Ride with a purpose. Select an exercise or two, and stick with them long enough that you see an improvement. This seems simple, but it’s easy to loose focus partway though the ride, or to drill though an exercise with no real, specific performance goals.
Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife, Lisa, and their little boy, Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.
I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.
As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.
The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker’s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.
The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.
Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, “I know why.”
Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. He said, “People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life – like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?”
The six-year-old continued, “Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”
I can’t read this and not tear up.
One of the best ways to improve your riding, is to watch yourself ride. I have a little “Go-Pro” camera that I can mount on my arena fence, and I record my rides with it pretty frequently between lessons and clinics. Watching yourself ride on a regular basis is enlightening, especially if you have the emotional fortitude to be able to take your emotions out of the equation and analyze your and your horse’s performance with a critical eye.
"A critical eye" doesn’t mean you have to rip on every little mistake, or get down on yourself when you realize you don’t look as good as you think you do. Rather, critique yourself using both video and still shots by looking at trends. Stop and start video and watch it multiple times. Compare and contrast your reactions in similar circumstances. Try to recall what you were thinking and feeling at the time, and try to determine if you were correctly interpreting your horse’s reactions and whether your aids were more or less effective than you felt they were while you were riding. Take as many still shots as possible and compare them side-by-side. Use image editing software to draw lines though key points of your body to help you analyze your position. Note any habits, good or bad, and any glaring inconsistencies.
Once you’ve completed Phase I, it’s time to move on to Phase II, which is putting what you’ve learned to good use. Make a list of two or three things you want to work on before each ride, and think of an exercise or self-cue to help you achieve each one. It can really help to write down what you need to do as if you were giving advice to a friend. Be clear and concise, and break down things into clear steps you can follow-though on. Work on those things until you feel you’ve made some improvement, and then video tape yourself again. Compare the new video and photos with the previous ones, and go from there.
Whether or not you’re able to take regular lessons, objectively analyzing yourself will help you to get better results in your training in less time.
I keep thinking that someday I’ll write a book (well, two) on horses: specifically on the horses who have been and events that have significantly impacted my life, and on the techniques I’ve used and the lessons I’ve learned. Alas, I am blessed with many horses in my life and a full-time job to help pay for them, and book-writing is still a bit of a pipe dream. However, blogging is something I’ve done for years, and i like to work in little chunks that don’t feel overwhelming - and there’s little pressure for me to put on myself as far as completing a project longer than your standard magazine article.
So beginning today, I will be offering 30 days of unsolicited advice on horses, riding, and training. Primarily for my own amusement, but feel free to comment, reblog, or ignore my brain droppings as you see fit.