A Few Thoughts on Overthinking

Photo courtesy of Laura Harris.

I have an undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts. That means I overthink and overanalyze … everything. Sometimes, this can be a bad thing, such as inflating anxiety, but other times it can be a boon. I record a majority of my rides so I can go back and see if what I was feeling matched what I thought I was producing. I am hyper-self-critical but it is an acute personality quirk that I am able to spin into use. Less useful quirks include an aversion to cilantro, revolted by most pink things, and inability to style my hair no matter how much YouTube I watch. In other words, I have one-track mind and there’s a pony running it.

But this ability to chew myself up and spit on the bones lets me know what I need to work on going forward. I don’t have a standing weekly lesson or a monthly show opportunity. I have me and my hamster-on-a-wheel brain. And, of course, family and friends whom I bombard with cute helicopter-mom shots of my horses. I read books, forums, blogs, and more to open my mind up to different ideas, entertain an idea without accepting it as Aristotle suggests. But in the end, I have to separate the chaff.

My self-critique isn’t mean, or needlessly cruel, rather precise and contemplative, leaning more to analysis on process and theory. To truly better myself, I remain unemotional. It isn’t, ‘EGADS! My butt looks big in those breeches!’ but more ‘hmmm, I hollowed out my lower back, better get back to the gym and work on that core,’ or ‘leaning!,’  or ‘hands are too high/low … Look what that did to the contact!’ I then tend to think about why I might have done this egregious action, where a weakness might be in my understanding, timing, or feel, and what can I do going forward.

It is very easy to take a straightforward comment, such as ‘your hands are too high’ and just shove them down. To correct in haste and miss the reason. When I ride, I pay attention to more than the superficial; I like to think about the why. I try to teach this as well. Bill Steinkraus wrote about how he used to spend his long drives thinking about what he was going to work on for the upcoming ride, and then the drive home reviewing what had happened. This helped create what he calls “rational riding.” To begin, it is easier to do something if you know what, why, and how you are trying to do something. Be clear, be simple, be concise. What are your trying to do? Why are you trying to do it? How are you doing it and how is it to accomplish what you are trying to do? Breaking riding into these questions or steps can help clarify purpose and effect. Eating that elephant is easier in bites.

As a kid, I never would have called myself a ‘thinking rider.’ In fact, one long-time friend reminded me, whilst listening to her daughter and I talking in the back seat, I asked my friend, ‘what do you think about on course?’ My friend answered with the obvious answer, ‘the course.’ Eccentric me replied with what I thought about: random stuff, such as clouds, or colors, or animals. I was odd … I am odd. But I didn’t think about my riding back when I was little because I was told what to do. I would do it. I’ve since overanalyzed realized that it was because I filtered my instruction through my feel. I wouldn’t say I was taught or encouraged to be a rider based off of feel either, but I was naturally analytical enough to catch what was rewarded contrasted to what was corrected. I would take a ‘feel snapshot’ and memorize it. My heel down and the stirrup on the ball of my foot just so. My elbows bent at just this angle. I listened to other people’s corrections. I’d watch my friends’ lessons. I still absorb whatever wherever and whenever I can.

When I went to the Yorkshire Riding Centre, I learned to not just looking like I was doing the correct thing, but to really think about the effectiveness of what I did. It doesn’t matter if your heels are down if they are not serving the purpose of stabilizing you. It doesn’t matter if your leg is in the right place if you’re not using it. It is not enough to look the part, but one must do the part of a rider. Riding is an active verb. This change of culture broke me out of my memorized feel and made me begin to question more, what, why, when, how, where, why not, what not, when not, etc. I might not have started with a thinking ride, but I have learned to embrace it. Especially on course.

Besides self-critique, another way my brain chews on riding theory is by teaching. When I have to explain to someone how to do something or why, it makes me think more when I’m riding and pay attention to why I might have done something, whether instinctually or thoughtfully. It is not enough for me to declare “Tradition!” ala Fiddler on the Roof, and I don’t think it is enough for those whom I teach. Tradition has a why that must be remembered because sometimes that why gets lost in the midst of the ‘traditionaling.’ Suffice to say, I try to focus on the substance of an issue, not just the exterior.

Whether you struggle to get your brain into gear when you’re riding or you wish you could slow it down, there’s hope. I have run the gamut. My advice is this: life is hard enough, be kind to yourself. Being harsh or mean creates a false sense urgency to improve. If you want to improve, then look at the pieces individually and look how they work together. Ask why. Try some analysis, try to talk it out, try to think about it differently. The improvement is hard enough, there is no need to add excess external difficulties to it. Even if you’re competitive, which I eventually learned I am, or simply in it for the love, fun, and pursuit of knowledge, being methodical will always trump hurried. After all, we’ve all heard it: ‘hard work beats talent when talent won’t work hard.’