructor in 2015, was the rhythm practice incorporated by the dance arts in the program. “It’s all about the timing, the musicality, the rhythm, and that’s where the fitness connection came for me with riding,” she said. “You have to do it on the beat. In yoga you just do it however long you want to do it, but doing it to music, it was like, ‘Oh, this is like doing a posting trot,’ and that made so much more sense to me.”
In 2017, Davidson was in a bad riding accident and required surgery, sidelining her from physical activity for a time. It just so happened that Nia released a new line of classes called “Moving to Heal” much of which can be performed while seated. These classes allowed Davidson to continue to work on her strength and flexibility while recovering from her accident – all with exercises that were similar to being seated in a saddle. “Normally when you do any kind of fitness it’s all standing on your feet – and yes, your stirrups are a very important part of your base of support in riding – but so much of it is done from the saddle.”
Davidson took what she was learning in her Nia and Moving to Heal classes and translated it into her riding instruction and saw the difference it made for her students. “It incorporates a lot of the core straightness, but meanwhile you still have to be flexible in your pelvis and accessible in your joint movement, and it has to be rhythmic.” She even took it a step further, formulating an unmounted movement workshop called “All the Ride Moves” designed to help riders become more aware of their bodies.
“During the workshop, I take apart the movements of each gait so that awareness and conditioning happen at the same time,” Davidson detailed. “I use rhythmic music to duplicate the three gaits, and challenge form and fitness with different speeds of music as well. In this workshop, we tune in to proper breathing and focus on the importance of correct grounding, form, and core strength without also having to control a horse at the same time.”
“Just being super conscious of what I was doing with my body parts made me a better teacher. It makes you more aware when you get up there in the saddle and you notice, ‘Oh, I’m really pointing my toes in and pinching with my knees, no wonder I can’t get any depth in my heels.’ All the pieces just started coming together for me.”
“Nia does incorporate a deep spiritual element in its teachings,” Davidson said. “While the spiritual connection isn’t one that particularly enhances fitness, it is something entirely unique to equestrians. Riding horses is so much more than just a sport. The silent, invisible communication riders develop with their equine partners is worthy of deep appreciation. We don’t talk about this spiritual connection too much in the day to day workings of the horse industry, but it’s there!”
No matter what type of exercise you choose, Davidson encouraged riders to choose something that exercises the whole body. “I think that riding horses uses a very unique set of muscles and then we neglect a lot of the other muscles and we create weaknesses in our bodies that result in injuries elsewhere, so being sure to do an overall strengthening program for yourself benefits you so much in the saddle,” she stressed. “It limits your fatigue, you don’t get as tired, and you’re just stronger in general.”
“Very specifically, make sure you do a lot of squats,” Davidson added. “When you spend a lot of time in two-point or galloping position, or even just a half-seat cantering, your quads are working very hard. Doing a lot of squats – even mini squats, not even full squats – that’s probably the single most important fitness thing you can do for yourself off the horse to help you, especially if you want to improve your jumping riding.”
“It has really augmented my riding, my riding instruction and my fitness a tremendous amount,” Davidson concluded. “I don’t go to the gym and work out. I go to Nia and I have a lot of fun.”
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