Yoga And Equitation: A Lightbulb Moment

Yoga And Equitation: A Lightbulb Moment

I recently posted an article about mindful horsemanship, and also an article exploring horsemanship considered as a martial art. Since I’m one of those annoying people who can’t encounter new data without relating it back to the context of horses, this week, I’ve got a yoga video to share with you. Yoga and equitation isn’t a new or revelatory combination, but this particular video struck a real chord with me.

Yoga and Equitation Graphic

Background…

Part of my morning routine includes practicing along with a short yoga instructional video on YouTube. I have a couple of favorite channels that I typically gravitate toward, usually looking for a 10-15 minute flow. The goal of this part of my routine is to get the blood flowing, muscles activated, and my mind and body coordinated to start the day.

Without further ado, here is the video that prompted a “click” in my rider’s brain. It’s a short one, so if you’re reading this in a context in which it would be classy to do so, go ahead and yoga along. I’ll wait.

All video credit goes to Yoga with Adriene — massive shout-out to her for her fine work and excellent instructional videos!!! Seriously, check her out on YouTube.

Finding Your Seat Out Of The Saddle

Did you catch the references to finding the sit-bones? To plugging into the earth? How about the ears-shoulders-hips alignment moment?

Easy Pose is exactly how we need to think about sitting in the saddle! The amazing thing is… finding your horseman’s seat is not at all the point of yoga. But, at the same time, the end result of practicing Easy Pose as Adriene instructs is to achieve the same alignment, connection, and grounding that so many of us seek in the saddle. Practicing this pose is going to jump-start your feel and muscle memory for that grounded-but-stretched-upward alignment.

Namaste in the Saddle

In the saddle, finding the Easy Pose as shown in the video is effectively finding the basic neutral dressage seat. Cue lightbulb. More broadly speaking, yoga helps equitation in several ways.

Alignment and Balance

mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash
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Adopting any yoga pose is a physical challenge to your body to move and stretch while maintaining correct posture and alignment. Just as in the Yoga with Adrienne video above, correct posture and alignment doesn’t change when you throw a horse into the mix. Practicing correct alignment, posture, and balance out of the saddle directly translates to better equitation. Similarly, poor posture while just standing around, or sitting at the computer, will carry over into your riding.

“Holding” Strength

Another side effect of yoga practice is strength training. I am no physical therapist or personal trainer, but I observe a similarity between the kind of strength that the rider needs and the kind of strength that the yogi needs. It is a “holding” kind of strength, a subtle sort of strength that holds stability in movement. In contrast, visualize a power lifter, or maybe a football or rugby player where the strength manifests as brute force.

The Breath

The most important part of any yoga practice is, hands down, the breath. Movements and transitions between poses are guided by the breath, which is the constant touchstone throughout the practice.

Feel tension? Breathe into that part of your body.

Mind wandering? Focus on your breath.

Challenging pose? Breathe through your discomfort. Now, DON’T try to breath through pain. That would be counterproductive. But, for the mild discomfort of adopting a pose that is on the edge of your physical ability? A stretch or position that challenges the boundary of your comfort zone? Bringing your focus to your breath instead allows you to keep on  with the practice and be challenged by the stretch or pose, rather than giving it up totally.

Tethering focus and movement to the breath helps us as riders in the same way.

WEG 2010 - Dressage Qualifying
By Jean [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Breathing, especially deep and slow breathing, like that used in yoga, essentially forces the rider to relax mentally and physically. Consider moments in your riding, or life in general, when you are tense or worried. What is your breathing like? The answer is probably something like short and shallow, probably with brief spans of holding your breath. Have you ever gotten a “stitch” in your side? Especially in gaits like sitting trot or canter? That is a side-effect of unconsciously holding your breath in tension. Bringing your attention back to your breathing will wash the tension out of your body. It’s the first step of the Training Scale, for rider as well as horse. Since the horse mirrors the rider, a tense rider is going to create tension in the horse.

