Thursday, September 13, 2012

TIR: Is your relationship with your dreams stronger than your relationship with fear?

There have been entire books written on this.  Lots and lots of them.  By people with a lot more letters after their names than I have.  But what it comes down to is a significant portion of this sport is psycological.

Have you ever read the $700 Pony?  If not, you should.   Seriously - click the link, buy the book, enjoy it.  Two reasons -- one, it will make you laugh.  Laughing makes you relaxed.  Relaxed riders ride better.  Ergo - it's an enjoyable way to improve your riding.   Two -- cause I'm going to steal a phrase from Ellen and I feel better doing so if I've already plugged her book :)   Namely, that she routinely refers to her "trainer/therapist" -- and honestly, some days I think that is the job description.   Which may be part of why I love it so much, since psychology was definitely the only other option that was a significant alternative to starting the school *g*

So traits of improving riders -- why do kids seem to improve so much faster than adults?  They're fearless!   Seriously people.  That's all there is to it.

Riding is one of those tricky "things we have to learn before we can do, but we learn by doing" (yeah for smuggling in classical references - that'd be Aristotle folks.  Well loosely translated anyways since I never took Greek so have to take what I can get :).  I tell a group of kids to go try something; they go try it.   I tell a group of adults to go try something and they want to know every possible outcome and what to do about it and that's before they start considering what all could go wrong! 

EG - Instructor: "go jump that fence"
Child: goes and jumps fence
Adult: "when should I go in my two point? 
Child: goes and jumps fence 
Adult: where do we take off? 
Child: goes and jumps fence 
Adult: how do I get him to land on the correct lead?
Child: goes and jumps fence 
Adult:  how fast should I be going? 
Child: goes and jumps fence 
Adult: what if he stops?
Child: goes and jumps fence 
Adult: what if he runs out? 

Note how many fences the child has jumped before the adult has even tried it once.  So even if they've made every single mistake the adult can imagine -- they're still ahead.  Because now they *know* they can make the mistake and live through it.  AND they know what mistakes not to make.   Because they just tried it.

Fear and fear of failure are not necessarily the same thing, but they often have the same result.  One rider won't try because they're wondering what on Earth they were thinking and their heart is pounding and they can feel the blood coursing through their veins and they're wondering if it's not too late to change to a safer sport.  Like football.  Or rugby.  The other one is afraid to even try until they know every possible piece of the puzzle intimately so that they won't make a mistake.  Sadly both are seriously detrimental to improving your riding because no matter how long you think about it, the only way to learn to ride is to ride.

The second one's easier to deal with so we'll start with that -- give yourself permission to make mistakes.  "But I want to do it right!" yeah yeah well sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make a cake.   Or so those who can bake have told me anyways >;-P   Not that it's a *great* idea to use analogies involving breaking things with riding, but sometimes they fit :)   AKA it has to be ugly before it can be beautiful (ugly duckling anybody?) because, quite frankly, most of us need to learn the hard way.   You're out there to learn; which means you probably don't already know it all; which means it's totally fair to make mistakes.  And odds are really good your coach has seen them all before -- and probably made many of them! Besides, let's be honest -- mistakes usually lead to the best stories :)   I know none of my favourite stories go "yeah so I did this perfectly and then it was over."  Who would bother reading that?

A sideline to allowing yourself to improve is letting go of the ego -- if you really want to improve, you have to set it aside and let your coach tell you what you don't want to hear so you can be the rider you know you can be.  And sometimes, especially if you've been riding a long time, that's hard to do.   But remember, if you're standing on the edge of a cliff, a step backwards is progress.  It's entirely possible that the reason you haven't improved in the last five years is because you're missing a basic but critical piece.  But unless you are willing to accept that there just might be something wrong, and let your coach take you back to fill in the gaps, there will be very little improvement.  This is one of those things that is way more challenging for re-riders than "real" novice riders.  Real novice riders, having never ridden before, have no ego or expectations -- so as a result they generally learn faster as they don't get frustrated as quickly.   Re-riders often remember how it *should* work but can't quite make it happen.  Or, harder yet, never *really* knew in the first place, but memory has added a rosy hue that makes them think they did.   To improve, to get back to where you used to be -- or better yet surpass it! -- you have to let the past go and work with what you've got today.

