Written by: Samantha Albert

“One of the most important things itsto sit straight.  That will help you keep your body weight over your hips and allow you to have a good strong posture.  It’s much harder for someone to tip you forward or push you backward when your weight is over your hips.  You have to learn good posture before you can do anything else.”

It’s not a flashback to my first riding lesson.  It’s my first day of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  I wasn’t entirely certain what to expect of BJJ, but I was definitely thinking something more along the lines of Jackie Chan rather than a discussion of the proper way to kneel when facing your opponent.  Little did I know how useful it would be.  Within two weeks of starting, Jenna says “Your posture is great today.  I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but keep doing it.”

Huh.  The same mechanics that kept my opponent from pulling me forward into a choke are the same mechanics that kept me from tipping forward with my horse’s transitions.  That was the start of a series of lightbulb moments that happened over the course of the summer.  One break-through lead to another, and improved stamina has allowed me to focus on fine-tuning my riding and perfecting my technique.

I have been taking weekly lessons for nearly twenty years, and I have only just become aware of the impacts minute changes in my body position can have on my riding.  In addition to the almost instant improvement in my posture, I became super aware of the position and angle of my body parts.  In BJJ, the difference of an inch in your leg position can be the difference between locking down a choke or getting choked out yourself.  And while I knew the theory of what I was supposed to be doing on horseback, I was not self-aware enough accurately analyze my body position.  Having better overall awareness of my body allows me to better appreciate the cause and effect of having my body just so and feeling the horse respond.

Until I started BJJ, I would have categorized myself as “lightly active.”  Sure, I wasn’t in as good as shape as I’d like to be, but it wasn’t really interfering with my riding, was it?  A summer later, I’m able to see how much I was holding myself back by working out only once or twice a week, usually only while horseback riding.  That wasn’t nearly enough to build new muscles or increase my stamina.  Now that I have the strength to ride, the stamina to keep riding, and the awareness of what all my parts are doing, I am able to bring a level of precision to my riding that I couldn’t reach before and I’m becoming a more technically better rider.  Instead of asking a horse to frame up and hoping that they will, I’m better able to work the horse there.

And BJJ has given more gifts than just physical ones.  For one thing, it’s taught me how to be bad at things.  Somewhere along the way, I forgot how to be bad at things.  I’ve found that as I’ve grown, the number of “new” things I tried has fallen as I focus on things I like and have been doing for a while.  I basically forgot how to deal with frustration.  I was terrible when I started jiu-jitsu.  I would over analyze when I needed to feel, I would act impulsively when I needed to think, I would try to out muscle my opponent instead of focusing on technique, and I would concentrate so hard on chasing submissions I didn’t notice I was getting trapped in locks or chokes until they happened.  Week after week after week.  It seemed like I was making no progress and I was frustrated beyond belief.  I was insanely jealous of people who started at the same time I did, but seemed to be progressing at twice the speed.  At first, I did not deal with that frustration well.  I’d give up on moves because I just “wasn’t good enough.”  I’d leave class in tears.

I had to re-learn how to measure “success.”  I couldn’t focus on what everyone else was doing.  What moves they knew that I couldn’t get in BJJ.  I couldn’t even focus on what I planned wanted to accomplish by a certain point in time.  But I could focus on the small victories.  For example, I still can’t do the basic armbar – the first move we learn – when my opponent is actively fighting me.  But when that frustrates me, I have to remember that even though I can’t get the armbar, I am controlling their position, I am going longer before they can attack me, and I am getting closer and closer to locking it down.  Refocusing from the big “I can’ts” to the smaller “but I cans” has helped me when I’m having difficulty riding, too.  Not jumping as high as I want to?  No, but my control between the fences is better.  Not able to get that flying lead change on demand 100% of the time?  No, but I used to not be able to do them at all, and I now I least am able to try before doing a simple lead change.  Not able to frame the horse up all the time?  No, but getting it more quickly and for longer and longer every time I ride.

It’s not just BJJ that can have positive effects like this – when I had access to the free gym at my apartment, I lifted weights for a while.  I had a couple of short dumbbell workouts and in forty minutes or less, I could train multiple muscle groups while taking the day off from cardio.  It became harder to a horse to pull me out of the saddle (and, also, much easier to lift paper boxes at the office).  When I moved and lost the gym, I got a dog, and I started running regularly for the first time since high school.  It was much more pleasant to have a running buddy, and it increased my stamina in a relatively short amount of time.  No more huffing and puffing around the ring after a couple of trot laps.

Cross-training is great for our health, but it also pays dividends for our riding.  We expect our horses to be athletes, to be able to canter a course on a steady pace – it’s only fair that we are able to keep up with them. The trick is to find something you enjoy doing.  I found a calling in Jiu-Jitsu.  I hated running (pre-dog, anyway), but one equestrian friend runs half marathons for fun.  I have a friend that swears by rowing (low impact, nice and warm in winter).  Another friend got into aerial acrobatics (not recommended for those with fear of heights.)  Find the thing you love, and then, as Nike says, Just Do It.

(As a side note, if anyone is interested in trying out Brazilian jiu-jitsu with me, classes are on Monday and Wednesday at 8pm in Cordova.  Our black belt, Dale, would love to have you!  If those times don’t work, there are lots of other time options at other schools in the area.)