Mental Focus Means Not Trying Too Hard

wm-grace-eye

My friend and I took yoga while we were in high school. It was 1971 or so, and I can’t remember if the group met in a church basement or at the “Y”, but I will never forget my red leotard. It had long sleeves and was a garish scarlet color, with matching semi-transparent tights–think Red Snapper–the fish.

The class began, we were asked to close our eyes, and take some deep breaths. I didn’t bother because trying to breathe made my chest tight, so I squinted my eyes open just enough to critically compare myself to everyone around me. As the class continued, I evaluated my limberness, strained muscles pushing for the most extreme position in each pose, and all  the while squinting to see who was watching me. It wasn’t because I thought I was so good; it was the exact opposite. When it was time for savasana, that meditative time at the end, I fell immediately asleep. It was probably due to a lack of oxygen and relentlessly judging myself.

My keen ability to let my mind run like a rat-on-a-wheel was even less helpful when I began riding seriously–something I had actual passion about. It was the biggest change I had to make to partner with a horse. I get reminded of my Time of Red Leotards sometimes when I’m giving riding lessons. Can we even tell when we’re trying too hard?

You climb on your horse, and with great diligence, pick up the reins, clamp your body into a position, and set our jaw for the work at hand. The horse takes the cue and does the same. Then, you set about correcting every answer your horse offers for the next hour because you want to be really good at this.

It degenerates to a rat-on-a-wheel death spiral: The worse it goes, the harder you try; the harder you try the worse it goes. About now, you hear a Neanderthal voice in your head saying, “You can’t give in and let your horse win. He will never respect you again; he will be ruined.” Because you have passion and it feels true that riding is about the hardest thing in the world, you double down, choking on loud emotions, and ride harder. Things don’t improve but you clutch desperately because you think you’re being tough.

The most common trait I see in clients who want to improve their riding is a misunderstanding about what it means to be focused in the saddle; to be mentally strong.

And have you checked in with this horse through this? He’s the one who actually decides what good riding is, after all. Beneath appearances, he is the one who knows who you are–a mess.  And as kind as he may be, he won’t give you the benefit of the doubt forever.

Still, there you two are; you’ve wrestled him into a hole by trying too hard. With good intentions, trying to get it right, but your horse is tense. Is he belligerent, or confused, or does it even matter? Now what?

Is it too late to remind you that the first runaway is usually the one inside your own head? Because riding isn’t about putting up a huge fight; it’s about having the mental control NOT to. It’s about behaving like a leader instead of a petulant child in the saddle. Do not take the bait. As tempting as it is to throw a fit, don’t lose control of what matters to your horse.

“There is one principle that should never be abandoned when training a horse, namely, that the rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation.” –Alois Podhajsky, 1965

BE STILL.

Start by breathing deep and letting him hear you exhale. He might not mimic you on the first try, so in a clear soft voice, say “Good boy.” Not because he is being good right now; throw it to him like a lifeline in the ocean of confusion. Then slack some rein, ask for something simple, like a step forward, and reward him for that. Not because it’s a complicated task, but because you want to remind him that you are capable of not complaining about everything he does. The priority here is to change the tendency of behavior. Yours.

Mental strength, or the ability to focus, is at the very core of who we are as riders, at any level. It sounds counter intuitive but in order to become a more advanced rider, you have to find a way to do less, do it sooner, smaller, and confidently. In other words, you have to behave as if you have character.

If we become blinded by the goal; if a task–like cantering exactly at a certain letter, or doing a certain obstacle–becomes more important than our connection with our horse, we lose sight of who we are and our character suffers. That’s the moment a horse loses trust in his rider. And they are right to do it. How is a rider being distracted by a task any different than your doctor answering his cell phone during your surgery?

It begins here: Ask your brain to think less and feel more. It will take discipline to train your mind in the beginning. Humans are burdened with self-awareness; the place where our egos live. It’s our nature to over-think; it isn’t a crime. But if you’re on a horse at the time, it creates a separation. It’s selfish.

So start again, embrace this new moment. Bring yourself back to stillness within his movement. Be calm and receptive. Have the strength to not jump to conclusions, to not react with emotion, but rather respond with acceptance, keeping your body soft and your cues small. Patiently maintain a quiet mental place, free of anxiety, where you can feel your horse and he can come to trust you. This mental place is the only part of riding that you will ever be capable of controlling. The good news is that it’s all the control you’ll need.

Riding technique is necessary, but it isn’t enough. Horses respond to our character first. Our temperament matters most. It’s their nature to seek a leader who makes them feel safe. The other word for that is respect.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Book Release; stay tuned later this month. Barn Dance will be available at all online dealers.

 

 

Photo Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without…

 wm-run-chaos

bucking tradition:

when seasonal words don’t fit
when obligation overwhelms desire
when some mourn or have none or do not
when the music rings hollow

it’s all right
to say no thank you

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)

It’s Not This Time of Year Without…

It’s time for the annual reminder: Our most visible holiday tradition might be stress. Please kindly remember that not everyone loves this season; not everyone celebrates it.

A Word from My Publicist (Cover Reveal)

Anna Blake: The Print Version.

pr-barn-dance-cover-ebook

My name is Edgar Rice Burro. I’m the publicist for Prairie Moon Press. I got the job because I have the loudest voice, and I’m not afraid to use it. Also, I’m not afraid to tell humans what to do. I’m helpful that way. 

***

I am the human and I used to think I had a thin veneer of control on this farm. I might have been exaggerating.

***

My human finally took my advice and put my handsome face on a book cover. She’s slow on the uptake, but she gives a good ear rub, so I’m patient with her. This book will sell like cold carrots on a hot day.

***

I do the hard jobs for Prairie Moon Press. I wrote the book, for instance. I paid for everything. He just came in at the end and brayed about it. Like it was all his idea. Okay…

View original post 240 more words

Thankful for You.

thanks-2

 

I’m doing something different today, in the spirit of Thanksgiving. When I started my blog, almost eight years ago now, I had a nebulous thought. It was inane, and simplistic, and lacked any kind of forward-thinking plan. And it was personal.

I wanted to help horses, simply because they have helped me.

You have to love a plan so huge and formless that there seems no way to start it, but that one-step-at-a-time method works, if pursued with a mule-like tenacity. At the same time, it occurred to me that I was a forced reader (a trainer’s responsibility to stay informed) of horse articles and books. They were textbook-dry sometimes. To get my word out meant that my writing had to improve, in order for readers to want to read. So that just made my nebulous plan larger and more complicated, and of course, those two condiments–time rich and income poor. Can I just affirm that even now I have no idea what I’m doing?

Then this started to happen:

I wanted to reach out to you and thank you profoundly for your insight. I just finished reading your book, “Relaxed and Forward” and it has transformed my ride. Like most of us DQs I was bitten by ambition and desire to get the perfect dressage horse, push through the levels, impress the judges and my dressagy friends with the beauty of our team work. Well that didn’t work. I internalized the persistent cry from trainers and friends for “more, more, more” as push, push, push, kick, kick, kick, pull, pull, pull, grunt, grunt, grunt. I manhandled and worked way too hard. I knew I was the one who needed to change but I didn’t know how. Now with a fresh perspective I have decided to get over myself and listen to my horse, to reward the smallest try with lavish praise and avoid the resistence by refusing to pull or manhandle. After 3 rides with this intention my horse has relaxed, opened up with forward flowing energy and his eye is happy and sweet at the end of the ride. Instead of pulling I have re-trained myself to release unabashedly no matter what my brain tells me and he is thoroughly appreciative of this new woman on his back! I have bookmarked many pages and will refer to them often for fortitude and inspiration to continue this path. I believe Winter, my lovely horse would like to say thanks to you as well. I think we can go as far as we want if we continue on this path. Like most of us I’ve read a jillion equestrian books, magazine articles, and watched countless videos. The only one to transform my ride was your work. So thank you from the bottom of my heart and from the lovely, strong amazing horse I am privileged to love and ride.

PS Just had to share one more thing! A barn mate gave me a totally unsolicited comment on my ride today and said, “wow, your horse looked really relaxed and forward today!” Omg! Have not had any conversation with her about reading your book or making changes in my ride. Pure joy!

This note came from a reader recently; to say it sent me sailing would be an understatement. I end up writing thank-you notes for thank-you notes.

It’s the thing I never expected, that overwhelms me on my tiny farm, and I’m dwarfed by your hearts. I struggle with how to say this… it isn’t about me at all. It’s all about you and your horses. I get more messages like this than I deserve, and each time, they lift me up.

Reading the blog comments every week has kept me writing. I don’t struggle with writer’s block because of your encouragement. So yes, it’s really you, Reader, who is responsible for my writing. And it’s me who is grateful for this extended barn family we’ve created here. It’s been a rough year for a lot of us, but coming together here with horse friends has been a sweet balm. At times like this, words do fail me.

