I am so honored to have been interviewed about mindful riding for an article in the UK magazine “Your Horse.” It is a wonderful magazine with articles geared to adult riders. It is well worth getting a subscription!
One exercise I use with my students is around relaxing and feeling the horse while riding. I will have them do shortening, lengthening and transitions. The riders are encouraged to concentrate on sitting deep and communicating with their seats first before going to their hands. As they do this they also focus on staying elastic throughout the ride. In order to do this riders have to fight their muscle memory so they can change their old habits. Riders will often say to me something like, I feel it, but I can’t make my body do it. That is probably the toughest thing about riding and definitely the toughest thing about life. We finally get this awareness about something we need to change. We know it is right and it is what we need to do, but we keep slipping back into old habits. That is okay. It takes time to change something we have done as a regular habit. It took time to create the bad habit, so it will definitely take time to change it.
We often get angry with ourselves for slipping back into old patterns Caught up in worrying about this, we can lose sight of our new sense of awareness and that we have found the new good habit. There is no self-reward for that great accomplishment. Instead we beat ourselves up for not being able to fully sustain this new habit and way of riding. If we let go of this anger and frustration, and instead focus on positive growth, we will eventually, with much practice, slip less and less back into those old ways while developing new, good habits. It takes dedication and perseverance to do so. It is not a quick fix. This is true in riding and any part of our lives. Becoming mindful and aware are the first and most important steps that need to happen before a change can occur. Then it is a matter of practice. One thing we always have to remember though is to forgive ourselves for making mistakes so that we don’t stay stuck in them. We are human after all.
It is important to have educated trainers and instructors to teach you how to ride and what to do. But, the responsibility for much of your learning and discovery needs to come from you. Don’t always look to your trainer to give you all of the answers or to even ask the questions. Ultimately it is up to you to put your knowledge into action and to ask questions all along the way if you want to continually improve. You can find the answers to your questions from self-reflection, from listening to your horse, watching others ride, watching videos, reading books, going to clinics and from your instructor.
Ride with a sense of discovery, looking for new ways to do things and changes that need to be made in order to improve. Keep your mind and body open to messages from your horse and yourself. Using good judgment, try new things to see what changes may occur. Reflect on what is happening honestly and nonjudgmentally and make new changes as needed. Make one change at a time and see what happens. Try one aid and see how it changes your horse’s movement, balance and performance. Keep what works and discard what doesn’t. But learn from what doesn’t work and remember that it may work in a different situation on a different horse. Make sure you understand why something doesn’t work and why something else does. Try new patterns and exercises to see what helps you and your horse improve. Remember to do this with good judgment so that you don’t try something above your ability. Ask your trainer if you are not sure. Learning to reflect and ask questions is how you will improve.
I often asked my students if they know who Xenophon was. He was a Greek philosopher, soldier and student of Socrates in c. 430-354 BC. He wrote “On Horsemanship.” It is thought to be the earliest writing on horsemanship. My question I always pose, after I ask if a rider knows who Xenophon was is, “Who taught Xenophon and how did he know what write in the first book?” Think about it. I am sure he had some trainers who helped him learn how to ride, but, the first horseman had to discover how to become good riders through trial and error. They, like Xenophon, studied the anatomy, movement and psychology of the horse. They also studied the psychology of the riders. A sense of discovery and philosophical thought were a large part of their being. They posed questions and searched for answers in all aspects of living. Philosophy means, the love of wisdom.
Be a philosopher when you ride. Search for the questions to ask, look for the answers. Develop a feel by being open to the discovery of what your horse is doing and saying to you. Honest self-reflection will help you discover the blocks you have preventing you from improving. Opening up the conversation with your horses will allow you to hear and understand their needs. Understand that your trainer is there for guidance and knowledge, but it is ultimately your responsibility to come to the table with a sense of discovery, a willingness to work hard and the desire to learn new things.
When I judge and teach clinics I observe different hunter/jumper issues that can get in the way of a rider’s success. One of them is always riding in a two point or half seat. As trainers we work so hard to teach riders how to do the two point. They struggle to learn how to get off their seats, find their balance and stay in the position. But it seems that once this position is learned, riders often lose the ability to sit, use their seats and adjust their positions as needed. Actually, the two point itself is often not properly executed. Instead of being balanced over the motion and over and into the leg, riders often lock in at their thigh and knee and perch ahead of the motion throwing the horse’s balance downhill. This along with reins that are often too long is the cause of many missed distances.
