Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Would You Want to Be Your Horse?

Now here is an interesting question to contemplate the next time you ride.  Would you like to be your horse right now if that meant carrying you on your back?  I heard a clinician recently ask this question and I thought it was brilliant. She was speaking to someone who was very stuck in her hip joints and was not following the movement of the horse.  She was also stuck in the shoulders so her hands were not softly following the horse’s head movement, and every time his head moved as he walked his mouth banged against the immobile bit.

The question was not asked in a negative insulting way, but rather in a supportive way that really encouraged the rider to think about how her horse was feeling in response to what she was or was not doing.  The rider thought briefly about the question and shortly afterward answered “no”.  The clinician asked her to describe why and she quickly identified her stuck seat and stuck hands.  It didn’t take long for her to refocus her awareness to these issues and correct them.

I spoke to the rider after her lesson and she was amazed.  She said that she has been told many times by instructors to “soften her hands” and “loosen her seat” and she tries to do as they request believing she has accomplished it.  Only to be told the exact same thing the next lesson.  For some reason, she observed, despite her best intentions she just couldn’t seem to make the positive changes she made stick beyond a lesson.  Being asked to consider whether or not she would like to be her horse was like someone switched on a lightbulb for her.  She was even more amazed the next day when she approached her riding from this perspective and was able to keep her seat less tight and her hands softer.

What if everyone applied this question to their riding all of the time?  And then made an effort to change whatever it is that would make it undesirable to be your horse, whether it be riding position, tack or something else.  I think we would find more people with better awareness of their own balance (would you like to carry around a knapsack weighing one tenth of your weight that is lopsided?).  I think we would see closer attention paid to saddle fit, girth over-tightening and bit fitting. For example, have you ever held a bit in one hand that has leather reins attached to the bit ring and a bit in the other hand that has reins clipped to the bit ring by a metal clip?  Try it, and get someone to jiggle the reins.  The difference is remarkable.  The harshness of the metal clip on the metal bit ring travels through the bit and is horrible compared to the leather on the bit ring.  Many people use these types of reins for convenience, but if they thought about which reins their horse would choose if he could, their choice would likely be different.

So, periodically as you ride ask yourself “Would I want to be my horse right now?”  If the answer is no, make a change that would enable you to answer yes.

Take home message for equestrian educators
As equestrian educators we have as much responsibility for the welfare of the horses that help us teach our students as we do for the students.  Therefore, we should take every opportunity to foster empathy for horses in our students.  I asked a similar question to the one above to a student of mine once.  We had been working on a lesson program over several months to help her horse move less on the forehand.  He was coming back to riding after being laid off due to a lameness issue that was exacerbated by being ridden on the forehand.  He was gradually beginning to develop a stronger back and hind end muscles through lots of slow-paced careful work in hand and under saddle.  One day I came out to the arena and to my surprise, I saw my student riding her horse at a very fast trot with a hollow back.  The student was smiling and the horse looked miserable.  He was clearly uncomfortable.  Although it was not a lesson night I stopped her and asked her what she was doing. 

She replied that she just really felt like going fast tonight for the first time in a long while because she finds it more fun to go fast.  I asked her “how do you think your horse feels about that?”  She was quiet for a moment and then she identified that this was probably not the best thing for him right now. I agreed and left them to the rest of their ride, which she refocused on work that was both more comfortable and more beneficial for her horse.  Later, she found me in the stable and thanked me for stopping her.  She identified that she had not been thinking of her horse first and that was wrong.

There was no question in my mind that I had to try and intervene in that circumstance for the benefit of the horse.  Doing it in a way that asked the student to think about how her horse was feeling proved to be a useful way to refocus her thinking and an opportunity to try and improve her empathy.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks
Many of us have seen or experienced this scenario.  The riding student finishes her lesson with her riding instructor and as she leads her horse back to the barn, she is feeling frustrated.  She wonders why after five lessons where it seems the instructor is teaching exactly the same skill, she cannot seem to adequately perform this one simple thing.

