JN Exclusive: Staying Fit in the Saddle with Alexandra Hendelman

Alexandra “Ali” Hendelman has always been doggedly determined. Even as a young child she managed to find a way to make her dreams of riding horses come true and that fire carried on to help her achieve her desired physical fitness level and riding aspirations later in life. JN caught up with Ali to talk about her riding and fitness journey and how all of her hard work led to earning Reserve Grand Circuit Champion in the 18-35 Hunters at HITS Ocala.

The Birthday Present that Changed Her Life

One by one, the Hendelman family began taking riding lessons with Mitch and Kathy Steege of Red Acre Farm in Stow, Massachusetts. First it was Ali’s father, then her mother and older sister, and finally after a year of relentless pursuit, Ali tacked up for the first time at just three years old.

“I, not realizing my miniature stature as a two-year-old was an issue for riding, pretty much demanded I be allowed to take lessons as well. I was a pretty bossy and overly dramatic child; the entire Steege family can attest to that,” Ali jokes.

“Somehow everyone concluded that for my third birthday I could have a pony ride. I’m sure Kathy Steege was not on board with this idea because she is the queen of safety and for good reason, but alas I had my first pony ride.”

Though her father and sister’s desire to ride fizzled out, Ali and her mother remain active in the industry to this day. “My mom and I drank the Kool-Aid and would spend the next 15 years going to the barn daily and traveling from show to show. I’m very fortunate that both my parents were supportive of my riding.”

Ali has always been at home at the barn. Photo by George McKenzie Jr.

Time to Make a Change

During her junior year of high school, Ali decided to take a break from the saddle. “I was a hormonal teenager with a bit of angst and wanted to explore other interests that I felt I didn’t have time to explore because of riding,” Ali shares with JN. She found that she had an artistic streak and began nurturing that passion through weekend classes before branching out and applying to art schools.

Ali was accepted into the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and later graduated with a degree in printmaking. During her time in school, however, she transitioned from a very active lifestyle to one that was mostly sedentary.

“I gained more than the freshman 15 and at the time I was fine with it. Throughout my college years, however, I kept having vivid dreams about horses. In May of 2009, not even two weeks after my junior year of college had ended, my dad passed away very unexpectedly. That summer a good friend of mine whom I grew up with at Red Acre Farm told me I should come visit her and I should ride. After five years of not riding at all, I rode.”

Her passion was immediately reignited, but it became apparent that she was not in the same shape as before. After graduating, Ali returned to ride and work at Red Acre Farm for the summer. While there, she decided to join a local gym and dabble in some cardio exercises to help improve her stamina. As she watched her peers using the isometric equipment, Ali contemplated giving weight lifting a try. In the beginning, she was completely self-taught and soaked up any information she could find online. The more results she saw in the gym, the more hooked she became on fitness as a lifestyle.

Photo by Terry Smith

After a few years, Ali hit a plateau in her fitness goals. In 2016, she met her now boyfriend, Terry Smith, a body-builder and certified personal trainer. Together, they created a plan that would allow Ali to achieve the goals she had set for herself, rather than just dreaming about them.

Blue Ribbon Pursuits

During this time, Ali was also actively pursuing her show ring goals with Amanda Steege (daughter of Mitch and Kathy and Ali’s current trainer) of Ashmeadow Farm. After the conclusion of the 2015 circuit, she decided she wanted to begin casually shopping for a young hunter that Amanda could develop into an amateur horse for Ali.

“Not even two days after I got back to Massachusetts, Amanda texted me and my mom and told us there was a horse we had to try in Wellington, but it was time sensitive so we had to fly down right away,” Ali recalls. It was love at first sight and within a matter of days, Spotify aka “JP” was Ali’s.

Photo by The Book LLC

“It’s always a gamble when you get a young horse if they will mature and have the brain to do the amateur life, but JP has really stepped up to the plate for me. He has taught me so much over the past three years and has made horse showing so much fun.”

Of the seven weeks that Ali showed JP at HITS Ocala this winter, she and the nine-year-old Oldenburg gelding brought home Champion four weeks, Reserve Champion one week, Mid-Circuit Champion, and overall Reserve Grand Circuit Champion in the 18-35 Adult Hunters. “He exceeded all of my expectations and this has been a real highlight for me. I’ve had some success on him over the past few years but this winter we seemed to really hit our stride together,” Ali beams.

Photo by Molly Anne Smith

Tying it All Together

Ali attributes her heightened stamina and ability to hold her own in the show ring to her fitness regime. Despite her many hours in the gym, she has yet to find any exercises that can recreate the strength you gain from riding daily.

“If I don’t ride for 30 days the next time I ride I’m going to be sore in my legs even if I was going to the gym every day. I think maintaining a certain level of fit, core strength and overall strength does benefit me some, but time in the saddle, using my muscles how they need to be used in order to ride effectively is most beneficial.”

For those of us who may be wanting to supplement our riding with time in the gym, Ali shares this bit of advice. “The gym can be an intimidating place, but we all have to start somewhere. Everyone’s fitness journey is different, and how fitness plays a role in my life and my riding is going to be different than the next person. I would say it’s important to have a goal in mind when it comes to fitness and to be realistic about the type of role fitness will have on your riding.”

Photo by Terry Smith

As for Ali, she aims to push herself even farther in 2018 by potentially competing in a body-building competition and moving up to do the 3’3” Amateur Owner Hunters. By using her two passions to complement one another, she has found a schedule that not only makes her happy, but has led her to success. “If training in the gym has taught me anything that really translates to my time in the saddle it is definitely mental clarity and focus.”