Mental Flexibility (it's a suppleness thing!)

“The rule that surpasses all rules is that you must be connected, willing to see what's in front of you, and willing to move if what you're doing isn't working.” - Terrence Real


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?

  • In the horse, a rigidness of thinking (in other words, the opposite of suppleness of thinking) would show up in such situations as:
  • The horse does not recognize a familiar dressage movement if you ask for it in a new location, or on a new line, or in a new context
  • The horse is taken by surprise when you ask for a transition in a new location or context
  • The horse is taken by surprise when you ask for a turn in a new location or context

In the rider, rigidness of thinking (again, the opposite of suppleness of thinking) would reveal itself as:

  • The rider adheres to a mechanical “playbook” that is prescribed by a certain school of thought although the horse is trying to tell her that this is the wrong way to go
  • The rider knows only one training approach and one solution to a problem
  • The rider tries to make the horse fit the method, instead of the other way around
  • The rider always rides the same lines and movements in the same place and in the same order without changing the program

So what DO we want, if those are things we do not want? We want a horse who can:

  • Stop at any time
  • Go forward at any time
  • Turn left or right at any time
  • Bend left or right at any time
  • Transition into a different gait at any time
  • Sidestep with his left or his right hind leg at any time
  • Shift his weight from side to side
  • Think on his feet and respond quickly to the rider’s requests

And, as riders, we want to be able to

  • Find out how we can help the horse
  • Find the root cause to a problem
  • Find multiple solutions to each problem
  • Keep the work varied and interesting for us and the horse
  • Pivot when our current approach or exercise isn’t working

Just as physical suppleness does not equate to a lack of core stability (in fact, it requires it!), the same applies to mental suppleness. In order to acquire an effectively helpful level of mental flexibility, you first need to have a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding of principles. These give you a framework you can depend upon. From there, you can experiment and even “break the rules” conscientiously in ways that do not stray from your core values and principles. Of course I am not the first person to mention this. Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,” and Dalai Lama XIV said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” Nearly the same statement from people with very different walks of life, yet… it is also a valid “principle” that you can apply towards riding.

Being flexible in your thinking allows you to change tactics when what you’re doing is no longer working well. Rather than doggedly sticking to a line of thought or action, you can take a step back and consider for a moment why this is not working the way you would like. Often if you take that moment to reflect, it relieves the pressure of the momentary situation and you have the opportunity (should you decide to take it) to change your thinking… to find another way of going about things… or perhaps even change what you are working on entirely. If you’re able to tap into your mental flexibility, perhaps you realize your premise is faulty. What you have been doing, and the fact that it is not bearing the results you would have expected, is proof that there is something deeper at play. If you are curious, you might ask yourself WHAT is REALLY going on. And you might discover something more important. Being able to shift tactics, strategies, and direction at a moments notice is a huge advantage in working with your horse. Horses are dynamic, sentient beings. They are not robotic and they most certainly do not always follow the books. To stay in the moment of riding, to be able to fully serve the needs of your horse IN THE MOMENT, it requires you to value the ability to become mentally flexible so that you can cultivate and develop it into your own riding.

By remaining flexible, as flexible as an “artist” you can awaken the inner “scientist” in your riding as well. A good scientist shouldn’t be attached to a certain outcome of his experiment. He should remain objective. As a rider you want to strive towards this as well. You want to be able to use your thoughtful approach to what you are doing in your training as a way to diagnose and test theories, to draw conclusions about what the causes are for your horse’s set of symptoms. If you are objective and can remain unattached to what you are doing, you are afforded the freedom to shift focus as soon as needed. It also gives you the ability to use everything you do as an opportunity to gain more information about the horse, his problems, and his needs. It can give you the opportunity to test your hypothesis and to adjust in real time so that as the horse gives you a reaction, you continue to adjust what you do next based on his reaction and on and on like that.

As author Pearl Zhu wrote, “Flexibility is a mental process which results in an action that tests a possible solution.”

Staying mentally supple also suggests a willingness to think “outside the box” and consider solutions which do not necessarily follow the traditional rules. If they do not violate your principles, ethics and values then they can yield a valid path to follow. In order to “think outside the box” you need to remain emotionally unattached to the often-repeated “dressagisms” even if they DO normally work for you, for your horse, or in the situations you have encountered. If there is one thing I have learned through this whole dressage journey, it is that for every rule, there is an exception to that rule. If you stay too attached to the “rule”, you will miss the opportunity to learn more and find an even better solution for your horse.