We all know that it takes time to learn something new.  And that children seem to learn new things faster than adults. But why is that?  It has to do with something called “neuroplasticity.”  Our brains actually physically reorganize themselves as we learn new things.  New connections happen between the neurons in your brain as you learn something new, and existing connections are sometimes reorganized.  This appears to happen faster with children compared to adults.

There is a great video produced by Smarter Every Day that demonstrates this concept brilliantly.  In the video, an engineer designs a bicycle that works opposite to the way that normal bikes work.  When you turn the handlebars left, the front wheel turns right and vice versa.  Everyone who knows how to ride a bike simply cannot keep their balance on this bike.  Two people who practice daily finally master the skill, only to find out that they now cannot ride a normal bicycle – because their brain has reorganized neural pathways to learn the new way.

There is also evidence that experts in a particular skill have larger parts of the brain associated with that skill when compared to non-experts.  Dr. Pascale Michelon*notes that professional musicians who practice at least one hour a day have a larger brain cortex than amateur or non-musicians.
Neuroplasticity has several implications for people who ride and for people who teach riders.  Sometimes we get frustrated with ourselves when we cannot master a skill we are taught in one lesson, or two lessons, or ten lessons.  But the reality is that it takes time for your brain to reorganize itself to learn new skills, and everyone’s brain grows new neural pathways at different speeds.  Accepting that it takes time to learn can help reduce frustration, and reducing frustration is important because it is a great impediment to riding for a whole host a reasons.

The fact that it takes time to learn also explains the importance of regular practice.  This is true of every skill.  However, often in the equestrian world I come across people who ride once a week and are frustrated that their skills are not progressing.  In order to build new neural pathways, regular practice is critical, and that means riding often to practice specific skills.  If riding more than once a week is not possible, then it is important to adjust expectations about progress to match what is physically possible for your brain.

Take home message for equestrian educators:
We have to be creative in helping our students learn the art of riding, to ensure that we teach in ways that match the learning style of each rider.  But we also must be aware that learning involves a physical change process in the brain.  It may take some students many months to learn a new skill, and that may have absolutely nothing to do with how well they listen to your instructions or focus while in a lesson. It may have everything to do with the fact that their brain is taking time to develop new neural pathways, and this is why it is important that instructors not get frustrated with students if it sometimes feels like you are teaching the same lesson over and over again to the same student.  Sometimes that repetition is necessary to support the growth of new neural connections.  And then one day – voila!  The connection will be established, the skill will be there and the student will have what we often call an “aha!” moment.


Friday, 5 May 2017

Shared Energy

If you have ever watched horses in the pasture together you have an understanding of what shared energy is all about. Without signs that are obvious to the human eye the horses clearly communicate with each other when it's time to move to better grass or when there might be a predator lurking in the field. Most riders have also experienced shared energy with their horse. It is in those moments where it seems like you only need to think what the next movement will be and suddenly you and your horse are doing it. The best riders in the world, the ones who ride effortlessly with their horses and seemingly use very few aids are accomplished at establishing and using shared energy.

It is my experience that shared energy also happens during riding lessons. There is a three way sharing of energy: between horse, rider and instructor. Good riding instructors make an assessment of the state of shared energy between horse and rider early in the riding lesson. Sometimes there are very clear disconnections in the sharing of energy.  An example is when a rider does not take time to calm their mind and body after a stressful day at work.  The rider will often not be able to move harmoniously with the horse and the horse will move less fluidly than normal. Their shared energy is blocked by the riders’ stress and tension.

There is also a shared energy between the student and the instructor. Astute instructors who are tuned into the energy of their students can often tell even before the student mounts their horse what the student’s emotional state is. There are cues through what they say, how they move and how they interact with their horse that can tell an instructor whether or not the rider’s energy is mainly positive or negative.. I have had situations where a rider has come into my stable and before they even talk to me or visit their horse I can tell that there's something wrong simply by the feeling of energy that they bring with them into the barn.