I don’t think I need to explain how a tense mind hurts your horsemanship. Fear and anxiety cripple many riders, keeping them from progressing as horsemen, or even keeping them from riding altogether. Returning focus to the breath relieves tension from the mind as well as from the body. In moments of fear and anxiety, when the “what ifs” take over and keep us from really riding, a few deep breaths relax the mind and bring it back to center.

Conclusion

Horses, in their phenomenal sensitivity and sympathy, mirror our mental and physical state, even before we step in the stirrup. Practicing, even dabbling, in yoga and bringing those techniques to the saddle brings a number of benefits to the rider. It improves our body awareness, and helps us find correct alignment in our equitation. It improves our strength and flexibility. Finally, it gives us the tools and habits to tie mind and body together through the breath, allowing us to relax and center our focus in ourselves, and by extension in our horses.

I’ve taken some of these yoga lessons to the saddle before, but adapting a more formal pose to horseback is an experiment. Easy Pose was a profound success, and a lightbulb moment for me connecting yoga and equitation.

I recommend starting every ride with a moment of quiet, and find your horseback Easy Pose first thing after mounting. There are two major benefits here. First, and most obviously, you’re finding your correct seat and position before you move off. Second, and less obviously, you’re starting your mount’s experience of the ride with a moment of calm and peace that he craves… and also setting his expectation that we stand still for a moment after mounting. 😉 When you have a moment of tension, of fear, of frustration, come back to your rider’s Easy Pose and feel the alignment come back, the rooting upward reach of your position, and the regulation and deepening of your breath.

Many many thanks to Yoga with Adriene for the excellent video and in-depth explanation of Easy Pose. You’ve jump started many of my mornings, and with this particular video forced me to deconstruct my equitation, an effect that I’m sure you never considered. If you haven’t, you really should try riding. Namaste.

The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

mindful horse human eyes

The moment that mindfulness as a concept is having seems to be extending into a full blown movement. It’s difficult to cross the threshold of the internet without running across the idea applied to some context or other. But what does mindfulness mean for riders? What is the place of mindfulness in the barn? Can approaching our horses with a mindful attitude improve our horsemanship?

For the Uninitiated… What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the act of bringing full attention and to the task or process at hand. It is acknowledging distractions, but not allowing them to distract. It is total engagement with one’s present occupation. Being mindful is being totally present in the moment. It is experiencing and responding to your thoughts and environment without dwelling on the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness is about embracing what you are doing in its totality, without diluting that totality with things that don’t matter or apply.

 

mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash
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Anything can be done mindfully. Meditation may be the ultimate form of mindfulness… being mindfully mindful, if you will. Meta-mindfulness. But the concept is applicable to any task. You can eat mindfully, work mindfully, play mindfully, etc.

What Mindfulness is Not

Sometimes mindfulness is better understood in contrast to what it is not. Mindfulness is not multitasking. It is not simply going through the motions while your mind wanders off to other topics.

What Does Mindful Riding Look Like?

Mindful riding is something that we owe to our horses. We expect our horses to give us their full attention and effort. This is only really possible for the horse when we return the favor.

horse rider galloping
Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash
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Riding mindfully means that we engage fully with the horse and our ride. We take steps to reduce the baggage and distraction that we bring to the barn. We leave the phone in the tack room… or at least silence the ringer and notifications. The rider is wholly engaged with the horse, returning always to breath and feel and rhythm in the same way a meditator constantly redirects attention to the breath or to a mantra.

Again, to contrast, the opposite of mindful riding is sitting astride the horse in the center of the arena, clicking away on the phone. It isn’t plodding down the trail on a group ride chattering about politics with the other riders. Plodding lazily around the ring, letting your mind wander while your horse sets the velocity doesn’t count as mindful riding, either. That isn’t to say that either of those examples is terrible or abusive, or that they don’t sometimes have their place. Only that they tend not to foster the emotional, mental, or athletic growth of horse or horseman.

How Can You Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Horsemanship?

