How to learn to ride

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Best Etiquette, Roebke’s Run, September 2014, D and G Photo credit

All I am thinking in this picture is “sternum up.”  I should have been thinking, “put your calf on and let go in your knee” too, but one thing at a time.  One stride after this fence is a very vertical fence, and all season long Eddie and I had been smoking the oxer and subsequently pulling the vertical in the oxer to vertical combination that pretty much is guaranteed to be on any prelim showjumping course.

See the guy in the grey sweatshirt behind me videotaping?  That would be my husband Jay, who is a helluva good videographer – knows how to use the zoom and is rock steady.  And I had seen in video after video, images of Eddie jumping beautifully over the oxer (see Eddie above, he is a ridiculous gift from the Universe for which I am ever grateful) and me not holding my back to the second element, thereby pushing him through the distance and resulting in a pulled rail more often than not.

So through the miracle of video and a star of a husband, I’d learned that I needed to keep my sternum up over the fence and in the stride afterward.  I’m happy to say we jumped double clear and kept our position in second, 0.2 points off the leader, a wonderful young rider who was as thrilled to win as I was to keep the rail up so Eddie wouldn’t give me that look that horses do when they were great and you messed up.

So what happened there?  I learned what was going on, I learned how to fix it, I practiced fixing it for weeks, and then in competition, I had a mantra I repeated like a woman possessed, to make my new habit my default.

Let’s break down the steps of learning new riding habits.

To learn to ride well, first you have to learn where you are in your riding – what you are doing, both good and bad.  When I was a kid, I had an awesome shetland pony named Cricket and we went everywhere in every field, gravel road and woods around our farm in Cascade, Wisconsin.  Damn, I could ride, I was sure of it.  I hardly ever fell off, so I, of course, knew how to ride.  (Great childhood logic, still employed by some wildly average adult riders, but I digress.)  I went to the 4-H show and there were four riders in my class.  I was for sure going to win!  I went in, did my thing, and came out with a white ribbon.  What?!  I was 6, so of course I blamed the judge (another great childhood logic, also still employed by some wildly average adult riders).  My sister, who had attained all the wisdom that 12 years on earth provides said, “Of course. You never got a right lead. Duh.” Clear feedback can hurt, but identifying the problem one way or the other is Step One.

Publicly, I was like, “Oh, well, yeah, of course, no right lead” and then privately I was like, “Aaaaaaaaand, what’s a right lead?”  Now having identified the problem, I moved on to Step Two: Learning How to Fix It.  My brilliant sister and the Sheboygan County 4-H Horse and Pony Handbook (shout out to the UW-Extension system!) taught me about leads.  I learned to identify leads by chasing the horses around in the pasture until I could see which lead they were on (I know, awesome 6 year old logic!) and then my sister let me ride her horse so I could learn to identify them from the tack.  Then she taught me how to cue for one lead or the other on a straight line (Olympics here I come!).  Finally, we went back to my pony and worked on his right lead, which turned out to be no problem once his rider had a solid clue.

I practiced and practiced before my next competition until I could get a right lead in my sleep.  (And in fact, I did think about it before falling asleep at night – how to cue and what it felt like to get a left lead versus a right lead.  I don’t doubt that I did dream about it.)  My mantra on show day had been the one I practiced with, “left leg back, right leg at the girth, sit up”.  And it worked.  I actually don’t remember what ribbon I received, but I remember the feeling of getting a right lead and knowing I had the right lead.  I was grinning like a kid with a smiley face teacher sticker on her spelling test.  I am sure the judge and parent-audience thought I was possessed.  Awesome.

I am still learning to improve my riding, and teaching others to do the same.  Like this:

  1. Learn what is going on
  2. Learn how to fix it
  3. Practice the correct way (develop a mantra)
  4. Use the mantra when under pressure

Step One: Learning What is Going On

Let’s say you are in a riding lesson and your instructor mentions a particular riding flaw and how to correct it – maybe she says it more than a few times.  Or maybe you are watching a video of yourself and you notice a habit you would like to change.  Maybe your horse is telling you that when you ride a particular way, he goes better than when you don’t ride that way.  If you are lucky enough to ride in an arena with mirrors, you can also gain insights by watching yourself and how your riding position affects your horse’s carriage.  These are some of the ways to learn what is going on.

