I’ve heard various coaches use words to this effect, but I think it was one of my dressage trainers Eileen O’Connor who distilled it into the above mantra.
The clearest personal example I have of not abiding by it was eventing at West Wilts in 2017. I was coming off the back of a fall earlier in the season that had – whether I admitted it to myself or not – seriously negatively impacted my confidence. I’d been riding poorly for a while, but kept competing in the hope that I could ride my way back into some form.
Needless to say my plan wasn’t massively successful.
I found myself warming up for the cross-country phase at West Wilts overly adrenalized to the point of nausea. Worried at the prospect of falling off or making a mistake. I had no plan beyond ‘go clear’ – which is a pretty dismal plan by anybody’s standards.
This meant I started the round riding by the seat of my pants; tight down my leg, tight down the rein, but loose in my brain. Random thoughts and bits of coaching were flying through my head at a million miles an hour, distracting me from the task at hand. This state was just about sustainable for the first thirty seconds of my round. However, five fences in we came to our first combination: a fairly straightforward double of skinnies. I didn’t balance or present Nellie correctly and she (very understandably) ducked out the side door. There was an opportunity here for me to pause and compose myself. Instead, I wheeled her round, failed to present her properly again and had a second refusal.
I’d managed to accrue sixty penalties by the fifth fence and if I didn’t do something I was about to be eliminated. So I halted and took a few deep breaths. The act of stopping was enough. I was able to collect my thoughts enough to see that I was no longer capable of being competitive that day. I was only there to help rebuild the rapport between my horse and me. Once those two thoughts had landed, I grew much calmer. I softened mentally and physically, picked Nellie up again, took a longer approach, popped through the combination – and the rest of the course – perfectly.
We all have moments like this in our day-to-day riding and competing. Moments where our mental state gets the better of us and we act irrationally. We take frustration out on our horses, we grow tense, our vision clouds and our judgment becomes impaired. It’s impossible to ride well in this state; your horse only feels your tension and frustration. You are no longer in synch because you’re wrapped up in your own ego, you’ve become an alien to your most important partner at that moment.
Although I managed to claw a positive experience out of West Wilts, that was more by accident than design. In reality I shouldn’t have been competing that day. My confidence had been knocked and I hadn’t addressed it. This meant my mental state was compromised. Despite being physically ready to go you can’t compete successfully if your mental state isn’t. If you feel stressed, depressed, unduly anxious or just pissed off then there is always another day.
I think this is especially true in competition where you also have to contend with the addition of pressure. When you’re feeling mentally well, pressure can act as a tool to give your mind a laser-like focus. But in situations where your head isn’t in it, it can be the factor that pushes you over the edge.
2. Try to set goals that you can control:
My goal that day was to ‘go clear,’ which isn’t something you can have complete control over. ‘Going clear’ is an outcome that is achieved via a huge number of elements working together to achieve a result. The lack of clarity surrounding what I wanted to achieve that day almost certainly contributed to my muddled mental state. In our riding and competing we should aim to set ourselves goals that we have control over and can fulfil regardless of the result.
For example, two sensible and achievable goals for that day would have been:
The fulfilment of those two goals would have given me a much greater chance of ‘going clear.’ They also provide a clarity and structure to what you want to achieve on that competition day. Even if I had still had the sixty penalties, so long as I had managed to fulfil those two goals then you can chalk that up as a successful day. Whereas, if your aim had simply been to ‘go clear’ it would be impossible to view a day like that in a positive light.
I recently got sent an article from Rydale entitled ‘16 ways horses make humans healthier.’ (https://www.rydale.com/blogs/news/16-ways-horses-make-humans-healthier) When I received it, I had just come in from a wet weekend of not hugely successful competing and my immediate reception to the piece was understandably slightly lukewarm. In that moment, horses seemed to me to be a sure-fire way to mental anguish, financial ruin and joint pain. But after I’d dried out and de-stressed, I had another look and it got me thinking about how being around horses had improved my life.
