Fit to ride

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

A horse and a rider are like a dance duo, Frank Madden says.

“It boils down to the match of the horse and the rider,” adds Madden, head trainer at Old Salem Farm, which will once again host the prestigious American Gold Cup in September. “Ultimately, the goal is to have an extremely sound and experienced pair.”

Achieving that chemistry takes many things – expertise, talent, hard work, trial and error and one thing more – fitness.

“Fitness, core strength is so important to riding well,” says Scott Hakim, whose family owns the horse farm, situated on 120 lush, rolling acres in North Salem.

While Hakim, who also owns a real estate sales and consulting company in New York City, no longer rides, he has the Jack LaLanne look of a man who regularly heads to the gym. When the Hakim family bought the property, once owned by Paul Newman, some 15 years ago and began making renovations, he made sure to add a gym, locker rooms and showers.

Among those who hit the gym are assistant trainer RoseAnne Spallone while barn manager Sarah Natale prefers to get her exercise outdoors through walking and yoga.

“Any kind of core exercise off the horse is beneficial,” Madden says, referring to strengthening the trunk of the body. “Posture has a lot to do with longevity and staying sound on the horse. And that goes to the core. I would think yoga would be a terrific thing for this.”

Riders have to watch their weight, too, he says. They can be neither too heavy nor too light. For this, anything cardio is good, such as bicycling or using a treadmill.

“Fitness for a rider,” he says, “is also key to preventing injury. Some of the more common ones are collarbone and groin injuries, such as a pulled groin,” the latter being a soft-tissue injury.

“There aren’t too many of those,” Madden says. “There are more breaks or joint problems.”

Riders, of course, aren’t the only ones who have to stay in shape for show jumping. The horses must also be put through their paces. Early in the morning, Natale, Spallone and others are out in one of the rings, flatting some of the more than 70 show horses that board at Old Salem, steeds with romantic names like Vico and Rapunzel. (Flatwork refers to riding the horse around the ring for aerobic exercise and the building of muscle.)

Old Salem even has an equine treadmill. On the day WAG visits, Campino – a Dutch Warmblood with such a lovely, steady temperament that he’s become sort of the farm’s “spokeshorse” – calmly walks the treadmill as a demonstration, perhaps dreaming of an apple or carrot treat. Like humans, horses have various dietary needs and a dietitian visits the farm to ensure everyone is happy with his hay, alfalfa and supplements.

Contrary to what neophytes might think, show horses don’t jump all the time but rather practice small jumps two or three times a week, Natale says, to develop muscles and muscle memory. They also have plenty of paddock time. “That’s their recess,” she says. Or as Madden says, “Jumping a horse is like working with a baseball pitcher: You don’t show your fastball every day.”

And yet, riders must ride.

“It’s one of those sports where there are so many specific things we do while riding that it’s difficult to get fit without riding,” Madden says.

Riding and “achieving a higher level of competence” are also his antidotes to being anxious on a horse.

“Even extremely fit people can struggle with riding a horse,” says Madden, who’s ridden all his life but has been intensely back in the saddle the last eight months, riding two to three horses a day. “Once anxiety enters into the equation, it’s extremely difficult to deal with. The horse has feelings, opinions. You’re asking it to do a lot of things that are not normal to a horse. If there’s tension in your body, the horse picks up on that tension. It’s an extremely sophisticated relationship.”

That’s why he never puts an inexperienced rider on an inexperienced horse. The farm uses a mix of geldings, which tend to have the most stable temperaments; and mares, which tend to be self-protective. Madden has also worked with the occasional stallion, which, well… he remembers one that bolted from a show after a cute gray mare.

As for the two-legged sexes, Madden observes, “I wouldn’t say there’s an edge for a guy or a girl.”

It comes down to the rider’s passion and dedication, and, he adds, “the horse makes a difference.”

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