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Mari Inouye and Ali Divita of Mind.Body.Vault

Sometimes the greatest improvements in the saddle get their start before you even sit on your horse. If you’ve ever put time into upping your mental game or improving your fitness to help your riding, you’ll know what I mean.

You feel stronger, more confident… and in my case, ready to handle the very sudden and sometimes exuberant movements of a highly sensitive cutting horse.

Because of the toll riding horses can have on our bodies, not to mention our emotions, strengthening the correct muscles mentally and physically is key.

When you’ve been two of the top competing vaulters in the world, you know a little something about being equestrian fit

When thinking about who might be perfect to speak to the challenges riders have building and maintaining sport-specific fitness, I couldn’t have come up with anyone better than Mari Inouye and Ali Divita.

Having successfully competed internationally in vaulting, attending 5 of the most recent World Equestrian Games along with CVI competitions and World Cup events, Mari and Ali have a unique perspective on staying balanced on a horse – and maintaining the strength that goes along with it.

They have teamed up to create Mind.Body.Vault, combining their deep knowledge of equestrian fitness needs with their backgrounds in yoga, meditation, and personal training to help riders be stronger in and out of the saddle.

Without further ado, here’s our conversation.

Q: What led you both to compete in vaulting and eventually going into business together?

Mari: I was originally a gymnast. So I didn’t come from the horse world like a lot of people do who participate in the sport. I was introduced at age twelve by one of my gymnastics friends who took me to Woodside [in Northern California] where there are a couple of clubs. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this beautiful sport and fell in love with it the very first practice.                                                                                                                                                        

I always thought that I was kind of intimidated by horses my whole life.  But, there was just something about the way these two white horses cantering in a circle on a lunge line were moving that first day I went out that made my jaw drop. I thought, “Whoa, this is amazing.” I fell in love right away. 

 

Having a gymnastics background with body awareness, coordination, and balance really helped me move up quickly. I started going to international competitions where I competed at the gold level individually – eventually making it to the World Championships. I took a bit of time off to focus on college but after I just felt like I had some unfinished business with the sport. So I called some of my old teammates I used to vault with and we formed a team with the goal of making it to the World Equestrian Games. And in a couple of years, we did.     

We were the U.S. team to represent vaulting in 2010, capturing the gold medal. That was the highlight of my career for sure.

Ali: I started vaulting as a 12-year-old and before that, I was a gymnast. One summer I attended a riding camp for kids in Woodside where they had a vaulting club. I told my mom, ‘I want to do that.’ I got to attend a class. And long story short, they needed someone for their low-level team. Because I had been doing gymnastics I was already pretty brave and strong and flexible and loved horses. It was the perfect fit. My parents told me I had to choose one or the other – gymnastics or vaulting. Of course, I chose vaulting. I’ve never really looked back.                                                                                                                                                

Mari and I teamed up about 2 ½ years ago to start Mind.Body.Vault. We had grown up together vaulting and knew we wanted to do something we were passionate about using our skills.

Q: How have you been able to tackle the mental fitness component of your sport and now help your clients with that aspect of their riding?

Mari: I did a lot of inner work. I worked with a sports psychologist which was very, very helpful. It helped me gain the tools that I needed to face my fears. I would do things like writing them down to gain an understanding of where these fears were stemming from. I would write down the things that were coming up for me – my obstacles and identifying fearful situations that were coming up in my head. Then I’d do a reality check for myself. What would be the outcome of these fears and what could I do to reduce them?

Then a lot later in my career, I implemented meditation. That has been a very powerful tool. I didn’t realize just how powerful it could be until I started doing it.

Ali:  This is a big one. When it comes to my clients, I teach all of them a way of calming their minds and their nervous systems so they’re able to chill out on queue essentially. This is something I learned competing as a vaulter. You’re standing outside of the arena or even in the arena about to compete and you have to get your nerves under control instantaneously. I teach them to do that every day in their lives, multiple times a day.                                              

The word meditation gets thrown around so much. I think it intimidates people. Some of what I’m teaching is mindfulness techniques and meditation. But I always start off with something I feel like they can relate to. It can be as simple as lighting a nice candle and focusing your gaze on it. Or it’s about practicing Savasana and calming your breath.

 

Yoga is a huge mindfulness technique that I teach because obviously, that’s about connecting the mind and the body. A vaulter who’s come to me and has some issues with thinking too much or being too much in their head, worried, I’ll teach them to do yoga. Because that starts to force them to be really present and aware of their thoughts, which hopefully is a skill they can then take over to vaulting.

Q: What do you find to be the biggest problems riders face in the saddle from a lack of fitness?