Practice Mindfulness Away From The Barn

Practicing mindfulness away from the barn makes it easier to adopt a mindful mindset in the barn. Seems simple, right? Intuitive, even.

There are a number of free or cheap apps available for short guided meditations tailored for the newbie. YouTube has a wealth of channels dedicated to yoga videos, many as short as 5-10 minutes. Tai chi is another excellent low-impact and mindfulness-fostering practice to dip your toes into. Dedicating just a few minutes a day to practicing can provide benefits.

Photo by Rima Kruciene on Unsplash

Less formally, you can practice mindfulness by trying to live its definition. Choose an activity that you normally do, say, eating, and commit to doing it mindfully. Silence your phone, eat at the table, off of a real plate, and only eat. But even though you’re only eating, really embrace the experience. Let yourself fully chew and taste before swallowing, rather than bolting the food to get to the next thing. Don’t try to multitask, don’t rush to get on with it.

So, how do you know when you’re being mindful? I find that when I “click” into a mindful frame, I lose track of time. That 10 minute yoga session is over in 3. I get barn chores that would take half an hour done in 15 minutes. I look up from the blog post I’m writing and find that it’s suddenly dark outside my window. Call it “flow,” call it “the groove,” call it what you want, working mindfully seems to help trigger the effect.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Leave the phone in the tack room. Unless you ride solo and it is your “safety buddy” for an emergency, in which case put the thing on silent. You don’t need to be checking it for phantom chirps every 10 minutes. And you don’t need it actually chirping, either.

Make the most of riding lessons. Much like a guided meditation, your instructor can keep you on-task and focused on your riding. If you don’t take lessons regularly, consider scheduling a few with a good instructor as a general refresher and an intensive immersion in your horsemanship. Riding or auditing in clinics is also a great option.

This is my favorite tip… set an alarm. With my day job, I have limited time to spend in the barn, especially in the mornings. Assuming that I don’t want to arrive at the office smelling like a horse, that is. I set myself an alarm for 5-10 minutes before I need to be back in the house cleaning up. That way, I can completely engross myself in mucking, grooming, groundwork, riding, etc., without worrying about losing track of time or breaking my flow to check my watch.

Make a Plan… And Stick To It. Flexibly.

I’m a big fan of Warwick Schiller. One of his trademark quotes is “stick to the damn plan” (STTDP).

Going to the barn with a gameplan gives you focus, something to guide your mind to task. Think of it like your mantra for the day’s meditation.

Dressage stallion 3
By Lbpetersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons
That is not at all to say that, when you get to the barn, if the situation is such that you need to adjust your plan, you shouldn’t. If you intended to polish your half-pass, and your horse tells you that today the focus needs to be on walking past the new red folding chairs lined up along the rail, by all means, adjust your plan. But stick to the plan that you’re working.

Embrace the Entire Process

Mindful riding is more than just riding. If you distractedly multitask when you tack up and warm up, it will be hard to ride the workout in a mindful way. Similarly, you don’t want to scramble and slap your untacking and post-ride routine together either. Really commit to bringing mindfulness to every facet of your horsemanship.

Part of embracing the entire process is accepting that you will struggle to be mindful, especially in the beginning. Like so many other things, it is called “practice” for a reason. Think of every time you catch yourself distracted and unmindful, and bring yourself back to mindful task, as a “rep.” Mindfulness is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to develop.

Benefits of Mindful Horsemanship

Mindfulness in the barn brings a number of benefits to your horsemanship. Most particularly, though, is the benefit of meeting the horse on a more even footing. A mindful mindset is much more similar to the horse’s natural state. Sure, horses get distracted, but their distractions are a result of being mindful of their surroundings. Contrast that to some very typical human distractions… that driver who cut you off and flipped you the bird in traffic this morning…. that donut you didn’t need to eat between breakfast and lunch… the growing to-do list for tomorrow… All that the horse is distracted by is the present.

