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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Christensen

How I Ruined My Ability to Ride

bucking horse

One of my students had a really rough ride recently. We've all been there. Some days are just like that... we thought things were going OK, we thought we were improving in certain exercises, but then invariably our horse decides we need some humbling, and we have a ride where nothing works right.

This particular student also tends to be pretty hard on herself, seeming to feel that other riders don't have the same problems that she has... and/or that other horses make things easier on their riders, doing things automatically while her horse makes things challenging for her. While we were working on riding accurate circles one day, she asked "When is my horse going to learn how to make a ten meter circle? It seems like she should know that by now." I had to explain that even the horses in the Olympics can't simply be told to "make a 10 meter circle" and then be left to their own devices to execute a perfectly-sized, perfectly round circle by themselves... The riders of those top horses still have to steer their horse through the exercise and feel and address balance shifts when their horse wants to make the circle a little too big or a little too small or not quite round... The horses at that level are just VERY sensitive to their riders' aids and everything happens so subtly that you can't see most of the adjustments that are being made. Just because you can't see it though, doesn't mean it isn't happening. The horses definitely haven't been trained to do everything perfectly on auto pilot without any adjustments from their riders.

shoulder in at the trot

I wanted to make my student feel better about her tough ride and show her that her horse isn't the only one does undesirable things and needs corrections/adjustments. She was my last lesson of the morning, so I started riding while she was putting her horse away. I kept watching for her, hoping to call her over as she was walking by the arena. My intention was to have her watch me ride while I narrated all of the things that I was addressing with the horse at any given moment... Things that she likely wouldn't realize were going on without me pointing them out, since he was giving a nice performance overall and allowing me to make subtle corrections before any problems became too obvious. I started practicing my narration while I waited to catch her.

"He's stiffening his neck against my right rein here."

"He's throwing his shoulder out in this turn."

"He's not moving off of my inside leg well enough."

"He's unsteady on the contact here."

"He was too slow to respond to my canter aid there."

It only took about five minutes before I realized that I couldn't ride at all. Nothing was working. I was frustrated. The frustration was manifesting itself into my body and I was tense. I wasn't reacting with the right timing. The horse started getting more stiff and reacting even more slowly to my aids. Everything was off.

I had to stop and assess what was going on. When I'm riding, I'm always trying to feel what the horse is doing and make adjustments accordingly. Why, then, was it proving to be a problem for me to note the issues that I was feeling and addressing? How was this any different than what I always did while riding?

I realized that it was all in the phrasing. In my practice narration to my student, I was placing the emphasis on everything that the horse was doing wrong. This made for a very negative stream of thoughts in my brain. What I do normally is a little different, I just hadn't realized it consciously until this moment. I normally have a more goal-driven train of thought.

Instead of saying "he's too slow", I say "go faster". Instead of saying, "his shoulder is falling out", I say "turn the shoulder". Instead of saying "he's against my inside leg", I say "move over off of my leg". Yes, I feel and notice what I don't want, but I focus my intention on what I DO want. Taking the time to put all of the problems into words to state them as I rode was putting too much of my mental focus on them. I don't want my focus on the negatives or the problems. I have to put my focus on achieving what I do want... And also by the time I felt it and stated the problem (even simply in my mind as a thought, since my student wasn't actually there at that point for me to be doing it out loud for her), I had missed my moment to correct the problem. That's why my timing was all off.

One other thing I realized is that focusing on narrating the problems with my horse didn't give him a chance to succeed. Sure, I would try to correct the problem that I had just noted, but instead of taking time to praise him for his success if he did correct it, I found myself already looking for the next issue so that I could announce that one. He didn't have a chance to have his efforts appreciated before I started dwelling on the next thing he was doing wrong. I think this can be an easy trap for people to fall into.

Dressage rider giving horse a hug
I definitely owed him a hug after my experiment.

In the end, I wound up having an entirely different takeaway message for my student than I originally planned. I had intended to simply point out to her that all horses are constantly doing things that we have to adjust for and work on, to make her feel better about the fact that her horse does these things. Ultimately, I think I had a more powerful message come from the whole thing. Yes, horses do things we don't want, but it's our job not to focus on those things and instead to focus on what we DO want so that we can put our mental energy and intention on positive goals and tasks, rather than on negative criticisms. Considering that changing my narrative to focusing on negative issues completely destroyed my riding in the span of about five minutes, I think there could be an equally powerful outcome in a positive direction by shifting one's narrative from the negatives to a more positive goal-driven narrative. However, I also think that shifting in that direction is a much harder task and, like most things worth doing, much easier said than done.

balanced uphill canter

And of course... What can help us change our mental narratives in a positive direction? Hypnotherapy! Check out our available products here:

And regardless of whether or not you decide to try any of our recordings, try to tune into your mental narrative the next time you're riding and see if you can help yourself dwell less on the problems and focus more on what you want to achieve. I hope it helps!

Until next time, Kathryn


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