Ride as if you don't care

We received an e-mail from Anna in Austria with a question that probably many, if not most riders can relate to.

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.

The downward spiral continues until you give up, frustrated, feeling bad about yourself. The harder you try, the worse you ride. Eventually you give up because you think you are hopeless and you are never going to learn to ride anyway.

And suddenly things go better because you are more relaxed. You no longer have big expectations of yourself or your horse.

So you feel better about yourself and your riding. Maybe you’re not hopeless, after all.

Then you get ambitious again. You had a good ride yesterday, so you expect to have another good ride today. You want to continue today where you left off yesterday. Then the horse feels stiff and things don’t go at all as planned. You think “this can’t be! Yesterday we did this so well! Why is it not working today?” And the cycle begins again.

At least that’s what used to happen to me fairly regularly in the past. Over the years I realized that in order to ride well and make progress I need to have a healthy detachment from the outcome of the ride. I have to stay relaxed when things don’t go immediately as planned. I have to take a step back, analyze why things aren’t working as I had envisioned them, and then try other solutions. I have to avoid spinning my wheels.

If one approach fails the first three to six times, it is very unlikely that it will work during one of the next one hundred attempts. It is better to keep moving mentally, perhaps encircling the issue, approaching it from different angles, trying to identify what it is that is preventing me and/or the horse from doing the exercise or the movement correctly.

One major lesson I needed to learn was that a single ride doesn’t define my riding overall, and my riding doesn’t define me as a person: There will always be good rides and bad rides. There will always be days on which we don’t find the solution to a problem, but they will be followed by days where we do find a solution, and vice versa. Having a good ride doesn’t make me a great master. Having a bad ride doesn’t make me hopeless. Being a good rider doesn’t make me a superior human being. Being a bad rider doesn’t make me an inferior human being.

When we give up all the value judgments that are often subconsciously attached to something that is very important to us, we are free to play with the horse, with the exercises, and with the theoretical knowledge. We can explore ideas and see what happens.

We start seeing opportunities rather than problems and threats. We stay mentally and physically more relaxed, and as a result the horse stays more relaxed. Both horse and rider can then enjoy the rides more, and if we don’t like the ways something is going, we change it until we find a better way.

Sometimes it takes a while before we find the right solution, but that’s ok, too, because we learn something from every “wrong” answer we give and from every failed attempt. In fact, we often learn more from our mistakes than from the things we do right, because mistakes make us go back to the drawing board and rethink our approach, whereas when something works it just confirms us in what we already know. So it’s typically our mistakes that lead to an expansion of our knowledge.

So, for me personally the solution was to ride as if I didn’t care about the outcome, which was very difficult.

And I had to learn not to have expectations of how the ride would go or what we would accomplish but just to explore what is possible here and now, with this horse. That way, both myself and the horse can stay relaxed and enjoy the ride more.