What is your riding mission?
When I first meet a new rider, I like to listen to their goals. Most riders express a desire to develop harmony, trust and clarity with their horse. I am often given goals that sound something like this:
- I want to avoiding making errors as a rider/handler
- I don't want to make mistakes while I'm learning new concepts
- I want to avoid confusing my horse while I'm learning
- I want to keep my horse happy and confident
These are all fabulous goals to have for every rider (regardless of level), but as a rider starts to develop, many begin to change these original goals, instead of add to them. I do not believe that riders intentionally depart from these original goals, but as success and accomplishment start to blossom, they are often forgotten. Striving for clarity and harmony is not just for the beginner rider, it is a goal that should be at the forefront of our daily interaction with horses. Whether you are a Grand Prix rider on a seasoned horse or a beginner rider just starting out, remembering your original mission is key.
Why do our missions change?
As a rider develops new abilities, new goals are needed in order to progress. This part of the process can be very exciting, but it is also a point at which your focus can become blurred and when your focus is blurred, it is easy to become derailed. One suggestion that I rely on in a variety of situations is to go in with one focus. For example, if you are at a horse show and go down centerline wanting to sit up straight, keep your hands down, keep your fingers closed, steady your leg, make your circles round, use your corners.... odds are that you will forget a great majority of these things once your hear the judge ring their bell. BUT, if you ride down centerline with the goal of a steady rhythm, you can concentrate on maintaining a steady rhythm throughout the entire test and it will improve everything! Another example, in regards to daily schooling, is that I try to head to the ring everyday with one main exercise or concept that I want to accomplish for the day. If you head to the ring with several different goals and it is just not the right day for either you or your horse, someone is going home frustrated. Feeling frustrated or like you have failed can really shake the confidence you have in your mission. This feeling can be avoided, or at least minimized, by simplifying your objective. If you and your horse accomplish that goal with ease, you can walk back to the barn full of confidence and bring that into tomorrows ride.
Now there are several different reasons that riders alter their mission...
- Success: Success is one of the easiest ways to loose focus on your original goals, isn't it? I mean, if you have already succeeded, why do you still need those old goals? I don't think this is something consciously done, but it is very easy to begin feeling this way. There is a reason that the training scale is presented in the form of a pyramid... each new stage sets on the previous one and they are added in a specific order. For example, rhythm and regularity are the first step and everything is built off of this. Even when you have reached the pinnacle of collection, you are still expected to maintain that very first stage of rhythm and regularity. So when all of your hard work and dedication begins to transfer into success, don't let it shift the focus off of the foundation of your original goals.
- Failure: Failure is tough. It is tough on the rider, tough for your trainer and tough for the horse in some cases. Although we all try our very best to prevent it, everyone struggles from time to time. One of my favorite sayings goes something like this, "There are three types of competitors out there: those who have failed, those who will fail and those who won't push themselves hard enough to fail." This is so true. Failure is not the end, but a lot of riders take it as such. There are two ways to react to failure; you can allow it to shake your confidence and disrupt your goals or you can use it as incentive to improve.
- New goals: This is a tricky one. There are many different ways that new goals are brought into the picture. When you buy a new horse, begin riding at a new level or begin riding with a new instructor, all of these circumstances will bring on new goals and a new focus. This is normal and, in many cases, necessary, but have confidence in your original mission. Every riders mission should include confidence, clarity, harmony and happiness for your horse(s). If your new goals do not include these concepts, you may want to start asking questions.
- Bumps in the road: A bump in the road is not necessarily a failure. We are human beings, capable of everything from total brilliance to complete destruction, and we are working with wild animals with their own thoughts and emotions.... there are bound to be some bumps in the road! A very wise man once told me to look at bumps in the road as files that are smoothing out the path that you and your horse are on. If we change our goals or shift our focus every time things get a little tough, we may never stick it out long enough to know if it would have been successful. Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School Karl Mikolka says that a good pilot rides through the turbulence to find the calmer air. I'm not a pilot, but I'm pretty sure the way you do that is by looking up and adding leg ;)
These things happen to everyone at one time or another, but if you keep focused, it will not derail your mission. Plus, a great side effect of staying focused is that it doesn't matter where you are riding, who is watching you, how packed the schooling ring is, where that squirrel went... etc. you have a job to do and you are going to get it done!
So my question for you is this.... what is your mission as a rider? You may need to think back a bit to find the answer. Think about the things that were important to you when you first started, before training timelines or competition objectives entered the picture. As you begin to lay out your mission as a rider, avoid tailoring your standards to the level you are currently training or competing at. The things that we should pursue as a rider are applicable at every level. I desire the same confidence for a rider just taking their first trot steps as I do a rider going down the centerline of their first FEI test. A rider learning to balance a correct counter canter can achieve the same harmony as a beautiful line of one tempis. I try to give the same clarity of aids whether I am starting a young horses leg yields or improving the rhythm of a seasoned piaffe. The concepts of good riding are relevant at every level. They are also applicable to every horse, which at times, is easier said than done. It is a lot easier to pursue harmony and refinement on a horse that you have a great partnership with. It is very common for riders to "put off" working towards the goals of harmony or clarity until their horse gets to a certain point in training or until they are "the boss". If this resonates with you, think about the type of leader you would prefer to take direction from.... one that reserves good instruction for when you have earned it or one that gives the same clear direction no matter what you are struggling with? I know who I would chose and I'm fairly certain that your horse would agree! Now I am not suggesting a lack of correction, but I assure you that you can be a clear, fair teacher to all horses and this objective should be a goal of every rider.
Every rider should have a mission that takes you on a path toward a harmonious, trusting partnership with your horse and you can begin that journey today. You do not need to be at a certain level or capable of a certain score to achieve harmony, but you can develop it where you are and bring it with you all the way to the top...