Step Two: Learning How to Fix It

Because William Fox Pitt and I have similar builds, but unlike me he rides with dang near perfect equitation, I use him for an example a lot for myself.  I suggest my riders find a riding hero and look at pictures or video of them to observe and then learn, learn, learn what works.  I made this graphic for one of my riders who is learning to stay centered in turns and to carry her hands properly.  Having a clear mental image of how things should be and the seeing the resultant change in the horse’s carriage because of proper rider position is extremely useful.  You have to know where you are going in order to get there.

wfpweb

Step Three: Practicing the Correct Way (and developing a mantra)

Practicing is largely a matter of brain training.  Let’s say someone is working on holding their hands in the proper position, and keeping them still relative to the horse.  I suggest that they check their position each time they pass a cardinal letter in the dressage arena (A, C, E or B).  (Or maybe the sixth fence post on your outdoor arena or pasture, or every 30 seconds while riding out.  You could set your watch or phone to beep every 30 seconds or whatever.  You get the idea, just be creative.)  What will happen is that (assuming you are in a dressage arena), you can fix your hand position at A and by the time you get to E, your hands have dropped/become uneven.  You fix them at E, and by C, they have fallen again.  In real life, this is what happens when learning a new skill.  How you treat the information that to make a lasting change is to make hundreds of repeated small changes is the deciding factor in whether you will be successful in improving your riding.  You have a choice each time you notice that you have to make a correction to your position.  You can:

A) Judge yourself – hop on the ol’ drama llama and think, “I will never learn this!  I’m a bad rider, I can’t maintain it for 15 seconds!”

or

B) Say “Whoopsie!” laugh, and try again.

If you were teaching your child to walk and they bonked on their diapered butt, what would you say to them?

“You will never learn to walk!  You are a bad walker!  You can’t do it for three steps!”

or

“Whoopsie, honey, good try.  Let’s try again.”

Which hypothetical child do you think learns faster?  Which kid is having more fun?  (Hint, the answer is the same for both.)

Your inner voice should be that of a relaxed friend.  If it isn’t, tell it to dry up and blow away, and then create a new script.  Your inner voice is you.  You can make your inner voice use the tone you like.  There’s a bit about this in the “Black Box and the Gold Box“.

butler-head-waiter-server-luxury-standing-isolated-carrying-tray-man-has-air-class-wealth-male-32561297While  you are learning your new skill, a mantra will naturally develop.  For keeping hands up, I like to think of a butler carrying a tray like this guy.  He has excellent posture, with his shoulder blades down his back and he carries his ribcage and forearms in splendor.  So, “Butler” became my mantra for that.

Step 4: Use the Mantra When Under Pressure.  Now you have identified where your riding needs improvement and gotten into the habit of frequent and kind self-checks. At your next show, where you used to ride around the warm-up just generally trying to do your best while continuously noticing how great everyone else looks, now you have developed the presence of mind and habit of frequent self checks that keep you focused on the fundamental skill you are developing and YOUR riding, not everyone else’s.  So you are replacing self doubt and habitual comparing of  yourself to others with a proactive, familiar mantra.  Your Butler will carry your through!

Very good, Mum.  🙂

 

 

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This just in

In a freakishly well-timed and serendipitous follow up to yesterday’s post about horse-training styles, this just in from research at ISU regarding parents’ influence on children.  Dr. Laczniak has done some great work.  Because I am always thinking horses, it occurred to me that if you substitute “riders” for parents, “horses” for children, and “horses acting like monkeys” for “children playing violent video games”, all of the same conclusions could apply. An excerpt from the original article:

Three dimensions of parental styles – warm, restrictive, and anxious-emotional – were examined for the study. In the paper, researchers explained that warm parents tend to refrain from physical discipline and show approval through affection. Restrictive parents set and enforce firm rules for the household. Anxious-emotional parents are often overprotective and show elevated emotions when interacting with their children.

