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Endurance riding and overcoming challenges with Georgina Bull | Podcast #3

Podcast show notes episode #3

In today’s episode we meet Osteopath and Endurance rider Georgina Bull. Georgina has groomed as crew in the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, and as an Osteopath has worked with the Elite Endurance Team In 2012 and 2013 supporting and treating riders throughout their training and competition. 

Georgina talks to us about Endurance, but also her own struggles over the years mentally with confidence issues as well as physically with chronic fatigue and physical pain.

Georgina tells us how ‘Endurance is a wonderful test between you and your horse, and how you can work as a team, together competing against the elements and the different things the countryside can throw at you.’

 

When Georgina was just 15, she suffered a nasty riding accident and broke and dislocated her shoulder.  Whilst all strapped up with pins in it, unable to ride herself, a lady where she was stabled at the time invited her to go crewing with her on an endurance ride. 

The lady was competing at low levels at the time with aims to progress, so Georgina accepted and went out for the day. The lady had a really successful day with her and it all progressed from there. Still 21 years later Georgina is still enjoying Endurance. 

After her accident Georgia lost a lot of confidence and it really has been a battle for her over the years to build her confidence back. It was so bad, that at one point Georgina had to have somebody lead her on the lead rope next to her as she rode,  let alone thinking about trot or canter.  However, she has preserved and build her confidence. 

“It's OK, not to be OK” says Georgina, “it's OK to think... it's too windy, I don't want to ride today. It's fine.”

 

We discussed the need to be kind to yourself, and allow yourself to feel those feelings and to accept that it is OK if you are feeling that way about your riding. When you are lacking confidence and you want to make that decision whether you ride or you don't ride, it is okay. But at the same time, it's about getting back in the saddle and working to build up confidence at a pace that is right for you.

For Georgina with Endurance, although still a challenge, it's less competitive and there's less focus on you versus being in the arena. The competition is against you and improving your results, rather than competing against the next person in the arena. If someone is lacking in confidence generally, not just with riding issues it is a great way to compete without being the focus in the arena.

Georgina continued to tell us about her crewing experiences. The lady that she was crewing with was working her way up the levels to a point that she was talent spotted. She had always wanted to be on Team GB and Georgina continued to accompany her. She successfully worked her way through the intermediate team and then to the seniors, culminating in WEG at Aachen in 2006. 

“It was significantly hard work crewing at Aachen, all of the crew were put up in a basketball hall in bunk beds and when one person's alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. everyone got up!’ she recalls, “very unglamourous!”. Georgina tells us how amazing it was trotting up in front of world class vets and how wonderful it was that they commented that the team had some of the best turned out horses at the event, where there were 168 horses running.

The team at WEG comprised of two crews, one out on the road - on the course meeting the horse at certain points on the route, and with another crew based in the vet gate in the arena. Primarily because there were so many vehicles for the whole route they couldn't get backwards and forwards in time. Georgina ended up in the vet gate because it was her job to trot the horse up for the vet and to prepare the horse for the vet. So she stayed at the vet gate, a really important job,  but she was sad that she didn't get to see any of the course itself. 

Georgina told us what happens when the horse comes into the ‘vet gate’. She explained how the ride time keeps on going and doesn't stop until the horse is presented to the vet. The rider gets off the horse, the job of the crew is to then cool the horse down, because you want its heart rate to come down to 64 beats or below. It is at that point when you present your horse to the vet that the ride time for that loop will stop. 

You have to do all of this as calmly and quickly as possible, as the clock is still ticking whilst you cool the horse down, until you are able to present to the vet. Once the horse has passed the vet check you will then go to a hold gate, where your horse re-feeds, you strip the tack down and check the dirt off, put on fresh numnahs on, tack up and send them off on the next loop.  

In a 160km competition there would be six loops, of no longer than 25 miles which get shorter on each loop. Depending on the locations and terrain of the ride, riding without the hold times, the horse and rider will spend 9 hours riding, plus 40-50 minutes in the hold gates to rest. It is an extremely long day and challenging test. 

 Endurance rides offer inviting routes (photo courtesy: Lorna Lee) 

However, if you are starting out in Endurance, introductory riders can join in with pleasure rides, which can be 16km (10 miles) to 32km (20 miles) plus. Riding at a speed of about 8-10km/h could take around 3 hours, which is no more challenging than a nice hack at the weekend. Not scary at all, most of the ride is at trot or canter and the routes allow for people to have a good canter up the side of fields and is really inviting. 

To progress into the Graded Endurance rides, still competing against yourself - 8-12km/h to take 3-3 and half hours for a 32km. 

Equipment wise, you don’t need anything special, no special tack is needed to get started. As long as your saddle is fitting and its comfortable for you, it doesn’t matter - from western to side-saddle it's your choice. The webbing bridles you see frequently worn are popular in Endurance, but you can still use a leather bridle. “It’s purely from a lazy point of view that leather doesn’t need cleaning at the end of the day, you can dunk the webbing in a bucket of water at the end of the day” says Georgina who owns a blue and purple bridle and is well-known for this in her local area. When riding in longer races the webbing bridles are also very convenient to be taken on and off and can be made into a headcollar with bit removed and refitted with ease. 