I started riding when I was six. I had no reason to ask for riding lessons. My mum rode a bit when she was younger, but that was it. My parents likely thought it was going to be a strange, short-lived phase. Unfortunately for their bank accounts it turned into a life-long obsession. I loved them and loved being around them. They were a source of real stability for me throughout my childhood and teenage years.
I moved away from horses a little whilst at university. I rode a bit outside of term time, but I spent most of my time living the ‘student’ life.
Once I graduated from university, I had no idea what I really wanted to do. I was in a slightly confused, listless phase of my life. I didn’t know what I wanted, I didn’t know who I was or really have any idea where I wanted to go. Thankfully rather than slip further into indolence I started to ride again regularly. This had a profound effect on my mental and physical well-being. Having a horse that needed care and attention re-injected my life with some purpose and blew-away the cobwebs of my post-graduation slump.
If I’m honest I’d been living without any real structure or purpose and when I re-engaged with animals who thrive on routine, it forced me to become far more responsible. I imagine it’s like a slightly less stressful version of having children. You have to care for something that depends on you and I fully acknowledge that having to do so really helped me to mature and begin to find my feet as an adult.
Almost completely by accident I ended falling into working with horses full-time. I’d gone from listless graduate to full-time rider and coach in the space of a few short months. I’m incredibly lucky in that regard. Very few people get the opportunity to turn something they love doing into something that they can do all day every day. And I’m continually thankful for that.
I think my relationship with horses is similar to that of many others trying to find their feet in the 21st century. The relative turbulence of these first two decades of the 21st century, coupled with the rise of technology has created a whole host of new pressures for us as individuals. Having access to these amazing creatures that are so distinct from our increasingly city-bound and technologically driven lives means they can fulfil a critical role in helping people to cope with the pressures of 21st century life.
As my initial reaction to the infographic showed, it’s easy to overlook the benefits that horses bring to our lives amongst the hustle and bustle of preparing them to do a specific job and perform. It’s often in the quieter moments – out on a hack or those few minutes spent with them in the stable before or after riding – that I’m able to reflect and realise how much they bring to my own life.
Of course, they’re often moronic and frustrating. But their naivety and innocence is half the fun. And their occasionally vile moments are more than balanced out by the fact that they’re frequently hilarious, always truthful and (when it suits them) affectionate. This is what is so rewarding about being a riding performance coach, I get to find ways to bring out the best in them, whilst they bring out the best in me.
It’s rare to find somebody who’s only kind of into horses. If you’re into horses, you’re really into horses. Once the equine bug has bitten you then these wonderful animals become omnipresent in our lives.
All of us who ride owe a huge debt to them. They’re not perfect and neither are we. But they put up with us at our lowest ebbs, keep us fit, carry us at breakneck speeds, teach us compassion and patience; and most importantly they force us to be honest. And if that isn’t healthy, then I don’t know what is.
Surrey-based event rider, Hugh Train, is one of the youngest to achieve the Level 5 Performance Coach in Complete Horsemanship. He is a Centre 10 Sports Psychology Coach which gives him a unique empathetic perspective to his rider training in Surrey and surrounding counties. www.hughtrainequine.co.uk
One of the phrases you hear as a coach that sets alarm bells ringing is: ‘We bought a youngster so that they could learn and grow together.’ It’s rarely the experienced parent who says this. It’s usually a less ‘horsey’ parent who hasn’t fully understood the difficulties in bringing on a young horse. These are some of the people most in need of support within our industry. And frequently – through no real fault of their own – they are the ones who find that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew in an attempt to do right by their child.
The older I’ve become and the more experience I’ve gained, the more I’ve become fairly sure of the fact that young horses and young humans just don’t mix very well. In many ways this is because they’re too alike. They’re both highly energetic, capable of massive mood swings, low attention spanned, gregarious, occasionally rude and highly impressionable. A worrying enough list to contend with for human children, but young horses have the added complexity that they’re hundreds of kilograms heavier and unable to speak our language or be reasoned with.