(Dr. Russell) Laczniak says the research team expected children with warm or restrictive parents would spend less time playing violent video games. However, they were surprised to see the impact of anxious-emotional parents. He and his colleagues included this dimension based on past studies, which found that children of anxious-emotional parents tend to have more problems. The biggest takeaway for parents is to set limits and be more calmly detached in the relations with their children.

“If parents want to reduce the amount of violent video games that their kids play, be warm when dealing with them, but somewhat restrictive at the same time, and set rules and those rules will work,” Laczniak said. “For parents, who are more anxious, the rules become less effective and those kids are going to play more.”

– See more at: http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2015/10/07/parentsvideogames#sthash.X1xJwu8C.dpuf

So it turns out that a game of hot and cold, with an emphasis on the warm is the best way to influence those in our care, whether they be horses or people.

Here is that article with my ridiculously non-academic, horse-related substitutions:

Three dimensions of riding styles – 1) warm, 2) restrictive, and 3) anxious-emotional – were noted by Stockhausen in a very anecdotal manner during her riding and teaching. She noted that warm riders tend to refrain from physical discipline and show approval through affection. Restrictive riders set and enforce firm rules for the ride. Anxious-emotional riders are often overprotective and show elevated emotions when interacting with their horses and sometimes refer to their horses as “fur-children,” to the quiet horror of those passers-by unfortunate enough to overhear that which can not be unheard.

Stockhausen thinks that the completely undisciplined, random observations she has made over time suggest that horses with warm or restrictive riders spend less time acting like monkeys. And she was not surprised to see the impact of anxious-emotional riders. She includes this dimension based on past experience, which noted that horses of anxious-emotional riders tend to have more problems fitting in to polite horse society. The biggest takeaway for riders is to set limits and be more calmly detached in the relations with their horses.

“If riders want to reduce the amount of monkey-like horse behavior, they should be warm when dealing with them, but somewhat restrictive at the same time, and set rules, and those rules will work,” Laczniak originally said about people and Stockhausen completely agrees when applied to horses. “For riders who are more anxious, the rules become less effective and those horses are going to act like monkeys.”


My grateful apologies to Dr. Laczniak for allowing me to ride the coat tails of his excellent work to help me express what I have noticed in my mere anecdotal equestrian observations.  If I have some thing to add to the Universe it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Thank you Dr. Laczniak.

Hot and Cold

I am on a TED talks kick.  ‘TED’ stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and their byline is “Ideas Worth Spreading.”  Love TED.

The latest TED talk that reminded me of horses is a talk by Amy Cuddy about how your body language shapes who you are.  During the talk, she is describing the design of their experiment.  The subjects are to go to a job interview, but before they do, they are to be in a power pose or a non power pose for two minutes before the interview.  The interviewers have been trained to withhold giving any body language back to the interviewees and only speak to them as they must.  She remarked that “People hate this!” and I thought, “Horses do too.”

And now for a break to look at a really pretty horse and William Fox Pitt, a magnificent rider:   I made this graphic for another application so it has a few things that are not quite on point, but maybe not a complete bore either.  But the point I want you to take from this is that WFP is giving the horse genuine positive feedback.

WFPWTNwebNow back to horses and feedback.  Horses are in a funny position.  Even the clumsiest among them can run faster than the fastest among us.  Many of them can jump higher than we are tall.  Yet, we come along, over-confident athletically untalented bipeds that we are and commence to boss them about in a language they don’t initially understand, and doing so in some cases, in a manner that is too quick and too presumptive.  Horses, half of the time, are just trying to figure out what in the heck it is we want from them.  The main string they have to play on, being powerful beings of flight, is the one string that most people who ride them don’t want them to play on, ever.

So people ride horses and try to communicate what they want the horses to do, but for the most part, riders default to communicating what they do not want the horse to do.  “Now Trigger, don’t buck, don’t rear, don’t shy, don’t go to fast, don’t be barn or buddy sour” and on and on.