Photo by Daniel Cano on Unsplash

Meeting the horse on this playing field allows the horseman to become more effective at communicating. This effectiveness allows us to improve our feel and timing, to understand the horse and his wants and needs and distractions, and to meet the horse, understood as a horse, as himself. This is an invaluable tool.

Furthermore, riding mindfully allows us to connect our purpose in riding to our present. This may seem super woo-woo and meta, but consider how powerful of a tool that this can be to overcome fear in the saddle, or to get over a training plateau.

What’s In Your Mind?

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Do you practice mindfulness in the saddle or in the barn? How do you do it? How has it changed the way that you ride, or approach horsemanship? Or are these ideas that you might take with you to the barn for the first time? Share your comments and stories below, drop us a line, and remember, you, like me, should be riding!!

Horsemanship as a Martial Art

Horsemanship as a Martial Art

 

Horsemanship as a martial art

If you walk into your nearest stereotypical sports bar and poll the clientele… odds are good that horseback riding isn’t considered a sport. You might even be laughed out the front door.

If you walk into a horse barn, however, the general consensus will probably be that riding is indeed a sport. That consensus will probably include a detailed explanation of how physically demanding and inherently risky the endeavor can be. It may also include vehement assertions that only the toughest of the tough ride horses. I won’t dispute that assertion here.

Tony McCoy fall
Tony McCoy Fall By Paolo Camera [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
As we’ll see in a minute, the beginnings of horsemanship come from military needs. The way that riding is taught and learned is much more like an art than a game. Competition between riders and students of the various martial arts is strikingly similar as well. Could “martial art” be a better way to categorize horseback riding as a sport? Is it appropriate to understand horsemanship as a martial art?

Riding… Sport? Or Art?

Despite the differences of opinion, horse-folk and the general public tend to agree that equestrian sports don’t quite fit within the stereotypical understanding of “sport.” Horseback riding isn’t like football or baseball. It isn’t even quite like golf or tennis, or even track and field.

Riding demands athleticism and physical skill from both horse and rider. However, the “riding isn’t a sport” crowd are quick (and probably right) to point out that the horse tends to burn more calories than the rider. Competition tends to be subjectively judged, rather than objectively point-based, although there are exceptions. Equestrian events feature alongside more “traditional” sports in the Olympic Games, and form part of composite events like pentathlon, which would seem to cement riding in general as a sport. However, the debate continues. Alongside these differences between riding and other sports, there is an acknowledged “marketing problem” in getting widespread traditional media exposure to high profile equestrian events, as discussed in this interview via Horse Network.

So, how exactly does horsemanship fit into the wide world of sports?

Horsemanship’s Military Roots

Kozaemon Hisamitsu mounted and armored, but bareheaded, on his galloping steed
By Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, riding and horsemanship come to us through a strong military history. The first desire of man to swing leg over horse was inspired by the need to cover ground in the name of conquest. Xenophon’s legendary writings on horsemanship were born of the need to train cavalry for imperial expansion and military defense.

Cavalcade west frieze Parthenon BM
British Museum [Public domain or CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
While the odds of any of us riding into battle are slim, traces of that military heritage remain. Have you ever wondered why we mount and handle horses from the left side? Imagine mounting from the right with a sword strapped to your left hip. Modern eventing demonstrates the skills of the ideal cavalry mount. Dressage shows us willingness, obedience, and technical skill. The jumping phases demonstrate boldness, speed, and power. The phases demand fitness and endurance from both horse and rider.

Henri Saint Cyr
Henri Saint Cyr By Linda Sandgren (Swedish Olympic Committee) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ok, but what about today’s civilian riders?

English Disciplines

Formal dressage comes from military riders on dress parade. The haute ecole and the Airs Above the Ground are movements that would have been highly effective to cavalry in close-quarters combat against other cavalry or ground troops. The levade raises a rider above the reach of a foot-soldier’s sword, spear, or bayonet. A well-timed capriole eliminates threats from behind with deadly efficiency. These movements are the formally perfected exercise of crucial battleground skills and tactics.