 

Endurance Riding - photo courtesy of Helen Bates

Preparation and training

To train for Endurance events, Georgina starts with six weeks of walk work, starting training in December. Like any discipline increasing time, distance and speed gently as you progress. If your horse is fit enough to be ridden 4-5 days a week for up to an hour to two hours, there is no reason why your horse can’t do an Endurance ride. 

Combine fast and slow work in your training programme, as well as schooling, as schooling will help your horse to carry himself better, and carry you over the distance.

How Georgina got her confidence 

 Her confidence was so bad, even when she was crewing she would desperately want to ride but couldn’t. Her old horse was an ex-racer who was not cut out for endurance riding out and would get stressed leaving the yard and would be terrified riding out. She then got a heavy type horse who although enjoys being out, wouldn’t travel from her past experiences. Georgina then found an Arab (although says that you don’t have to have an Arab to do Endurance - any horse can do it!) who is an ex-Advanced Endurance horse who has convinced Georgina it's okay to ride out on her own and to ‘let go’. She has now been able find her confidence through this horse who has taught her that she can do it.  She went on a ride last year and ‘it was the most amazing thing’ and knowing she ‘can let him go and it will be okay’. 

Having nerves and not being brave enough has stopped her riding over the years. 

Dealing with the “what ifs’” has been a big part of that. Many riders have varied levels of “what if’s” in their riding. Some it may be..

 “What if i get in the saddle…”

or “what if I go into canter and can’t stop…”

It’s a huge issue for many riders, but for those who struggle, there is a definite need to turn the negatives into positives.  Georgina shared the quote which really changed that way she looked at things.. “so instead of thinking ‘what if i fail… think what if I fly?”  What would that feel like?

Georgina’s friends pushed her to make a start and get going, and after many years she made it to ride in her own competitive Endurance ride. 

 The benefits of walk work when fittening and training is important for the horse physically as well as for the rider who has confidence issues as you can spend times getting fitter and getting to know your horse, building trust and bonding as you work together. 

Endurance has its official group, Endurance GB, affiliated with British Equestrian Federation, and run rides all over the country, as well as a Scottish group too. There are also subsidiary groups, Sport Endurance based in the Midlands and going toward the north. 

Endurance is really friendly and everyone wants to see you succeed. Everyone just wants to see you achieve and achieve your goal. Everybody wants to help and we are all out for the common goal and people really understand that, and it's so friendly. 

The best thing about Endurance for Georgina is how she's made so many friends. She has also found that learning how to keep a horse fit, how to look after them and what being with your horse means to you mentally, “It's not just about going out and winning a rosette I get so much from horse care. I want them to be as happy as possible to help me continue riding them.”  she explains. 

For Georgina, the hardest thing about Endurance is the aches and pains,  “It can be mind over matter, when you're riding on your own and you've got no one to boost you a long, you can feel like you're miles away from anybody. So finding that motivation to keep going to keep driving through is important”.  She explains how it teaches us more about ourselves and our hidden depths. Getting through such an event increases your confidence and self-esteem through these achievements. 

Is not necessarily what you feel on the day but when you're six months on and you look back and you get that little boost from it and it says you want a little bit more 

Georgina as an Osteopath 

Georgina trained as an osteopath all the way through crewing and she did her final exams the week after she came back from Aachen she took all her books with her and was studying at the same time.

Osteopathy is just the most wonderful tool for horses and riders

It is all about restoring the balance of movement and restoring good function to the body to help the rider be as balanced as possible To help the horse use their body for the best, to move forward”

If we're sitting slightly more to one side on a bicycle we know that bicycle is going to fall over but with horses we're amazingly lucky, as riders, that are horses will move their body to accommodate and they don't fall over. So we owe it to our horses to be a square and centred as possible and is still as possible not to nag them so that they can use their body to the best of their abilities.

“It was watching Endurance riders... whilst I was crewing and looking at their positions and how their positions were affecting the horses that got me interested in the topic. So I have Endurance to thank for that as well!’ Georgina explains.

Georgina trained as a human Osteopath, before post graduate qualifications to treat horses. She tells how it is as equally important for humans to be treated as it is our horses. We often spend so much time and money on having our horses looked after, that we often forget how important it is to look after ourselves as we too affect our horses way of going. 

Talking about biomechanics, she explains that when it's broken down, biomechanics looks at how joints are working and how the body is working in relation to itself and how we can improve how that body is working.  So it may be that we have a really stiff hip on one side and it rotates in a particular direction that affects how we sit in the saddle which will then transfer through to the horse. Biomechanics looks at that for you as a human, and then the effects of that on how your horse is working. 

Georgina works unmounted with riders in terms of exercises to get them stretching and exercises for muscles. She will then reassess again, and look at what's changed - how the body is working better and then progress that forward as they take the pressure off of the horse by becoming more balanced the horse doesn’t have to work as hard. The she will look at rehabilitating the horse, and together  it makes a really big difference. 

