Cross-Train for Better Performance: How a Ski Lesson Helped Me Ride Better

Photo courtesy of Michelle Ingall.

It was a chilly Sunday afternoon at Manning Park Resort in British Columbia, and I was just starting my second shift as a volunteer with the Canadian Ski Patrol when a few of us were offered to session with one of the mountain’s best ski instructors, Chris Gilbert. Always the first to jump at an opportunity for improvement, I was excited to see what Chris had in store for us during the next couple of hours.

One of the strongest points Chris emphasized was how difficult a sport skiing is, because no two runs are alike. The snow is always changing underneath our skis, and even if you try to find the same line you just took, your experience will be different every time.

I couldn’t help but find similarities in what he was saying to my other favourite pastime, three-day eventing. As a rider first and foremost, the horse is like the snow underfoot, as he is always moving and changing. Even if you jump the same jump several times or ride the same 20-metre circle over and over (boring!), no two will be the same.

Of course, I think riding horses is the most difficult sport, as you are also sitting on a living, breathing (and sometimes moody and unpredictable) animal that weighs 1,200 lbs!

So, here’s what I learned in my ski lesson:

1. You must be sensitive. You must trust your instincts and your muscle memory.
2. Look ahead. And use your peripheral vision to provide information about your immediate surroundings. Always stay focused on what’s ahead – don’t look back.
3. Be brave. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Strive to be better.
4. Practice the technical stuff. Do this on the easy terrain and it’ll help you in the tougher stuff.
5. Enjoy every moment. We’re doing this for fun! Sound familiar? I thought so too.

So, I got back to the barn the next day and rode my horse Eddie (my other mountain). I was sensitive, I was focused on what was ahead of me. I was brave and I practiced the hard stuff. (Ever notice how doing lots of dressage makes your jumping better? That’s not an accident!)

And guess what? I had fun! I enjoyed my rides all week while I kept this focus, and I did all kinds of things from light flat work rides, to a walk in the park, a good jump school, and yes, I even did my damn dressage!

The opposite can also be said.

My dear friend and coach Chelan Kozak and I were skiing at Whistler one day. I was enjoying our roles of student and coach being reversed for once, when Chelan asked me how much power and speed was ideal in the mogul run. I answered, “It’s just like a coffin canter, you need balance and control, but with enough impulsion to get the job done.” She immediately understood!

On another occasion, I was skiing with a friend (also a rider) who had recently suffered a couple of strokes and was getting back into physical activity. We were skiing a black diamond run that was a bit tricky with the uneven terrain and recent dump of fresh snow. He got halfway down and stopped and said, “ I think I’m half-halting way too much in this stuff!” I laughed and said, “Exactly! Only half-halt when you’re losing balance or need to adjust your speed, but keep the rhythm and power.”

As skiers and riders, we have to be balanced and athletic in our position. Use the strength required for the terrain and speed. (Cross country, anyone?)

It doesn’t matter what your other sports may be – whether it’s skiing, triathlons, running, swimming, or simply brushing your horse every day (think “wax-on, wax-off) – do it with the goal in mind of how that can improve your time in the saddle.

If you run, think about the rhythm and tempo of your gait. If you swim, think about the symmetry of your body and how each muscle plays a role. And while you brush your horse, try to use both arms equally to help develop even muscle tone.

If you think about it, the possibilities are endless!

And if you’re ever in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and want to hit the slopes, you can find me practicing my coffin canter on the mogul hill.

Michelle has been riding for over 30 years and a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol for 26 years. She is the Executive Director at Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities, Canada’s largest therapeutic riding facility and is a keen eventer. Michelle rode her Percheron/TB cross, Grover to the Intermediate level (he’s now a full-time therapy horse), and currently competes her OTTB, Eddie, at the Training level. Michelle will tell you she’s a better skier than a rider, but her husband will tell you “Michelle NEEDS to ride. She doesn’t NEED to ski.”