Chief Rider Georg Wahl
Chief Rider Georg Wahl By Conversano Isabella [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Into the 20th century, competitive dressage riders often came from military careers. The observer might see Olympic riders competing in military or police uniform well into the 90’s. Klaus Balkenhol is an excellent example, representing Germany and earning team gold in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games.

Western Disciplines

On the surface, Western disciplines appear to be based on the needs and skills of the working American cowboy and rancher, not the soldier. But, when you dig into the history, the true roots run deeper. The Western saddle and seat are derived from those of the Spanish Conquistadores, who brought horses with them to help conquer the New World. Over time, the needs of the Spanish evolved from conquest to colonization, but their horsemanship remained largely unchanged. Without military conquest, there is no NRCHA.

Dragon de cuera
Dragon de Cuera By Raymundus à Murillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Where the military origins are less obvious or direct, echoes still remain. Today’s endurance rider might have been a long-distance courier centuries ago. Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli pioneered the modern forward-seat jumping style. With the rise of modernity, in which the horse became a luxury, the first civilian sport riders turned to cavalry manuals like this one for practical guidance. The explicit goals of these cavalry manuals was to train capable riders and willing, supple, and strong horses for the battlefield. These are ideals that still apply to today’s civilian rider and sport horse. These military resources trained horsemanship’s modern masters.

Similarities Between Horsemanship and Organized Martial Arts

From the perspective of training and competition, equestrian sport shares much with martial arts.

Training

JJS Dojo
See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Although there is no formal “belt” system, training of the rider is progressive. Compare this to football, or to basketball, where youth leagues are playing the same game as Tom Brady or LeBron James. Not with the same strength or finesse, but certainly using the same rules, goals, and techniques. In martial arts and horsemanship, there are skills that the masters have attained that are vastly beyond the scope of the novice. Training is progressive, each lesson building upon the foundation of earlier lessons, and forming another layer upon which to build.

Because of the progressive nature of study, some activities and equipment are always reserved for higher level practitioners. A karate instructor won’t hand a set of nunchucks to a white belt. A rider won’t be permitted to ride with spurs if she can’t maintain a stable and effective leg. The development of a jumper’s release is another example of the difference in technique between a novice and a skilled rider. When the student does not have the skill or experience to use tools safely or effectively, the result is counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst.

Riding Lesson Lineup
Riding Lesson Lineup by carterse, via flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/australianshepherds/2562333046/

In both cases, there is a journey to mastery. There is an underlying idea that there is always more to learn, some more subtle nuance to understand. Even the idea of mastery itself is elusive. Even Olympic-level riders have coaches and trainers. The masters of horsemanship, ancient and modern, tend to consider themselves students. This mindset will be familiar to anyone with even a passing exposure to martial arts. Similarly, many horse enthusiasts find their purpose in the journey of the eternal student.

Competition

Most competitive martial arts and riding events are judged subjectively. Style counts, and the ends don’t justify the means. Technique has weight in the final score, even beyond the degree to which correct technique makes execution more functionally successful. In kickboxing, the two contenders may land an equal number of strikes, but the bout will go to the fighter with the better form and technical ability. Many equestrian events emphasize rider technique and equitation with a dedicated portion of the overall score for a class or round.

Hanoverian-hunter
Hanoverian-hunter By dregsplod from Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA (HunterUploaded by Countercanter) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Once again, compare this to other popular sports. In football, as long as the ball makes it to the end zone, barring very specific codified penalties, it doesn’t matter how the team gets it there as far as the score is concerned. Form and strategy follow the function of how best to score a goal within the rules.

Additionally, the structure of competition is generally independent and piecemeal in both horsemanship and martial arts. There are larger national associations and governing bodies, but also thousands of small clubs and independent events. This feature makes riding and martial arts competition highly accessible. No rule says that to compete you must be involved with USEF, or push toward national level tournaments. Those things are there if that is your aspiration, but there are also smaller, more local, and more affordable alternatives for the amateur and hobbyist.

