Getting the Best Ride: Who's Responsible for What? Part I

It can be very confusing to understand what will be the best path to follow to help you achieve what you wish with your horse. Whether you are at the show chasing ribbons, on the trail doing geocaching or obstacles, or enjoying your horse on the ground, our time with our horses is OUR time together and it is precious. Many times, the emotional ties that we have with our horses lead us to question what we wouldn't necessarily question if the emotional component wasn't there (ever notice how easy it is to pass along advice for someone's else's horse challenge?). Now we are well into our spring heading toward a full summer season, many of us may be looking at what we wish to accomplish, and then how to get there.
Overall, I can share that the long road is always the shortest one, because when we take the long road we have a certain level of commitment to the process, and therefore, build a more solid and full foundation in whatever it is that we pursue. We are determined and obstacles no longer hold us back. We are open to trying a process that may be new to us and is proven by others. For instance, we break down our bigger goal into smaller chunks. At first it may look and feel like it's taking longer, but very soon we discover that what we've been trying to accomplish for months or years is now only taking weeks! If we take the longer road, we also tend to build a more mindful and solid foundation in whatever we pursue, which in the long term, allows us to do the things that are a bit more fun at times, sooner!
There are three areas of focus that help us to get the "best ride", with our horses as well as in our life:
  • The rider's balance
  • The horse's balance
  • The rider's confidence and leadership
Each of these areas of focus involves contributors from the physical, mental and emotional state of both bodies, the horse and the rider. If one area is out of balance, it will surely effect another area either subtlety or more dramatically. We often do not pay attention until the challenge is more dramatic, but if we were to have greater awareness and address an out of balance situation BEFORE it got dramatic, we would be ahead of the game each and every time.
In the next three newsletters (May, June, July) I will expand on each of these areas of focus and bring everything into connection in conclusion. So now, let's set the foundation this month with rider balance!
Rider balance
  • Expansion vs compression
  • Rider weight and body awareness
  • Tension and release
  • Mental state and self-talk

Expansion vs Compression
Let's imagine your body is a spring; if you have space between your coils, then you'll have maximum amount of spring. If your coils are compressed, there will be no room for to spring and you'll be compressed. When you're compressed in your body, you're not moving, and your horse will feel a heavier weight overall. This heaviness also impedes our balance since we can't follow the horse's movement as well as when our own bodies are moving. A stiff body on a moving body will create drag, or what we often feel as being behind or in front of the motion, as well as an overall instability. We can open our coils and create maximum room for spring by finding neutral in our pelvis, which in turn will allow for freedom of movement in all four limbs (both arms, both legs). Try this simple exercise: when you are sitting on the edge of a chair, or just sitting, just THINK about standing. What do you feel? What happens to your upper torso? Do you feel an overall elongation of your upper body? Do you feel lighter? This is just one of many ways to find elongation where compression may exist!
Rider Weight and Body Awareness
Many riders share with me that they are concerned that the weight that they carry in their own bodies will impede their horse's ability to move or even hurt their horse. Understand that the topic of body weight is a very sensitive topic, and I'm not here to discuss this topic in detail and judge any right or wrong. However, if YOU feel that your body weight will impede or injure your horse, then you will physically carry your body differently, and mentally you will ride and approach your horsemanship differently. You may be guarded in the saddle and on the ground, which will translate into tension and tightness. This tension will be perceived as compression and immobility by your horse, which will challenge the breadth and depth with which you'll be able to progress. Your horse may even perceive your tightness as a reason to worry or a lack of leadership on your part. More on that when we cover Mental State below! From a health perspective, being at YOUR optimal weight (not determined by a chart) will help you physically for sure, and it will also contribute to a kinder mental self judgement that you may have for yourself. We are our toughest critics and when we are self-critical mentally, it's very difficult to be kind physically, hence an ever present physical tension. Try this: "simply notice" when you are sharing negative self-talk with yourself. When you do, shift that self-talk from negative to something positive. By simply noticing, you're already consciously moving forward and looking to make a change, and that in and of itself is positive! Remember, when you "simply notice" it takes effort but not strain, so if you're one who tries really hard, be gentle and allow yourself to just be conscious of the effort, and not TRY to make it happen!
