I got this question in one of our Course Q&As about what to do when you’re working on an issue or an exercise and it is not getting better. Quite simply, how do you switch focus and what should you do instead?
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.
First, it can be particularly useful to notice when this has happened and pause to ask yourself, “What thoughts are going through my head right now? What am I feeling in my body? How am I connecting with my horse energetically and emotionally.” And then, if you possibly can, go write this down.
This is why I recommend to many of my students to keep a riding journal where you can write about the things that happen in your rides, the observations you are making, the successes you have, the things you are struggling with. If you do this, over time, you will find it a great resource of re-inspiration (and sometimes very entertaining to read through!) but you will also set yourself up to notice certain patterns that exist - within your horse and within yourself.
What you want to do is be able to identify exactly what it feels like, what thought patterns are going through your head, etc. when you get into this hyper-focused and counter-productive mode. You want to very distinctly identify this because you want to be able to recognize it again later when it occurs.
So that you can break the pattern. And you can only do that if you notice it sooner and sooner each time.
So now that you have identified you have fallen into this pattern, what should you do about it?
Most important is to stop doing what you are doing. It is clearly not working, it is likely making the matter worse at this point. It can be hard to step away because you feel emotionally invested in the work, but that is exactly what you need to do. You need to step away.
Here are some things you can do instead:
- You can try to come at the issue from a totally different angle and approach. Maybe address it less through the types of exercises you are riding and more from a psychological standpoint or a different approach. There are often many different ways to achieve a desired outcome. This is why it is so useful to have many tools in your toolkit (and I don’t mean pieces of tack or equipment, I mean exercises, strategies, and techniques).
- You can ask yourself, “IF I knew what the answer was to this problem, what would it be?” It sounds odd, but sometimes you can get your answer by phrasing it to yourself this way. You can also have a conversation in your head with a rider you highly respect (your trainer, a rider friend who always seems to know how to solve seemingly complex problems, a dressage idol, one of the Old Masters). What would they have to say about the matter? What would they advise you to do?
- You can break the elements of the exercise down into simpler segments and explain them very clearly to the horse by riding each tiny element individually.
- You can get off the horse and do it from the ground.
- You can drop the topic altogether and do some other totally different exercise that works a totally different part of the horse’s body or focuses on a very different skillset. This doesn’t mean you have given up on the issue, but you have “shelved” it for now.
- You can do a totally different kind of work. Instead of dressage work, for example, perhaps you need to change it up and go trail riding, do some jumping, try a different but complementary discipline such as working equitation, or even do some liberty or ground work which does not focus on the same issue.
- You can find inspiration somewhere else to help YOU shift YOUR focus to something else. Find some other random exercise to try (Shameless Plug: this is where our Exercise of the Month club keeps you from growing stagnant in your riding by giving you 2+ new and totally inspiring exercises each month with strategies to make them useful for you and your horse right now, wherever you are in your training). Or perhaps listen to a podcast, watch a video, or read an article or book that complements what you are doing and might or might not be exactly on the issue you are working on. It might not even need to be about riding to give you the flash of inspiration you need!
- Ask your trainer, coach, or even respected rider friend to get on your horse. Sometimes they will be able to offer a completely different perspective, and sometimes they will be able to fill in the pieces of the puzzle that you were not able to figure out yourself.
- Give your horse some time off. In other words, give yourself some time off. Hand graze your horse for a few days or even a week or two and do no work. Or literally go on vacation. Go away. Refresh yourself. You will most likely come back renewed, refreshed, and both you and your horse will be ready and happy to dive in and get back to the work when you are done. You might find that, if you do this, your focus shifts and this issue is no longer as problematic in your mind as you had thought it was. Or you may find that you have a new, better perspective. Just being less emotionally-involved can bring a better outcome. Or you may even find the problem is just no longer there anymore!
The key to all of this, though, is implementing a plan to interrupt the process when it is happening. You can do this through setting up a system to record your feelings and thoughts so that, when it happens, again, you will better recognize it. Keep a list handy, such as the one above, of ways to shift your focus and of other things you can do so that you are not having to rely on your own willpower to come up with a new idea. You can just refer to your list, choose something, and go with it. This greatly improves your ability to successfully shift your focus in such potentially emotionally-charged circumstances.
Remind yourself of this… In the end, the end goal means nothing if you lose the connection and relationship with your horse or your enjoyment of the process. Return to the things that connect you with your higher perspective. Return to the things that connect you to your horse on a heart level. And return to the things that restore your enjoyment of the process.