I had a four-year-old when I was in my early teens. I loved Holly; she was a sweetheart on the ground, brave as anything and we taught each other a lot. But those positive experiences were interspersed with moments of utter frustration, confusion and despair for both her and me. It’s important to stress that this was neither of our faults, it wasn’t my fault that she didn’t really know what she was doing and it wasn’t her fault that I was fairly clueless as well. But despite the lack of culpability, in many ways, I feel we held each other back.
I’m still young enough to remember just how awful being a teenager was at times. Although it’s probably hard to believe (as I’m charm personified nowadays) I was pretty vile in my teens. I was incredibly moody, quite unhappy and generally a bit grim to be around a lot of the time. I didn’t mean to be awful and objectionable, but the hormones coursing through my veins left me with little choice.
Puberty is awful enough when you’re going through it yourself, without having to contend with the fact that the 600kg of sentient flesh you’re riding is going through a similar process. No matter how supportive you are and how competent you perceive your teenager to be, this is almost certain to lead to clashes between the pair of them. In these situations you want a more experienced horse that’ll just roll its eyes and put up with them being a bit teenage for a bit. Rather than a horse that’s going to overreact to the emotional whims of the rider.
Notwithstanding the difficulties for teenagers, young horses present a massive challenge to pre-teen riders as well. Young horses need boundaries and discipline in the same way that all young animals do. And a lot of the time kids aren’t physically or mentally equipped to enforce those boundaries effectively. This issue is then compounded by the fact that often kids don’t even know where those boundaries precisely lie themselves.
It’s only over the last couple of years that I have felt equipped to really bring a couple of young horses on. Producing my current two youngsters Jazzy and Boo has predominantly been a huge amount of fun. However, I’ve needed plenty of help and there have still been moments when we’ve ever so slightly lost the plot. In these moments it’s a toss up as to whether you need to come down hard on them or instead to just sit tight and wait for it to blow over. I definitely don’t get it right every time, but I get it right a whole lot more than I did when I was fourteen. I make fewer rash decisions and in general react appropriately, rather than losing my cool, something that you’re far more likely to be equipped to do as an adult rather than a child.
To put it plainly, inexperienced riders learn the ropes from experienced horses and vice versa.
What can we do to help young riders who do end up with young horses?
1) Coach and support without judgment: When we perceive somebody to have made a poor decision it’s very easy to fall into the trap of being overly judgmental and negative. Before the decision has been made is the time to offer a firm opinion as to whether something is sensible course of action. However, once the decision has been made it is up to us as more experienced people within the equine community to help others to the best of our ability. Not to heap opprobrium on them for what we perceive to have been a poor decision. This is more likely to cause them to draw in on themselves and isolate themselves from help at a time when they are most in need of it.
2) If you’re going to have a young horse then you need to create a structured environment for the child and horse: Making a success of a young horse and young rider partnership is contingent upon placing them in an environment where they are not solely responsible for the horse’s education and development. There is a reason that established experts in bringing on young horses exist: because it is exceptionally challenging and requires a huge amount of experience, time and patience. Being situated on a yard that’s run in an organised and professional manner is essential. If the person who runs the yard has experience bringing on young horses then that is an added bonus. However, at a minimum one should be looking to provide any young partnership with an experienced coach or mentor to give regular assistance and advice. This will help keep both the horse’s and child’s education and enjoyment on track and steer them back on course if things start to go awry.
3) Be realistic about how quickly success can be achieved. Even exceptionally naturally talented young horses will have ‘whoopsie’ moments where things don’t go according to plan. Ensuring that realistic targets and goals are set for a young pairing is crucial to keep them flourishing. They need to be able to enjoy the journey as well as the destination or else they will run the risk of feeling disheartened when comparing their achievements to riders on more experienced horses.
I really love my horses. I’m not yet at the point in my life where I have kids, but I imagine having a horse is a bit like having a child. Both rely on you for love, sustenance and education, however, from where I’m standing horses seem superior. They can’t talk and they’re strong enough to carry you on their backs, run at high speeds and jump obstacles – but maybe I’ll come to think differently somewhere down the line.