To be successful on a hunter or jumper course a rider needs to be able to utilize all three seats. These are the full seat, the half seat (two point) and the light seat. The full seat is three points of contact including the seat and both legs, the half seat (two point) is two points of contact, the legs, with the weight distributed down through the heels. The light seat uses light seat contact to help support the use of the leg and to help maintain balance for the horse, while still being in a position where the hip angle is closed. All of these seats need to be available to a rider at all times. When riding a course there may be a need for a full two point to open up a horse’s stride and free up their back, and certainly the two point is what is used in the air over a jump. But there are also times on course when a light seat may be needed to support a rider’s legs in order to lengthen the stride to a distance and still maintain the horse’s balance off the front end. That way when it is time to leave the ground the horse in engaged from behind and able to jump in good style. The light seat is also often needed as a horse comes up out of a turn as the turn slows down forward motion and the seat helps support the leg again in engaging the hind end and moving the horse forward out of the turn. Or a light seat may be needed as a rider sees they are getting deep to a distance. In this scenario the deepening of the seat again lightens the horse’s front end, while lowering the hind end thus helping to maintain or shorten the stride just enough to stay off the distance. The full seat may be needed if a horse is spooking or looking to stop at a jump. The extra seat and leg and deep center of gravity can aid in preventing a stop and can help a rider stay mounted. A full seat may also be necessary when on slippery footing in order to help maintain the horses balance and stability. These are just a few examples of where the different seats may be needed.
In all scenarios, the rein length needs to be short enough to allow a connection with the horse so that continual re-balancing can occur. Often I see reins so long that even if a rider is in a light or full seat the horse still has a loss of balance due to the lack of the connection and needed half-halts. The reins are of little or no use if they are looping and the horse’s mouth is not connected to the rider’s hand. Not only is there a lack of ability to maintain balance, there is also a lack of ability to maintain straightness. The rein needs to be short enough to allow a rider to make any necessary adjustments without a change in position or interruption of flow. Low hands, open fingers and straight elbows often accompany long reins. The intention, in this case, is for a softer ride and quiet hand. But in reality the low hand and straight elbow causes a stiffness in the arm and a pulling down on the bars of a horse’s mouth. The lack of fluid motion in the elbow actually creates a hand that bounces against the horse’s mouth as the horse is in motion and the hand is not. A horse will often raise its head to avoid this discomfort causing the rider to lower the hand even more and the horse’s head to go even higher. The other way a horse will avoid this pressure is to over flex and hide behind the bit. A low hand also stops the connection from the hand to the leg and seat, as all of the energy and flow gets locked downward in the arm and hand and it stops right there. And if the fingers are open, this causes even more problems when the reins get pulled though the fingers. A rider will be constantly trying to shorten the reins while riding causing more discomfort in the horse’s mouth and even more interruption to the flow of the ride. On top of all of this, the low hand creates a rider that is out of balance and on the horse’s front end causing the horse to be heavy on the front end.
I have mentioned the word flow a few times. It is important that a ride feels fluid at all times. Even when there is a need to shorten or do a downward transition there needs to be a continual flow in energy and in what is happening. Nothing should feel abrupt when any changes in balance are made. That is why it is so important for a rider to maintain flexibility in position. This allows for easy adjustments in the seat positions as needed. Knees and hips need to stay unlocked so that energy can flow down through the heel and allow the body to stay flexible. The shorter rein, closed fingers and bent, fluid elbows allow a light feel of the mouth, while maintaining connection to the whole body. This will allow for subtle changes in a ride as needed in order to keep a comfortable balanced horse. This fluid ride will also allow a rider to feel what the horse needs as the rider’s muscles will be soft and yielding. It keeps the lines of communication between the rider and horse open.
One exercise I use to help riders find that feel and get unlocked it to have them stand straight up in their stirrups. When I say straight, I mean straight. They should feel almost like they are standing on the ground. When doing this they should not lock up their muscles but just hold themselves in balance over their legs. This is often quite hard as sometimes riders like to lock their knees and thighs to stay in a two-point and then they jackknife over at their hips. Once unlocked and standing I then help the riders come down with a soft knee pointing more downward and a soft flexible hip angle that doesn’t force the seat backwards. After riders do this standing and walking I will have them try it at a trot.
