Raise your hand if you've ever arrived at the barn completely frazzled by a harrowing drive in rush hour traffic. Or scarfed down a sandwich while zipping up your boots and tightening the girth. Or rushed into the arena and mounted mere moments before your lesson began. I know I've experienced each of these situations many times throughout my riding career, a by-product of balancing a busy life and time-consuming passion. And I know I'm not alone.
One of the first lessons I remember learning as a young rider was how perceptive horses can be, not only of a rider's body language and position, but also of their emotions and mood. “Be confident in yourself,” my trainer would instruct me as I tacked up a nervous horse or mounted a challenging ride, “he can feel your doubt”. Now as an adult, this lesson feels particularly poignant as I enter the ring, all the frustrations and failures of the day consuming my thoughts.
My horse has been my partner for the past ten years and I know he can sense the stress in my tense shoulders. On days when I feel anxious and distracted, my patience is limited and I feel easily discouraged by incorrect canter leads or missed distances to fences. I know this feeling translates through my grip on the reins and we both leave the ring feeling frustrated and lacking confidence.
A Wake Up Call
My perspective shifted on a dark night in December of last year, when I found myself following the taillights of a horse trailer down the highway, making an emergency trip to the vet. As we rounded the corner, I caught a glimpse of my horse in the trailer window and breathed a sigh of relief that he was still standing. My chest tightened as I replayed the moment he laid down in the arena, refusing to stand, his eyes clouded with defeat. I thought that was the end and that all the plans and hopes I had for our future were splintering into pieces. My horse spent the night at the clinic, while I slept fitfully, waiting for a phone call from the vet that things had gotten worse. As I contemplated losing him, I made a promise that I would try to become a more focused and intentional equestrian, making the most of our time together and giving him more of the attention he deserved.
Fortunately, that call never came. As my horse recovered, I realized I had some work to do to become the focused rider I was resolved to be. What practices and habits could I develop to reduce distractions and become more intentional? I set off on my research, deciding to begin with a daily mindfulness practice. Now, this might sound completely unrelated to my equestrian pursuits, but hear me out:
Mindfulness cultivates an awareness of the present with an attitude of openness, acceptance, and curiosity. And regular practice can improve focus, clarity of thought, and non-judgement of thoughts and emotions, all of which are beneficial to athletes, including equestrians. Building new habits is hard and I’m still a work in progress. Personally, using a mindfulness meditation app is a helpful way for me to stay on track. I view mindfulness as an exercise I can use to improve my brain’s ability to focus, similar to the way I use gymnastics to improve my jumping technique.
Strategies for Mindfulness
1. When I ride on weeknights, I do my best to avoid rush hour traffic. This sounds so simple, but it really has made a world of difference for me. I prepare my riding gear in the morning and head to the barn straight from work. This requires a bit of preparation in the morning and on more than one occasion I’ve forgotten an essential item at home (contact lenses, boots, socks, you name it). But if I can forgo a pit-stop at home after work, it means that I don’t arrive at the barn in a gridlock-induced huff. I always make sure I have some uplifting music, or an interesting podcast queued up just in case I end up sitting in traffic, despite my best efforts.
2. Once I arrive at the barn, before I head out to my horse’s paddock, I do a quick assessment of how I’m feeling physically and mentally. Am I hungry, thirsty or sore? I spend a couple of minutes addressing my needs. I always have a water bottle on hand to hydrate and even though I’m not the best at prepping snacks, I typically have a PB&J or an apple and almonds in my bag for a quick energy boost. Am I anxious, frustrated, or stressed? I take a couple of deep breaths to calm down.
3. I leave my phone in my locker once I’ve brought my horse in, which means I get fewer pony selfies than the average millennial, but also that I’m giving him my full attention. I budget time for a thorough grooming and look for cues my horse is giving me about how he’s feeling. Is he being respectful of my space or testing the boundaries? Does he seem relaxed or is he feeling anxious? Sometimes, we work on ground skills before moving on to a ride. This way I make sure that my horse is ready to give me his full attention too.
4. In the saddle, I do my best to maintain focus throughout my ride, paying attention to how my horse is feeling and being mindful of my position. I’m also trying to plan my training and come to each ride prepared with a specific exercise to work on. I try to balance challenging exercises that will address our weaknesses with ones that build on our strengths to maintain confidence. When things don’t go according to plan, I go through a quick mental checklist to think through the exercise:
- Am I being clear with my aids?
- Does my horse understand what I’m asking him?
- Can I break the exercise down into smaller pieces?
5. If I’m feeling frustrated, I take a break to reset. I try to acknowledge my horse’s efforts during our ride by giving lots of encouragement and breaks.
Some days, these habits really help me focus my attention at the barn and it feels like my horse and I are communicating effortlessly and moving in harmony. And other days, I’m stressed and spend most of my time riding aimless circles or only have time for a quick lunge session. And I’m learning to accept that despite my best efforts and the focus I’ve gained over the past couple months, these types of days are still going to happen. So, I spend my walk back to the paddock reflecting on how lucky I am to spend this precious time with my horse, give him a carrot and a pat, and remember there's always tomorrow.
Photos by SEH Photography.
Written by Alyssa Friesen
Alyssa Friesen is an amateur equestrian with a passion for storytelling. A conservation communicator by day, she enjoys riding her thoroughbred Speedy, exploring wild places, and reading good books in her spare time.