How often do you think about what you are actually thinking about as you ride? It may sound a little silly, but are you truly aware of your thoughts in the saddle? Many studies have proved the connection between an athletes thoughts and their physical performance. Where your mind is truly has an effect on what you are capable of. Learning to be aware of your thoughts while riding can open up a whole new level of confidence in yourself and connection with your horse.
Every good horse trainer wants their horses undivided attention. A distracted horse can be very dangerous in the wrong situation and this is why we strive for their focus during training. The relationship between a horse and rider is a two way street and just as we want our horses to concentrate on our aids and requests, we need to do the same for them.
Many things can effect the way we think while we are riding. This time of year, unless you live south of Atlanta, the thought of riding on a cold, windy winter day can be less than appealing. Our horses seem to enjoy the brisk weather much more than we do and nobody likes frozen fingers! It can be tough to keep your mind full of positive thoughts during a ride in bad weather, at a distracting venue or after a bad experience…. tough, but not impossible! A rider not actively concentrating their thoughts will begin to become effected by their surroundings in some way or another, just like our horses can, but just chanting “stay focused…. stay focused” will not do the trick.
We all need to make a habit of being more aware of exactly what is going through our mind while we are working with our horses. Understanding what you are thinking about goes a little bit deeper than “Am I nervous?” or “How does my horse look right now?”. You may be nervous, but what about? And everyone cares what their horse looks like, but is there something you can do about it? Success in training is all about preparation and preparation takes focus.
This weeks exercise is going to be a little bit different. Instead of a particular movement, we are going to focus on three different stages of thought as you ride. I recommend starting off with something simple, like a twenty meter circle, and then branching out as you feel ready. Lets begin!
When you ask your horse for something, what type of response were you looking for? This sounds like an obvious question, but when you apply your aids, do you really have a specific response that you are after? Knowing exactly what you want helps to not only make your aids more clear, but it also gives you the right to correct an incorrect response. If you ask your horse for something non-specific or vague, wouldn’t it be unfair to correct any response they give you? An ambiguous request leaves room for a wide variety a responses. The next time you you are about to ask your horses for something, take a moment to think about both how you are going to ask and what you will accept as an answer….. before you apply your aids.
Does your horse understand how to respond to the question you just asked? Has your horse responded correctly to those aids confidently and consistently in the past? Are you confident in your ability to duplicate the same aids that created that good response again? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then we need to start teaching your horses just how you want him/her to respond to that request. Remember that it takes many positive repetitions to create a habit and I think that many riders feel that their horse understands something far before they actually do. Kyra Kyrkland states that if you have only done something ten times schooling at home, you are going to have to be pretty lucky to repeat it again. This is so true! Just because your horse has responded correctly a few times to a request doesn’t mean that they understand that request fully. Keeping this in mind, helps remind us to reward the good responses and understand why the wrong ones may have been given.
Nuno Oliveria says this when discussing the riders aids, "I don't want riders who work physically hard. Work by thinking." I love this, because so many training mistakes can be avoided by using that thing you strap you helmet onto! If you can’t describe how to ask for a certain movement or transition, what are the odds that you are capable of asking correctly?
If you have ever asked yourself or your trainer, “Why won’t my horse go round?” or “Why can’t I get my horse to stretch?”, take the time to really understand how to ask for the things you want your horse to do. This will be far more beneficial than simply doing the movement or exercise. A rider that performs exercises before they fully understand them, lacks the ability to recreate that exercise later on. Taking the time to learn the proper aids for the movements you want to execute is one of the most important things you can do for both you and your horse.
Now that you have clearly applied your aids, what kind of response did you get? Did you get what you had in mind back before you asked?
This very moment is why the first question is so important to ask, “What kind of response am I looking for?”, because immediately following your horses response, you need to respond back with either a correction or a reward. If your horse just responded correctly, it is important that we reward that response. It can be easy to fall into the habit of only reacting when I correction is required. Although corrections are a necessary part of training, every horse reacts to praise. Any time we can create a positive response instead of a negative one, we should take advantage of the opportunity. As your horse learns that responding that way will result in praise, they are more likely to respond that way again and riding a horse that wants to earn your praise is a fabulous feeling!
Even if you gave the most perfectly timed aids, mistakes happen. We are working with live animals and just like us, they get distracted, confused and discombobulated from time to time (some more than others ;)). If you gave the wrong aids, correct yourself and begin again. Now if you are confident that you gave the correct aids and your horse offered an incorrect response, make your correction clear, simple and direct. After the correction, ride the exercise again with the same clear aids you gave the first time. The worst thing you can do is change your aids simply because your horse answered incorrectly. Be confident in your aids and forgive your horse (and yourself) for the mistakes as soon as the correction is given. “A good rider lives on the small number of good steps and he builds on them. He forgets about the bad things…” thanks again Kyra ;)
Happy riding everyone!