And then there's true fear.  One of my favourite lines came from Woffard's gymnastic book -- which suggests using gymnastics to push students out of their comfort zone safely (ie slightly higher etc).  His point is that "it can be difficult to analyse your horse's performance whilst you are also concentrating on not falling off."  hahaha fair enough.  So when trying something that's going to require some bravery on your part -- putting it in a gymnastic and thereby insuring the striding is correct for your horse -- makes your odds of success much greater.

Sometimes it takes bravery just to get on.  Sometimes it's to go faster - canter or gallop.  Sometimes it's to leave the ring.   Sometimes it's to jump.  Sometimes it's to remount after a fall.  Sometimes it's to ride out a spook or buck or just plain unpredictability.   A a rider, you have only a moment to react instinctively to these movements.  And when that doesn't work, you have to respond strategically -- unfurl from the fetal position, loosen the death grip, breathe, and ride forward.   Often this means fighting your most basic impulse: to hold on for dear life and try to stop.  Too often in riding, as in life, falls are the result of holding back when you should be kicking on.   But when every instinct in your mind is screaming STOP THE RIDE, I WANT TO GET OFF -- that can be incredibly hard.   And any time you stop the ride, you stop your improvement.  Managing fear requires two things.  First - leave the ego at home.   Forget that once-upon-a-time this was easy; that just makes it harder.  Pretend it's the first time and savour it as such.  The second thing is to take it in baby steps.  I had one student whose goal for her first lesson was to get on.  It took the entire hour, and she was mounted approximately sixty seconds -- and shaking so hard it was challenging to dismount.  But she did it.  And the next lesson she got on much sooner and sat still for a while and then even braved a few steps at the walk.  And the next lesson she got on right away and started walking right away; by the end of that ride, I was allowed to step a few feet away from the horse.  Anybody starting from scratch and unafraid, the first ten lessons would've been covered in one.   But for this rider, who'd had a very serious fall more than ten years earlier, we had to put aside what she used to be able to do and break down her goal (of eventually going xc) into achievable pieces.   It took about two years - but with bite-sized pieces, she did get to do entry level xc :)   Now what the steps are and how you're going to tackle them depends on your situation.  Almost always it involves adding in the perception of extra control to the scenario.  Could be putting the horse on a lunge line.  Could be "only canter for 3 strides".   Could be "just go for a walk outside".  Whatever it takes -- STAY on that baby step until it gets boring.  Or at least easy :) Then you can be climb, jump or be pushed up onto the next step.  And eventually the item at the top of the ladder won't be quite so far away. 

But the one thing YOU have to decide -- and nobody can do it for you -- is do you want to ride more than you fear?  Because if the fear is strong enough, for a while riding won't be fun.  And almost every rider I know has gone through it at some point; some of us more than once.  If you're a true rider, one for whom the passion is in the blood, you will get through it.  And if you're not, you'll find all sorts of reasons not to ride (see the excuses post below :).   And then soon you'll be finding reasons not to go to the barn...  And eventually riding will be "something you used to do".  And you won't be missing anything, because for you, it wasn't a passion.  And if you don't have the passion, you don't understand the sport.   With the little kids it's almost always really obvious.  Nerves present *often* as tummy aches.  The child will show up several weeks in a row complaining of stomach aches.  It's not that the child is making something up; they do genuinely feel ill.  But what's interesting is the reaction.  There are the kids who come in saying "I have a tummy ache, I can't ride", and then there are the ones who say "I have a tummy ache, but can I ride anyways?"  I'm sure you can figure out for yourself which is the one who will be a life-long rider.

The only two emotions that belong in the saddle are patience and a sense of humour.  If you really want to improve, leave everything else at home.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

TIR - Whatever your excuse is, it is time to stop believing it.

So today's Traits of Improving Riders is both one of the easiest and one of the hardest to apply.  And it makes a HUGE difference.   And that is - take responsibility for your own riding.

Some of this goes with the last post - if you want to ride, find a way to ride.  Take every opportunity to learn.  Etc etc.  I'm not going to repeat that -- you can scroll down if you'd like a review :)   But it goes beyond that.

