Step by step

I was reminded yet again about breaking down difficult challenges into smaller pieces. I know this, but constantly seem to forget it and just become overwhelmed. Yet this single piece of advice is constantly reflecting through my life. In work, at home, in relationships, in anything that requires training – horses, dogs, children, husbands…whatever the issue is, if you break it down it will become manageable.

Your boss gives you some seemingly mammoth task (bosses love doing this!), break it down into small pieces, tackle it one piece at a time. You need to teach your child to tidy their room, break it down, first put away the books, and then the clothes, suddenly each job becomes doable, and our stress is swept away.

You wouldn’t expect your horse to be able to a half-pass unless you had broken down the exercise into steps? So why do we expect ourselves to be able to do things without breaking it down into steps? In order to teach the half-pass we first need a balanced trot or canter, we need a good leg yield, a good shoulders-in and quarters-in, only once we can move all the legs of the horse, can we add all the pieces together and ask for a leg yield.

Don’t do the same with yourself, don’t ask for a leg yield without having learnt the component parts. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Set yourself up to succeed! If you spend time on the building blocks the rest will follow. If you are finding something difficult stop and think, can I leg yield before I half-pass, can I walk before I run? We wouldn’t do it our horses, so don’t do it to ourselves. Give yourself the optimum conditions to succeed, don’t send yourself off to do a medium dressage test when you are working at novice level at home. Be kind to yourself, as you would to others…

Letting go…

The mental flexibility required at the moment is immense. The world is in a state of flux, and change is now a daily occurrence. Staying balanced during this time is a feat of mental gymnastics. Letting go of pre-conceptions is a huge part of mental flexibility. Making the most of what you can do, rather than hankering after the unobtainable is a life lesson in happiness.

This lesson can be applied to anything. This week I had to let go of my notion about how long my child should do swimming lessons for, as it is simply not practical to do swimming lessons during this time. Once I had let go of this fixed idea in my mind, other possibilities opened, other sports that are less restricted than swimming. It was a prime example in the merit of letting go.

The same applies in our schooling sessions. Sometimes we can come out with a fixed idea of what we want to work on today. And sometimes it will go to plan, but other days it simply won’t. At this point you are left with two options; battle away with your horse because, that’s what you had decided to do, or, take a step back, let go of your fixed idea and do something else. This is not “letting your horse win” or “not standing up to them” it is simply having a plan b. A lesson learnt through force and stubbornness will never be as effective as one learnt through enthusiasm and collaboration. So letting go, may be the best thing you ever do.

Be kind to yourself, the world is a complicated place, always and even more so at the moment, but learning to let go of your fixed ideas, will help you to flex and adapt in a rapidly changing world.

The right time for a challenge

A lot of life is about timing. Sometimes the right things happen at the wrong time, and sometimes the wrong things happen at the right time. Sometimes opportunities arise at the perfect timing. But we are not entirely powerless. We need to be aware of the timing of life, and how different periods of our life present different challenges.

It is good to stretch ourselves. It is good to challenge ourselves, but it is also important to pick your timing. You may want to learn to jump your horse, but if you are currently so stressed that all you can manage to do is simply groom him every evening, this is probably not the best time. If you have young children who wake you up all night, now is probably not the best time to do that difficult online course you had been looking at.

Don’t set yourself up for failure by not understanding the importance of timing. Timing is everything. If you are working on your trot canter transitions, there are some that feel effortless and others that don’t. Some of this is down to the timing of when you ask for the canter. There are good moments to ask for canter and bad ones. There are good times to challenge yourself and bad ones.

Sometimes there is no choice, you simply have to do it now. Take the job, ask for canter, you may be pressured by money, or your dressage test may say canter at M. But sometimes there is a choice and when there is a choice, make sure you take a moment to consider the timing of your choice. It may not be the wrong choice, but it may be the wrong time…

Little by little…

…one walks far. I love this Peruvian proverb, it seems so apt for the modern day and everything that we do. I have seen it on a necklace, that’s on the wish list!

It fits so perfectly with everything. Want to compete your horse in a dressage test when it won’t even trot?  Approach it one step at a time, rather than sitting down and giving up. Work on the walk, practice your trot transition. Aim for one nice trot stride, come back to walk and then praise. Gradually that one nice trot stride will become a whole long side, gradually you will be able to maintain a whole circuit. In time, you will be able to add in a canter transition and repeat the whole exercise. Next you simply take your horse somewhere else and practice doing it in a different environment. And, then you are ready to compete.

