Riding on the right side of your brain: The six steps to master this skill


Riding on the right side of your brain

Consistent lessons and coaching definitely can improve your riding. But when you head into the show ring or out on cross-country, you are on your own – your coach cannot offer you any further assistance.

As a young rider, I was a ‘good puppet’ during lessons and following my coach’s plans in competition. But when the unexpected happened, my reaction times were poor and things came unhinged fast.

For example, at an event in 2015, I got my record worst dressage score on my horse, Kermit, because I rode the horse I HAD in warm-up, not the one I was on in the ring. My coach at the time, Clayton Fredericks helped me in warm-up and Kermit went lovely. As I went into the ring, Clayton told me to sit quietly and show him off. I did exactly that. Except Kermit must’ve been a bit tired because he progressively got heavier and lower in his frame in the test. Did I give him a strong half-halt to sit him back on his hindquarters? Nope! I sat quietly. When I finished the test, Clayton was rightfully puzzled with my lack of riding in the ring. I was confused because I did what he said. However, he never thought I’d be daft enough to take him so literally! I was not riding in the moment; I was still riding the horse from warm-up.

Several winters ago in Florida, Clayton repeatedly told me in my lessons that I had to ride what was happening underneath me. I was struggling to grasp this concept. I began to notice how easily I lost my focus in the saddle and how often I would ride like a robot – riding a plan, not what I was feeling.

I became tired of being a lesson puppet. I had reached a point where I wanted to see if I had the ability to problem solve on my own and train my young horses with minimal assistance. For the next seven months, I took a lesson hiatus so I could understand how to ride what’s underneath me and how to ride in the moment.

Not having someone on the ground telling me what to do, forced me to focus on what I feel EVERY STRIDE. I feel more confident now when I enter the show ring because I do not need my coach to remind me to half-halt. Now I love the eerie silence as I head down centerline – it makes it easier to focus. I am present. Without a coach or lessons for months, I was able to head to a horse trial and score my personal best on Kermit that September.

By riding alone, I know that I have unlocked a part of my mind that I had not been utilizing for my riding. Technically, I know it is the right side of my brain. When I get there, I am one with my horse. I feel excited, but calm – exhilarated, but in control. The right side of the brain is the intuitive, subjective, relational, holistic, time-free mode. I am learning to quiet the left side of my brain and stop the chatter. The left side is designed to cultivate verbal and rational instruction. We need instruction to give us the basics of riding and understand the technical aspects. But we need to be able to access the right side to feel what we are riding and respond accordingly.

So how can you improve your dressage scores by skipping a few lessons? Here are the steps to help you ride by being totally in the moment by riding on the right side of your brain:

1) Clear your mind – This can be difficult. I have a very busy mind, so for me this was a real struggle. You have to block out nearly every thought in your head. Only think about what you feel under you. Put your focus solely on riding your horse and you will notice things quicker, allowing you to fix them immediately (before the dressage judge sees). If you fixate too heavily on an instruction from your coach like ‘sit taller’ or a random spectator holding a potentially scary umbrella – you won’t be in tune to what your horse is doing. A good exercise for clearing your mind is to trot a nice big circle, only thinking about riding that circle in the best quality trot possible. Keep circling and only think about each individual stride at a time.

2) RIDE each stride –Think about what you are trying to achieve. If you want your horse to feel more equal in the reins on your circle then think of what a totally equal contact would feel like and keep it in your mind. As you trot that big circle, think about how it feels – Is the rhythm feeling consistent? Do both reins feel equal? Do you feel balanced? Does my horse feel straight? Question yourself about how it “feels” when you ride alone. You will tap into something different than listening to a coach telling you how it looks and instructing you from the ground. You want it to get to a point where you are not thinking of the questions. Your mind is quiet and you are automatically making adjustments without thoughts. It is your job as a rider to ride every stride. If the left rein feels heavier than the right for a stride, bend your horse to the left the next few strides to get it to soften. You need to be constantly digesting what you are feeling and actively working towards making it feel perfect. Riding is hard work, you are never off-duty for a single stride.

3) Troubleshoot calmly and logically – If you are struggling to achieve the result you want schooling alone, take a walk break and think about what is happening. Drop the reins to the buckle, let your horse chill out and give yourself a moment to break down the problem. Lets say your horse will not bend to the left and no matter how hard you pull on the left rein and how many half-halts you give on that rein you cannot get a result. Hmm… think about it for a bit. Perhaps you are too heavy on your right rein, which is disallowing your horse from bending easily to the left? Or maybe you have only been focusing on neck bend and you need more left leg to get its body to bend as well? There are no magic solutions to riding problems, so do not over complicate the problems. Logically, go through all the possible causes and come up with a solution to try. With some determination, odds are you will successfully troubleshoot your own problem.

4) Give yourself permission to ignore advice – Have faith in yourself. You know what you are feeling and people on the ground may not always know what is best for you. Your coach might have a wall full of medals but he/she cannot feel exactly what you are feeling. Coaches are not always right. You know what you have been experiencing day in, day out. Let’s say you know that riding with short reins in the ring keeps your horse’s frame up and longer reins will have your horse dragging its nose on the ground. Then ride with short reins up centerline!!! You are the rider, you are in control. Never do something just because you were told to; especially when you know for a fact that it is not going to lead to a good result. By ‘result’, I do not mean your place on the leaderboard at the end of the event. I mean the results you are trying to achieve with your overall training.

5) Be creative – There are no right and wrong methods to achieve a result with your horse as long as you are not being cruel or unfair. If it turns out that the only way you can get your horse to soften on the left rein is with draw reins, use them. I have a horse with a very insensitive mouth but I was able to make him more sensitive to my aids using a stronger (not dressage legal) bit. I would school him in a copper twisted wire bit and show him in a D-ring snaffle. Riding him in a copper twisted bit was much more pleasant for him, than having me constantly pulling on a fat dull bit. He respected the bit immediately and the dressage training was enjoyable. Now he trains in the D-ring snaffle too. I am not suggesting that you go to extreme and unconventional training methods, however, if you have diligently gone through the classical training playbook and cannot find an answer to your problem, then use some creativity.

6) Stay calm and ride as much of the plan as you can – This may sound obvious but it is an absolute must. Riding in the moment, all alone, can be stressful when you first embrace this style. It is intimidating to trust yourself as a rider and trainer to make split-second decision changes outside of the original plan. If you head up centerline and your horse starts doing something that you and your coach hadn’t planned for – What do you do? You need to be in the moment, pull from your experience, calmly make the fix and carry on. Riding in the moment is not about riding by the seat of your pants with no plans whatsoever. It is about riding as much of the plan that fits in with what is happening underneath you. Remaining calm allows you to maintain the focus you need. So remember the next time you head down centerline, breathe, think minimally, and ride every stride.

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