I'm always amazed when I'm doing an assessment lesson and somebody is doing something horrifically wrong and I ask them about it and without fail "well that's what my coach told me to do".  Ok well why?  "I don't know."   And this whole scenario just makes me want to bang my head against the wall.   Now this is *not* a case of "different people do things differently" -- that is an entirely different scenario.  Different sports teach differently and different trainers may train slightly different aids, and different coaches teach with different focuses.  And for novice riders - coaches will all prioritize skills slightly differently, so students may know things in a different order than how I would choose to teach them.  None of that is wrong or bad.  And that is entirely why we do assessment lessons so I can find out where people are in their knowledge and abilities.  No, the above case is when something is - by any standard - wrong.   A couple examples I've seen a few times - downward transitions by standing up and pulling or jumping by standing straight up in the stirrups and hanging on to either the reins or the mane to stay on.  Oh dear.

Now, were they taught incorrectly?  Very likely.  And if they're truly novice riders, sobeit.  But for those who've been riding 5 or 10 or 20 years -- at some point you need to stop and consider.  If you want to improve, you have to take responsibility for your own riding.  Stop and think.  Ask questions.  Why doesn't your riding look like the pros?  If you're not sure, ask your coach.  They may be able to explain why, but if not maybe it's time for another opinion.  If everything else with your coach is amazing, it could be as simple as a clinic -- pick up the missing piece from another pro.  Whatever it takes, the responsibility is yours.

To ride effectively you need to know not only *how* to ride but *why*.  With just how, you can only really ride carousel horses.  Knowing how the aids are supposed to work is good - in theory.   Say for riding a 20m circle -- inside leg at the girth, outside leg slightly back, shoulders and hips turned the same direction as travel, direct inside rein for flexion, supporting outside rein.  Sounds good right?  Ok but what happens if you have somebody feeding your horse's favourite type of grain on one side of the circle and on the opposite side the neighbour's pet lion having a meltdown.  All of a sudden just knowing how to ride the circle isn't going to work because your circle will be strongly influenced by outside factors.  If you know *why* the aids work, you might have a hope of applying them effectively and pulling off the perfect 20m circle -- despite the lions :)   And trust me - in dressage, there are *often* lions.

Don't know why?  Lots of ways to find out :)  Asking your coach is always a good start.  Reading also a good option. 

So now you know how and why, there's no excuse not to ride well...   What am I saying?  There's *always* an excuse.  hahaha but the riders who improve rapidly are the ones who tend to put them aside.   I kinda wish I had a list of all the excuses I've heard over the years -- sadly I don't remember the most creative ones :)   But there are lots of standards.  The above "well so-and-so told me so," has already been addressed.   "I'm tired/cold/hot/stiff/sore/stressed/frustrated/insert-your-favourite-excuse-here" also pretty standard.  Then there's the option of blaming the horse "he's too green, too old, too spooky, too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too excited, too lazy, not listening, listening to everything *but* me"...  And of course the tack: "it's the wrong saddle/bridle/bit/stirrups/etc".    Let's see...  Some more entertaining ones...  "The arena's too noisy", "the jumps are too colourful", "the sun is too bright", "the horse doesn't like me", "he doesn't like puddles", "my boots are too dirty", "there was a spider in my helmet!", "she was lying down and I didn't want to get her up", "couldn't find the mounting box", "I have an exam tomorrow" (ummm haven't you known that for weeks?), "I saw a mouse in the barn", "I exercised too much yesterday" or the closely related "I have to exercise tomorrow".  And the list goes on...   hmmm so how many of those have *you* said?  :) 

And yes, everybody does it *occasionally* -- and when I hear a really creative excuse I'm usually fairly impressed :)   But the riders who improve the most are those who excuse the least.

But really, even with the best coaches and the most expensive horses in the world, the only person who can ultimately improve your riding is you.  The responsibility is yours.  Choose a coach who can help you, ask intelligent questions, make a point to ride as often as possible, and leave the excuses at home.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

TIR - Take every learning opportunity

Alright so let's go with day two on the traits of *improving riders blog :)   And no, I'm sorry, this is definitely *not* going to be an every day thing!  hahaha tomorrow and Saturday I already know are fully booked.   Only getting this post because my wonderful working student Amy is doing the barn for me in the am so I don't have to be there till 10 :)   And there are only so many traits on my list (although I admit it grows at weird times - like 3am when I'm supposed to be asleep :)

*edited after fb post because I realized as I posted it that this series isn't even really so much traits of GOOD riders as traits of IMPROVING riders. I know lots of excellent riders who are completely stalled in their progress. And lots of more novice riders who improve noticeably every week. This is targeting those who wish to *improve*.

