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.