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We Are Flying Solo

March 26, 2015

Put More "Can" In Your Can-ter

The Power Of Positive

Something continues popping up its little head, quietly, back in mind cobwebs where useful things like to hide.  It just makes eye contact & then returns to its burrow, but each time, it reminds me how much I continue to evolve in the psychology of my riding & training.  And how far I have to go.

And stay off my lawn!
Growing up, I was always SO irritated by all those people who chanted "Think Positive!" & "Say It Like This!"  I thought, yeah right, life's not that simple, don't you think we'd LIKE to?  Your cheerfulness is annoying the crap out of me.  Go.  Away.

Now, I can't say that I still don't want to throttle That Person, because life ISN'T that simple, but I started applying an adapted version of this type of psychology to my riding (if you have the patience & psychiatric fortitude -- hey, don't look at me) & it was a game-changer.

In online seminars, articles, lessons, similar themes kept surfacing & finally, I began to string together these points of mental contact into a little Brain Sub-Toolbox (it's blue, naturally).  I can't decide if it holds just one big tool, a psychological Sawz-all, or if it's more like my box of a zillion drill bits -- all similar, but specialized per application.  But let’s rummage, shall we?

If you'd just listen to me, mom...
Make Your Thoughts & Plans Affirmative

Rumour has it that the brain doesn't recognize the word "don't," so when you say, "Don't hang on the left rein, you dolt," it hears, "Hang onto that rein for all you’re worth, baby."  I'm not sure if I buy the phrasing, but in this case, the means justify the ends:  tell yourself what you ARE going to do, instead of what you AREN'T going to do.

FTW example:  Enter sandbox with following internal monologue:  let's trot forward, make eye contact with the judge, smile like we know we're damn good.  My eyes & shoulders will lead my horse straight as an arrow down centerline & then I will use my leg to feed his forward energy through the bend of the corner.

A bit less of this, perhaps?
Fail example:  Enter Torture Rectangle mentally haranguing self:  don't let his haunches drift, get your head down, dammit!  Don't forget to prepare for the turn, don't get stiff, don't hold your breath, don't let him spook at the judge.  I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone in my expertise in this approach…

If you keep working FTW, then you've succeeded in avoiding one of our worst habits:

I practice all the time!
Defensive Driving 

Stirring up all the negatives in my brain means that is what my subconscious is focused on as well, which leads to the oft-repeated discovery that clamping down on your horse like a straitjacket does not produce a relaxed, balanced dressage test.  After much practice with this charming technique, I have finally recognized it for what it is: riding for contingencies that have not happened yet.  Which means they are imaginary.

I have plenty of other issues with imaginary things, I could stand to dump one…

Supposedly this helps.  I wouldn't know.
We know well that our horses tend to live up to what the rider's body tells them to expect (note that I said BODY, not INTENTIONS).  If we are going to create self-fulfilling prophecies, why not make them good ones instead?

Because if I keep my brain positively distracted by waving good things in front of it, it (sometimes) remembers to tell my body to do the right things & pay attention to the horse I have underneath me NOW.  This keeps me focused on his energy & attentive to my riding, like a little mini-trainer is standing in my cerebral cortex.  (Hey, explanation for the voices:  BAM!)

Maybe just more of these...
Break It Down, Make It Useable

This goes far beyond just the dressage arena or show day itself; as I wrote about at the beginning of...uh, last year, I want to continue to step up & dial in my riding, sporadic though it may be.
  • That means having a plan for schooling rides…and a backup plan if it's not our day.
  • That means keeping my cool if the horse is frustrated & GETTING OFF if we both get frustrated.
  • That means envisioning each step of each ride as if it were perfect, including the feel of the contact, the rhythm, my posture, weight, balance.
  • That means also being ok when it's NOT perfect, recognizing the effort, letting the negative slip away & resetting the mental plan back to how the next great step will feel.
  • That means after dismounting, I mull over what went RIGHT & what that felt like in my back, in my arms, in my horse.  Each time, this reinforces my muscle memory & increases my ability to replicate that for a few more steps next time.  
You know, no big deal, just a few little mental exercises.  I’ve already TOTALLY mastered them.  *end sarcasm font*  But when I can do it, it WORKS.

Requisite annoyingly positive graphic!
What’s Your CAN?

Here’s where I open it up to you:  pick a positive for the next few weeks of your own riding.  Leave it in a comment here & let that be your goal (remember, they all move in baby steps, occasionally even forwards!).  If you have your own blog, I’ll even issue a friendly challenge to share it there in the spirit of mental commitment.  Then we’ll check back a bit later & see what happened!

Bonus:  you get to call me out on mine!  Although a certain genius horse has sprained his stifles while inventing pasture games in mud (a post for later *headdesk*), at least the therapy involves riding.  In doing so, I WILL ride from my leg & core while my arms remain evenly soft on the contact.

If it makes you feel better, it was excruciatingly difficult to write that without any negative clauses!


  1. I actually like to break down my dressage tests, movement by movement, this way. Then I memorize it, and say each little "what I will do" statement as I ride around. It does actually help, like a lot.

    1. Perfect example, Austen!! Our good friend who helped me convince Solo to Dressage taught that way & constantly emphasized it in this magical, subtle way. She was the one who really got me started actively using positive planning. She always said, "Visualize & ride the perfect ride. Even if you are not a perfect rider, b/c no one is, be one in your mind & invite your horse into that space & opportunity to be great!" I think I'm up to managing it for about 10 strides in a row now, ROFL, about 5 yrs later!

