Here is an article I wrote for RiderFitness “Helping equestrians to become physically, mentally and emotionally fit to ride”
I have had the great fortune of riding most of my life. When I left the practice of medicine in the context of personal injury, I turned my focus to riding biomechanics – for myself – so I could keep riding. Then I had fun teaching my ideas to others. I developed a system of evaluating rider function that I call the Rider Fundamentals (and are presented in my book: The Riding Doctor). These Fundamentals include: Mental Focus, Proper Posture (and postural support), Control of Body – Legs, Control of Body – Arms, and Understand the Horse’s Movement (and how to logically move with the horse). I have worked with hundreds of riders, and have found that awareness of posture and the ability to support posture in the saddle are paramount to an effective, stable, and balanced rider position. I’ve also come to appreciate the importance of an unreactive and thoughtful mind while riding. Beyond just Mental Focus, Mindful Riding promotes a controlled and calm mindset to accompany and augment a stable and controlled body.
Mindfulness is a word you probably associate with meditation halls and self-improvement retreats – rightly so! It is a system of personal education and meditation practice that has gained great popularity over the last several decades. Rooted in ancient Buddhist tradition, one well-known contemporary mindfulness course is John Kabat-Zin’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Those who’ve taken this eight-week course can benefit from less stress, and improved well-being, sense of self, attention, memory, emotional control, and immune function.
What is mindfulness? John Kabat-Zin defines it as: “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Let’s unpack this:
Awareness. You are aware of your body and the state of your mind at all times.
Paying Attention. You know what is happening right now.
Purpose. You choose to be aware and pay attention.
Present Moment. Your focus is right here, right now – not in another place, not in the past, not imagining the future.
Non-Judgmentally. You accept what is happening without attaching goodness or badness – it just is as it is. From this mindset it is easier to respond to events with care rather than reacting emotionally.
Being mindful means you are one hundred percent in the present moment. You are focused on what is happening right now and aware of both your body and your thoughts. As such you can respond to events with care – physically, mentally, and emotionally. When mindful, you are not imaging the future or ruminating about the past. By being truly present, you have a frame of mind that supports an appropriate response to the events that arise now, rather than having your response affected by expectations, baggage and history.
I began exploring mindfulness following a series of difficult life events. Mindfulness and meditation helped me recognize how my mind creates stories that can send me spinning into despair. Mindfulness helped me recognize when my mind carries my focus away from the present moment. Now I try to see things as they are, rather than let my past experiences or expectations and assumptions color my perceptions. Mindfulness helps me stay connected to my body.
Mindfulness is helpful for your life as a whole. But I hope its value for riding is also apparent. Let’s look at some scenarios to clarify how mindfulness can help your riding.
Your horse always quickens and gets heavy in the bridle in one corner of the arena.
Not Mindful Reaction: When your horse gets heavy, you push your feet forward, lean back and pull back against your horse, your expression shows frustration, and you think: “I wish he’d stop pulling in this corner, I am so sick of this.” (Or something more colorful!)
Mindful Response: When your horse gets heavy, you stabilize your body (body awareness), you steady his tempo rather than letting it quicken, you feel his balance fall to his forehand and logically ride a 10-meter circle to help your horse rebalance. Your mindset is thoughtful and about problem solving, not frustration. You don’t change your body position or pull on the reins, rather you stay stable in body and mind and guide the horse to better balance.
In the “not mindful reaction” the rider loses body awareness, loses balance and contributes to the horse’s imbalance. Frustration and annoyance that the horse always does this makes the rider’s reaction harsh and ineffective. In the “mindful response,” the rider keeps control of her body and does a movement to assist the horse rather than punish it.
You are warming up your horse. It is a bit windy, and each time the wind hits the wall of the barn, there is a slight shake of the metal siding and a rattle. If you happen to be going by the barn at that time, your horse raises his head, hollows to look at the siding, and moves sideways away from the wall.
Not Mindful Reaction: When your horse spooks at the rattling siding, you pull on the outside rein to try and bring him closer to the wall, you say out loud, or to yourself : “this is so annoying, he has been past this barn wall a thousand times, he knows there is nothing to be afraid of here!”
Mindful Response: Your mindset is to try to make yourself more important that the rattling siding. You flex the horse’s head away from the barn wall, and push him over towards the wall with your inside leg. If you are trotting, you come to walk to accomplish this. If this upsets your horse more, you move to a part of the arena where he is not spooking to continue your warm up, knowing that when he is more on your aids, in all likelihood, the rattling metal will be less disturbing.
Can you see where the rider’s living in the past and not accepting the “here and now” in the Not Mindful scenario risks making the horse’s anxiety worse? Can you see where the Mindful rider accepts what is happening now and deals with it in the most logical way she can think of?
Mindful riding means you bring clarity, calmness, and consistency to every step. By being truly present, you can experience and sort out training challenges unencumbered by a negative mindset. Being mindful creates space to evaluate what is happening and come up with a logical plan. Mindfulness supports a calm demeanor rather than a reactive emotional mindset. You ride in the moment, giving an appropriate response to what whatever is happening. Being mindful in the saddle means you stay acutely aware of your body, the horse’s body, and your mindset — every stride. This makes you a responsible horse trainer.