April 03, 2009

How do you ride - mentally?

I read something interesting by Mary Wanless yesterday, and it has been playing around in the back of my head since.
I will write more about Mary Wanless and her thoughts about riding in a separate post. It will be a long one as she is my favourite author when it comes to riding…

Anyway, the basic question is – what goes on in your mind when you are riding?

Are you riding with your left brain (analysing) or your right brain (feel)?
Are you talking to yourself when you are riding?
What do you remember after your riding session - your good moments, or the bad ones?
Mary Wanless compared the thought processes of the “normal” rider with the “elite” riders, and found some things that differed.
She also found differences between the dressage rider and the showjumping/eventing rider.

In her findings, some riders often silently talked to themselves when they rode, others seldom did this.
Some riders focused on what went well, and did not dwell much on the things that did not work out as planned, while other riders often got mentally stuck in the bad parts.
Who do you believe were the elite ones? The normal ones?

Dressage riders had a very strong internal focus, while show jumpers/eventers had an external focus (logically when you have all those obstacles in your way).
She mentioned one example of a successful event rider that had problems to readjust and focus in the dressage test. This rider was too aware of the surroundings and got disturbed by them, and as a result the horse also had concentration problems.

Interesting thoughts.

It made me think about how I function when I ride.
How do you function?

I kind of get into a mental yoga-state when I ride, very much a "feel"-rider I believe. The result is that I sometimes am a bit passive.
And maybe this is the reason that I am not a good show jumper. I kind of go with the flow, and then all these obstacles get in the way, and afterwards I am a bit dazed and kind of have the feeling “what happened??”.
Not very “pro-active”, lol!
Maybe if I jumped more I would improve, but as I am so happy with my dressage I don’t believe I will reach that stage…

The dressage riding is a mental time-out from everything for me.
I can be stressed or feeling down before I start the riding, but seldom afterwards. I get totally absorbed by the task at hands, and forget about everything else.
It’s my lucky pill, haha.
And I don’t get depressed if things don’t work out as planned. I believe that is a consequence of riding for so long; I don’t feel that I need to prove anything. I ride for fun. I know it goes up and down. You might seem stuck for a while, but there are always plateaus and it is just to put your mind and body to work and one day the problem will be solved. In a way that is intriguing in itself.
And when riding a young horse where things can happen fast, you have to watch out so you don’t limit yourself.
I am very grateful for my instructor who pushes me. I am afraid I otherwise would go into a Happy Hippie-state and have these pleasurable yoga-sessions and the progress would take twice as much time as necessary, lol!

I cherish those prescious moments when things work really well.
The very best ones are when my horse is really through and soft in the body, and it feels like I just have to think what we are to do, and we do it. Together.
It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is magic!
And when it happens, I go over it over and over again in my mind for several days, and keep the happy feeling inside.
I know that for people watching, dressage may seem as interesting as watching paint dry.
But it is so absolutely enthralling when you are up in the saddle yourself.
For me, I believe it is the feeling of being one with my horse that really gives me the kick.
The search for the magic moments, and the happiness when I find them.

What are your happy moments on horse back?


wilsonc said...

Wonderful post! It gave me something to think about in my ride later today. Like you, I find dressage enthralling when I am actually riding. I even like watching it now that I've ridden it. That is a hard thing to explain to friends and family who come to watch the occasional show with me. They are mostly bored and want to go home and I could stay until the bitter end.

Irene said...

Du slår huvudet på spiken. Yogaliknande tillstånd. När jag tränar märker jag inget runt omkring, som om bara jag o hästen finns. När det "klickar" blir jag salig o det påverkar mig positivt länge... När jag ska tävla är jag vansinnigt nervös innan, men när jag börjar rida försvinner allt o jag kan fokusera utan problem...

HorseOfCourse said...

wilsonc - I also like to watch, trainings in particular. I love to get new input, and cherish the possibility to learn something new. But as you say, the problem is if you are going to a show or a training with someone less interested than yourself...kind of spoils the fun when you see that the restlessness is growing!
(I would love to hear about your thoughts after the ride today, by the way.)

Irene - I agree with you, I also forget about things around me when I train.
This is also one of the things that Mary W mentions about dressage riders, the narrow internal focus of attention - in opposition to someone that rides polo or racing, which requires focus on rapidly changing external circumstances!
She also says that our preferences here will determine what sphere of riding we will be drawn to, and points out that this is one of the challenges facing event riders (who commonly excels in jumping but often have difficulties with the dressage).

OnceUponAnEquine said...

Interesting post HorseOfCourse. I'll have to pay attention to what kind of rider I am when I get going this summer. I can't remember from so long ago. I think I was one who would get distracted by outside things.

You have a good passion for dressage and your riding.

stillearning said...

This is a topic often discussed at our house; I am most definitely a left-brainer and my husband is most definitely a right-y. We often approach training issues in very different manners, but after years of discussions can usually explain to each other why.

I've chosen a trainer who is right-brained also. It's sometimes a challenge for me to translate what she's asking (bigger picture, less detail), but it works better for me than some other trainers who would add more details and steps to my already over-thinking approach. With this trainer I supply the step-by-step details then try to allow the "dance" to flow. It reminds me of my childhood piano lessons; practicing scales and then turning it into music.