It becomes like the old game of Hot and Cold where a group of people is trying to get a player to find an object that the group knows, but the player doesn’t.  If the group is required to only direct the person with negative directions, like saying ‘Cold’ when the player is not near the object, but not every using Warm and Hot for correct moves, the player has to keep stumbling in the metaphorical dark and it takes a very long time for the player to find the object.  If however, the group can use, Warm and Hot to indicate when the player is moving in the right direction or nearly being successful, the game goes a lot more quickly, and, incidentally, is more fun for all.

That situation is like a rider training a horse.  If the rider only uses Cold training, punishing the missteps and ignoring the correct ones, it takes a very long time for the horse to understand what is desired, and it isn’t much fun for either party as the horse stumbles about in the metaphorical dark.  But if the rider (who is always training, for better or worse) can use Warm and Hot training, such as “rewarding the try” and giving frequent praise for correct work, the learning curve becomes exponential, and incidentally, is more fun for all.

This video is a case in point.  This is me on a four year old OTTB named Merida, sometimes called Monkey for good reason, going over her first cross rail.  She wobbles on the approach, but gets over the fence just fine.  I praise her immediately.  I don’t wait several strides to praise her.  I don’t wait until she does it perfectly to praise her.  I don’t stop her to praise her.  We keep going forward and I let her know that what she did was good.  In immediately taking the pressure off her by praising her, she starts to think this jumping thing is something she is good at.  Whether she will be or she won’t be a good jumper is dependent somewhat on her physical talent, but whether she will try with her whole heart is dependent on the response she gets from her rider.  What we are really doing when we train horses is influencing their minds and growing their confidence.  The physical follows.

Now what if Merida had run out and avoided jumping the fence?  What does a thinking rider do?  I think they make no comment to the horse, make sure that their own riding is correct, and simply re-present to the fence.  Why?  Because giving no feedback is punishment.  Subtle punishment, but just like the above example in the experiment with the job applicants getting no feedback from the interviewers, giving no feedback is very uncomfortable.  For a green horse who lacks jumping confidence, the No Comment response is negative enough.  For many horses at many times, the No Comment response is negative enough.*  Using No Comment for unwanted behavior and praising even wobbly attempts is analogous to playing the Hot and Cold game only using Warm and Hot cues.  It goes much faster and is the most fun for everyone.

This way of training, of praising the try and allowing the incorrect to pass, is the opposite of what many riders naturally do: over-react to the mis-steps and under-react to the tentative, wobbly tries.  The quickest and most positive way to train horses is to ignore minor mistakes, but immediately retry; and to notice and reward the effort rather than only the complete success.


* For dangerous behavior, very clear negative response of short duration is needed.  But most of the time, horses are trying to cooperate.

Learning to ride, off the horse

So Mary Hanson, a nifty friend of mine, has been raving for several years about her yoga instructor. Love her, but yadda, yadda, I do yoga in my house by myself, I don’t need to go to a yoga instructor, let alone one whose only time I could work with him was 5:30 a.m.  Time passed, and doing yoga by myself got to be a bit flat to say the least, and I started doing it in fits and starts.  Then I stopped doing it, while my conscience, disgusted, looked the other way.

So I decided to look up this yoga guy, whose name, in a wry wink from the Universe, is Mat.  Yoga Mat.  Oh stop.  Anyway, I go to Yoga Mat and he is spectacular.  Mary is yet again, correct.  🙂  We went all the way back to square one with mountain pose, better known to the non-yoga public as, um, “standing”.  Seriously.  Then we spent an hour going over Sun Salutation A, which, if you look at the link in this sentence is in “Yoga for Beginners”.  Ha ha ha.  I have been doing yoga for, what, 10 years?  You’d have thought that going back to square one would not be cool, but I completely enjoyed going back and learning it correctly.  Mat would show me just how to move my hands or move my back.  I had always had a hard time remembering Sun Salutation A, but after working with a really good instructor it was pretty easy because I could understand what each movement was supposed to do.