Today we're going with "take every learning opportunity" -- now you'd think this'd be a given, but you'd be amazed at how many people turn down chances to learn.

Again - there's a huge number (arguably the vast majority) of riders who are in it because it's fun and they love the animals and that's the end of it.  Maybe it's stress relief, maybe it's just the best part of your day :)   But whatever the reason, while you'd like to improve it's not necessarily the be-all and end-all of your barn experience.   And that's totally fine.  This post is not directed at you :)

But if *improving* your riding is your primary goal, take every chance you get!   For instance -- if I'm at the barn or riding around and one of my students is riding in the same area, I'll often offer them a mini-lesson.  And I pretty much always remember to ask if they actually *want* one :)   And given that I tend to attract competitive, high-motivated types the vast majority will take me up on it.  But there are several who will say no.  This used to happen often at other schools.  And that's totally cool -- I'm not offended or concerned if they'd rather work on their own or even just not work at all (see yesterday's post :) BUT I have noticed a direct correlation between those people and the ones who are likely to sit at the same level indefinitely.

And of course the follow up on that -- go to any clinics you can.  I'm always puzzled by students who tell me how important improving their riding is who don't sign up for clinics offered at home.  There is something to be learned from everybody!   Now that being said -- to my own students there are some clinicians I would recommend more highly than others, and some I might deem inappropriate based on current abilities of either the rider or the horse.  But for the most part, if somebody who knows their job is willing to teach it to you -- go learn it :)

Another opportunity I see skipped way too often -- observation.  If you're not *riding* in a clinic, why not go watch it?  Most clinics you can audit for a reasonable fee and sometimes learn as much (if different points) as the riders!   Or on a day-to-day at home basis - if you're in a group lesson and waiting your turn for something, actively watch the others go.   Don't just sit there daydreaming or thinking about what you're doing tomorrow (side note - for those with extreme nerves who sit there panicking about your upcoming turn, go FIRST; then you don't have time to stress AND you can learn from watching others after because you're not busy stressing!)   And notice I said "actively watch" the other riders.  As in not just "oh look there goes Suzy..."  But from every ride you watch pick one thing you want to steal (ie that they did beautifully) and be aware of one thing that has room for improvement.   Getting each of those out of one ride can sometimes be more of a challenge than you'd think :)  hahaha  And the more specific you are, the more valuable it'll be.  Ie - "the way she kept her leg glued in exactly the right position over the fence" is significantly more useful than "she had nice eq".  One you can mimic, the other has so many pieces it's hard to translate to your own body.  And it doesn't have to be all rider position "that was the perfect place to turn" is totally useful and valid -- it's why going last on a course makes it significantly easier; everybody else has made the mistakes for you!   Learn from them :)   Then before your turn, visualize all the things you're going to steal from the rides you've already seen and go do it. That way you get two, or three, or four lessons for the price of one.

Look at your photos and videos.   Enjoy them.  Be proud of how far you've come.  And then consider them critically -- what's the next thing you're going to fix?   And again - pick one specific thing.  "It's all horrible" is not constructive.  "I need to release more" gives you something specific to work on.  If you're not sure how to fix it, ask.  If you're not sure what to fix, ask :)   You may find the answer is something you've heard in your lessons a zillion times but never really made the connection to.

There are all sorts of ways to learn that don't involve actually riding.  Be a barn rat -- muck a zillion stalls, wrap thousands of legs, treat minor injuries, deal with high horses on a windy day -- all the behind the scenes work will make you a far better horsewoman (or man :).  And if you can read your horse better on the ground, you'll have a much better chance in the saddle.   Go to shows - any level, any discipline.  Particularly good if it's a discipline that's NOT your style of choice so long as you go with an open mind.   I try to hit Palgrave h/j and dr shows at least once/year even if I'm not showing.  And here's a hint -- if you really want to learn, lurk the w/u rings.   Remember that auditing idea?   Free auditing from a dozen different coaches right there.  And again, watch actively.  Consider what they're telling their students.  What do they focus on?  Why?  Do you agree?  Why?  Why not?   You can learn watching the competitors in the ring as well -- what makes one ride more successful than another?  Why would one rider choose one line while another chooses a different one?  But personally I prefer to lurk the warmups :)   Another way is to volunteer at the horse shows -- our competitors can always use extra hands and jump judges are needed at *every* horse trial.   Great way to learn -- watch an entire division jump the same fence.  Who does it well?  Who makes it look scary?  What was the difference between the two rides?    And lastly, read.  I have both Practical Horseman and Equus available at the barn -- open one of them :)   PH for riding, Equus for horsemanship.   Do I agree with everything that's published?  No, of course not.  But the thing is -- I know enough to know I disagree and why.   Do you?  If not - start educating yourself.