Tension and Release
There's no better way to learn about release than comparing and contrasting with tension! The great news is, that we all have a pretty good grasp of what tension feels like, so we won't need to spend too much time here. J Release happens when we let go of the tension that we're holding, and it's usually done in varying degrees. Sometimes, we don't even realize how much tension we're holding on to. You can be directed to "relax your back" which you then do, and once you're reminded to breathe, you realize that you were still holding on to a significant amount of tension even though you thought you released it! This is why I like to think of many things in the way of layers or levels. Each time we release tension (mentally), we release a layer of tension (physically). Once we feel this process over and over, we start to expect this "release in layers" and become more accepting of where we are in our journey. This, in turn, releases yet another level of tension that we can tend to hold, which is mental tension. You can try this: put both palms together and squeeze them together as hard as you can. Where do you feel tension? Really be aware of ALL the areas where tension now exists. Now, release your first level of tension between your palms; check in to the other places in your body where you noticed tension before. Are they all releasing tension to the same degree or are they different? Are there areas in your body that are easier to release than others? Are there some areas that are just down right hard to release all together? Have fun with this when you ride, and as you start to release your layers of tension, take note on what your best teacher, your horse, is telling you. Is your horse moving more freely when you release? Is he releasing by blowing out, licking and chewing or other signs of release? I invite you to keep playing with release. Here's a tip: by using your breath to "breathe into" the very places that are tight, you are releasing that area as well as creating a better, more steady rhythm for your breath.
Mental State and Self Talk
Our mental energy that we bring to the barn each day can make or break our time with our horse. Have you ever come to the barn and had your horse turn away (especially if he usually comes running!)? Have you associated your current mental state with his actions? It's so common to get exactly what you project to your horse from your horse! By being able to do a mental check in with yourself before you get to the gate you can alter you and your horses experience for that day. Give this a try: come to the barn with a plan, but ensure that the plan is dynamic and can be changed. When you make your plan, start to visualize your experience using all 5 senses; sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Use this imagery to "see" and experience exactly what you DO want. Too often, we are easily able to see what we don't want (like how easily we can relate to tension!), and we lose the ability to see what we DO want. You can be assured that you are already VERY skilled at imagery; you may just have been focusing on the negative as opposed to the positive image.
Our self-talk is also very powerful in creating this imagery. Remember when I mentioned that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to body image? Well, this also speaks true for our self-talk. The great news is that again, we are already very skilled with negative self-talk, so when we draw attention and focus to positive self-talk we're using well developed skills! Try this. Remember that positive imagery that I shared a few sentences ago? Now add positive self-talk. Share with yourself what your positive beliefs around your specific action are. Then look at what the positive results will be once you achieve your focused goal. If things don't work out exactly as you tried, what can you learn from the adversity that you just experienced? For example, your goal is to get out on the trail with your horse. Your positive self-talk is to share what you've already accomplished towards this goal, such as working well in an outdoor arena with and without other horses. Now add the imagery of you and your horse out on the trail enjoying the smell of the evergreens and hearing the rhythm of your horse's hoof beats. You see the birds flying and you're enjoying the light conversation with your trail buddies. You taste the residual of your morning coffee and you're feeling the light contact of your horse's mouth on the reins. Your belief is that you know that you've already prepared well for this moment and that you are excited, but not anxious to go on this trail ride with your buddies. You are also open to giving yourself permission to do whatever you feel you and your need on this trail ride and you've prepared well by making sure that your trail riding buddies will support you with your needs. If there is something that happens (like a spook, or a refusal to go through water) you know that you'll be open to learn from the adversity and welcome the challenge to stretch! By having all this in place, your mental balance is set to move easily with whatever happens on your ride, which releases any mental tension that might start to find its way into your thinking.
Finding the rhythm to what will help your overall balance will continually make your horsemanship fun. Your balance will always be dynamic, always shifting, and always changing. And with a solid foundation to build on, you'll be relaxed knowing that the choices you are making are sound ones. This process will allow for the suppleness that you strive for when things start to feel light and effortless. None of this can happen without
balance first. So strive to start finding your balance in all three areas of focus. Balance will come and go, but the more you find it the easier it will be to find it when you lose it, and you'll stay balanced for longer periods of time.