Mary Wanless is one of my favorites. Thanks for reminding me to pull out her books for a re-read!

HorseOfCourse said...

Thank you OnceUpon!
I find it interesting to contemplate over things like this. My husband finds it a paradox that I am doing dressage since I am basically an impatient person, and dressage requires loads of patience. But maybe it's more an unconscious choice due to left/right brain?

stillearning - interesting that you have chosen a trainer that is opposite to yourself.
When I read you comment, I thought about it and found out that my instructor is also my opposite, and it works very well, lol!
Maybe it is an advantage?
And I love your description about the traning and the comparison to piano lessons. It feels like that to me too.
And how fun that you also like Mary Wanless. Her books are not translated here, so most people in Scandinavia are not familiar with her ideas, unfortunately.
I love her way of challenging the established dogmas of riding techniques, and instead trying to find out what good riders really DO, and what works. And let the horse be the final proof.

stillearning said...

I am also impatient, yet love dressage. Maybe the rider recognizes and appreciates more the tiny steps of progress than an observer can?

I rode for years with a left-brain instructor. I loved the technical discussions we had, but eventually realized that I was becoming too technical, and losing too much of the feel. Detailed instructions are easy for me; I need to work on "flow" more.

Mary Wanless was the writer who made me realize how I approach things. Her description of her own desperate ways a real light-bulb moment for me. Maybe there was nothing wrong with ME, just how I was being taught at the moment. (Nothing wrong with the trainer, either, just not a good fit.)

The piano analogy came because I have a very musical sister who never struggled with turning scales into a song. It made me realize there was a difference.

Btw, the treat-training had mixed results. I had to back off a little because he was becoming a "cookie-monster". Maybe he needs to get used to me carrying treats without giving them to him!

HorseOfCourse said...

No, we don't want any cookie-monsters, lol!
I carry something in the pocket all of the time, but I don't accept any bad behaviour.
The horses easily get obsessed by it,but I believe this in a way proves that it is a powerful tool.
If we use it in the right way my firm belief is that you can speed up the learning process.
Did you use it when riding, or in other situations?

stillearning said...

I already use treats when working on the ground with him and it's never been an issue. Maybe he can smell them better when I'm mounted? I'm sure he'll adjust; I just need to carry them with me without rewarding him a few times.

I was using them to reward a soft upward transition, so had to get the transition, praise him but stop before I could give him a treat. He grasped the concept fairly quickly and I was pleased, but in subsequent rides he was too focused on the treat (and stopping and begging) and too little focused on my aids.
I'll keep playing with it

HorseOfCourse said...

Just keep playing with it, stillearning.
It takes some time before they get the sequence in it (piano scales, you know!)
A disadvantage is that you have to stop to treat, but that hinders you mostly in the beginning.
As soon as the horse understands that the cue-word is the reward, then you can delay the treat.
When I have a specific task or problem to solve, I give the treat as close to the task as possible – just to be clear.
When I see that my horse has got it, I delay the treat.
She gets the cue-word, but I ride on and sometimes she gets a delayed treat and sometimes not. And if she anticipates the treat in that situation and hesitates, I just ask her to work on.

You know horses have good memory, and at least in my horse I see that when we have worked with a specific problem, it stays in her mind.
We had some concentrated work on the trot extensions a while back, and she still is offering them by herself, just to get that praise, and maybe a treat.
The last days when we have been out hacking, she has kept calm and very attentive to restraining aids in the canter - and normally she gets very eager. I believe it is due to the training that I blogged about earlier.
Well - she couldn’t help her self on the last stretch on the gravel road home yesterday, she took off there! But I can live with a relapse from time to time when the overall picture is an improvement…

stillearning said...

Today was interesting. My horse has now connected the treat/praise with the desired softness and obedience, and seemed able to understand cause and effect even when the treat reward was delayed and was happy with the verbal praise. He was quite fresh today, and wanted to disobey and play so I didn't have high hopes for much learning, but he surprised me. I could correct his misbehaviours and reward the good ones, and he clearly understood the difference. Hmmm. Interesting.

You are right that food is a very powerful tool. I'm wondering about the argument that you shouldn't feed treats because the top horse takes the others' food. Doesn't controlling the treat distribution make us the top horse?

I'll keep experimenting.

HorseOfCourse said...

That sounds good, stillearning! I'd love to hear how it goes, I hope you'll have as positive experience with it as I have had.

And re the top horse argument; I agree with you. If we are to follow that original argument we couldn't feed our horses at all, could we?
I feel that our horse world is so full of traditions, that we sometimes have to look them in the eye and ask why.
And isn't it a paradox that it in many ways is accepted to use violence when handling our horses, but it is a shame to use treats?
And that I, when writing this, am afraid that some people won't believe me a "real" horse person just because I use treats?
But I do believe it is better to use my (cunning) brain, than my (limited)raw force.

I envy people working with horses full time.
I see that they get a tool box full of experience, both when it comes to riding and handling of horses, that I will never get - even after a burning horse interest for forty years.
To me, the use of treats is in a way a shortcut to achieve the desired result, to make the horse understand easier and at the same time make it pleasant.
If I had my toolbox full maybe I could achieve the same result; but as I have to work with what I have I find that using treats is a very good help.
And if I at the same time get a horse that is eager to work with me, it is not such a bad thing, is it?