If you are like many other amateur riders, you love to learn and you want to progress your riding skills. You probably read up on various riding methods and techniques and perhaps sometimes you wonder why everything sounds so wonderful and clear and logical when written down but becomes a mess and confusion when you try to put in practice.
If you can relate to that, you will have a lot in common with many improvement driven riders and the below 3 steps plan/technique might help you. If you have your own methods of learning new skills or improving upon current ones, please do share in the comments!
STEP 1: UNDERSTAND THE THEORY (but keep it simple)
Let me give you a simple example here. We are all told to keep our elbows supple and by our sides but for many riders this is an empty instruction, something that they “must” remember to do. To understand the theory behind it would be to understand that rider’s elbows are the connectors between the rider’s pelvis/hips and the horse’s mouth (or front end if you ride bitless). Their position helps the rider add the vertical stability to their upper body. Their suppleness helps transmit instructions like half-halt from rider’s and horse’s pelvis to the front/mouth and vice versa. There are more nuances to the reasons of elbow suppleness and positioning but I think you get the idea.
If you want to improve your connection with horse’s mouth – you might need to understand what your body does/might need to do in order for that improvement to happen.
You can break down all your desired skills into such bite size theory elements and then understand the reasons for each action and the effects of each reaction (in yourself and/or the horse).
STEP 2: Organise sessions when you consciously do, do and do 🙂
FEEL , verb
: to be aware of (something that affects you physically…[…])
This is the element that many riders skip…or on the other spectrum – get stuck in forever! At this stage, you want “talk yourself through” what you are doing (theory) and what you are feeling/getting back from the horse. There is no need to be technical here in your language, just observe and do. You want to realise that every stride the horse makes is like a story of balance, coordination of aids, moods, emotions and possible changes. You want to live through your sessions a little bit as if you were doing so in slow motion and noticing things that possibly have no meaning at all (or might change everything altogether).
For example, imagine you are riding round the arena in trot and prepare a circle. To consciously attempt this exercise you would go: “Now I am preparing to circle, to do that I am checking if my horse goes forward on both sides of his body, I put left leg on, I can sense reaction on the left side of his body, can I sense a stronger forward thrust?; I put my right leg on, I feel stronger thrust on the right side of his body. Now I can feel he is sensing my want to turn and is loading his inside shoulder more than his outside, I ask for one, two steps of leg-yield to commit him back to the outside shoulder. Did I lean in a little in preparation for my circle? Did I take my weight off my outside seat bone? Did my elbow stiffen on the outside? I think I moved it forward too much and lost connection with outside side of my horse’s mouth” etc
See what I mean? Have a dialogue with yourself on every action you take for 2min – it is quite tiring when done for the first time. Become more AWARE of every action you/your horse take and doesn’t/don’t take…
Give yourself 8 such sessions over 6-8 weeks – video yourself if you can and then watch and compare to your understanding of the theory (Step 1).
STEP 3: Organise sessions when you Subconsciously do, do and do 🙂
This step is where many riders try to get to straight away. From Theory to Subconscious skill. That almost never happens or at least, I have never seen it happen. We can’t just read how to do good sitting trot, then get on a horse and do it as well as in that theoretical description. Riders who go from Step 1 to 3 without enduring (oh yes, it’s a hard work to do conscious practice sessions) Step 2 are those who are often very frustrated and disappointed with themselves. They “know” how to do it, why can’t they do it…
Subconscious sessions require some preparation. You will need to research (or have an instructor on hand to do it for you) 3-4 exercises per session that challenge the particular skill you want to work on or improve.
You will learn the pattern of those exercises, whether they are dressage/flatwork or jumping related, then you will go out there and do them with full focus on the TASK, on WHAT to do, not on HOW to do it. It is best if you can video yourself to reflect upon these sessions later and decide which actions/reactions are in need of more Step 2 work.
Ban yourself from thinking and over-thinking or analysing during these sessions. Make mistakes and enjoy them, let your body dig deep into what it learnt in Step 2 and flow. At first, you might feel awful and like someone who at first told you exactly how to do things have just abandoned you, but keep on it.
When you are attempting to learn something, I would treat those steps as a cycle. Understand, Consciously do (8 or more sessions), Subconsciously do (1-2 session) – Reflect (see here for more on reflection for riding). Then, start over again. You should notice that with the 4th, 5th cycle, your understanding deepens, you notice more and more in your Step 2 sessions and everything flows more and more in Step 3 sessions 🙂
It might take many cycles for the skill to become properly acquired and dependable.
Good luck and if you find this approach useful please do drop a line in a comments section below.
All the best,