Everything is possible. Your filthy, muddy, hairy pony in the field can be transformed into a gleaming show pony. Your terrible puppy that chews and runs round you can be transformed into an obedient well-trained dog. Your incredibly long list of things to do, can be broken down into small parts, which you can tick off.

Remember a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Every rider you admire or look up to had to learn rising trot, no-one was born knowing how to make a horse Piaffe. You can do anything that you want to do, you can learn to be good at anything. Everything simply requires the building blocks of learning. If you try and make your hairy pony do a half-pass it probably won’t, but if you teach it to leg yield, and then a few steps of shoulder-in and then build onto that some quarters-in, suddenly a few steps of half-pass are going to be there, and before you know it, you will be half-passing happily from one side of the school and back again.

Nervous? Do more groundwork!

When I remember competing as a child, my primary emotion is one of anxiety. Even now I can feel my heart race, my stomach chewing over on itself, and my mouth sticky with fear. I was a nervous child, an anxious competitor and my horse was bargy on the ground. My anxiety around competitions would kick in the day before, as I contemplated the day ahead. Every part of the day was a source of anxiety from the grooming, the plaiting, the loading, the tacking up, the mounting, to the actual test. Such was the behaviour of my horse that the entire day became a mountain to overcome. My mother would on occasion trail round the show ground until she found a strong man to help with my horse.

As an adult, I now look back on that scenario with slight disbelief. No-one ever suggested that I could improve my horse’s behaviour on the ground, my trainers were focused on my ridden results, my mother simply accepted that that was how the horse behaved, and as a child I didn’t realise that I could strongly influence his behaviour. As an adult, I would take young horses to shows and spend most the day teaching them to stand quietly in the car park, the collecting ring, and only once I had taught them that lesson in however many trips it took, would I ever compete them.

In hindsight, there was so much we could have done. Teaching him to stand at the end of a 12ft line quietly, would probably have massively helped the problem. Or asking an instructor or professional for help. Confidence on the ground would have helped me with my anxiety turning the show days into ones filled with fun rather than panic.

Feeling confident on the ground gives one a “safe place” to return to. If you are scared on the ground as well as while mounted, the only position of safety is when the day is over, and experiencing that level of anxiety for a whole day has a severe impact on your adrenal system. If you are already at the limit of your capabilities for processing your adrenalin, you are then going to struggle when your levels are topped up by standard competition nerves.

By teaching our horses to behave on the ground and by increasing our own confidence on the ground, we build a better foundation for our ridden work. If we are confident on the ground, and we become worried whilst riding, we can always dismount and regain our confidence, but if we are fearful on the ground, how can we expect to be confident on our horse? All good things are built on good foundations, from houses to horses…. make sure the foundations of your relationship with your horse are good, so that you can turn your anxiety into anticipation and your panic into pleasure.

Confidence – it will return…

The rubbish winter is drawing to an end. Winter is hard work. The short day length combined with the erratically changeable weather so common across the United Kingdom, leaves us rushing and struggling. Our horses, usually a source of pleasure, become another daily battle. As the moments when we do manage to ride become less frequent, the enjoyment of riding can diminish.

Most things become better with practise, and confidence is no difference. On the downside, it is easy to fall out of practise if we don’t keep on performing a skill. It only takes 48 hrs to begin losing muscle, so imagine that confidence is similar to a muscle, lack of exercise over the winter can lead to reduced strength, and nerves can flit in and diminish our enjoyment.

However, there are ways to combat our winter nerves. Reduce your expectation, don’t judge your winter riding against your summer riding, the prevailing conditions are so very different, that it is simply an unfair comparison. There are plenty of ways to enjoy spending time with your horse in the winter that don’t involve riding, so if you are battling with your nerves in the winter, why not spend time grooming or massaging your horse, you hopefully will enjoy the opportunity to bond with your horse in an unpressured way.

Remember we are coming out of the winter now and as we start up again be kind to yourself. Don’t expect everything to click back into place straight away. But as the days lengthen and we get to spend more consistent time in the saddle, you will find your confidence will return rapidly. Just like your muscles, it is possible to build your confidence back up again, by simply working it a little bit every day. And just like muscles – your confidence will be strong again.

It’s okay to praise yourself!

We are taught when young not to be proud, not to say how great we are, not to agree with people when they compliment us. It has taken me a long time as an adult not to shrug of compliments with a negative comment, but simply to accept them kindly. We become confused between pride and positive self-image, the lines have become blurred and we fall into negative self-image.

But it is okay to praise oneself, it is good to feel proud of your achievements. Often other people won’t see them as achievements, they won’t even notice, so sometimes the only person who can praise us, is our-self.  You managed to get on your horse at the mounting block without your heart racing with nerves. No-one else can see that, they just see you getting on. You manage to have a light-hearted conversation with the  girl at the till, when you have spent 20 years suffering with acute social anxiety. No-one else can see that.

