Saturday, April 14, 2012

What horses teach us about running

Long before I was a runner, I was a rider.  Horses have always been a part of my life, and I’ve spent many years riding and training them, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how much they could teach me about running.

Today I volunteered at a trail clean up day located at the West Hill Dam.  Since this land is right behind my house and I’m on these trails literally every day of my life, it’s pretty important to me that they stay in good shape.  The work day is organized by my riding club, but for the last two years I’ve solicited volunteers from my running club as well.  Every year the Tri-Valley Front Runners hosts a summer trail race series at the West Hill Dam, so they too have a vested interest in keeping the trails in ship shape. 
Knowing I had a very busy afternoon ahead of me, and feeling a bit guilty about my lack of miles this week, I headed out the door early for a run before the trail work.  What I thought was going to be a quick 3 miler turned into 5 when I added on a couple new roads, and by the time I got home I had literally 5 minutes to clean myself up, pack a bag, and head to the dam.  When I got there, it was easy to see who came from what club.  Without fail, every single horseback rider was wearing an old pair of Ariat boots, and equally without fail, each and every runner was wearing a beat up pair of old running shoes.  As a hybrid, I compromised with Ariat boots and a running shirt.

After the work day was done, a few of us headed to Boston for the Boston Marathon race expo.  I have several friends running it, and a couple of us just tagged along for the fun of it.  This is a runner’s paradise, with free samples and vendors of all kinds just dying to show you the latest gismo that you simply can’t run without.  I got a good chuckle out of this, because every year I attend the Equine Affaire, which is a horse-themed trade show with the very same feel.  The more I got to think about it, there seemed to be a lot more similarities between the two sports than I ever first imagined!  When I got home from Boston I hopped on my horse Rocco and gave it some thought. 

1    1.   Proper warm-up.  Ever since I was young it was instilled in me that horses need proper warm up.  You can’t just throw a saddle on them and take off.  I always adhered to this rule (as if my mother would ever let me just “take off”) but I noticed that not all riders abide by that rule.  As a runner, I can attest to the fact that a warm up is key.  Some runners run a couple miles before a race.  I warm up differently depending on what distance I’m planning to run, but one thing’s for sure: I don’t just jump out of the car, slam the door, and take off running.
2.       Proper hydration: It’s true what they say about leading a horse to water but not getting them to drink.  They say that because horses can be finicky about water, and they sometimes won’t drink it when we know darn well they should.  My horse never met a puddle he didn’t like, and I always give him the option to stop for a drink.  You know why?  Because he might be thirsty.  Just like I am when I’m running.  I sure wouldn’t want someone kicking me in the ribs as I passed a water station with my mouth getting crusty.
3.       Salt: Horses, like people, need salt.  We give the horses a salt block that they can lick freely, but sometimes that’s not enough.  Just like people, horses can sweat out a lot of salt.  During heavy workouts, horses get electrolytes.  We even keep a tube of electrolyte paste attached to our saddle just in case a ride ends up getting overly strenuous.  When runners talk about taking salt tabs and Gatorade and Perpetuem, I can’t help but equate that to what we do for horses.
4.       The quickest, most efficient way from Point A to Point B is a straight line.  Horses try to tell us this all the time, yet we force them to do their dainty little circles and stay along the perimeter of the ring.  Sometimes I find myself on a race course not running the most direct route.  Remember, all certified race courses are measured on the most direct path of a street, so this is a good time to act like a horse.
5.       It’s always more fun to run with a friend.
6.       But, sometimes we need to know when we can’t keep up with our friend, and doing so will eventually hurt us.
7.       Running/riding on a track/arena is not always the most fun or most scenic event, but it’s usually a necessary evil to make you a better runner/rider.
8.       Footing is everything.  The impact of running on asphalt can be severe, and running through deep footing can be equally damaging.  Anyone who wants to gallop their horses down sand dunes should try running it first.
9.       Sometimes horses don’t know what’s best for them, and their rider needs to exercise the better judgment.  This is often true of runners too, who sometimes don’t know when to admit they are injured, when it’s time to slow down, or when it’s time to walk off a race course and live to run another day.
10.   Re-purposing:  Horses go through many careers over their lives.  Race horses evolve into show horses, show horses evolve into trail horses, trail horses evolve into companion horses.  Similarly, runners evolve through different stages of their lives.  Sprinters become marathoners, marathoners become ultra-marathoners, road runners  become trail runners, trail runners become hikers.  As long as we are still moving, there’s a purpose.

I’m sure I could offer another list of 10 things I’ve learned about horses from running, but that’s going to have to wait for another day.  Time to go count sheep!