Whether you're riding a Standardbred, a Thoroughbred, or one of my friend, Nathalie's fabulous Morgan/Commemara crosses, we all have "one of those days." It's that day when things just don't seem to go right.
I had mine today.
It was a gorgeous Northern California day, so already I was in a good mood as I walked down to the barn. Ruby, the chestnut Standardbred I'm working with these days, met me at the gate with a friendly nicker.
From there on, it was kind of downhill.
First, she wouldn't walk through the gate to exit our property. So instead of spending our riding time on the beautiful trails along the American River, it looked like Ruby and I were going to discus who was in charge.
Fortunately, we came to a meeting of the minds fairly fast and were on our way. Except that when we arrived at the trail head, she decided she didn't want to go over the step-over. After 15 minutes of ground work, with not much progress, I asked for assistance from a rider who'd just returned from her own ride (with a well-mannered horse who knew that the step-over was not going to eat him). This kind woman stood behind me, waved my whip a little, and Ruby went right over. Yay.
My goal today was to establish a nice, light, rhythmic--and slow--trot with Ruby. And by slow, I mean what is described as a "medium" trot in dressage terms. As opposed to 95 MPH, which is what Ruby thinks it's all about.
The method to esstablishing a nice, light, rhythmic medium trot with an off-the-track Standardbred is simple: every time your horse starts to turn on the gas, use a one-rein stop to bring him back to a walk or halt. Repeat. Often. Your horse will eventually get the idea that every time he starts to go-go-go, he's going to get shut down. And he'll give up and give you waht you want.
This is the method. But the KEY to the method is that the rider must have infinite patience and be possessed of immense tranquility.
What went wrong for Ruby and me today was that I understood the METHOD. I was lacking the second part--the patience and tranquility.
I often say that riding is an amazing tool for developing focus and learning to be completely in the moment. But I realized today that, as focused as I was, I was also adding tension and frustration to the mix.
And when I say frustration, I really mean it. I felt my frustration morphing into anger. I had to put the brakes on before I messed everything up for my horse.
How to Re-Establish a Happy Heart and Calm Attitude
Being mindful about your attitude, thoughts, and reactions is important at all times, but I believe it's especially so when riding, because your mood can so easily affect your horse.
1) Stop and ask yourself what is really going on? Where are your thoughts focused?
I realized that in a far-off, teeny, tiny corner of my mind, I was harboring anxiety about some basic life issues--coordinating plans for my son's graduation from college next week (summa cum laude! So proud!), conern for my husband, who just lost his lifelong best friend, worry about how much money I spent at the tack shop yesterday, concern about how the horses will behave tomorrow when a friend with small kids comes to visit tomorrow...
The list goes on and these things are not show-stoppers, they are just Life. But I realized as I was riding that the cumulative effects of Life were impacting my ability to have paitnece with my horsre.
Once I was able to acknowlegdge how worried I was about these other issues, I could see that I was bringing them into my riding. I could also see the circle game that was starting:
ANXIETY = ANXIOUS RIDING SKILLS = ANXIOUS HORSE = HORSE NOT PERFORMING WELL = RIDER GETTING FRUSTRATED = HORSE REACTING TO RIDER FRUSTRATION = NO ONE IS HAPPY AND NO WORK IS ACHIEVED
Taking a moment to focus on your breath is an outstanding way to re-center yourself in moments when you're about to lose your cool. Take five very deep breaths and be mindful of where you feel your breath in your body (in your nose, the back of your throat, your belly?), Stay with your breath as you inhale and again when you exhale.
An alternative--or complement--to breathing is to create a picture in your mind of something beautiful, something peaceful that will help you reclaim your center. Something along the lines of this photo...
3) Acknowledge but don't react.
As I was fighting with Ruby to slow down her trot, I found myself thinking this thought: "She's the worst horse ever!"
A stupid thought that was composed of pure frustration. The thing that's most important to know about your thoughts is this: you can have a thought without reacting to it. In fact, in most cases, not reacting is an excellent plan.
In my case, I acknowledged my frustrations and I also reminded myself that, previous to today, I've had excellent sessions with Ruby.
And that if we didn't achieve a fabulous trot today, we could try again tomorrow. The world would not end.
4) Make a mid-course correction with your goals.
One of the most important components of good goal setting is the ability to understand when it's time to establish new goals. During my ride with Ruby, I recognized that the goals I'd set for today simply weren't achievable. My horse was not in the right frame of mind and neither was I. It was more important to me that Ruby and I have a good working relationship and that she looked forward to our rides than it was to get a great trot today.
So I backed off, brought Ruby back to a walk, and gave her a long rein. She walked home a happy horse. And I was calm, pleased that I'd seen my part in what was going wrong.
The good news? The trot will still be there tomorrow.