A Matter of Philosophy

Motobu Choki2
By Motobu Choki (The Japanese book “私の唐手術” (My Karate Art)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Good horsemanship and traditional martial arts share a root philosophy in the idea that the same things that allow one to succeed at the sport also allow one to succeed in life. The skills are profoundly transferrable.

Additionally, horsemanship and martial arts often agree on what these specific skills and strategies are. Concepts like soft eyes, responding instead of reacting, and maintaining balance around the center are equally at home in the arena or the dojo. Mark Rashid explains his moment of profound connection between the “going with” an aggressor’s energy in akido, and “going with” the horse’s motion and energy in the saddle in his book “Horsemanship Through Life.

Many riders, like Mark Rashid, turn to martial arts as a way to improve their riding. Yoga, tai chi, akido, karate, muay tai kickboxing, fencing… all promote the same strength, balance, body awareness, focus, and control that we seek in the saddle.

Horsemanship IS A Martial Art

Understanding riding and horsemanship as a martial art answers the questions that make defining it as a sport difficult. According to Wikipedia, “Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement applications, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.”

Horsemanship’s heritage and traditions are rooted in combat and defense. The mental and spiritual development aspects have come more to the foreground in recent decades. The entertainment and cultural value of riding and equestrian competition and exhibition are indisputable. By all of these metrics, riding is a martial art.

What do you think? Are you a rider who cross-trains in a martial art? Have you considered taking up a martial art to supplement your riding? Why or why not? Share your story in the comments, or give a shout-out by email. And remember, you should be riding!

 

Becoming a Beginner Again… Sort of…

This one is for the folks returning to horses after taking some time off. Maybe “real life” took priority for a while, or a couple of decades. Or maybe you had an injury, or are perhaps coming back after pregnancy. Maybe you haven’t been completely out of the game, but riding has taken a drop on the priorities list. But no more — you’ve realized that you should be riding, and you’re making your comeback! Go you!!

For better or worse, no matter how much reading or rail-sitting you’re able to do to keep yourself involved, the fact remains that time off, especially prolonged time off, brings even the most seasoned rider back a few levels in ability when they come back. This can be frustrating, but isn’t a “bad” thing per se. It is expected, and something that is best accepted, embraced, and worked forward from. It is okay to be a beginner again.

Beginner Rider Happy Little Girl
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

Factors that Bring You Back to “Beginner” During a Break

This situation can sometimes be harder than coming to horsemanship as an adult greenie. Adult greenies have their obstacles, for sure (fodder for another post?), but the returning rider carries many of the same obstacles along with the memories of their former abilities. You have expectations of your body and emotions that reflect your younger equestrian self, not your current place.

This mismatch between expectation and reality doesn’t just apply to folks coming back after a break of decades. Even skilled teenage riders who step back to focus on higher education and starting a career, return to the sport in their mid to late 20s can find that the intervening 4-5 years have wrought major changes to both body and mind. You’re still young, maybe still relatively fit, but you’ve seen a bit more of the world and have more responsibility, more experience overthinking. Everyone who has ever set toe into stirrup understands what I mean when I say that riding will show you muscles you didn’t know you had. Those muscles don’t really get exercised by any other activity, and are hard to keep riding-fit during a break.

Beginning Doesn’t Mean The End… Obviously, or Not So Much

I say “obviously,” because the beginning is by definition the start. It is no doubt disheartening to discover that while your mind and understanding of the sport is thinking about intermediate-plus riding theory, skills, and movements, your body will barely allow you to balance well in walk.

This is a tougher mental obstacle than a lot of folks expect. It can really knock you down a peg, make you feel like a failure, like a shadow of your former self. But that’s the thing… you are a shadow of your former self. Just like your even-more-former-than-that self was a shadow of your future self. And, to quote Gandalf… “that is an encouraging thought.”

