When I returned to riding as a middle-aged person, my first horse had a very loud ‘no.’ He was cheerful enough about doing the things he wanted to do, but my goal—to learn dressage—prompted a storm of tantrums and hissy fits of truly epic proportions. This, of course, felt horrible. He was treated well, I thought, and the requests I was making were not very difficult. So why did he spend his time looking for ways to make my life hard? Why did he keep saying ‘no’?
It happens to all driven and focused riders at some point. We get so focused in on what we are trying to work on that we lose perspective or we forget to add in enough variety of other things because we want to “fix” this certain issue (and we want to fix it TODAY!).
On the one hand it is important to have a level of perseverance. Giving up at the sign of the slightest resistance or problem is not a path to success, but there comes a point where our dogged perseverance can backfire and make the matter worse. In those circumstances, we need to shift our gears, pivot in our approach, and shift our perspective.
A student in our Video Coaching Program has observed that her horse found the exercises more strenuous than she had anticipated. He seemed to be a little tired the next day and perhaps a little muscle sore. So she asked me how she should structure her training from now on in order not to overface the horse while at the same time giving him enough physical exercise during a time of year when the weather conditions limit her turnout and trailriding options. This is a problem that many riders and horses face. That’s why I want to share a few thoughts on this subject here.
Guest post by Marcella Becker.
Pretty much everybody that chooses to spend his time with horses puts their heart and soul in it. Certainly what motivates us all is the love of horses. Nonetheless, once we start getting really serious about our riding the entire project becomes at times laden with frustration. There is no rider who has not been at times (and this will happen again and again) right at the limit of their ability.
To become a great rider (hell… to become great at ANYTHING…). You have to fall in love with the process. Because that is what it is about. It is ABOUT the process. In other words, you have to be willing to do the work. You have to want it bad enough to endure the struggle… to get back on the horse when you’ve come off unexpectedly… to come back the next day after a bad ride and do it all again (hopefully better)…
It’s that time again! The New Year is upon us... and I'm willing to bet that you want 2018 to be the BIG BREAKTHROUGH year for you and your riding, right? Have you set New Year’s Resolutions before and not kept them? I know… silly question. WE ALL HAVE! You know why? Because it is human nature, and the nature of resolutions sort of sets us up to fail. This is why...
Sometimes we don’t realize how much we have already learned and how much we have improved. Our quality standards and our awareness have grown faster than our skills, and so we feel like we are riding worse than ever, although in reality we are riding better than we used to be, just not as well as we would like.
This week I want to share a few thoughts on something that most dressage riders are familiar with and that many of us embrace: perfectionism. It’s something that is taught to students from the very beginning, and it’s something that is demonstrated by teachers and role models. Many dressage riders even pride themselves on their perfectionism.
But perfectionism is a double edged sword. It can lead some to excellence, while it causes a great deal of pain and frustration to others.
In riding we often spend a large amount of focus on establishing and polishing the suppleness of the horse's body. We even often refer to the necessity for suppleness of the rider's body.
What is often, however, not mentioned or considered is that we also need to develop suppleness in the horse’s MIND, in his way of thinking. How flexible and resilient he is. How he adjusts to new circumstances or new exercises or new ways of doing the work.
And this also applies to the rider. As riders, we need to develop our own suppleness of thinking so that we also can become more flexible in our thinking, creative in our work, adjustable to circumstances, and resilient to circumstances.
So what does this look like?
Traditional riding instruction was often very rigid and inflexible. Disharmony or disagreements with the horse were usually framed as discipline and respect issues. That’s why you were told to prevail and insist that the horse carry out your orders at all costs - which can very quickly lead to fighting with the horse. The possibility that the horse was unable to comply due to a misunderstanding, a lack of balance, a lack of body awareness, a lack of suppleness, a lack of strength, or due to pain was rarely considered.
Anna writes that when she chooses an exercise to ride she sometimes gets stuck on one detail and continues with the exercise for too long. She loses track of her original plan and of the big picture. When she gives up her expectations and goals for the exercise or the ride, things start to improve. She also says that when she tries something for the first time on the spur of the moment she often succeeds, but when she tries it again it she can’t recreate it. This used to happen to me as well in the past. Everyone who is very passionate about their riding and who defines themselves through their riding is at risk of seeing every mistake as an “existential threat”. As a result, you get tense, you try harder, you use more strength (perhaps involuntarily because you feel pressured to get it “right”). This makes the horse tense. Instead of getting better, things get worse.
Everybody who studies anything seriously is familiar with frustration. Especially when you are an artist or an athlete, and especially when you are a rider. This frustration can have several sources. It can be due to impatience because we are not progressing as quickly as we would like or as we had hoped. A very common cause for frustration is when we compare ourself to others, whether they are our peers or our role models, or some arbitrary standard of excellence. I used to think: “What is WRONG with me? Why can’t I ride like so-and-so?” I would for instance expect myself to be able to ride as well as my teachers, although they had many more years of experience than I - not to mention the talent issue.
This is a subject that is interesting for students and teachers of dressage as well. We all want to learn to ride. That makes us curious. Curiosity leads to questions like: “How does this work?”, “How do I need to sit?”, “How do I ride a shoulder-in?”, “How do I teach a piaffe?”, etc. In pursuit of these questions, we take lessons, read books, and watch videos in the hopes of finding answers. Over the last 30 years the amount of equestrian literature has vastly proliferated, so that you can find many different publications to choose from on most topics. So far, so good. The danger is that there is a long tradition in the history of dressage to believe that there is only one true and correct way of riding and training. Everyone believes that THEIR way is the one and only RIGHT way, and that everyone else is, therefore, wrong.
Once you see that the rules you had learned don't always seem to apply, and that there are often alternative routes that lead to much better results you start questioning everything you ever learned and you start testing the rules by experimenting with alternatives.
Then you realise that the old absolute rules you learned are in reality only rules of thumb that work in a certain percentage of cases, but not always. I tell my students in lessons that the horses don't read our books. So they don't know that they are supposed to react a certain way, according to our theories.
One of the keys to success is to learn how to set clear goals, and then to set up a plan to achieve them. For me, personally, the process involves considering the logistics so that I can determine where I am overestimating my time and energy available (because I tend to dream big, but that dreaming process is important, too) but also so I can make some decisions about how to prioritize my time and energy so that I CAN achieve those goals. Without clearly thinking these things through, it is all too easy to get distracted by all of the things that happen in life. There is SO much to be distracted about! And whereas we cannot - nor should we - put the rest of our lives on hold in order to move forward in our riding - if we have clearly laid out our goals, prioritized which things need to make way in order for us to achieve these goals, and then revisit these goals regularly (I review and visualize my goals DAILY - that is a topic for a whole ‘nother newsletter!), then we stack the odds in our favor that we will at least get closer to our goals, if not achieve or surpass them altogether.