My new trainer, Julie Ulrich, recently told me a story about when she was in school. She recalled being in math class as a young student and thinking to herself, ‘I don’t need to learn how to do multiplication. Why would I? I’ll just add all the numbers together - easy enough!’ Of course, she learned that at a basic level this is possible, but to get further in math you need to understand multiplication - the numbers get too big to total up in your mind, and the process would be laborious and slow. Her clever solution to skipping a basic math principle wasn’t feasible in the longer term.
She used this example as a metaphor to highlight the importance of understanding the basics in riding in order to get to a higher level. When the basic pieces are missing, you have no foundation to fall on when the harder questions come about. This causes frustration as you become lost and confused.
I thought I understood the basics well enough in riding. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve had good trainers and as many lessons as I wanted over the years. I’ve watched countless training videos and read all the books. I had two super horses who were brave and gave me heaps of show mileage. So, why was I experiencing so much fear and anxiety at every show? Why were my results becoming so inconsistent that I was withdrawing from classes?
Why, when I was at a show, was I getting the feeling that I’d rather be anywhere else?
I had always been an eager rider who wanted to know more, do more. I wanted to make progress and be on to the next thing, challenging myself. That’s all well and good, until it becomes hastiness and the basics get left in the dust.
Back in June, I went to train with Helena Stormanns for three months. Much to my surprise, after a few lessons she told me my balance was totally off and that I was missing a lot of the basic principles that a competitive rider should know and have mastered. I was surprised because I thought most of my problems were more psychological, coming from a lack of confidence.
“It would be good for you to have some lessons on the longe line to focus on your position and seat,” she said. I was confused - I had never heard that before, and the last time I was on a longe line was when I was 9 years old.
At 29 years old, having jumped a couple of ranking classes, I thought I was beyond this. However, the holes in my foundation of basics had caught up to me.
I am currently having many lessons on the longe line with Julie at my new beautiful base in Normandy, Haras du Ry. As I work through the process of addressing these basics, I’ve reflected on a few truths that I notice that in our sport - and perhaps some apply to life as well.
1. Without the basics, success will be short lived. It’s possible to get lucky and have some quick success with the right horse and the right situation. But, like the fable of the three little pigs, the quick and unplanned approach is not the one that will succeed. Slow and steady wins the race, and the brick house which takes time and effort to build will not fall down.
Without patience and a solid brick foundation, you may get to a certain level very quickly and feel like you have made it, however, if the basics are not set in stone the house of “straw” will fall down. Understanding how to have the patience to create a solid foundation was clearly missing. I would feel frustrated about why I was still so inconsistent because it felt like I had put in so much effort. It must be because my foundation was not as solid as I thought – “straw”. I think people who have a solid foundation- “brick”, are naturally more confident and get ahead further.
2. ‘Talented’ individuals usually have strong basics. This leads into the debate of whether talent is born or made. I believe most of the individuals who appear talented actually learnt solid basics from an early age; they started off with solid foundations and their brick house gradually kept on building higher and higher. In contrast, the other individuals were building a house of straw thinking they were on the same level. Whenever their confidence got knocked, they had to start again and therefore got left behind.
3. The basics are overlooked because they seem boring and like a waste of time. Working on the longe line or understanding the small details of dressage to many riders seems like a waste of time. Many people think the answer to improve is purely jumping, jumping, jumping. Remember the movie The Karate Kid, when the master makes the boy spend countless hours taking his jacket on and off? This theme in the film highlights the importance of mastering each step of development for long-term aptitude. You cannot do it once, move on and forget - you need to keep it up for your whole career. “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” — Zen Kōan.
4. Winning doesn’t mean you’ve made it. Once you have a big moment of success, that is not the end – in show jumping, as in many other sports, your work isn’t done when you have a big win. This is why some athletes or artists only ever have that one moment – they think they made it. However, they never have that moment again; they become a one hit wonder. This must be because they have no idea how they got there and fail to continue “chopping wood and carrying water”.
5. Practice has to be done with purpose. To stay successful, you have to keep up with the small details. Your practice has to be with deep focus and purpose - every day. The book “Bounce” written by Matthew Syed highlights this point. “When practicing on autopilot we are just going through the motions. Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate to excellence... this is why many people clock up endless hours, maybe even 10,000, without improving at all. When most people practice, they focus on the things they can do effortlessly, expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well.”
Just riding and jumping with no purpose will not improve your technique enough to become an expert. To get the best out of every ride, you need a specific plan for you and your horse. Even if you only have one horse to practice on, if you ride this horse with absolute focus every day, you may improve faster than someone with ten horses riding on autopilot.
Conversely, reaching deep concentration is easier said than done. I had read and been taught about “perfect practice” and to stay in the present moment. However, I did not fully understand how to drop into that space and also recognize when I was on autopilot. Now, it’s time to further research and investigate different ways to work smarter. My work continues.
Photos courtesy of the author.
Written by Amy Collinson
Amy Collinson is a 29-year-old show jumper from New Zealand. While she hails from a family with no equestrian background, horses have always been a driving force in her life. After obtaining her Bachelor's degree in Management, she moved to join Kiwi rider Samantha Mcintosh in Belgium, beginning her European adventure. Amy has trained with Bruce Goodin, Miranda Harrington, and Roger Yves Bost.