There are so many ways you can learn above and beyond your weekly lesson.   Try them out!  And if you have questions, ask :)


TIR - If you aren't dying, keep riding

A series I started on the Graduate Riding School page that I thought fit under the "riding theory" so will be included here. It investigates Traits of Improving Riders -- what makes some riders improve faster than others?

One of the amazing trainers I had the honour of training under a few years ago has recently published a book titled "How Good Riders Get Good" which discusses his views on how the external factors and choices beyond sheer riding ability make the difference between an average rider and a good one.

While his book focuses on the elite of the elite, I've noticed many of the same trends in my riders who are mostly either just starting out on their competitive careers or coming back to riding after some time off.   And over the last six months or so, some of them (Chelsea, Emily - till she moved way far away BOO -, Amy, Brena, Rowan, Kennedy...   To name a few :) have totally skyrocketed in their abilities.  The before and after is SO gratifying to see.  What interests me is what makes some riders progress so much more consistently than others.  One of the obvious factors is time - all of these riders ride at least twice/week, some as many as four or five times.  But lots of riders do that, and they don't all increase at that rate (although given the size of my school - I'm pretty happy with the percentage that do!  ;-)

So I thought I'd take a few blog posts over the next couple weeks to examine the traits that I feel make the difference in these riders.  I know which daemons I fight the most -- and I suspect most of the reriders have a more extreme version of some of the same issues *g*.   But the first step to improving is acknowledging the problem!  So have fun, consider carefully, and - as always, comments very welcome :)

For today's post, the concept is so very simple -- if you want to ride well, RIDE.   Every chance you get.  On any horse that's safe for your abilities; whether you like them or not :)    I was teaching a dressage lesson the other day and the rider was working *really* hard.  So I asked if she was dying (aka did she need a break).  "No, I'm ok."  And my immediate response: "well then, keep riding."  Which got a laugh out of her and then made me think a bit because I wasn't entirely joking.  She's one of my more determined students, so I can say things like that to her, but the idea is totally valid.  If you want to improve, you have to push past your comfort zone -- which means keep going even when it's hard.

And I'll tell you -- as one looking after a barn full of horses, 9 of which are mine -- some days it IS hard.   There are *often* days that I'm too tired or too busy to ride and it's brutal.  But almost always I drag myself into the saddle anyways.   And about %80 of the time I feel better afterwards than I did before.  I'll admit that mid-winter I get slightly less dedicated and will occasionally offer my horse to students to ride instead (and being well-trained and very determined themselves will *always* take the extra ride :) but that goes away pretty fast when show season rolls along.   hahaha Currently my horse is being ridden 6 days/week.  And she's being *ridden* -- not just sat on.  So if it has to be a short ride, that's ok -- because half an hour where Every. Step. Counts.  is always going to be far more effective than a two-hour stroll around the ring.

Now don't get me wrong - if you are *actually* sick or injured - then maybe you need a break.  Riding with one leg in a cast is not going to help anything!  But tired or sore or nqr -- maybe, just maybe, riding will help :)   I usually find it does.

And if it's too cold to ride.  Or too wet.  Or too windy (yes I've heard that!  More on creative excuses in another post :).  Or you're too tired.  Or too busy.  Then that's totally fine.  But realize that it makes you a fair-weather rider, and I've yet to ever hear of that designation being applied to one of the best.   If riding is a fun hobby to do when the world is good, that's totally kewl - and there is a LARGE group of people to whom this applies.  Love it.  Have fun.  The end.   But these are not the people these posts target.

And for those still reading - it's that simple.  If you want to ride, ride.   If you're determined enough, you can make it happen.   Make friends and carpool if you don't have a car.  There are lots of ways to earn extra rides if you lack the finances (my situation forever!)  Don't turn down any offer just because the horse isn't your favourite to ride -- every horse has something to teach every rider; if you're not learning from him, you're not listening to what he's teaching.  Any chance you get, ride.