Riding and the ‘R-Factor’

Photo courtesy of Sara Doyon.

Photo courtesy of Sara Doyon.

It isn’t often that a corporate seminar you’re forced to attend as part of your day job actually ends up applying more to your life outside work than it does at the office. Recently, as part of my job at one in a large chain of veterinary hospitals, I was required to attend a training session about some mysterious corporate voodoo called the “R-Factor.”

Being the inherently skeptical person I am, I rolled my eyes as I signed up for my session (and even a little as I was in the training). However, something about the R-factor has nagged at my brain since the training, and I recently realized why: it is all perfectly, 100%, unbelievably accurate and applicable to life as an equestrian.

I won’t go into exhaustive detail about the R-Factor, except to say that the “R” stands for reaction — that is, your reaction to a given event. This event could be minor (you have a less-than-stellar ride one day) or major (your horse blows a suspensory and needs months off during the most important competition season of your career). The idea is that you have no control over the actual event, but you have complete control of your reaction to it.

This control is such a critical part of being a good rider. Think about it: when William Fox-Pitt has a problem on course, does he allow himself to get flustered? Or does he quickly evaluate the situation and react to minimize the problem? Decidedly the latter.

While most of us are admittedly not as in control as William Fox-Pitt, this is still a skill we should strive to emulate and cultivate. Personally, I find that this has been relevant for me since I bought my first green horse in September. I went from riding a Training schoolmaster to an OTTB who’d been off of the track for a year.

Charleston, my new guy, has been a completely different experience. He’d had a year of let down and sporadic retraining, so he was able to steer, stop, and trot a basic course of jumps — not at all what I was used to! He’s already progressed so much, but I have found myself dealing with anxiety, spookiness and inexperience that I’ve never felt before.

What I’ve found is that my reaction to these things is what makes or breaks a given training session. If I counter his anxiety with tenseness and worry, we both become increasingly frazzled and it is difficult for him to have any kind of positive experience. However, if I respond to his anxiety by working on dressage to give him something to focus on, he softens and quiets; then we are able to keep his experiences good.

This skill applies not only in the small picture sense (reacting to spooks, silliness, etc.), but also in the big picture. One of the best examples I can recall is an upper-level eventer whose horse had an injury which sidelined him for months. He was on stall rest, and she was stuck with no big horse to compete.

I remember reading that she had made the conscious decision to use his time off productively rather than just pouting about it, and she did just that — she used those months to network and obtain sponsorships, one of which was from the company that made the bedding she used for his stall! It’s not easy to control the urge to whine and complain about things, and it’s fine to set aside some time to feel sorry for yourself, but too much of that is not only unproductive but depressing.

It’s commonly said that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react, and I think as equestrians this definitely rings true. We ride half-ton flight animals at speed over obstacles — control over everything is just statistically impossible and our reaction to problems is critical.

While no one is ever going to have perfect control over their R-factor, it is something that we can always work to improve upon. This also obviously doesn’t mean that we don’t try to set ourselves up for success whenever possible, but just that we react well when things don’t go accordingly. It’s a tough skill to master, but it can make all the difference –and you will get further not only with your horse but also in life when you can maximize your R-factor.