Grant Yourself The Grace to Be Where You Need to Be

This is a sort of wonderful corollary to the idea of riding the horse you have today. Extend the same grace to yourself, and ride as the rider you are today. Think of yourself in the same way as you think of your project horse. Turn your attention to your foundation, and build back up.

Confident Body

Pick up some beginner riding books. Not necessarily kids’ riding books, but beginner riding books. I’m a big fan of the US Pony Club Manual, along with the classic Centered Riding by Sally Swift, but there are literally hundreds of resources that fall into this category. Remind yourself of the very basics of good riding. Start at the very beginning, and test yourself for holes and gaps. Make sure that what you know in your mind still translates to your body. Try to step back from yourself, treat yourself as if you were your nit-picking instructor, building a new rider into a capable and confident horseman, and putting the best tools and advice in place to guide that transformation.

Find a nit-picking instructor. A nit-picking beginner rider instructor. Explain at the outset that you are a formerly experienced rider, but that you are coming back to basics after time off. Ask them to really drill you on those basics, of correct and effective position and seat and aids. Even if your time away hasn’t truly brought you all the way back to square one, you will find gaps in need of attention. As these gaps are addressed, your skill and confidence will bounce back.

This idea is exactly the same as bringing a horse back into condition after an extended layoff. You wouldn’t expect even a Grand Prix schoolmaster to come cold from the paddock after a season off to step off into a connected, rhythmic, active piaffe first thing. You would no doubt start that ride by showing him the tack and testing his acceptance of the most basic parts of being ridden. The piaffe is still in there, but the horse needs to work back up to it, both physically and mentally. We as riders need to recognize that we need the same process to come back from time off.

Confident Mind

If your confidence hasn’t exactly weathered your time away from the saddle untarnished, grant yourself the grace to set yourself up for success as much as possible. Don’t necessarily rush out and throw the close contact saddle on the forward and scopey jumper that you rode in the past. Acknowledge your present self, your present needs. Maybe start with a Western saddle (if you formerly rode in any of the “English” disciplines), and let the tack help set yourself up for stability, physically and mentally. Start with a levelheaded, been-there-done-that mount, at least for the first few rides. Even if your confidence is intact, you will probably still need a horse that will forgive your antics re-learning balance in the body, stability in the leg, and softness in the hand. As your basics re-solidify, your strength and stability in body will support your mental and emotional confidence.

Allow Yourself to Reclaim a Beginner’s Joy

The most helpful things to revisit as you make your comeback are the reasons why you began riding in the first place. Before you became absorbed with competition, before you had to prioritize the practical in your life… try to reclaim the headspace of the person who was first drawn to these magnificent animals.

Living in that unbridled joy around horses again can dramatically ease the tension and drive the reintroduction of horses and riding into your life. Focusing on the simple joy of being around and with the horse lets you shed baggage you didn’t know you carried. Suddenly the rider you were doesn’t matter anymore. Suddenly you don’t compare yourself to other riders. You are just present with the horse, enjoying his company and the gift of time spent building partnership with him again. And isn’t that joy the reason why most of us started riding in the first place?

Conclusion

Have you ever been in the position of rebuilding your skill or confidence after time away from the saddle? What tools and tactics worked well for you and your horse? I look forward to your comments! For now… off to the barn. I should be riding.

 

Riding Inspiration: Make it Elegant

I am a quote junkie. Sometimes. I don’t exactly have a collection of quote-a-day calendars, but I have a bullet journal, and when I run across a nugget of wisdom it lands on a daily page so it doesn’t get lost forever.  For some reason, my stash of quotes doesn’t include a whole lot of equestrian quotes… it seems like most horse-y quotes out there are of the more romantic type, rather than containing solidly useful advice that I can take to the barn. So it was with this one, attributed to the great Charlotte Dujardin. I originally discovered it perusing Stacy Westfall’s blog, in her 2 post series (find Part 1 here) on attending Ms. Dujardin’s masterclass.

“Make the impossible possible. Make the possible easy. Make the easy elegant.”