I have done numerous experiments with shared energy in riding lessons. I have had situations where I'm working with a very nervous rider who may have had an escalation in anxiety due to some event such as a spook from the horse. I have consciously centered and grounded myself, slowed my breathing and thought about projecting calm towards horse and rider. In all of the occasions that I have tried this, the riders have without exception indicated that something changed for them and it became easier to breathe, release tension and refocus on the ride.  

I have also observed on many occasions how much the instructor’s energy can impact the horse. There is the long-standing joke that the instructor who stands in the center of the arena is often a horse magnet, especially for school horses that have learned coming to the center means a chance to stop while the instructor talks to the rider. I do not tend to teach lessons in riding schools with school horses, but rather in private barns with privately owned horses. I also do not stand in the center of the ring - I move around a lot so the traditional experience of the instructor magnet doesn't really hold true for me. I have experienced on numerous occasions lessons where riders are perhaps having difficulty learning a new skill or communicating with their horses. The riders and I have noticed that their horse keeps gravitating to me throughout the lesson no matter where I happen to be standing.  I believe the horses are seeking quiet supportive energy as a break from the negative energy their rider is projecting at the time. I have watched this phenomenon with other coaches whose work I admire as well.

So when you walk into the riding arena with your horse ready for your lesson, keep in mind that your energy impacts your horse and it impacts your instructor. It is important to be aware of what energy you're bringing into the arena. Is your energy positive or negative?  Is it at a low or high level? I encourage you to experiment with understanding shared energy. Please share your thoughts and your comments about shared energy – it is a subject that fascinates me and I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of understanding.

Take away message for equestrian educators
As an equestrian educator you have a dual responsibility when it comes to managing the energy in the learning environment of a horse and rider. The first responsibility is understanding the current state of shared energy between horse and rider. Do they seem to be working well together? If not, and you can't find the cause in the rider’s physical body position, it could be that there's a disconnect in the way that horse and rider are sharing energy. I have found if I can identify there's an issue in the way that horse and rider are sharing energy, I can bring it to the rider's attention we can almost always correct it often the issue is one of lack of awareness on the riders purse of the fact that there is a disconnect.

The second responsibility as a riding instructor is monitoring your own energy that you bring to the lesson. In the same way that you as a riding instructor can read the energy of horse and rider, so too will your energy affect the rider and horse and the way they are able to perform in a lesson. It is our responsibility as educators to make sure that we bring a positive energy that supports learning to a lesson. I have a habit of stopping at the doorway to the riding arena and before I enter, taking a moment to ground and center myself in order to respect the fact that I may have just come from a bustling busy environment but now my attention and my energy need to be focused on the learning experience of the two learners in the arena. I would love to hear more about other riding instructors’ experience of shared energy.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Thumbs on Top…But Do You Know Why?
Rider hand position is often discussed in riding books and by riding instructors.  Many of us have been told to make sure we hold the reins with our thumbs on top, slightly pointing inwards.  “Piano hands” (with the knuckles on top) or “puppy dog hands” (knuckles on top, wrist floppy) are well known “no-nos” when it comes to riding.  When I first started riding I was told: “Thumbs on top!” but when I asked why, I wasn’t happy with the answer I got: “because it’s important.”  Many people don’t know WHY it is important to keep thumbs on top.  So let’s explore.  It’s all about bones, muscles and tension.

There are two main bones in your forearm: the ulna and the radius.  The ulna is located on the same side of your arm as the little finger, running from your elbow to your wrist.  The radius is located on the thumb side of your arm.  You can feel these bones if you palpate your arm.  These two bones are connected to each other by a fibrous membrane.  Hold your forearm down by your side and let it hang naturally.  Raise your arm out in front of you so that the fingers point inward and the knuckle of the thumb faces up.  Now turn your forearm so the palm faces downward; the thumb rotates inward.  As you turn your arm, you activate two muscles that cause the radius and the ulna to cross over one another.  See the diagram.  One muscle that you activated (called the pronator quadratus) is located near the wrist joint.  It pulls the end of the radius over the ulna as you rotate the forearm so the palm faces down. 