I think the fact that we have an emotional bond with our sporting equipment adds an extra layer of complexity to riding. A cricketer or tennis player might love a bat or racket that they’re playing with. They may even feel that it’s the secret to their success. But they don’t have a relationship with it. If they were to break or damage it, whilst frustrating, it isn’t unique or irreplaceable. A closer comparison might be a musician and a prize instrument, but even then, unique instruments don’t have feelings. Playing a Stradivarius badly will only make you (and your audience) feel terrible, rather than cause the instrument pain or distress.
I’m unbelievably lucky at the moment. Alongside my more established mare Iris II (Nellie) I’m working with two wonderful young horses bred by the Jesmond Stud, 6YO Jesmond Jasmine (Jazzy) and 5YO Jesmond Shakala (Boo). Producing these two youngsters has been a massively enriching experience for me. They’re – mostly! – brilliant to work with and endlessly funny. Like all young animals they’re constantly learning, changing and developing, which provides new challenges and rewards every time that you ride.
Outside of Jazzy’s occasional stratospheric bucks and Boo’s recent obsession with her new 12.2hh boyfriend Fang, the biggest learning curve for me has been the fact that they genuinely trust me.
Up until my early twenties I’d predominantly ridden horses that had been around the block a bit – or around the block a few times in the case of a couple of them! With that age comes a bit of canniness and a slight withholding of implicit trust. Murphy who I rode throughout my teenage years and my first pony Joe had both had owners before me and seen human fallibility first-hand. Predominantly they took my direction on board. However, if, for example, I put them to a fence on an abysmal line with insufficient canter then they reserved the right to say to me ‘no mate that’s a terrible idea,’ to take ownership and stop or duck out. Crap at the time, but a necessary learning experience.
This changed a bit with Nellie. She was nine when I got her and had been produced by a more experienced rider than me. If I put her to a fence on a terrible line with insufficient power she would still say ‘no mate that’s a terrible idea, but let’s do this instead’ and find a way of bailing me out. At least until her goodwill was used up and I had to upskill, and we had to rebuild our trust again.
Jazzy and Boo take this a step further. Their inexperience coupled with their willingness means that if I make a mistake then they say to me ‘I’ve not really got any idea what’s going on, but you’re great and you feed me. So, I’ll have a go!’ even when they have no right to.
I’ve had a couple of moments like that in competition with the young ones recently. Moments when there was a little mistake that led to a negative experience for both of us. Both physically over the fence and subsequently as I’ve felt that I’ve let one of my horses down.
Learning to progress past the feelings of guilt when I’ve made a mistake has been a real challenge for me over the past few months.
How can we come to terms with feelings of guilt about imperfect riding and its repercussions for our horses?
Whilst riding we need to accept that sometimes things will go wrong. Even when you think you’ve nailed it with a young horse – or any horse for that matter – sometimes things will still go awry. There will be whoops-a-daisy moment when you or your horse misjudges a fence or distance and you have to struggle to get to the other side. Beating yourself up for every mistake that occurs in training or competition isn’t emotionally sustainable and so acceptance of you and your horse’s imperfections is crucial.
It’s a case of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m a perfectionist. I’m currently engaged in a personal battle to accept that sometimes good riding isn’t perfect riding. This sport is difficult because tiny errors can very quickly turn into big problems. A missed half halt or touch with the leg can be the difference between a perfect spot and an impossible spot. But whatever you’re on, it’s often more about being effective and committed than perfect.
Horses look to you for confidence and for validation that they’re doing the right thing, rather than perfection. A lot of the time they don’t know what a perfect stride is either. Gibbering and freezing – a personal speciality of mine – when you can’t see a spot leeches away the horse’s confidence and fills them with doubt, thus compounding the original error. Accepting occasional moments of imperfection and riding positively regardless is paramount. So long as you’re making decisions your horse will feed off your conviction and keep trying for you.
It’s also important to remember that it’s never as bad as you think it is. We’ve all had jumps that feel catastrophic at the time, either you’ve buried your horse so deep that the fence may as well be your tombstone, or you’ve taken off about ten metres too early. You’ll have come out of the ring and asked the people watching about that particular fence and often they don’t have the faintest idea which one you’re talking about. Mistakes feel worse when you’re the one making them and experiencing them.
