Relax…and that’s an order!

This topic came up in our comments. Many of us nervous riders have heard the instruction from a trainer to “RELAX.” Unfortunately, much like the advice “THINK POSITIVELY!” that is easier said than done. How do you relax when you’re obsessing over the 1,000,000 things that could go wrong, how badly you got hurt the last time something went wrong, or how you’re going to get hurt, not be able to work, not pay the mortgage/rent, wind up homeless and your horse will go to the slaughterhouse? Hey, I am not exaggerating, I know we have these thoughts and even more extreme ones!

So here’s my advice, something I figured out back in the days when I was teaching riding (and, ironically, specializing in helping nervous/scared riders). Nobody knows how to consciously relax. What it is really about is allowing your body to act as a shock absorber for the horse’s gaits. For example, a lot of you lock your knee and ankle into place in the “proper” position and try to hold it there. The problem with this is, while it looks lovely at a standstill, at any gait faster than a walk, you’ve killed your ability to absorb shock and move with the horse. When the horse gets a little fast, your braced, locked leg position makes you bounce – particularly at a sitting trot or canter. Your bouncing pisses off the horse and he goes faster. You bounce more. You do not know why it feels so awful and out of control. After all – your heels are down. Your toe is directly under your knee. You are sitting up straight. Why are you in imminent danger of eating dirt?

Here’s how you fix this. If necessary, get someone to lead/longe the horse for you. Take your feet out of the stirrups. Out. Walk the horse, feel the horse’s motion and try to just follow it with your seat bones. You cannot use your stirrups for this exercise – you have to have your weight in your butt. Now step it up to a slow sitting trot and try to keep following the motion. This is best accomplished on a horse with a true western jog. Borrow one if necessary. You will feel when you have it right – when you are relaxed and following the horse’s movements. Now you can take your stirrups back but I want you to think of them as nothing more than a footrest. Imagine they are made of something delicate and if you press on them, they will break.

If you have to exaggerate at first and slouch a bit, that’s ok. Think of your back like a noodle. Everything in your body is absorbing the shock of the horse’s movements. Watch the Halfpassgal video. That girl has a loose back. She can sit a big warmblood trot because her back is totally loose. Now, she IS like 20 or something. Is it a hell of a lot harder to have a loose back at 40 or 50? OH HELL, YES! However, as with anything, it can be done. Practice at slower speeds until it feels right.

Once you do relax your joints, you will be amazed at how much easier everything becomes. Another joint that people like to lock is the elbow. This completely impairs your ability to have good hands and follow the horse. Your elbows are hinges and must operate like well oiled hinges. Elbows, ankles, knees, hips – all hinges that must open and close as you ride. Any time you lock a joint as a response to being nervous or unsure, you’re impairing your ability to ride and annoying the horse.

For literally YEARS I was told to “stop pumping” at the canter. Well, I honestly didn’t know how. I have always had a good feel for the horse’s mouth, but because no one had EVER explained the concept of my elbows and hips needing to open and close, I followed the horse’s mouth by following it with my whole upper body. NO ONE ever explained this to me effectively. (Boy did I pay for a lot of BAD instruction. Bet a lot of you did, too!). I actually figured it out for myself watching a friend ride who was an extremely good rider and always won equitation while I was at the bottom of the class. I noticed how, as she cantered, her hips moved forward and back underneath her upper body and her elbows opened and closed, so that she was able to sit upright and yet maintain perfect contact with the horse’s mouth. It was a lightbulb moment. Several years after this realization, I beat her in an equitation class. Boy, that was a good feeling, but I could have fixed this fault many, many years earlier.

So many trainers are amazing riders but they cannot explain things and they make these statements that the student has no ability to understand. I have heard trainers shriek things like “close your angles!” at six year olds. WTF, dude. It’s a six year old. You need to use six year old friendly terms. You compare stiff body parts to noodles and you pull up on the button on top of their hunt cap (shoot, they don’t have those anymore, do they?) to show them what straight feels like. I will never be a superstar rider – my collection of open show trophies is probably as far as I am ever gonna go (I will be watching from the stands with a cold beer and a happy drunken smile on my face when the VLC shows) – but I will say that I can explain better than a lot of the BNT’s I’ve seen. (I often think a lot of that comes from NOT being a “natural rider.” If riding comes easy for you, it is just not as easy to explain how to do it as if you went through the same struggles and challenges as your students.)

All right, I hope that helped someone. I also think music as you ride is a must. There really is nothing wrong with riding with an ipod as long as you’re not so cranked up that you’re unaware of what is going on around you, or if you’re along at home, pull out the boom box. Music DOES calm and distract you and it’s easy to do things like say “I am going to posting trot for the duration of this really great song with a beat that I love.” You can make playlists of whatever works for you. Make it as cheesy as you want, nobody else is listening! I have TONS of old disco and dance and 80’s hits on mine. I defy ANY of you to slow down and walk while listening to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Just try it. I’ll bet you trot no matter how scared you are!

(Suggestion for other relaxation tactics AND for music you just HAVE to keep riding to are welcomed!)

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Published in: on May 13, 2008 at 3:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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