You can feel the effect of activating this muscle when holding the reins.  Hold your arms as though you are riding: upper arms hanging softly from the shoulders, elbows bent at about 90 degrees, wrists straight, hands softly closed around your imaginary reins, thumbs on top with a slight bend in the thumb knuckle.  Become aware of your wrist joint.  How does it feel?  Don’t move the wrist joint, just take note of what it feels like.  Now, rotate your forearm so that the knuckles of your fingers face downward.  Now what does your wrist joint feel like?  Most people will feel like there is more tension in the wrist, which comes from a combination of activating that pronator quadratus muscle and the crossing of the two forearm bones.

Achieving an elastic connection with the horse through the reins can only be achieved if we minimize the tension in our arms in such a way that the horse feels invited to take contact with us. Riding with the knuckles pointing down increases the tension in our wrist, which is communicated to the horse through the reins (whether they are attached to a bit or to a bitless bridle).  This compromises our ability to achieve a harmonious connection.  And that is why we must ride with thumbs on top.
Take away message for instructors: For many people, understanding WHY we ask them to do something is an important key to helping them figure out how to do it, and to keep doing it.  Body awareness only comes when we understand how and why our bodies work the way they do.

Diagram is from Hermizan Bin Halihanafia.  Anatomy Musculoskeletal: Radius and Ulna, Elbow and Radioulnar Joint.  College of Allied Health Sciences.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Learning and the Introvert

My idea of a perfect day off to relax is a day at the beach by myself with a good book that I may or may not choose to read (after spending time with the horses of course). Quiet time spent enjoying the sights, sounds and scents of natural beauty around me is good for my soul.  I have a number of friends who also like to relax at the beach, but they want to go with friends, play lots of beach games like volleyball and have a grand time socializing.  I am sure that they too enjoy being at the beach, but they need social contact to relax while I need quiet.  The difference between us? They are extroverts and I am an introvert.

I have recently read the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain.  A very interesting read indeed, and it got me thinking about the differences in how introverted and extroverted riders learn.  Introverts prefer less stimulation than extroverts (hence the desire to be on the beach by myself), whereas extroverts enjoy more stimulation, like meeting new people.  Extroverts are often the life of the dinner party, prefer talking to listening and rarely find themselves at a loss for words.  Introverts may have very strong social skills and enjoy socializing but they will often want to leave the party early to go home and relax alone or with close family.  In working and learning environments, extroverts enjoy working in groups whereas the introvert prefers working and learns better alone.

This has significant implications for the way we learn and teach about riding.  I have one riding student who absolutely cannot focus on the lesson until she provides me with lots of details about her life on and off horseback since the last time we met.  For the first ten minutes of her lesson, she talks, and I listen while she walks her horse on a loose rein to warm him up.  I have come to understand that this is necessary for her, for her own warm up.  As a strong extrovert, she needs to develop that sense of connection with the other person in the arena before she can get on with the lesson.  I am practiced now and I can tell when we have reached the point where she is ready to focus.  When we reach that point I usually proceed with “Now that we are warmed up, let’s begin, and that marks the beginning of our real work, even though. I am sure she would tell observers that her lesson actually began 10 minutes before.  Initially I thought this person was suffering from a serious lack of focus.  Then I realized that she is an extrovert and I need to respect her need to connect before proceeding.

In great contrast to this, my lessons with my own coach are often filled more with silence than spoken words. After we establish what we want to work on, she will give some verbal instruction or feedback and then she waits quietly while I experiment with how to implement what she has just told me.  I work with my horse and she tells me when it is right or offers a correction when needed, but she respects my introverted learning style that is based on quiet focus.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?  How does it impact how you learn as a rider?  If you are an introvert taking group lessons all of the time, you might want to think about semi-private or private lessons.  If you are an extrovert who mostly works alone, you might want to make sure you find time to socialize with like-minded equestrians to satisfy your need for connection with others as part of your equestrian experience.

Take home message for equestrian educators:

It is important to know if your students are introverts or extroverts and adjust your teaching style accordingly.  For example, often in group lessons, I have watched riding instructors have all the group members line up in the centre and then ask each rider to demonstrate a skill one at a time.  This can be incredibly stressful for the introvert who may not learn well with other people watching, whereas the extrovert will be energized by the presence of others. People cannot change if they are introverted or extroverted.  It is hard-wired into our personality.  Therefore, it is up to riding instructors to adjust their teaching style to maximize the learning opportunities for both extroverted and introverted students.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Why Do You Ride?

Whenever I ask this question of an equestrian, I usually get a brief “because I love horses,” “because I love working in partnership with such a powerful animal,” “because I love those moments when we feel like we are moving as one,” or similar answers.  While these are fine reasons to ride, I think that for many of us, there is a much deeper reason. A reason that speaks to a deeper internal reward.  And if we understand that deeper reason, it is a resource we can turn to in times when we are frustrated in our riding journey.

As part of my own reflective practice I have come to understand that for me, being with horses and in particular riding one of my own horses, is a key to finding my inner peace and understanding of my connection to the world around me.  To find those beautiful moments of togetherness with my horses, I must learn to clear my mind of all the noise of work and life stresses, ignore the distractions of the hundreds of tasks that need doing, and devote my entire awareness to the relationship with another being in the universe – the horse that I am with.  Being with my horses helps me find joy in the present moment and after spending time with my horses I feel refreshed, renewed and rebalanced.

Sure I have riding goals and I always want to advance my ability as a rider.  I enjoy the challenge of riding.  And just like everyone else, I have times when I feel frustrated that my horse and I cannot seem get past a particular sticky spot in our training.  When I reach that place of frustration, if I pause for a few days and reflect on the question “why do I ride?” I come to the same understanding every time: I ride because riding is a pathway to inner peace for me.  Then the fact that we have not been able to accomplish a particular goal becomes much less important.  Answering this question inevitably allows me to free myself from the bondage of goal-driven frustration and negative self-talk and enables me to return to listening to my horse and finding other pathways that ultimately always lead me to accomplish the goal I set out to achieve in the first place.

Why do YOU ride?

Take home message for equestrian educators
Help your students understand their reason for riding.  I have stopped many students in the middle of a lesson when it is apparent that they are becoming overwhelmed with frustration and I have asked them this question.  They always give me a quick answer like those I listed above. I try to help them reflect a little deeper with responses like “you can enjoy working in partnership with a horse without riding” or “you can love horses without riding them” or ”you can have beautiful moments moving as one with a horse by doing work in hand.”  I suggest to them that they can do all of these things without riding.  I encourage them to dig a little deeper - so why do you RIDE? 

What fabulous discussions I have had with students when we explore this together and they increase their own awareness of why they do what they do.  Frustration evaporates, the horse relaxes and the lesson proceeds in a whole other way.  Once I have had this discussion with a student, in future lessons when I see frustration growing, all I have to do is ask them to take a walk break and reflect on why they ride.  It works every time.
Who IS That Talking in My Head?

“What is the matter with you?  Just do as you were taught by the instructor! ”
“Why can’t you just seem to do this one little thing correctly?”
“You are such an idiot.  Can’t you figure this out?”
“Don’t be such a dummy. Everyone ELSE can do this. Why can’t you?”

Sound familiar? Almost every rider has heard these questions, or similar versions.  And we (hopefully) don’t hear them from anyone other than ourselves.  We pick at ourselves endlessly with negative self-talk and expect unrealistic and unattainable perfection.  Why do we do this?  And more importantly, how do we stop doing it?

The Ohio Center for Sports Psychology lists 9 mental skills for successful athletes.  One of them is positive self-talk.  They suggest that successful athletes train the voice in their head to talk to them just like they would talk to their own best friend.  When you use positive self-talk, you reframe the conversation you have in your head from negative to encouraging. You highlight the positive, identify what’s not working and figure out a positive plan forward.  Just like your best friend who offers encouragement and suggestions.