Getting somebody to record your riding is a good way of re-evaluating and processing these situations. Upon watching you’ll either be pleasantly surprised at how it looks; or even if it is a total horror show, then having it on film makes it easier to break down mistakes into their constituent parts and figure out a plan for how to move forwards.
Whilst watching Liverpool cruise their way to a well-deserved 6th Champions League Title a couple of Saturdays ago, I heard the Gambleaware slogan ‘when the fun stops, stop’ endlessly during the advert breaks. On the surface it’s a trite phrase that grossly oversimplifies how easy it is to break an addictive pattern of behaviour. However, I think that the sentiment has an application to some people in the horse world.
Riding is in that strange category of high-octane sport alongside things like free-climbing or big-wave surfing where it isn’t irrational to find it quite scary at times. The fear (but also a lot of the excitement!) arises from the fact that these sports are legitimately dangerous at times.
We have all at one point or another experienced fear whilst riding. For some people that might have come when you asked for canter for the first time and for others it might only have come when you were jumping your first 1.50m. But we’ve all felt it.
In high-risk sports we’re looking to enter a state of ‘managed fear’ whilst engaging in them. In riding this would be the point where confidence in your own and your horse’s ability overrides the fear of the inherent risk of the situation. When these variables are balanced, riding is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. When they aren’t it can quite quickly turn into one of the most unpleasant – I don’t know about anybody else, but I certainly still have traumatic memories of being tanked off with by first pony etched into my mind.
Most people who ride do it solely for personal satisfaction and for fun. There isn’t a financial incentive that helps them to get on their horse. In fact, usually they’re paying distressingly large sums of money for the privilege. And so enjoyment has to be paramount in the minds of these riders.
Which is why as a coach I find it genuinely sad to find people as I go around who aren’t having fun. They’re nervous to the point of feeling nauseous and can barely function on top of their horse.
The most amazing – or baffling depending on your perspective – thing about these riders is the fact that they keep going. They keep trying to ride. On the one hand this is inspirational. The desire to graft and succeed at their sport is admirable. However, as Albert Einstein said: ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’
So what do we do in this situation? Well I believe we have to swallow Gambleaware’s bitter pill and stop.
Now by that I don’t mean: hang up your boots, sell your saddle and never darken your horse’s stable door again. Instead, I think sometimes you need to stop trying to force yourself to feel better. And instead, ask yourself why is it not feeling better? Why am I still not enjoying this?
Only by having a frank and honest conversation with yourself or your coach (who I guarantee will only be too happy to have it with you) can you start to put together a plan about how to move forwards.
I mentioned in a previous blog how I’d ended up in a situation similar to this a few years ago after I’d had a fall at Brightling. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, but it shook my confidence in my own ability badly. I’m very much a confidence dependent rider and this knock meant that my finely balanced ability/fear ratio had gone seriously awry. As a consequence, my results started to rapidly deteriorate. Rather than confront the issue I kept trying to bludgeon my way through this awful patch in my own riding with fairly dismal results. All I succeeded in doing was falling off a couple more times and damaging my own horse’s confidence.
I probably would have continued in this vein if I hadn’t had an enforced stop when the event season came to an end. But this stop meant that I had to reflect on what was going wrong. I realised I lacked real clarity, structure and direction within my own training and competing. The fall itself might have been less of an issue if these things had been in place. However, instead it highlighted the lack of a framework to fall back on when things went wrong.
Thus, I made a wholesale change to the way that I trained. I streamlined the number of coaches I used and started to take my training and competing much more seriously.
I wish I could now say that stopping and reflecting cured me of my nerves, but unfortunately life isn’t that simple. To this day you can still catch sight of me at events looking a bit wide-eyed and pallid. However, the alteration to my approach gave me the impetus to move forwards, rather than bashing my head against a brick wall in the hope that it would break before I did.
Factors to consider if you’re no longer having fun: