fitness · Guest Post · swimming

Adapting (Guest Post)

by Diane Harper

This year has been full of adaptions and adjustments, not least to our fitness routines. Some adaptations have been relatively small; when the pools closed in March, it was no big deal to move outdoors once it got a bit warmer, because I swim outdoors year-round. When the roads to our favourite swim spot became impossible because everyone else suddenly discovered the lake, my group pivoted quickly to staying at the river spot we normally use in spring and fall, and we figured out longer swims to get some distance in. When I didn’t need to cycle to work every day because I was working from home, I developed after work walking routines and even took up cycling to buy groceries.

Other adaptations have been more challenging. Ballet class in my living room means no more big movements across a huge studio floor. For months my barre was the back of a chair. Most jumping and pirouettes are gone – partly so we don’t crash into furniture, and partly because it’s hard for a teacher on Zoom to give individual corrections to people in tiny squares, all moving at slightly different times because of lags in the music.

So far in 2021, adaptations to my routine have become more important than ever. Like many I started January with Yoga With Adriene 30 days series on YouTube. I can’t do crow. I couldn’t do crow last year, either, and I gave up on the series because the failure intimidated me so much. Despite last year’s failure, I dipped in and out of yoga practice throughout the year, and joined a lunch-hour chair yoga series offered through my work this fall. That instructor offers lots of adaptations for people who might not be up to doing certain stretches. I was intrigued to hear her reminding us, twice a week, that we could switch things up in ways that were more suited to how we were feeling that day. That acknowledgement of alternate possibilities has been really helpful. This year, despite that dreaded crow pose showing up around day 19, I kept right on going with Adriene. I simply decided that crouching with my hands on the floor is a good alternative to crow (just getting to a crouch was plenty for me). Similarly, her happy hop to the front of the mat for forward fold, and graceful moves to lunge then plank are all ungainly scrambles for me, but just fine because I’m still showing up and having fun.

Some of the adaptations are dictated by our physical abilities. I started a  dryland training program with a local swim club in January; it is an hour of HIIT led by an athletic youngster. I had never done a HIIT workout before the Christmas break, so I am learning to take advantage of every adaptation she offers in order to make it through the hour without collapsing in a puddle. Other adaptations are more mental. Due to the latest lockdowns in Ontario, I get a two hour window to ride my horse just once a week (she lives at a horse boarding facility on the edge of town).  For several weeks in a row, Fancy didn’t want to be caught, so I spent an hour or more circling the haybale trying to get close enough to put her halter on. I couldn’t ride, so I counted steps instead. It wasn’t the workout I had planned, but I was outside and moving in the fresh air.

Has COVID forced you to adapt your fitness routines too? What have you changed and how has it worked for you?

Image: Diane in a colourful face mask, with Fancy, a bay horse wearing a blue halter.

Diane Harper is an aging athlete in Ottawa, who is slowly reconciling herself to the fact that she may never be able to do all the things.

fitness · Guest Post

Better balance through horseback riding (Guest post)

by Diane Harper

Woman in a black helmet riding a dark brown horse in an arena.

I started riding as a survival mechanism when my daughter was young and I had to sit in an unheated arena watching her lessons. By January of the first year, I decided it had to be warmer on a horse, so I started taking lessons with her. It turned out to be a wonderful mother-daughter bonding time. We rode together in various classes for years. She loved (and continues to love) jumping, while I adored dressage. We made friends we still keep in touch with – former classmates, coaches, and people we met while volunteering at events. I learned to ride a variety of horses, each one of whom taught me new things. Horses, just like people, have stronger and weaker sides, are more or less flexible, and have good and bad days. I learned to be aware of how each horse was different – every single day – and how to adjust in order to get as much as possible from every ride.

As my daughter grew up, she struggled with some mental health challenges; horses provided a place where she could get exercise, fresh air, be responsible for a large non-judgemental animal who relied on her, and build confidence as she used her relatively tiny body to guide a 2,000 lb animal with its own ideas. This was a form of balance I had never previously considered. All those sappy books and movies about young girls and their horses suddenly made sense. But teenaged girls aren’t the only ones who et something from being around horses. Kids and adults with physical and mental disabilities, as well as parolees and people dealing with addictions all benefit from equine therapy.

Eventually, my daughter’s love of horses led to us acquiring Fancy. She did all the research, took me to see horses for sale throughout the Ottawa Valley and Western Quebec, and even to southern Ontario. We settled on an off-the-track thoroughbred who knew her paces, but was a bit older than we wanted, needed some TLC, and turned out to hate being indoors for more than the time it takes to groom and saddle her. She does remarkably well living outdoors year-round at a boarding farm where she has her own little her of mares, a large shelter, and people who feed her grain every day and ensure she has constant access to water and hay or pasture. It makes horse ownership manageable since we live in the city and can’t get out to ride or visit every single day.

Fancy has been healthy, but she is now almost 19 years old and has a bit of arthritis in her hind legs. I am fat and I need a much stronger core. I have had foot surgery and a broken arm, both of which kept me out of the saddle for months. Even after being cleared to ride, I had old injuries and tight muscles so I constantly struggle to find the centre of my saddle, keep my weight evenly distributed in my stirrups, and have my spine and shoulders straight but flexible. Fancy is a very honest horse; if I don’t get things right, she adjusts her body to compensate. Her head up, tiny steps, or crooked body and neck are all signs I need to correct my position. When she races or refuses to listen, I know it is time to engage my core muscles so I can use my seat more effectively to tell her what I want her to do.  When I get the adjustment right, I can see (or feel) an immediate change. She will stretch her neck down to engage her back muscles, step more freely with a bit of sway in her bum, and bend or go perfectly straight, as required. My daughter and I balance our time and Fancy’s training. She jumps and canters during her rides; I do circles, loops and other bending exercises to ensure Fancy is as flexible and balanced as possible, focusing on walk and trot. It turns out that horses also have a preference for one side. Fancy’s strongest and least flexible side is the same as my weakest side, so I really need to work my weak muscles to get her to bend.

With the arrival of COVID, lessons with my coach were cancelled, and have been put on hold again with the latest lockdown. I’m really happy that I have finally reached a level in my own fitness and understanding that I am comfortable riding Fancy on my own and know how to adjust my riding based on what she is telling me. I will never be a brilliant dressage rider, but I being confident, safe, and able to use my imagination as I pretend to be in the Grand Prix ring feels pretty good.

Back view of a woman in a brown coat leading a brown horse towards a blue barn.

Diane Harper works for the federal government in Ottawa. She loves to break the stereotype of the stodgy bureaucrat by trying new things and pushing limits as often as possible.


Guest Post: Moments of Glory (Horseback Edition)


Breaking from a trot to a gallop.

Growing up in the prairies, I rode for most of my life. I was terribly allergic to horses– (probably the dust and hay in the stables, actually.) But I was one of those girls who freaking loved horses. So, cowboy boots on and tissues up my nose to stop allergy-induced nosebleeds, I insisted on riding.

The horse’s name was Miss Terrific and she was a sweet and temperate horse, as her name would suggest. She was probably a quarter horse, which is a very common breed. But in my mind, she was an Arabian (a beautiful and mystical breed—think The Black Stallion—they carry their heads very high and have distinctively angular faces).

The Taylors were a kind and hospitable older couple who owned the property (and horses) where I rode. I had started riding with them when I was about eight or nine. My sister was a bit too young to ride (and not that interested in horses as much as she was into the sheep on the property and the three-storey tree house). So while I rode, she spent her time as Queen of the Sheep.

I was in the sandy arena with the others in the class, a mix of kids my age and adults who would bring their own horses to the lessons (which were about $10 an hour, if you can believe that!). Dan Taylor was our instructor, an older man who was pure, distilled Alberta with a bit of a drawl and a dirty white cowboy hat he always wore. His wife, Dawn, rode in the arena with us with her beautiful grey-and-white spotted horse and would demonstrate for us what we were supposed to be doing. She and her horse always seemed so impossibly in sync with one another; as if her horse could read her mind. Dawn would barely gesture and the grey-and-white would respond immediately, seamlessly.

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At this point I probably hadn’t been riding that long. It might have even been my first or second lesson. We would start by all riding around the arena at a walking pace, building up to a trot, learning to post (which is stranding up in rhythm with the horse’s movements to avoid being bounced in the saddle), then galloping. I hadn’t galloped yet. I’m not sure if it was the speed that intimidated me or if I just couldn’t get Miss Terrific to go that fast.

A trot is a four-beat movement. You can feel all four of the horse’s feet hit the ground and if you don’t post, you’ll be bounced constantly and uncomfortably. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow… But a gallop is a three-beat movement—smooth—almost like gliding. In a gallop, the horse has at least one foot up off the ground. Just like when a person runs.

So there Miss Terrific and I were, four-beating it around the arena while others passed us, when another young rider came up alongside us.

“You’ve got to cluck to her,” he said, and clicked his tongue. (Some people give kisses—make a kissing noise to encourage the horse—or make clicking or clucking sounds, using audible cues rather than physical taps or nudges.) I could hear Dan over the speaker also encouraging Miss Terrific (come on, Miss Terrific, come on), and clicking into his microphone.

Alright, I thought. We can do this. I urged her with clucks and clicks and kisses and then suddenly—

We broke into a gallop. It felt smooth and perfect and somehow way better than the slower (and safer) trot I had been stubbornly hanging on to.

“Now you’re flying!” the other rider shouted to me as I took off past him. It was exhilarating. We had done it, Miss Terrific and I.

Over the years, I had the privilege to work with lots of different horses, both in Western and English styles. The Taylors always insisted that riding many different horses made one a better rider. And Miss Terrific was really their “beginner’s horse.” Eventually I graduated from her and learned to work with other horses; some who were feisty or faster or challenging in other ways. Some who were never property trained, some who tried to fight me, and some who just loved to eat and roll around in the mud. In later years, I learned how to barrel race and how to jump a course.

Even after nearly twenty years, I still find it the slightest bit intimidating, working with a horse. While you’re technically “in charge,” you should never forget that you’re working with a one tonne animal who could kill you if something went wrong, or at least kick you or throw you off. There’s something humbling to that.


Sometime ago I was told that the Taylors had sold Miss Terrific to people who had more pasture for her to retire in. She was old, even when I knew her. It’s silly that I believed it. That’s got to be the one of the oldest lines in the book. I’m deeply grateful to her and I’m sure she’s peacefully grazing and galloping away in horsey heaven.





Horse Magic (Guest Post)

I ride horses. It is my absolute favourite sport. And yet, I have never blogged about it. When I talk about the sports I participate in to people, I sometimes don’t mention it. It’s like my secret sport but that isn’t intentional.

When I committed to a regular guest post here, I cast my mind about to think of topics I could draw on and that was when horses occurred to me. But that made me wonder why it hadn’t before. I usually write about experiences or advances or issues that have an edge of angst. Since I was a random poster, the only reason I’d write something was because it struck me some way or another.

Horses are another matter, another level. Horses are magic.

I was privileged (in all meanings of that word) to be able to learn to ride when I was about 11 years old. It started at summer camp and then eventually, I was allowed weekly lessons at an English riding barn north of Toronto. I suppose I was doing Hunter/Jumper work but all I knew is I got to ride every week and it was pretty much the only place I was happy in the disaster of a social world that was me, age 11-16 years old. It was fun. I was good at it and the whole thing revolved around these creatures that I couldn’t get enough of. Huge strong beasts that let me ride them. They listened to what I told them and took me flying. They had soft noses and big beautiful eyes. They smelled so good. Even their poop smelled good to me.

Then my parents tricked me. I also liked to play saxophone at school. I had a choice. I could continue riding or they could buy me a really great sax. I chose the sax and horses faded from my life. Freud would have a field day with this, but I digress. . .

25-ish years later, I ask my 8 year old daughter if she wants to learn to ride. I am living in a town that has quick access to many teaching barns. She says yes. I go to the barn to help her get ready and I’m shaking. I burst into tears of joy and longing. I’m so happy to be home.

It took about 6 months for it to dawn on me that I could also ride again. I didn’t actually have to live vicariously through my daughter. Those first lessons were chaotic. My body and mind remembered so much and yet so much had changed. I was 40, not 16 and I was weak in places I didn’t remember needed to be strong. I fell off. I screwed up. I got yelled at by my teacher. It was fantastic.

I had to come to terms with my body and the profound truth that if I wanted to continue to ride, I had to do other things so that I could ride. I needed more strength and balance. I needed more endurance. So I started to do strength training and running and yoga. I restarted Pilates. I kept riding. So did my daughter.

8 years later, my 15 year old daughter and I ride in the same group lesson. We ride Hunter/Jumper and every week we are in the presence of these magnificent creatures with soft noses and huge eyes. They let us ride them. They pay attention to every move, every breath, every thought that goes through our heads and when it all aligns, they take us flying.

In the journey back to horses, I have learned to run a 6 minute kilometer, reacquired my core strength, built up my shoulders and upper body, learned to cycle fast on skinny tires, led canoe trips and become more or less fearless about trying new things. In some ways, it led me back to myself at a time of tremendous transition. It wouldn’t have happened the same way without that imperative, that longing to get back up there and fly.

I still don’t fully understand why it’s so strong, the love of that sport. Maybe it isn’t the sport at all. It’s them. It’s the way they look at you or the way they ignore you. It’s the way they demand treats by searching all your pockets or, in one case, trying to find them in my pants. It’s how they stop and check on you right after dumping you into the dirt at the base of a jump. It’s how they let you cry on them when you are a lonely sad 14 year old girl. Even now, writing this post makes me weep with. . .something. . .love, joy, grief. It’s horse magic.

Snowbound, he who searches pockets and pants for treats