Like many professional trainers, I've spent a fair amount of time during my career both listening from chairs and taking direct instruction in the saddle with Olympic level clinicians. I've also been blessed to have friends that compete at this iconic level in other sports such as rowing and swimming. My time spent with these bright stars of international sport has always been highly educational and I have always been fascinated by how they manage to achieve their heady levels of success.
Whatever the sport, the answers are similar. I thought it might be helpful to share what I've learned here in my blog, as amazingly the attributes needed to achieve your goals are surprisingly simple to master once you have the keys.
1. Accept Mistakes
This may be a bit harder for some folks than others. The ability to accept mistakes is hard for those that are perfectionists at heart. In my clinic giving role I have seen many riders that exhibit the signature of being over-achievers and perhaps more highly strung, struggle with letting go of mistakes made during training their horses.
When you learn to accept that yes, you and the horse are going to make mistakes, sometimes tiny imperceptible ones that only the astute trained eye of a coach will see and sometimes giant glaring errors that a blind man on a galloping horse couldn't miss, you are half way there. Blaming yourself leads to overreactions and undue stress trying too hard to fix it, and this results in a negative spiral of tension and blocks the way forward, both literally and figuratively when it comes to riding horses.
Yes, you can own the mistake, taking responsibility is great. But once that has been inwardly or publicly acknowledged simply move on. It's all about how you remedy the mistake. The first step to that is figure out why it went wrong. A great trainer will be of invaluable help here. It is truly hard to know what you don't know and at times it is also incredibly difficult to be self-aware enough to realize what exactly it is that you did to cause the issue. Many times it is a combination of factors and this makes it even harder to discern the cause of the error.
Let go of the error and move on. Identify logical steps to resolve the issue and focus on that, and focus on it in a relaxed manner. That brings us to step # 2.
You cannot learn when you are tense and neither can your horse. As the horse clearly mirrors our actions any tightness or tension will be picked up immediately by your equine partner.
It is important to access both sides of the brain when riding, and the left side of the brain works intuitively based on learned experiences. When you overthink you actually block your ability to resource movements your body has already learned and even if you accidentally key into a positive method or action that precipitates the wanted result in training it will be hard for you to repeat it as its identity will be fleeting.
In clinics I often hear students report that in their own training at home, they can only garner fleeting moments that feel correct. For instance, during the sitting trot the horse only feels soft and round and to the bit for a few strides and then they lose the feeling. This is usually because they are transcended during that moment and worry so much about losing the quality of the strides that they stop doing anything active to maintain it.
Unfortunately the riders are often unaware that the cessation of the movement quality has been caused by their lack of coordinated continued actions. A trainer on the ground will see it right away and report back to the student, and the circle is again complete as the rider addresses their issue.
However, if the rider is not relaxed, their mind cannot focus on the instruction or indeed on what the feedback from their horses implies. Their minds and bodies are simply closed off to the input being sent their way by the horse.
Anxiety in either horse or rider is detrimental to the harmony and relaxation required for training. Focus cannot be achieved unless the rider clears their mind and body of angst.
To try not so hard is alien to the ambitious rider. But it is what is sometimes very necessary.
Maintaining focus does not just apply to the minute by minute notes of riding technique. It is important to set goals, short term and long term in training horses and to be flexible in how they are placed on a timeline. A blinkered approach that encompasses actively working toward a set goal is imperative to achieve success to advanced levels.
Routines help enable focus for both horse and rider. Each knows this is the time they get down to work, and while adjustments must always be made to accommodate individual personality and physical limits of both horse and rider, the overall experience must be full of positive energy, praise and rest rewards.
As a clinician it is essential that you do not become carried away with excitement at a given moment of perfection or sincere achievement to the point you push the horse/rider further along too fast for their good.
In my opinion, rest is one of the most underused and underrated rewards utilized by professional trainers. This does not mean releasing the rider and horse to plonk about without active strides or the rider to sit as a sack of potatoes with reins flapping against the horse's neck, every stride when mounted still counts and core activity must be maintained in both partners.
It means allowing freedom across the horse's back by releasing seat muscles, soft engagement with the reins and light aids to maintain forward movement and energy.
The singular best reward you can give a horse is not a pat or a carrot, it is the act of simply dismounting.
When training horses at our yard at Willowview Hill Farm, horses are always mounted in the arena and dismounted in the arena. Girths are tightened just before mounting after an in hand walk around the arena, and loosened slightly after dismounting (it is wise not to loosen girths too quickly as it causes a rush of blood under the saddle that can negatively affect the cooling off process of the back muscles), and again walked a few circles to garner full relaxation.
In conclusion following simple rules as part of your daily training and riding time with your horse will yield positive progress and discernible good results.
Give it a go! And don't forget these ethics don't just apply to riding, they apply to other aspects of life as well!