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro — Photo Credit/Source: Alex Livesey/Getty Images Europe – Zimbio

I absolutely love this sentiment. It goes well beyond the barn and riding, but given the usual route of my train of thought and the source, that is the field in which my ruminations upon it have naturally rested. Since the quote has been on my mind, I thought a written meditation on it would help solidify its meaning and application.

title image elegant riding
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

Make the Impossible Possible

So many times in riding, progress seems impossible. For the beginner, getting into the saddle or finding balance in walk is the hardest thing in the world. For the timid rider, or the rider coming back from a shaking fall or an injury, maybe impossible means even setting foot in a stirrup. Up the scale of boldness, experience, and skill, maybe an impossible thing is nailing that shoulder-in, that flying change, that pirouette. Every rider has an impossible thing. The good news is, there is a fine line between impossible and possible… to get a little bit more quote-y on you, dear reader:

“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says “I’m possible!”” — Audrey Hepburn

This first admonition of Ms. Dujardin’s is perfect in that it sets the bar at possibility only. There is no mandate of excellence, or of perfection at this stage, only to make a thing simply happen. It invites us to make progress in our own time, and to break an impossible thing into as many bite-size chunks as necessary. All that is needed is the grit to keep trying and the humility to recognize when you need help or to look at trying another way. But making an impossible thing possible is only the beginning of the journey.

Make the Possible Easy

The next challenge is to make the now-possible thing easy. This is where mechanical practice comes in. Possible implies repeatable; if it happens once, it can happen again. The key to making possible easy is in repetition. Once the barrier of impossibility is broken, a thing can be practiced until it can be done at will.

Again, this concept invites us to work at the pace we need to work. That impossible relaxed walk can be cultivated until getting on and walking isn’t a big deal. It becomes a simple thing with time and practice.

Make the Easy Elegant

This is the difficult part, and what separates the riders from the horsemen. And, to a degree, it happens concurrently with making the possible easy. It is easier to practice a skill mindfully and well from the beginning of building a skill than it is to build sloppy technique that is easy to perform.

Why not stop at easy? Why worry about making riding elegant? If you don’t show or compete, it might be tempting to leave technical excellence and elegance of execution as an afterthought. If it can be done and done without dramatics, who cares what it looks like or how elegant it feels?

The thing is, even if you don’t compete, horses THRIVE on subtlety. They are incredibly perceptive of their world and the creatures that inhabit it. Your horse will thank you if you whisper instead of shout. Or, at least if you whisper before you escalate to shouting. Excellent equitation translates to excellent communication and excellent balance. If we have excellent communication and excellent balance with our horses, we can coexist more harmoniously in all aspects of horsemanship.

Beyond Riding

One of the things that I like most about this concept and the way that it is phrased is that it aligns beautifully with the Four Stages of Learning concept. When you start any new skill, you begin in a state of Unconscious Incompetence (“any idiot can do that” mentality). Over time and with practice and guidance, you move up the chain to a state of Conscious Incompetence (“I suck at this”), then to Conscious Competence (“I get it now,” or the “Lightbulb Moment”). At the top of the pyramid is the state of Unconscious Competence. This is the point where a skill becomes second nature, even… Elegant.

This pattern applies to any new skill you embark on. Art class is a great illustrator. Most people look at a Jackson Pollack and think “I could have done that.” You might even think that you’ve painted the next masterpiece of modern art once you’ve tried your hand for the first time. That is Unconscious Incompetence. Think of your first day at a new job. You probably felt at least Consciously Incompetent at some things. As you learn and grow and progress in any sphere, you climb that pyramid until you are Unconsciously Competent at what you do. You don’t have to think about it anymore, your trained intuition guides you correctly.

Final Thoughts

How are you going to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant today? In or out of the saddle? Do you have any particular equestrian (or otherwise!) quotes that stick with you or have made you think? Perhaps even changed the way you ride or work with horses? I would love to hear your thoughts or stories in the comments section. And remember — you really should be riding!