When our ego gets involved in our riding, we get focused on the end product as the reward, rather than the process or journey as the reward.  The only thing that satisfies the ego is the end reward.  I want to ride a shoulder –in.  Therefore the reward and only acceptable outcome to the ego is executing a perfect shoulder-in.  And if I don’t achieve it, the ego starts nattering away at us telling us what a bad job we are doing.  The ego is that persistent voice in your head that constantly makes us worry whether we or what we do is good enough by our own or someone else’s standards.

Negative self-talk produces frustration and negative energy, both of which are counter-productive to effective riding.  But we can train the ego to be our friend instead of our foe by learning how to stop negative self-talk and use positive self-talk.  There are lots of self-help books and articles on the internet that offer ideas for how to use positive self-talk.  For the students that I have worked with on this issue, the first most important thing they must do is recognize when their ego is getting in the way with negative self-talk.  Negative self-talk becomes a habit that we fall into and don’t even realize the impact it has upon us or our horse.  Once we recognize “that is negative self-talk!” we can then use something called a pattern interrupt to stop it and help us reframe our self-talk to be positive.

To create a pattern interrupt, you need to pick an image that is not at all related to riding.  I had one student pick an image of a refrigerator.  Every time she caught herself using negative self-talk she would think of the image of a refrigerator to stop the pattern of negative thought.  Once you stop negative thinking you can shape your thoughts in a different way that help you move forward more positively and productively. Give yourself advice. “Well that exercise didn’t go so well.  Let’s experiment to see what I can change to see if we can make it better next time.”  This approach changes the energy to be more positive, where past mistakes become opportunities for learning and further inquiry.  Your horse will thank you for your reduced frustration level, which will help reduce the tension he feels in your body.

Example of Reframing Negative Self Talk
Heave sigh.  I have been working on learning the shoulder-in for weeks and weeks now and I am still not getting it.  I am so BAD at this.  I cannot even mange to get my horse to understand what I want.  And then when we finally get close to performing a shoulder in, I go and ruin it every time by pulling on the inside rein.

“Wait a minute, what am I doing? REFRIGERATOR!

More Positive Approach
Hmm.  We had really great rhythm going in that trot.  But when we tried the shoulder in again we lost the rhythm again.  I wonder happened to disrupt the rhythm? Let’s try that again and see if I can keep my body moving freely with my horse as we prepare for shoulder-in.  Let’s try and see what happens. It is an experiment and if it doesn’t work we will try something else.”


Monday, 1 May 2017

What is Reflective Practice Anyway? 

Reflective practice is a well-known process in many professional disciplines.  It is a deliberate and disciplined approach to continuous learning. There are many models of reflective practice, but the majority of them consist of four major elements.

  • ·         Experience. First, you experience something, such as a ride with your horse. 
  • ·         Observations. When the experience is over, make observations about what just happened.  Observations include asking yourself questions like: What did we do? What worked well? How did I feel when it was working well?  How did my horse feel when it was working well?  What didn’t work so well? How was my body feeling when it wasn’t working so well?
  • ·         Reflection.  At this stage in the process, we try and make sense of what we have observed.  The most useful questions are “why?” and “what did I learn from this experience that will help me next time.”
  • ·         Plan. Make a plan for what you will do the next time you ride, based on what you have learned from this experiment.

It seems like a simple enough process, but it is surprising how many riders do not take a disciplined approach to reflection, which in numerous professions has been clearly linked to improved practice.  As Linda Finlay says: “Done well and effectively, reflective practice can be an enormously powerful tool to examine and transform practice.”*

There are several different tools that you can use to help with your own reflective practice.  A few of my students keep written journals, some more detailed than others.  Another riding friend writes a blog about her experiences with her horses and the process of writing is also a practice of reflection for her.  I often use a video for reflective practice.  My rides are all videoed and after the ride I think about what worked particularly well or not, and then find that segment of the ride on the video and play it back several times.  Based on what I see on the video I formulate a plan for next time to build on what I have learned and experienced.  Another way of constructively using reflective practice is to reserve five minutes at the end of your lesson with your instructor to discuss the riding experience.
However you choose to approach the process, reflective practice is a key learning tool to further your development as a rider.

