Why riding is hard.

Man, is this riding thing hard. It’s just plain HARD! I don’t say that to be demoralizing - in fact, I say it for the exact opposite reason! I say that because when you feel frustrated and like it’s just you sitting alone on the struggle bus and WHY CAN’T YOU GET THIS ALREADY, please know that you’re not alone, and that this isn’t easy for the vast majority of us. There’s a saying about dressage - it’s simple, but it’s not easy. There’s a reason you don’t see 20-year-old dressage riders in the Olympics. There was an athlete in his 70s at the 2012 Olympics. It takes a lifetime! Actually, I have heard from another Olympian that it takes several lifetimes, so buckle in for the long haul, folks.

Can I share some reasons for why it’s hard, for me at least?

  • There is no recipe for anything. There is no one magic thing you can do with all horses in all circumstances, except perhaps don’t be abusive and have a good sense of humor. That means we need to feel what’s going on, understand what the horse needs, and adapt to the horse in that moment, all while having excellent self-awareness of our own bodies.

  • Which brings me to my next point - the thing that worked really well yesterday? Might be totally useless now. How fun! Yay! Adventures!

  • You are riding the horse you have rightthisminute. It might be a different horse in the next minute. Or tomorrow. Or halfway through your test. Who knows, that’s the fun of it! Surprises!

  • You have to hear the same thing a million times in a million ways sometimes to get it to sink in - and even then, sometimes you just can’t get your body to do the thing. Persistence, my friends.

  • There is a very real danger of getting hurt in a big, scary way. We can minimize it, we can wear our safety gear, we can make good decisions, but stuff happens, and that danger still exists. It changes the dynamics of the sport in ways we can’t always foresee. There is a fine line between being smart about your safety and riding unnecessarily defensively, and it can be difficult to know where that is.

  • There is also a very fine line between persistence and insanity, as in “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It is not uncommon for the horse to say, “Really? Are you sure? That seems like a lot of work…” when initially asked for something - which requires patience, persistence, and consistency. In those moments, we want to keep the game plan the same and not change tactics midstream. Yet - there are lots of situations in which we do have to change it up, try a different approach and a different way. But the wisdom to know the difference between these two situations? That’s the real trick of it.

  • Our horses are our friends, our buddies, our babies. We have emotional connections that can’t really exist in other sports; at least, I’m imagining that most people don’t get sentimental about their soccer balls. Horses occupy a very unique space when we do sports with them. They are our teammates, but in many ways, they never signed up to be on the team at all. They are cheering for green grass and rolling in the mud and napping with friends, rather than going forward to the bit and using your abs and collection. Through systematic training, we can teach them to understand and enjoy the work we do together, but we have to be the ones to take the first step and lead the process. Working through that progress with your best buddy, your fur baby? Challenging for sure.

  • Weather. Just putting that out there. Depending on your circumstances, your time with horses is probably dependent on the weather, whether it be too hot/cold/wet/dry/icy/muddy/frozen/buggy/just plain awful. In this week alone, we have experienced a major blizzard, -50 wind chills and record low temperatures, and a 60+ degree temperature increase. Let me take a moment to stop my head from spinning!

So, if you are feeling like this is a pretty sticky wicket, know that you’re not alone! We are all with you. For me, it’s important to enjoy the process, hard as it might be. We are never done learning and growing, so when it’s hard - remember, I am right there with you!

Training tidbits - impossible vs. hard

Have you ever heard your horse tell you that something is impossible? You're working on a new move, adding some collection, asking for a bit more/crisper/sharper and your horse clearly says, "This is so impossible and no horse has ever done this and there's no way I could ever do this so let's just stop, okay?"

What if I told you that most of the time when we hear horses say that something is impossible, they are actually telling us that something is hard? They say hard, and we hear impossible, and then we give up and go onto something else.

When I hear the horse making some rumblings about something edging towards impossible, I ask myself these questions:

  • do they understand what I'm asking given their level of training and knowledge? E.g. if I'm asking the horse to do a downward transition, is that a task they're familiar with?

  • are they fit and strong enough to do what I'm asking? E.g. if I'm asking the horse to hold a collected canter for several minutes and they're only just learning the collected canter, three minutes might be too long to stay in the gait initially.

  • am I asking correctly and clearly? E.g. am I using the correct aids, or has something gone awry with my position?

If the answers to those questions is "yes", then all systems go. These questions help us figure out if our expectations are reasonable. For example, if a horse is slow to move off my leg, and they're ten years old and have been trained to move forward off my leg since they were four and I am asking correctly and they are not too tired to do it - then they sure as heck better move off my leg!

I can acknowledge that something is hard, but ask for the horse to try anyways. This is productive, athletically-induced discomfort, the same discomfort I feel when I am doing squats or holding a plank or something else that's hard. It may also be mental discomfort, like when I'm trying to wrap my brain around a new skill. Growth and learning is uncomfortable, but doable, and often even fun!

It is hard work to use one's body well. It is usually easier to do something else. It is easier for me to sit on the couch than go for a bike ride, but that doesn't mean that a bike ride is impossible. Consider your expectations and whether they are reasonable given the information you have. And then - go do that hard thing! In little, manageable (and likely imperfect!) chunks. Your horse will never magically become more collected/more through/more awesome without some input and guidance from you. We have to build that up, one piece at a time, being bold through our mistakes, messiness, and the difficulty of it all. When you were a wee one and learning to walk, it was really hard and messy and you made mistakes all the time, but more than likely you learned how to do it eventually.

Hard is not impossible; it's just hard.