Thank you kindly.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Magic

wm-bw-sibling-shadow

Not other than here.
Not other than now.
Not other than normal.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)

Magic

The Passion to Punish

wm-moose

First, last, and always, this is the truth about communication with animals: Punishment is the lowest form of expression.

A photo of this foster dog snuck out and a couple folks asked me about him. Okay, I’ll tell you, but if you’re expecting one of my clever posts about Corgi hijinks, you’ll be disappointed. This biggest feeling I have about this dog is that I’m mad. Really mad.

I don’t write about all the animals we foster here. A couple of months ago, Jack, a Corgi-Jack Russell cross, was here for a foster/evaluation visit. He was a riot. I’m not sure why he was relinquished, but he was a dog’s dog. Maybe his owners wanted a people-dog. I suppose depending on how you see things, his problem could have been his “bad” half. He was the personification of both breeds, loud and proud.

A great dog-woman adopted him and they are busy living happily ever after. She keeps me posted on the battle to see who gets under the covers first. It was a simple foster to a happy ending. They should all be this easy.

This new white-bellied foster dog isn’t so easy. See how cute he is when he’s nearly napping? He came to rescue with his shock collar and his meds; he’s on canine Prozac. Oh, and he’s just thirteen months old.

His owners were first-time dog owners. I think they did their best but got the very worst advice available. As much as it pains me to talk badly about an animal, this pup has a list of problems that are destructive, or scary, or both. The fancy term is resource guarding, but it’s complicated. He isn’t just quirky. He’s a mess. And still very cute belly-up.

He went to an obedience class. The pup sits and shakes and goes in his crate. But somehow while learning tricks, the conversation must have changed, because someone thought a shock collar was a good idea. Who uses a shock collar on a puppy?

This is what Lara, from the positive dog training blog, Rubicon Days, has this to say about shock collars: “The argument is not that they are not or cannot be effective. The argument is that the potential fallouts of training with these devices can be increased aggression, shutting down, and confused associations. Aside from not wanting to deliberately hurt or scare my dogs, these risks are too great.” 

And if that wasn’t enough, what kind of vet prescribes Prozac for a puppy? A Corgi puppy? Does that qualify as an oxymoron? I remember back in the day that people used Prozac as a murder defense, claiming aggression was a side effect. Did he even weigh twenty pounds?

***Cue the Rant***

Most days, I want to scream at the top of my lungs, “Stop taking advice from idiots!”

(Remember me? I’m the one who always recommends that people ask for help. As if there was an easy way to spot idiots–even professional idiots. At the same time, when I hear people say that all trainers are idiots and I want to raise my hand and say, “not me.” Like any trainer would admit to being an idiot, even if they were. It’s a dilemma.)

The first day, this little foster destroyed a couple of toys, stole most of my socks, unloaded some shelves, and shredded a cardboard box into small bits. He’s frantic out of his crate, but he’s been crated so much I want to give him a chance. He has no recall and he wanted to play with the other dogs so hard that he pushed them relentlessly. Now they don’t like him much.

Then he ate one of my Crocs. A few minutes later, he got another Croc. I think you know what that means to me…. I looked at him and he stopped chewing. He sat dead still, his brow furrowed, braced for something bad. I still haven’t made a peep, but he’s worried and puts his head in a corner. How many people have failed this dog in his short life? That’s what I’m mad about. Not him.

So, for now, this little guy is in detox. His meds certainly weren’t helping. He’s still waiting for that sting that makes his head want to explode, but it isn’t going to come. Sometimes he flashes his temper and starts a fight. Then he falls asleep with his pasty white belly as vulnerable as a baby. Sometimes he won’t let me touch his neck. He’s afraid of flyswatters. Other times he crawls into my chair and lays his big, flat head on my chest and looks into my eyes.

Right now, my plan is to let him breathe. He needs time. I called a moratorium on punishment. He’s had enough discipline for a lifetime. Instead, he gets to chew sticks in the yard and I hid my shoes. Sometimes, he comes now, if you say good boy first.

As concerned as I am for him, I might be more concerned for us. Are we so intolerant that we have to legitimize torture for puppies? It’s profanity; dogs are our best animal friends. If humans truly have a passion for punishment, then it’s us that need to learn to get along.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
I recommend a book a friend wrote: Bark and Lunge, by Kari Neumeyer. It’s the story a reactive dog whose loving owner looks for help in all the wrong places.

Photo Challenge: Tiny

wm-run-tiny

That tiny instant just after the thrust,
the silence of soaring with hooves thundering below.

That tiny instant gives lift to dusk moments,
untold dark memories that feel less than free.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)

Tiny