There was a time---about seven years ago---when I dreaded pulling on a pair of riding breeches. Once dressed, I would scurry past the mirrors in my house, scowling if I happened to catch a glimpse of myself: I was 50 pounds overweight and self-conscious about it.
But my problem was more than just being unhappy with my appearance. I was also unfit, and I could no longer fully enjoy many of the equestrian activities that I loved. I went trail riding less often because I was afraid I might have to get off and knew that I could not mount from the ground without assistance. I lacked the stamina to complete even a one-hour riding lesson without frequent breaks. Horse show classes left me gasping for air. In short, I had some issues that I wanted to fix, and it was time to tackle the problem.
Weight loss is a deeply personal journey. I am sharing my story about this time in my life not as an embarrassment, but as an opportunity to encourage others and to help people learn from my mistakes. My goal is not to tell you that you should lose weight but, should you make the decision to do so, to provide encouragement. Despite what you may have read, it is possible.
My weight gain had happened slowly. Years of unhealthy eating and then pregnancy weight finally caught up with me. Many people assume that those who are overweight simply eat too much and don’t get enough exercise---in my case, though, inactivity wasn’t the issue. In addition to farm work, I rode regularly, taking lessons and even competing in a few shows. As it turned out, however, what I considered exertion back then was not the type of sustained physical activity necessary to lose weight.
My first strategy was simply to exercise more without changing my diet. This didn’t work---it only made me hungrier. But my deter-mination kicked in, and I began again. I knew that I needed a new plan, so I set about researching weight loss programs that offered the structure and goal-setting that I craved.
Finally, I found a program that not only met those criteria but looked like one I could stick with for the long run. So I embarked on a regimen of mindful food intake and serious workout sessions---and eight months later I had met my goal weight. I know many other riders who face similar challenges, so by way of encouragement I’d like to share what I learned.
• Be ready. My journey began only when I was ready to commit. My goal weight was based on when I remembered feeling most satisfied with myself. Setting a goal with a numeric value, rather than “just trying to lose some weight,” fit my personality well, and I’m glad I made it a priority.
• Find what motivates you. I had strong motivators that included looking better in my riding clothes, improving my riding and increasing my stamina. I celebrated my achievements along the way with small rewards such as a weekly splurge meal so I did not constantly feel as if I were denying myself. I also tried to avoid punishing myself too harshly for small lapses. I just corrected my mistakes and kept pushing forward.
• Choose healthier foods. I began reading labels and was surprised to discover that many foods I had thought were healthy were not. Many flavored yogurts, for example, contain as much sugar as a full-size candy bar! I also began measuring portion sizes and was often startled to see the difference between the correct, measured servings versus what I had been eating. Finally, I paid more attention to calorie counts. While it’s not necessary for everybody, I found that an easy way to cut calories was to eliminate soft drinks.
The appearance of my meal plates changed dramatically---suddenly I was eating a lot more vegetables. Overall, I was stunned to learn how much I could actually eat and still lose weight just by making wiser choices.
• Get serious about exercise. Once I began to get my diet under control I started to evaluate my activity level. I have always loved riding, so it was easy to convince myself I needed to spend more time in the saddle, but riding alone was not enough.
I needed to add cardiovascular and strength training to my exercise regimen. I knew from experience that a gym membership or exercise classes were not for me. I needed something a little less public that would fit my busy schedule. I chose a program I could do at home, and I set aside a specific time of day just for my workouts. With a small investment in basic home gym equipment and the purchase of some secondhand exercise DVDs, I was on my way.
Almost immediately I noticed my riding improve. My workouts increased my core strength dramatically, and I also became more aware of and better able to control my body, which improved my riding aids coming from my seat, legs and posture. My energy level increased and my stamina improved. I was no longer too tired to ride after the farm chores, and I could last longer in the saddle.
• Find a way to keep yourself on track. As a high school teacher, I am accountable to a number of different people; this helps me to stay focused on my job. To lose weight, I knew, I would have to find a way to hold myself accountable---to myself. What worked for me was to put everything in writing.
Keeping a food and exercise journal enabled me to track changes over time, which in turn helped me to recognize my successes as well as my shortcomings. Recording my exercise as well as all of my snacks and meals helped me to see how my choices led to changes in my weight, both positive and negative. If my weight wasn’t going down, analyzing all this information helped me to find reasons why. This wasn’t always easy to pinpoint, but more often than not I was able to figure out where I needed to do better.
In the beginning, I underestimated how important these journals would be. But even now, I find that going back to look at them serves as a confidence booster in other areas of my life, including riding. They are proof that I am capable of handling a problem. Even today I monitor myself to make certain that I stay on track.
• Keep it up to keep it off. After I met my goal, maintaining my weight loss was my next challenge. My doctors tell me that few people who lose weight manage to keep it off for the long term, and I know it isn’t always easy. Over time I’ve gotten better at it, but every day I still have to make the conscious decision to eat well and exercise.
Now, seven years later, I am still at my target weight. I am healthier overall, and I no longer feel self-conscious about how I look in my breeches. I can ride for much longer periods, and although she cannot say so, I am sure that my horse appreciates the difference as well. Still, one of my proudest moments on this journey was a seemingly small victory. Not long ago, I was forced to dismount while I was out on a trail ride. This time, however, I didn’t have to search out a tree stump to get back on. I simply placed my foot in the stirrup from the ground and swung aboard unassisted.
Like so many of us, I still struggle to find time to ride while balancing family life, a full-time job and a farm, but I have found that the extra work involved in maintaining my health is well worth the effort. In fact, my weight loss journey has reinforced for me the idea that all things are possible.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #461, February 2016.