One of the corrections that came up twice from Matt was that I need to move my lower ribs down.  This is an odd thought, because we are always told to “stand up straight and tall”.  My interpretation of that had been to “open my rib cage” (elongating the space from my bottom rib to my navel).  Turns out is better to engage your core and drop both your front ribs and your shoulder blades down your back.  This engages your core magnificently.  Try it.  Sit up “straight” at your computer.  Now, pull your lowest ribs down while still sitting up tall and at the same time dropping your shoulder blades down your back.

I don’t know what you feel, but I feel immediate solidness and strength in my upper body.  Both the front and back sides of the body are engaged.  I also feel that it is really hard to maintain!  Oy vey!

wrdressagecanter

Redwood Original aka The Fabulous Sammy at Wind’s Reach. Yes that is Eric Dierks judging. 🙂

At any rate, I went to two more sessions with Yoga Mat, who gave me an at-home routine to work on and I am going to check in with him in a lesson each Friday.  Meanwhile, John Staples was out at my barn today and I had a lesson with him on the fabulous Sammy.

I really like my lessons with John because he lets me “in” a little bit as a fellow trainer.  I basically ride around and work on stuff and he comments and asks me questions to make me think, and shares enlightening anecdotes.  During all this, he said, “You know, if I have a problem with your riding, well, not really a problem, but if we were splitting hairs, I would say that you are always just a bit behind the motion.”  I’ve heard this before, usually expressed as the more annoying “a little heavy in the tack”.  Ouch.  Expressed the second way, I didn’t know what to do with it.  But when John said, “behind the motion”, I got to thinking about my time with Mat.  If someone’s lower rib cage is constantly a little “popped forward”, it would sink their sternum back and make them look behind the motion.  In fact they would be behind the motion.

So I decided to try to incorporate the changes that Mat was having me do on the yoga mat to riding a horse.  I moved my lower rib cage down while sliding my shoulder blades down my back, which then engaged my core.  I’m not going to say it was easy, but it was definitely effective.  The slight “wave” in my upper body in canter subsided and I was more centered on the horse rather than behind him.  After riding a few minutes like this, the asymmetry that I have been experiencing in the past year went away.  I could see in the mirrors that I was straight.  I wasn’t even aiming for that!

I planned on keeping up with the yoga anyway, and this is some really exciting stuff that I find motivating both for riding and for yoga practice!

Have you had breakthroughs inspired by off-horse insights?

To Potential Horse Professionals

So, a friend of mine asked me to have a facility tour and speak to 16 senior Iowa State University students in an Equine Business Management class.  She said, “It would be nice if you could discuss your facility, what you do and how you make money.”

I thought about that for a few weeks.  And, after I give a tour of my “facility” (which sort of cracks me up, it is just where I hang out), I will discuss the points of what I do and how I make money.  I suppose they think they will be getting the nuts and bolts of it.  That may be what they think they need.  I hope I do not let them down when I give them this list of “what I do and how I make money.”

1) Have a grand vision for yourself and involve others in it.

Some people are dreamers and hard workers, other people aren’t quite as bold but want to come along on the dream or maybe have a smaller, similar vision that you can help realize.  They will pay some or, as a group, all, of the freight of your dream if you are genuine in wanting to include them and help them with their visions.  My dream is to ride excellently and I still am chasing that dream.  Lots of people want that, so I help them come along.

2) Have boundaries.

If Thursday night is date night, don’t accept a lesson request for that night.

Keep at least one horse that is yours only and never consider selling it.  You can share this horse occasionally if it suits you and that horse, but only if it suits you and that horse.  Not everything is for sale.

3)  Get right with The Man.

Whoever that is to you, do the work to develop a spiritual center.  Jesus, Allah, Buddah, whatever.  Consider that even Atheists have beliefs about spirituality.  Spend some time thinking and learning about religions of the world and find out what works for you and incorporate it into your life.  It is a private act that produces public results.  Religion is not primarily for funerals.  It is for life.

Consider tithing to an organization that you think is changing the world for the better, whether an animal shelter, Oxfam, your university, your church, public radio, whatever.  Support the good.  The quiet little secret about this habit is that it will also support your self-worth.  People with high self-worth tend to make better decisions.