Georgina explains that “If you sit centrally, and you sit square and quietly in the saddle, it means that your horse can take a 5 cm longer stride, which for Endurance riders adds up over a 120 km ride and you can shave 45 minutes off of your ride time, just by sitting well in your saddle can make a massive difference and there is now a lot of research which has backed that up, it's huge.”

 

Equally, for dressage riders, if you look at your score sheet and you can see that you get consistently lower marks on one particular movement. That pattern can show through several different tests, and that is an indication as an osteopath that there is something going on for you as a rider and if we work on that biomechanically with your body and strengthen your body you should see that those marks will improve so it might be that your horse can have passed a bit better it might be if your eventing your horse can jump up to the next level from say intro to intermediate. It's brilliant.

The most common issues that Georgina will see is with tipping forward and also with stirrup length. These are two problems seen in a lot of riders, and many people have stirrups that are far too long. “They don't think that they are in walk, but as soon as they start trotting and cantering, that's when it becomes a bit more of an issue, in that people will start to stand up on their tiptoes and they're reaching down for the stirrups and to balance themselves then start to tip forward onto the horse's forehand and drive that horses forehand down to the floor, and the horse that has to try and hold himself up even more and that puts pressure on those muscles and limits his performance.”

Although each rider is an individual Georgina gave us one exercise that is really beneficial to all riders

Sit on a gym ball nice and square with your feet on the floor and draw a big circle with your hips.  Clockwise and then anticlockwise. Try to keep both directions equal, but on one of those directions you may find there is a corner that you cut off, that the circle goes a bit more pear-shaped and that's an indicator that your little bit stiffer in that range of motion. So it's a visualisation exercise that when you sit on that ball you really exaggerate drawing into the quarter of that circle, where you may be flatten off. Move nice and slowly, and in control drawing that circle, until you get it even, and it takes a bit of practice to do this. Georgina says it took about 6 months practice for her to get those circles really equal. 

This movement also helps us feed back into our brain when we are riding. We have something called proprioception, which is the perception of where our body is in space and our brain thinking about what our body is doing without us watching it. So it's constantly feeding back when we are in the saddle - what our pelvis is doing, and we can get a little more core stability from it doing this, to control our pelvis when we are in the saddle. 

Now Georgina has got over her confidence issues and has gone out and competing in rides and told her “what ifs” that she can do it, and it will be fine! She would really like to move up to Open level in Endurance riding which is rides between 50km and 80km in a day. A lot of riders want to go a lot higher than that to Advanced levels but Georgina suffers from chronic fatigue, so some days she just has to say “I can't ride today, for my own benefit”  she explains that “sometimes I fatigue really quickly, l I can feel great when I'm on the floor. get on my horse, get a mile down the road and have to turn around and come home. I can get quite bad pain as well so the use of painkillers is key.”

“I'm finding out about adaptations as well, adaptations to my saddle and to my reins are things making quite a big difference. Things which we always thought were for really disabled riders. But disability comes in all shapes and forms so it's more readily available and more accepted now” 

Georgina uses the standard endurance stirrups  “I've got a pair that have cages on, so that I can wear trainers as sometimes I find the hard soles of riding boots really uncomfortable and I can ride with a pair of trainers on instead, so I know that my feet can’t slip through my stirrups. I also have really wide web, like western fenders, instead of stirrup leathers on an English saddle, that takes the pressure off and doesn't give me pressure points down my shins. I've got strategic blocks on my saddle I use I'm not a huge fan of deep seats and big blocks on saddles I think a hinder people's body too much but sometimes there is a call for them there is a time and place so I've got reasonable sized blocks on my saddle so I can change depending on whether I need more control or less control again it depends on 40 levels if I'm having a relatively bad day I put bigger blocks on to keep my legs in place and sometimes I use loop reins most of the times I use normal range but occasionally I use loop reins

 that awareness is getting more and more saddlers are willing to do best book it alterations and a lot more saddle companies are willing to do they spoke alterations from brand new to that work with you as riders and in terms of Endurance, they announced Foundation series rides which are like normal graded rides at a slightly lower distance so if you feel that you can't do 20 miles you can do a lower distance which it opens it up to all levels and standards to join in 

To get started, Endurance GB have a really good website with lots of information on the website, including brochures about how to start, what your day looks like, what equipment you might need. Georgina recommends if you're going to buy anything for Endurance the essentials are a map case and a water bottle that mounts onto your saddle. “It's surprising how much water you will go through!” she says.

It's inclusive for everyone and really good regional groups for Endurance GB which do a lot of different training days mounted and unmounted, they will always buddy you up with someone if you want to do a ride in that particular region and you don't know where to start they'll give you a buddy with some experience to help you. 

Georgina has fought through her issues in confidence, as well as physical pain with challenges both mentally and physically, and is so inspirational and she reminds us that success as a rider  “Is achievable. I never thought it would, but don't force yourself don't put a time length on it - you have to do in the next amount of months, it doesn't take months, it takes years.” 

Visit Georgina's Osteopathy website Nene Valley Osteopathy to learn more.

 

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