Take home message for equestrian educators:
It is important to support your students in using reflective practice as an approach to learning.  You can do this at the end of every lesson by asking good questions.  At the end of the lesson, don’t give immediate feedback to the student.  Instead ask them to make observations by asking questions such as what they believe went well about the ride; ask them how their horse felt at the beginning compared to the end of the ride; ask them if they noticed anything change in the way that either their or their horse’s body moved by the end of the ride.  There is a myriad number of questions you can ask that are designed to make the rider make observations about the experience they just had. 
And then ask them “why do you think that happened?” or some other similar question that enables the student to reflect on the meaning of the observations.  You may have the answer to the question, but it is important to let the student try to formulate an answer even if it is wrong and then discuss it with them until together you find the correct answer through discussion, or validate the answer as correct.  The five minutes you spend fostering this reflective practice will quite possibly facilitate far more learning than having the student continue to ride for five more minutes at the end of the ride.

Finding the Off Switch – Turning Off the Overthink

I am reading an interesting book that a friend gave to me called “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli.  It is a great collection of short chapters about the simple errors we make in our day to day thinking that impact our choices and our happiness in big ways.  Several of his observations have a direct connection to riding. The one that most immediately stood out for me was the chapter on overthinking. Most of us riders are guilty of this at some point; some riders are challenged by this every time they ride.

Dobelli says “Essentially if you think too much, you cut off your mind from the wisdom of your feelings.”  Think about that for a minute.  Achieving a harmonious horse-rider relationship is primarily about a human learning to feel the horse underneath them.  Learning to feel the movement of the horse, the balance of the horse, the tension of the horse, and the flow of energy between the horse and rider.  How then can we achieve this if the mind is busy thinking about a checklist of technical things related to riding?  The answer: we can’t.

This then raises the question when do you use your thinking mind and when do you focus on feel?  Because let’s face it. Most riders need some level of technical detail that requires them to think about how to use their body and how to communicate with the horse.  Most of us are not born with that innate ability.  We don’t just put beginners on a horse and say there you are – go feel the horse and you will figure it out.  That’s not fair to the horse or the rider.  So there is a place in riding for the thinking part of our mind that asks us questions like “is my contact through the reins steady enough? Are my reins too long? Are my legs in the right place?” And so on.  It becomes a problem when this mental chatter is constant throughout the entire ride.

So how do we turn off the mental chatter?  One approach is to tune into and experience your senses.  What are your ears telling you?  What is your sense of touch telling you? How is the horse’s body moving underneath you? What’s happening all around you right now (not five minutes ago or possibly in the next five minutes – but right now)?  Another approach is to smile and laugh during your ride.  The benefit of smiling and laughter to our health and well-being are enormous, including the ability to stop overthinking. Knowing how to and practicing effectively turning off “the overthink” is essential to enabling us to maximize the potential of our relationship with our horses.

Take Home Message for Equestrian Educators
Riding instructors have two main responsibilities in helping their riders stop overthinking. The first is recognizing it when it happens during lessons, so we can alert the student to the fact they are overthinking and invite them to try a different approach.  Some of the signs of overthinking are increased tension in horse and rider, hardening of the rider’s jaw, shallow breathing, increasing frustration, or the tendency to ride around and around the outside of the schooling arena without any schooling figures.

The second responsibility riding instructors have is to not teach in a manner that promotes overthinking.  A lesson in which an instructor constantly issues commands to the rider does not allow the rider any time to feel.  Such a lesson is all about doing, and we need to think in order to do.  An endless sequence of commands like “move your leg back, drop your hands, more leg, half halt” and so on does not give the student time to feel.  Offer technical instructions, but also allow ample quiet time so horse and rider can experience the feeling of new movements.  We must build in times throughout the lesson that are dedicated to feeling not thinking.

April 1 2017