  2. Very timely post for me to read. My daughter is forever telling me 'get on and ride with the mind set this will be a great ride.' Why is this so hard to do!!!

    1. Dang, Kelly, it sounds like I need to learn to be as smart as your daughter! I think it has something to do with being human -- the more I learn (& realize how much I have left to learn), the more I see that being a thinking rider who is truly present is tied for "hardest thing ever" alongside "just do nothing & wait for the fence." I'm so dang tired, you'd think "do nothing" would be the easiest & most welcome option!!!!!

  3. Love this!! I WILL be patient and firm with my pony when he decides that forward is optional. ;)

    1. I hear that!! It does stick eventually -- although even after 8 yrs, Solo still needs a firm reminder when I get on that we are not doing Western Pleasure today, sorry. As David O. tells me, methodical, methodical, methodical. Ask, tell, demand, fairly & with opportunity to respond. Oh yeah, patience...see "margarita."

    2. So true! It's amazing how long and how many good professionals it takes for this to sink in! Must drink more margaritas before riding...

    3. I don't think there is any way that could be a bad strategy!

  4. great post!! i definitely get much too stuck worrying about what not to do haha... but i can and *will* stretch up tall with my upper body and core, with legs draped down on my horse.

    1. Whoa, you're going for broke!!! Go get 'em! :D

  5. I will ride my horse forward and balanced!

    1. You are brave, going for two! Forward was long a hard one to remember for me, horses always feel so much faster, then I'd watch the video & go...oops, LOL! You WILL be awesome. :D

  6. Thanks for this - what a great post. I'm going to come back and read this as many times as it takes :)

    1. I will leave it up just for you, T. ;) Believe me, I "read" it in my head a lot...

  7. Being a thinking human who is truly present is why the being a thinking rider thing is hard... I think. ;D

    Taking a page from Alli + Dino above - I will also patiently, persistently remind the poneh that forward is the only option. (until I say differently) :D

    Great post!

    1. Human??! Now you're just talking crazy! ;P

      Thanks -- and I continue to giggle with evil glee at the disappointment of listed ponehs so far that they shall be expected to work correctly, hee.

      Loving the affirmations, they are great reminders for me too, keep 'em coming!!!!

  8. Long time silent stalker here :) I've been having some issues with my endurance mare being unreasonably spooky on trail. A big part of the problem has become me: I tense up in anticipation at something that might spook her causing her to get tense and creating the spook. I read this and when I went to ride Sunday I put it into play. Instead of screaming inside my own head "We will not spook around every corner" I changed it to "We will ride calmly and forward today". And you know what??? We did!!! I got in 6 lovely speed work miles with canters and gallops like never before :)

    1. GO YOU!!! That is awesome, thanks so much for sharing! And don't feel alone at all, I'd bet there's not a single person on a horse who has not been there. I fell victim just yesterday (I DID stick to my "I will ride with my legs" at least), as we rode through neighbour's place with Encore on "I have rocket energy" level. I saw Richard bringing out his trash & thought "oh lord, prancy horse who is already on springs b/c omg, Richard's trailer is shinier & that dogs are barking, is going to teleport when he sets those trash bags down."

      You guessed it, self-fulfilling prophecy -- bad me!! So thank YOU for the reminder about trail energy; that whole breathing thing is apparently useful even outside the dressage arena, LOL!

  9. I know what you're saying, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes horses will just spook. Sometimes they'll just have a horrible tense anxious day. When we moved to France, I had a horrible tense anxious horse for six months. I hacked out on the buckle end of the reins, sitting relaxed and confident, but the only thing that improved him was time. Nothing to do with me. In fact, if it had been my mindset causing the issue, he would have gotten worse instead of better, as he was NOT fun to hack out!
    That said, I always do a mental prep for a dressage test in a positive way.
    "I will BLAST down the centre line and do a prefect square halt at X"
    "He might spook at the judge's box (just being realistic, y'know) so I will ride forward and positive, look left, feel left and let him know he's not expected to actually enter said judge's box"

    1. 100% agreed, TFP (LOVE your blog, btw, am a frequent lurker...). We can't stop horses from being horses, & I have no desire to; I aspire to never do things the easy way, that's just boring! (or, *cough*, impossible for some)

      However, you've illustrated the point perfectly. While we can't control everything or mitigate all circumstances, we can practice & build ourselves as stronger, more proactive riders by "simply" (HAHAHHA) doing our best to give our horse a positive, correct space to be.

      Like the rest of life, baby steps & shades of grey, but part of what makes our relationships with horses so beautiful is the incredible level of nuance in so many aspects. So this post is meant merely as a reminder of a nuance we can & should tap more often. I don't think I'm the only rider who gets all tangled up in my head!

      Patience, focus, & time are indeed the answer to a very large percentage of our attempts at progress with our partners. And I'm so glad to hear that yours got the mileage he needed -- no stranger to that one either! Thank you much (& having taken French for 7 years, not that I was ever great at it, I got a good giggle out of the mental image of me drawling "ya know" while surrounded by French horsewomen [I have a neighbour who rides endurance who grew up in France, she gets a kick out of my grammatic nightmares of joke FB posts in French, makes the mental image even better].