Getting In The Zone

I go to Pilates every Monday evening and I’ve come to realise recently that the biggest impact it has on my day to day life, apart from the increased proprioception, is the time away from daily hassles of life – unreplied emails or texts, half finished conversations, plans for the next day. Aided by the calming music my mind sifts through the day and files everything away while I stretch, balance and do all other Pilates positions so I leave there feeling much more in control of life – and usually half asleep from the relaxation work at the end. It’s a good way to start the week.

Recently we’ve been beginning Pilates with some mindfulness; learning to deflect the day’s thoughts and focusing on ourselves alone. We all use horses to relax and unwind, but I’ve been thinking more and more about how important it is to get into the right frame of mind for riding. Perhaps you achieve it during the ten minutes grooming your horse; siphoning off worries, thoughts, ideas and shelving them for afterwards. Or perhaps it’s talking to your friend or instructor during the warm up. Whatever your job or lifestyle, it’s so beneficial to your riding to learn how to close the door on life. You will be calmer, more receptive to teaching, have a more positive influence on your horse, who in turn will work better because there is less tension and more focus coming from you. Something for all of us to consider when we arrive at the yard, and definitely something for me to consider at the beginning of lessons when I’m assessing my client and finalising my lesson plan.

This got me thinking about teachability traits. What makes a client easy to teach?

Yes, they need to be interested, enthusiastic, receptive to explanations and corrections – all of the obvious characteristics. But one of the underestimated traits which makes my job so much easier is realism.

I think its important for riders to have realistic goals and ambitions; I find realistic riders are more self assured and positive with their riding. Knowing your capabilities also has a safety implications. Not because you are less bold, or even nervous, in your riding, but because you don’t outface either you or your horse and are more likely to assess the question thoroughly. I find riders who are comfortable with their abilities and limitations are more open with their instructor about their goals and their feelings about a planned exercise; which enables their instructor to best support them, particularly when stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Being realistic about your riding goals and ability doesn’t equate to self-deprication. That’s important to remember. Part of being realistic as a rider is being able to reflect accurately on something, be it a dressage test, showjumping round, or simply a schooling exercise, and then coming to a realistic evaluation ready to try again.

My pet hate when teaching is when a rider blames the horse; “she didn’t respond to my aids”. Ok, they may not have, but why haven’t they responded?

Is it because they’re unable to perform that exercise, in which case why and how can we enable them?

Did they not understand the aids? So how can we teach them so that they do?

Or did you as a rider give mixed or conflicting messages?

The final option is very often the one riders consider last. After all, it’s their failing, and we all know it’s so much easier to blame others than ourselves. Of course occasionally it is purely an error from the horse; a distraction outside the arena, a bit of excitement causing them to rush. But the approach I like my riders to take is the observation, followed by the assessment of what they did and felt, and then how they think they should ride next time to improve.

For example, statements such as:

  • We drifted round the turn but I dropped my outside rein so let him out through the shoulder. I’ll ride a better turn.
  • I think I applied the right aids, but she didn’t do it. Can you remind me what I should be doing?
  • We lost the impulsion on the approach and I didn’t react quickly enough, I’ll hold the canter together more next time.
  • He didn’t respond to my transition aids, how can I prepare him better next time?
  • She feels very strong today, what am I doing, and how can I help her stop rushing and pulling?

Of course it’s not always the rider’s fault (remember, realism isn’t self-deprication), but a teachable rider is one who acknowledges imperfection, but most importantly wants to know how they can improve before they expect their horse to improve.

This way of evaluating takes a while to teach, but I’m so pleased to see my long term clients evolving from giving simple observations in response to my questions (e.g. “how does he feel to the rein contact?”) to telling me their errors (“I forgot to use my right leg”) before I’ve asked, and making suggestions to how they can improve the next attempt (“can I try a shorter approach to see if that helps me keep the canter balanced?). This also means my riders are becoming more independent, and more confident with their assessments which means I’m doing my job well!

So remember, one of the main traits I like to see in riders is a realistic approach to their riding goals coupled with the realism that their horse is not a robot and any failings to perform can be corrected by the rider improving their own performance.

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