Mari: The biggest problem I’ve encountered is a lack of fitness not only physically but mentally. We’re so connected in mind and body. If you’re lacking that physical strength, you’re less confident – which means you won’t be able to perform at your best. If you’re feeling strong and you’re feeling confident about being able to handle all the demands required of you when you’re up on your horse, then you’re going to be calmer and more confident. It will show in your movements. Your horse will be able to feel that.

 

Every equestrian knows how important that feeling of connection is with their horse and how unique it is. Being strong in your mind and body helps to make that connection with the horse possible.

Ali: This is something that Mari and I have been researching, asking questions about and just observing. There are a few things that we’ve targeted and highlight in our program. One thing that we see as a challenge is hip health. We talk about the importance of having that balance between strength and mobility. We see that a lot of riders will get tense. You come off the horse and you’re sore and then you don’t do anything about it. 

 

 And then what was sore after one ride becomes this tension and tightness over days and weeks and years, which can lead to injury. The most important thing from a fitness perspective is core strength. Because the core is the foundation. You can have super strong legs and even arms, but it’s not really going to do much for you if you don’t have that core – your center to connect it all.

 

Q: How can those of us who are amateurs (and even pros) develop a realistic strength program to help our riding?

Mari: Starting off slow is very important. Don’t get overwhelmed with the idea of having to be this huge fitness person. We educate our clients that it’s not about lifting the heaviest weight or being the most flexible person. It’s about having that connection and awareness with your body – knowing what your body is capable of, being aware of when you’re feeling stronger, and what you can do to help yourself along.

We usually start off with a lot of mobility work, just getting people in tune with their bodies, coordination, balance, and proprioception. Then we focus on the core because it’s the foundation of movement.

Q: That leads me to the next question. Everyone talks about core strength but I don’t think everyone understands exactly what that means. Can you explain what core strength is and what sorts of exercises we can do to improve it?

Mari: Absolutely. The core is a complex series of muscles extending far, far beyond your ab muscles, including everything other than your limbs. It’s involved in almost every movement of your body. Your core stability is just where all of your movement and your strength comes from. Think of your core as acting like a stabilizer and force transfer center rather than a prime mover.                                                                                                                                               

I like to start clients with just body movements, not using any sort of weights or resistance at all. We will do a lot of what I like to call dead bugs.                                                                              

It’s one of my favorite exercises because it’s a very basic movement. It’s not intimidating at all but it really challenges you on your coordination. I love that because when you’re up on that horse you’re having to not only be stabilized in your core but continue to move with the horse. And this helps with that.                                                                                                               

A dead bug involves laying down on your back and then raising and lowering opposite arm and opposite leg at the same time. It forces your core to be really engaged and worked. And it’s an exercise that transfers to the horse quite nicely.

Q: Give us the scoop on your programs at Mind.Body.Vault. How are you helping riders with their fitness?

Mari and Ali: Sure. Mind Body Vault is our baby. We came up with the idea a couple of years back. With all of our years of training as equestrians and vaulters, we learned what kind of strength you need to have both mentally and physically before hopping on your horse. We decided to marry our experience as equestrians with our backgrounds in yoga, fitness training, and coaching.                                                                                                                              

It all kind of developed organically. We found ourselves putting together programs to educate our fellow equestrian athletes on the importance of strengthening your body and preparing yourself mentally before riding. We kept seeing so many people always putting their horses’ needs first and their own fitness on the back burner. We want to help equestrians move their health and wellbeing to the forefront.                                                           

We’ve developed a four-week virtual program that incorporates yoga, strengthening exercises, and meditation. Our goal is to give riders the tools they need to be their best when they’re up on their horses.

TL;DR

Key takeaways on getting mentally and physically equestrian fit

  1. Identify your fears and obstacles to success by writing them down – Feeling scared, anxious, overwhelmed, the list goes on and on. Keeping a journal and writing down your thoughts can be a great way to process what’s happening and troubleshoot ways to get ahead of your fears. (There’s a nifty planner I know about that can help in this department.)
  2. Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools – You can be more present, focused, and calm just using your mind. (And it doesn’t have to cost a thing. Free, horses… isn’t that an oxymoron?)
  3. Focus on strengthening your core – Having a strong core is critical to keep you balanced and more effective in the saddle. (A gooey, soft center may be what you want in a S’more but not your mid-section when riding.)
  4. Start slowly with your fitness program… especially if you’re not used to a regular routine – Overwhelm is real. Keep things simple and don’t try to pack in too much too soon. (It’s amazing how this little piece of advice applies to so much more than exercise.)
  5. Mari and Ali are equestrian badasses – It’s challenging enough to sit on a horse with a saddle. Doing cartwheels while a horse is cantering? Forget it. (These women know of what they speak when it comes to being mentally and physically strong.)

You can find out more about the Mind.Body.Vault program on their website. And be sure to follow Mari and Ali on Instagram to stay up to date on everything they’re doing.

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