Too Much of a Good Thing... is Still Too Much!

I am a student of life.  I love to learn about all sorts of things, whether it applies to my everyday life, my riding or is simply for information sake.  I am still wondering where snot comes from, but I haven’t actually looked that up.  So when I get the opportunity to work with one of my mentors, I jump at it, embrace it, and gnaw on it for a while.  And that’s where things can go pie shaped…..

In the past few months, I had the opportunity to work with Mary Wanless again.  Out of the 3 days, I rode my green 3 year old 2 of the days, and a training/sales mare the other day.  It was discovered, with some great concern on my part, that I could not sufficiently turn left on the young horse, and all of my previous fabulous training on him (I started him myself) had not managed to infuse this ability into our ride.  There was a certain “leakiness” to my right hip area, that was allowing the horse to bulge right and kind of glom his way left, rather than making a crisp, clean left turn that left no one in the audience wondering if I was going to end up in their laps!  It was less evident but still present on the sales horse, and solved a lot of questions that  I had with her training, as well.

I also gained another valuable insight into my rides.  I have recently been riding a lot more baby horses, including two of my own.  I have come off one of my own, and have become a little more nervous, wondering what in our environment might be an issue, and riding more defensively than with leadership.  Mary saw this as a far too external view of my rides, and helped draw me back into a more internal look, keeping track of what I was doing at each moment, what the horse felt like as a result, and we got some really great results.  I felt renewed in my abilities, and have sallied forth to conquer the world of baby horses ever since.

So I have worked on my position.  And I worked on it some more.  And I was very internal, didn’t let outside things take away from my feel of where I was, what was the horse doing in response, staying there staying there.  I am a high tone body type (with a little padding for good measure), so when a coach wants a tremendous effort, I answer with a cry to arms, and turn on everything I’ve got.  I worked the hell out of that position problem, until it begged for mercy.

And that’s where the problem began…..

I am reminded of the Bible verse “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  This applies to EVERYTHING, even your riding.  When you make a correction, whether it is to you, your horse, your tack or your arena, there are 3 areas to the issue:  the problem, neutral, and the next problem.  When you first meet the problem, it seems huge, insurmountable, like the Abominable Snowman, and you cannot imagine how you missed this issue, or how you will ever get past it.  The correction, when given, seems equally difficult, alien, like trying to wrap your mouth around a foreign language.  You can SEE (or FEEL) the difference, you UNDERSTAND the need for the correction, but wrong feels like home, and moving away from home is always traumatic.  With proper coaching you are able to hit upon the correct solution (insert position, saddle, footing, or other issue of your choice); once you find the correction, your goal is to maintain it.  You learn slowly to live in this new, weird place, and to call it home, because you see the benefits of giving up that bad habit.  This is a pivotal moment in any rider’s work, and each person that is able to do this should take a moment and be proud of themselves – giving up a position imbalance can be as hard as quitting smoking.

{Pause for self applause}

Trainers are often well versed in dealing with the weird.  They understand that it does not always feel good to be in the correct place, and that staying in the correct place may take some major effort.  The difference is that trainers more often get to the other side of the issue, and so they recognize the rewards of sticking it out.  Learning to live in the problem place is an everyday thing for a good trainer.

For those zealots among us (and how many riders are NOT zealots in some way?) the issue comes when we overwork the problem.  In our effort to correct the original issue, we keep looking for the “weird”, the foreign feel that tells us we are in the “right” new place.  We go with the last instruction we received on it, which sometimes is not very often.  At some point, the problem is fixed, but without ground help, mirrors, or video, it is hard to let go of the “weird” and know that we can MOVE ON!  The original issue is now dead, ground into little problem pieces, and still we persist in trying to fix it – and cause THE NEXT PROBLEM.

The new problem is not often discovered until something changes – you get another lesson, you go to a show and someone says “Oh my gosh, why are you all hunched over the front of your horse?!?”, or worse yet, you come off because you have over-corrected and are hugely out of balance a NEW way.   This is where riders can get discouraged, and lose confidence in themselves, their coaches, and their ability to ride.  They can bemoan the lack of money that prevents them from being able to get more help, or the fact that they live too far away from anyone they want to work with.  With this loss of confidence come more issues and things can spiral quickly.

Does any of this sound familiar?  If so, don’t fear.  Through my own blunders, stumbles and travails, I have put together a pretty good set of bandages, tools, and hints that can help prevent these “overages”, and help you find more productivity on your own, between lessons with your professional of choice!

In the Lesson – While working with your professional of choice, ask for some reminders of what the correct position will be.  These may be physical cues, like something you can measure with your hand (Mary has a thumb-over-pinky check that is brilliant), or visual cues (if you can see your toe in front of your knee, the foot is too far forward).  They may simply have words that they say that help you check internally (collarbone over sternum over bellybutton over pubic bone).  Lastly, they can show you things about your horse that change when you achieve the correct position (notice how he reaches for your hand when you sit THERE, and he comes off the contact when you don’t).  Your horse is a huge barometer of your balance, and a big fan of you doing the right thing – don’t discount their ability to cheerlead for you!

Measure things – One of the brilliant ways Mary Wanless helps her students is by giving them a value to compare to.  In the lesson, consider your effort level.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being low and 10 being the best effort you can possibly make, where do you rate during the lesson when you have your correct position?  Chances are it’s pretty high, and it takes a monumental effort to get it accomplished.  Know that, over time and with repetitions, this number will naturally go lower, as the effort to maintain becomes less unnatural and more like “home”.  I had a student grab hold of a new position and was aghast at the huge effort it took to maintain, but equally excited by the results she saw in the horse.  Her effort level was a 10, but the reward was there, so she stuck with it and stuck with it until I saw her again – a month later!  While I was pleased at the solidity of her position when I saw her again, I was stuck by the rigidity of it – she was still working at a 10!  We let her effort go down to a 6, and everything fell into place.

Help when you need it – Whenever you can, utilize your friends (or children or parents, but probably NOT your boss!) to go with you to your lessons.  Whether they are horsey people or not, many people are useful with a video or phone, and can take snippets of video for you to compare to.  Get more snippets between lessons, so that you have a video diary to compare to the correct position from the lesson.  Men have an astounding ability to see the mechanics of things, and can often give great insight into a position change without even having to be interested.  Show them the correct position as quickly as you can after a lesson, and have them watch you (for 90 seconds or less!) as frequently as you can after that, to get their surprisingly accurate assessment (then let them be, they can’t really figure out why we’re doing this anyway!)

Finally, realize that in riding, we are constantly moving from one mistake to another, and that is a big part of the riding process.  Don’t despair this fact, just work to note things more quickly – that’s what the professionals do.  Give your best effort, but also give yourself a break!  Enjoy your lessons, and we’ll see you next time, with the new position and the next correction!

Stephany Fish