Often the only person that really understands how well you have done, is you. So congratulate yourself, praise yourself. Look back and see how very far you have come. It is not important what is the eyes of others, it is important that you understand your own achievements, and acknowledge them to yourself.

This is not false pride, nor arrogance, it is self-care, self-love, it is understanding that your path through life may not be the easiest, but it is yours and you are doing the very best that you can. And remember that other people may feel just like you. That lady with the big smile who has just trotted a circle, that may be the first time she has trotted without wanting to get off. We have no idea what other people are going through, be kind, always…

Never forget about the possibility of hope…

Hope is probably the most important thing, because the opposite of hope is despair, and that never leads you to a happy place.

Hope tells us that things can get better, that things can improve. It is hope that drives us on, and hope that supports us when times are tough. Without hope we are truly lost.

Hope is a bit like confidence, it is one of those elusive things that slips away as we look at it. But it is vital.

When something bad happens (and, sadly, they do) remind yourself that there is always hope. That however bad thing may be right now, they can get better. You can help yourself to hope, you can list all the things that could happen as a result of the bad thing.

Maybe you lose your job. But imagine what could happen, regard it as an opening of doors of possibility, things that would never have happened had you stayed in that job, suddenly could happen.

Your horse goes lame. Maybe could you learn to massage as a result of not being able to ride. Maybe someone else lets you ride their horse, and you meet new people and explore a whole new world.

Maybe your are forced to move to the other end of the country. But think of all the experiences you can have, the parts of yourself you might be able to access that you couldn’t before.

Change is always scary, but with change and hope comes the possibility for new beginnings. New things that can arise as a result of the change. It’s okay to be scared, and fearful, we are human after all. But remember the other side of change is possibility and the other side of despair is hope.

Five tips for confidence…

Confidence seems somewhat elusive to those who doubt themselves. We have all been there, looking round thinking of all the things that could go wrong and all the ways we could fail, until we render ourselves completely incapable of doing anything!

But confidence is just another skill, and you can learn to do anything. So here are five tips to help you build your confidence.

  • Be positive. Spending your time thinking “what if my horse spooks?” will not help your confidence. Instead visualise a positive outcome. Rather than visualising your horse spooking, visualise yourself trotting confidently around the corner.
  • Small steps. If you become nervous in certain situations, break down the situation into bite size chunks. Are you nervous at a show? Break down the day into pieces. Are you nervous of loading your horse, or getting on in a strange place, or maybe even finding your way somewhere you haven’t been before. Once you have broken the day down, you will be able to identify what is causing the nervousness and then work with that area.
  • Be kind. Don’t be self-critical, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself how far you have come, praise yourself for every step, even if it is simply that you were a little less scared than yesterday, remember to praise yourself!
  • Set yourself up to succeed. Don’t over face yourself. If you enter a class above your ability and don’t do very well, you will enter into a negative mind-set about it. Why not enter a class below your ability, then you will have a rewarding experience before you start to push yourself.
  • When we are nervous, our muscles tighten and we don’t breathe properly. Our brain requires oxygen to function, you cannot think when you are scared!! Take a deep breathe, and another, and another, and off you go!

Stepping outside the box

It is very easy to simply do the same thing that we have always done. Whether it be the same exercises in the school or following the same route out hacking. It is all too easy to become entrenched in our habits. Stepping outside the box can give you fresh insight and a different perspective into your riding and your relationship with your horse.

Do you always work your horse in the school through the same set of exercises and through the same paces in the same order? For examples, lots of us begin in walk before progressing through trot work, and then finally to canter. Why not try working the canter before the trot? It can have the effect of opening the trot up and can be beneficial.

Or if you find that your horse seems a little stale, try going around the block in the opposite direction that you usually go. Suddenly, it will seem like a whole fresh new hack. Or you could try leading your horse around your usual walk. Both of you will gain a new perspective from doing that, and work in hand will always help your ridden relationship.

It is so easy to do the same things over and over, but sometimes it is good to set yourself a challenge and step outside of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a competition or a huge challenge, it could be taking your horse to a different venue to school him or meeting up with a friend to go for a hack. Or going for an all-day hack (check your weather forecast first!) Whatever you choose to do that is different from your everyday routine will give you a new experience.

Every time we try something new, we learn something. It may simply be that we learn not to do that again! But trying out new things is good for us and our horses. Experiences can always be put towards learning, so that our knowledge and understanding increases.

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