Riding with an Open, Focused Mind

We are delighted to welcome Eric Dierks as the newest guest writer on EN. Twice long-listed for the U.S. eventing team, Eric teaches, trains and competes out of his Renovatio Farm in Tryon, North Carolina. He is a strong advocate for education and blogs about his personal experiences on his website. Visit www.ericdierks.com and www.renovatiofarm.com to learn more about Eric.

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Ray Photo courtesy of Cheryl Ray

When you work from day to day, one can get caught up in the monotony of checking off the “to do’s” and not pay attention to the needs that surround you. The quality of life gets missed, and you find yourself in a rut of wanting to make a change but letting the fast track of everyone’s needs overtake you.

You become delusional that you will fit all your needs in one day, believing that tomorrow will be the day of change, only to find that you are repeating yourself, feeling lonely and in a state of despair. What does this have to do with horses? Where is your brain while riding your horse? Are you listening to your horse? Is your horse’s brain digesting what you are are trying to ask of him?

Or are you so caught up in the rest of your day that a recreational ride cannot be justified, and you wish your horse would just give you the picture that you would imagine at a show? Or are you so hungry for progress only to find yourself in frustration, repeating the same basics when venturing off to asking something outside the comfort zone?

When I teach and observe from the ring side, I can’t help but notice that most riders are mentally on some other agenda than the present — and some not even including the horse they are sitting on. The rider not riding in the present tense is so caught up in control or the one-dimensional picture that they stifle themselves from learning the components for a balanced picture.

I’ve seen riders going around aimlessly with the expression on their face wondering if they left the garage door open. The horse is wondering, “what to do?” “what do you want?” “why do want it?” and “are we almost done here?” I try to remind myself and others that the slowest part of your day should be on your horse. Even while leading in from the pasture or on the way to the mounting block to get on, ask yourself, “Is my horse with me … or is he just tolerating me?”

I challenge you to take a different perception with your horse today. When you arrive at the barn and make eye contact with your lovely equine partner, take a moment, without any other contact, and watch him. Stand outside his stall or paddock and see if you make eye contact.

Take a deep breath, count to 10 and ask yourself, “What would my horse say if he had a voice?” “What emotion does my horse have right now?” “Is he anxious, happy, excited, studious?” Take another deep breath. As you approach your horse, ask yourself the same questions. Take another conscious deep breath as you put a halter on and take another reading. Do the same while brushing and tacking.

Have you learned something more about your horse? Is your horse talking to you? Did you do anything to raise your horse’s anxiety level or change an emotion? Maybe repeat the process if he got nervous? Did your emotions change in the process? Are you connecting? Is your horse’s brain digesting what your brain wants? There are many training opportunities while just handling your horse; it makes those opportunities much more rewarding when watching the horse problem solve.

Of course, we all ride for a balanced picture, but does your horse know that? The most appealing picture in a field of riders is a harmonious one. There is a mutual respect between horse and rider. The rider has taken the time to teach the horse to come off of the aids and to balance for himself with respect to his anatomy and physiological make up.

The horse has respect for the rider’s aids and can differentiate one from the other while carrying himself and the rider’s center of gravity, and most importantly, with the desire to please. An aid may be your leg, seat, hands, body, etc. Training is really quite simple, as long as you have the patience to observe, acknowledge and know what you are looking for from your partner.

Keep an open mind and seek knowledge without emulating one person or method. There are more ways than one to skin a cat, just like there are many different sides of the horse to ride. There are many different types of people, just like there are different shaped horses. Try to think for yourself instead of mainstreaming the training into a commercialized method. No one way is idiot proof. You have to think for yourself.

If the result is not a harmonious, balanced picture, you are on the wrong track. Breaking down an exercise to a comprehensive level takes some intelligence. The need to slowly build the strength, coordination and mind set, along with the task at hand, takes time and discipline. I would do the same to a student as I would a horse.

Why would anyone ask a gymnast to do a backflip on a balance beam before learning to walk? Whether jumping a cross country obstacle or putting a horse into a high degree of collection like piaffe, horse and rider should achieve either one with ease and little effort.

So when you go out to the barn today and look at your horse, investment, teammate or pet, ask whether you are doing him justice. Take the time to search for what you want. Open your mind and learn how to achieve it. Enjoy the journey of getting to your personal goals. Realize there is no fast track to getting what you want. You will be doing yourself more justice by putting your equine partner first.