Finding the Fun

It’s hard being a teenager, I’ve decided. Everyone expects you to be grown up, yet still treat you like a child. You’re expected to know exactly how to spend your life, yet don’t have many chances to experience each avenue. You’re trying to find yourself as a person, and everyone pulls you in different directions so that you lose sight of who or what you are.

One of my clients is going through that awkward, stressful teenage phase when serious “life decisions” have to be made at school, exams have to be passed, friends have to be socialised with, and Saturday jobs have to be attended. All of these stressors make pony time much harder. 

I had noticed a change in her just before Christmas, but more recently her Mum and I have been worried about her confidence with her share horse, and her eagerness about riding in general.

So we came up with a plan! Her horse isn’t the easiest in that he can be fresh and quite strong and spooky, so the first port of call was to make sure he was getting enough work. Winter is always harder to motivate yourself to ride, and horses have more energy, so combine that with less time due to school exams and you’ve got a problem. My suggestion was that her Mum lunged him once a week, and that each time she rode she made sure he went back to his stable tired. So instead of a half hour flat work session, extend it to forty five minutes and put in a bit more canter work, or perhaps go for a longer hack on the weekends. This combination should help keep on top of his energy levels, which takes one stress factor out of the equation as a less fresh horse isn’t as strong or spooky.

The next part of the predicament was to sort out the confidence crisis and bring back the fun part of riding. Enjoying being with my horses was what motivated me to get through my exams when I was younger, but unfortunately I see so many kids selling their ponies and giving up because of school, and whilst I still think education is invaluable, I think it’s sad that horses are pushed away. Perhaps it’s the parental pressures, of wanting their child to compete and ride every day that does it, or the financial pressures of not wanting a field ornament for the fortnight of exams. But anyway, I think reducing the amount of time spent at the yard, by riding fewer times, or by parents helping out, means that revision can still be fitted in to the equation, but when needed, the pony is there for physical exercise, or getting fresh air, or having a reward for revising all morning. After all, adult life is all about balancing, so why not learn to balance from an early age! 

Not that this is the case for this client of mine, I’m just beginning to ramble!

Together, I came up with another plan with my clients mum. Hacking! This should help build the relationship between teenager and horse, work the horse adequately, and provide useful social time. However, when you’re feeling nervous a hack is one of your least favourite things! But pacified by the fact that I was riding a solid, reliable, calm little cob, my rider agreed to hack out. She led the way as I don’t know the area, and we chatted and I observed for the first half. Then I got to work.

We talked about managing her horse’s exercise regime and working out how to do it without causing her more stress with time and revision, and then I persuaded her to lengthen her reins. We’ve all been there; that anxious, foetal position or leaning forwards, shortening the reins and clamping on the legs like a limpet. By lengthening the reins by an inch or two she could sit up, with her shoulders back and parked squarely on her bum. Sat like this, her legs came off her horse and his walk and whole demeanour relaxed. She felt the swing in his back and could see him looking around with curiosity. She began to realise that he wasn’t interested in spooking, rather just being nosey! 

Does anyone know why the foetal position aggravates the vicious cycle of lost confidence? A horse is trained to move away from pressure, so you squeeze your legs and when they move you release. If you’ve clamped your legs around your horse they will want to move faster, which causes the rider more panic because they are losing control. Trust yourself to release your vice like grip. Leaning forwards gives your horse all the go faster cues with your upper body, so it’s not wonder they jig around underneath you. Try making the front half of your torso longer than the back half; even sitting in this way tells your horse you are in control and confident. So he relaxes and slows down. To counteract all these accelerating signals, we then hold the reins short and tight. Feeling restricted, like he has nowhere to go, causes a horse to jig around and become frustrated. Again, you need to be the grown up and trust your horse by giving him another inch of reins and let him stretch his head out a bit.

It’s hard, because the correct thing to do to diffuse stressful situations as a nervous rider are the exact opposite to our body’s automatic reaction.

We got back to the yard and I was pleased that our last trot was more relaxed, and less of an impression of a pogo stick, with no spooking. My rider was sat comfortably and relaxed, as she used to a few months ago and most importantly she could feel the increased relaxation in her horse.

I really hope that she and Mum can build on this hack over the weekend, and perhaps make it a regular thing, building up duration and speed if necessary, and then with this new found approach to riding, she can better balance life between revision and horses so that her down time really causes her to relax as opposed to adding stress to more stress, because I’m pretty sure that helps get good grades too.

I’m looking forwards to hearing about their progress next week, and seeing them both happy again!

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