4) Put horses first and you will never go wrong.

See things from the horses’ point of view at all times.  The people you are training for/teaching/selling a horse to are looking to you to be the horse professional.  The horses are looking to you to be an advocate and to educate people who want to reach your level, or somewhere near your level, of accomplishment.  Yes, you can be a horse advocate and make money without any conflict of interest.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, if you are courageous enough to share with people about what is really best for horses, and you do it in a tactful way, you will have devoted clients for life.  You are showing them the real way to horsemanship, not simply using horses for ego-glorification.  This is another example of having a grand vision and bringing others along.  Let others see what can be accomplished by treating horses kindly and always striving for rider improvement.

Buy the best feed you know of, no matter what it costs up front, because it will pay you back down the line.  Buy the best hay you can find for the same reason.  Make large amounts of turnout on good pasture a priority.

5) Be honest with yourself about your potential life partner.

Does this person like the horse life?  If you are a died-in-the-wool horse person, you need a partner who is also one or pretty close to one.  For the most part, full-time professional horsemanship is a shared dream.  Is this person someone who, for instance, enjoys mowing pastures on a Sunday afternoon or doesn’t mind paying someone to do it?  Do they see the value in hard work?  Do they love animals?  Difficult as it is to believe, simply loving you is not enough.  If you don’t believe me, go on the Chronicle of the Horse Board and read of the heartbreak of marriages that break up because the partner is jealous of the time spent with horses.

6) Put a curb on your ego.

You don’t know anything.  I don’t know anything.  The horses know everything.  Ride and listen to horses.  Resist the urge to think you know more than they do.

Then, ride with the best instructors you can and try everything they say with your whole heart.  And keep riding with the best instructors you can your whole life.

Read, consider, discuss.  Surround yourself with people who are also striving to improve.

Join clubs and volunteer your time helping others, organizing clinics, or raising money for the clubs.  You don’t have to volunteer for everything, in fact, you shouldn’t.  See “Have boundaries” above.  But you should volunteer for something.  And not when asked.  Agreeing to work when asked is not volunteering.  Actually volunteer.  The big secret about volunteering is that that is how you meet the cool people.  If you need to bottom line it, it also happens to be a great way to make contacts that can become or send you future clients.  There is actually a secret society out there of people who want to help you.  You meet them by being generous first.  That’s how they recognize people who are worthy of their help.

7) Don’t let the local standard be your standard

Look up.  Get on the internet and watch video of people who are at the highest levels of your sport, or go to a live international competition and see what can be done.  Do this at least yearly, to reset your standards.  If all you see is adequate riding, all you will be is an adequate rider.

8) Become uninterested in drama

Good horse training should be boring to watch.  It should just be a calm horse learning, like a kindergarten class.  As the horse advances up the levels, things should still be as calm.  Competition can be exciting, because it is a testing of the learning.  There should be no drama in training.

If you run a boarding barn, do not allow drama.  If you have a bad egg, warn them once and if it continues, send them on their way.  When it becomes clear that your barn doesn’t tolerate drama, you will attract drama-free people and horses and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief.

Do not contribute to drama.  Don’t gossip, don’t hang out with people who enjoy gossiping, don’t wish ill, don’t be jealous.  Do be kind, do wish well, do know that you have enough and things are happening as they should.  This relates to “Get right with The Man”.

If someone is unkind to you or gossips about you, always take a breath and ask yourself if there is truth in it.  If so, fix it.  Don’t defend.  If there is no truth in it, remember that whatever anyone says about anyone, is always really about themselves.  That is a difficult one that took me years to learn.

9) Have a hero

Or several.  Have someone to look up to for their horsemanship.  If you can get to know them, great.  If it is only reading their books or blogs or magazine articles, that works too.  Always keep a blueprint that inspires you to greater things.

10) Take frequent breaks.  

You wouldn’t work a horse 14 days in a row and you shouldn’t work yourself that much either.  Have another hobby.  Watch movies.  See your friends.  Walk your dog.  Get an internet pen pal in Germany.  Whatever.  It is the rest that refreshes the love for the work.