Once riders do this exercise and they are more unlocked and in a better two-point I ask them to adjust their positions from two-point to sitting to light seat and all possible variations. This can be done at all gaits and lengthening and shortening of stride can be added to allow riders to feel how the different seats can work for them. I also ask riders, while in the two-point, to do downward transitions. This is nearly impossible with low hands and long reins. It is a great exercise for them to feel the need of the shorter rein and use of the elbows. I also ask them to do upward transitions and lengthening and shortening in the two-point. This is hard to accomplish if they are pinched at the knee and the lower leg is not working. All of these exercises help riders feel where they are locked up and how much the ability to be flexible in their bodies and position will improve their rides.
Take some time to practice all seats and become fluid changing from one to the other as needed. Work on keeping your hands up and elbows bent and flexible with a straight line from elbow to bit. Maintain a rein length that allows you to be lightly connected to your horse’s mouth at all times. Keep in your mind that your riding should feel fluid. Nothing should ever feel fixed, as riding is about helping the horse stay balanced in a fluid cycle between the leg, seat and hands. When you find that feel and balance you will also find better distances to the jumps because you will have a balanced horse. If you would like more help with any of this feel free to sign up for a clinic or talk with me. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to give you my up to date clinic schedule. If you can’t make a clinic and are struggling to change your riding contact me for a free one on one coaching discovery call to see if one on one coaching might be the right fit for you. Here’s to wishing you good luck, peace and joy!
What does it mean to be aware? What is the definition of awareness? The Webster definition is this: having or showing realization, perception or knowledge. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aware) That seems pretty straightforward. But many of us walk through life very unaware of what is happening right now within ourselves and around us. We get so consumed with regrets of the past or worries about the future that we don’t stay here right now. We don’t notice what is happening in the world around us, nor do we recognize what is happening within us. So often, we are not self-aware. It is easy to become reactive to our emotions and the situations we are in instead of reflective. Habits can become so automatic, becoming such a part of us, that we aren’t even aware that we have them. Even with the habits, beliefs and feelings we recognize we have, we often are unaware of the triggers that set them in motion. It is so easy to walk through our lives and miss so much of what is happening in the world. When riding, a lack of awareness can lead to missing the subtle cues and conversation that horses are trying so to send our way. It is easy to get so consumed with thoughts and worries and so stuck in our heads that our bodies become stiff and unyielding to those messages. When horses don’t get a positive response to their needs they can become nervous, tense and over responsive or dull and shut down to our aids. Imagine how you feel when someone is nagging at you and no matter how many times you try to respond, they don’t hear you and they just keep repeating the same thing. I am sure you wouldn’t like it and neither does a horse. As you begin to create awareness you will be able to better hear what your horse is saying and learn to be present and give a proper response.
Without reflection and self-awareness, thoughtful responses to our situations don’t happen. That is where a mindfulness practice can help. When we become more mindful of how we feel, what we are doing and learn to be right here, right now, we can handle better what life sends our way. I thought about naming this subject mindfulness instead of awareness. But I thought the word awareness would make more sense, as many people think living mindfully can be an overwhelming practice. It’s not, but it is often perceived that way. Thinking about being more aware as you go through your day should be pretty easy to do. Staying in awareness does take some work, but understanding about being aware is pretty self-explanatory. Stop and think for a moment of all the opportunities that are missed when you are not aware. It may be something as simple as noticing a beautiful bird in a tree. It may be something bigger as not being focused and listening deeply to a potential client and understanding their needs. Maybe it is not noticing, when in a conversation, that the person you are talking to seems uncomfortable about the subject at hand. If you were aware in this situation you would know to shift the subject and lighten the mood. When we stay focused and aware we really keep ourselves open to wonderful learning opportunities.
Think about how you can bring more awareness into your riding. With awareness of yourself, your horse and your environment you can most definitely have more success in your riding. You will become more focused, more in the moment and more of a feeling rider. I will go deeper into where and how you can become more aware in your riding and what benefits you will discover in later blog posts. So keep checking back. Enjoy your journey to more awareness!