Training in winter has its challenges for many equestrians – the wet, the wind, the dark and all the muddy ponies! For me as a para vaulter, though, these things can affect me in some unexpected ways.
Probably the most ‘normal’ thing that happens to me in winter is that it takes ages and ages to warm up my muscles enough to be able to stretch well and vault well. You can’t just wear loads of layers as a vaulter because you simply wouldn’t be able to move, but you do need to make sure you’re keeping your joints and muscles as warm as possible. Ideally you’d be able to wear a catsuit next to the skin – this is very cosy but entails a lot of undressing when you need the loo!
I learned the hard way about working too hard on cold muscles a couple of years ago when – even though I thought I’d warmed up enough – I dropped into splits and tore my hamstring. Although I couldn’t feel it, the loud ripping sound it made and the inability to put anything on the leg after were pretty noticeable! It took ages to get better and I was so annoyed for making a rookie error like that. These days I sit on a hot water bottle on the way to training which is simple but effective!
Two of the less common issues I have are sensory – hearing and proprioception. I wear hearing aids but still rely an awful lot on lip reading, so when I can’t see people because it’s dark I tend to have a real problem understanding them. It’s handy to have a legitimate excuse for ignoring people, but I can’t help but feel it would be even handier to know what’s going on…
Proprioception is one of the biggest senses that doesn’t make it into the ‘top 5’ that most people are taught, and it’s defined as the perception of the position and movements of the body. The easiest way to think of this is as it being the sense that tells you where your body parts are even when you can’t see them or when you don’t have tactile sensory input.
Most people have good proprioception and don’t need to be able to see their body parts to know where they are, but mine is so bad that unless I look at it (e.g. looking at my leg while in the saddle) I haven’t a clue what I’m doing. Most of the time, I only know that I have something solid underneath my feet if I’m not actively falling… If I can’t feel it, it’s really hard to control it!
In the dark, therefore, I just don’t know how to function. I can barely walk even with my crutch and someone to lean on – I feel like I’m walking the plank and I’m just waiting to drop! I like to train on my barrel horse after work, but it’s now getting dark at 3:30 so it’s a big challenge. I’ve been trying to tell myself that it’s really good practice to train with barely any sensory input, but there are only so many times you can crash down without wondering if you’re getting diminishing returns from your efforts…
Another effect of the cold weather is that my muscle tone is much higher than in spring or summer. This makes the tremors worse, so I feel even more wobbly than usual, and it’s also pretty painful and exhausting. Training in these conditions feels as if I’ve got weights attached all over my body – a bit like driving on a cold engine, except it doesn’t get better after a couple of miles!
The main ways to cope are the obvious ones – the right clothes, the right training, the right everything. On top of that you need to hot water bottles, a good sense of humour, and people around you who forgive the odd involuntary kick…
Ultimately, training in winter is unavoidable. I like to train in all conditions, so that I can be prepared for similar conditions in competition – I have never been to a British Championships that was anything other than COLD and when you’re just wearing a catsuit you don’t get a huge amount of insulation! You don’t get a choice at times like those, though – you just have to do your best and deal with the situation. I don’t think that vaulting or any other equestrian discipline is really the thing that you go into if you like being comfortable!
Therefore, I will be out and training whatever happens. It has to be said, though, that the sessions in the nice heated gym have a definite advantage at this time of year!