Work Smarter, Not Harder .


    As every Dressage rider knows , we tend to be perfectionists. The rest of the riding world watches scratching their heads as we practice endless circles of every conceivable size and are never satisfied with the roundness or the size or the something.

    How many times have we each pledged to ourselves that we will try harder, work harder, ride more , ride longer , take more clinics, take more lessons, read more books etc. ad infinitum?

   As I eagerly loaded my horse for the last clinic I took , I found I was more nervous than usual. This often means the ride is extremely important to me and that I know I am going to throw my mind and body into an all out effort , the energy required being truly daunting.

  While I warmed up I tried to think of everything I had ever learned and how I could improve on all of it.

   My thoughts on taking clinics are this: you research the clinician and believe you truly respect their work and approach. You pay your money, (more than you usually have ), leave yourself plenty of time to get ready and then when the clinician enters the ring you basically hand over your mind and body and give yourself up completely to the experience.There will be plenty of time for mulling over the details of the ride later.

  This time I could not have guessed what an epiphany would transpire!

  By the time the coach entered the arena I was already sweating. My horse was doing his best to cooperate with my very enthusiastic urgings by leg,seat and occasional stick for more, more, more impulsion, rythm, cadence, frame and everything I else I could huff and puff out of him.

  I awaited with trepidation the command to produce  far more of  it all. Imagine my surprise on hearing " you are working much too hard!"

  We came back to the walk and rather than push , grind ,pump or kick I was asked to touch my horse with my ankles lightly and to do so every three or four strides. a simple and gentle reminder to keep going with energy. It worked!

  As I was encouraged to keep up this light reminding I was asked to make my upper body as tall as possible. I stretched up through my abdominals and obliques. The taller I became, the lighter and softer my horse moved on,more freely and more supple with every movement. He became totally on my aids. I finally said "I can't ask lightly enough!"The more I sat up , stretched up through my whole upper body and let go through my thighs, knees , hips and seat, the more my horse let go in his jaw until he felt like satin, the lightest whisper of an aid gaining me more response than I'd ever had before.

   The clinician said to stay on purely by balance: no gripping , tensing , tightening or pinching. A state I thought I had acheived years ago but clearly this was an entirely new level of letting go. I was told I must be willing to trust my horse and my balance enough to be vulnerable. The odd thing is the more vulnerable I became , the less I protected any joints by closing them or tightening them  and the more secure I felt. It seemed the horse and I were one floating creature of ease and grace.Mind you , all these concepts are things I teach every day but on this day I learned  that knowing it is not doing it. All the tension we carry in our bodies day in and day out over issues too numerous to list in these busy times, go directly into our horses.Working harder and harder we increase this tension rather than release it. I could actually feel the joy in my horse! I could feel how happy he was to do his best at whatever I asked for. I could feel that so much of his stiffness was actually just a reflection of mine.

   When I finally gave up my need to control my horse's every step in the interest of trying to improve it, my horse was free of my endless nagging to share his bounce and swing and energy with me. What a gift he was giving me.

     After the ride I was truly in quite an altered state of awareness for several hours. I had given myself permission to let go, to make mistakes, to stop trying to make the pair of us look perfect  every stride.In that moment I had given my horse the chance to be truly submissive without having to deal with all the tension I had been sending him. I realized how very much he wanted to please me.

     I am still trying to recapture that moment. It is getting easier. I try to be in a freer state of mind when I go to ride. I have a training plan for the day but have become more flexible regarding what seems right in the moment. It is so hard for me not to work too hard. To let go in my seat , my neck, my shoulders and back...hips, thighs, knees and ankles.

   It has occured to me that little is said in life regards our posture. We drag ourselves here and there usually in a rush and seldom just savour the joy of movment. We get around the best we can  and don't pay much attention to tension being stored here and there in our bodies as we go.Our breathing can be rushed , our jaws clenched,our necks tight and stiff. How can we expect our horses to move loosely under such a load and not to mirror this behaviour in their way of going?

    Try working smarter,not harder, think of your quiet aids and how happy you are to be riding , not where you have to be  53 minutes from now. Our horses always live in the present. There is so much we can learn from their approach.      Cheers and Happy,Carefree riding. Libby Keenan

11 Responses

  1. Kathy Sierra

    I love this post. Exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you, Libby.

  2. eventersmom

    Well said! Can’t wait to read this to my daughter. Thanks for this article.

  3. tackandtalk

    Thanks so much , keep me posted how she’s doing, Love Vanilla Bean 🙂 Libby

  4. tackandtalk

    You are so welcome, thx for reading , glad you found it helpful. Libby

  5. Cathy Whitley

    All so true, and why so hard to remember ?

    Many years ago at a dance class the instructor had us do an exercise where you tightened muscle groups for a few seconds and then relexed them completely, starting at your head and ending at your toes. It really works for relaxation, but it also makes you realize just how much tension you run around with most of the time and aren’t even aware of it.

    Fortunately, I think the time we spend just being around our horses grooming etc. defuses a lot of this before we get on them.

  6. libby keenan

    Hi Cathy, you’re right, grooming does diffuse a lot of it. I also so some stretching exercises before riding but now have added breathing work as well. I am going to do as you mentioned and tighten and relax various muscle groups as well. Thanks for your input and glad you enjoyed. Cheers. Libby

  7. Oh I reconize this experience! Great reading and reminder!!

  8. tackandtalk

    Thanks so much , glad you enjoyed. Now we need to figure out how to get THIS ride every ride lol. Cheers. Libby

  9. How much easier it is for the horse to ‘hear’ us when we’re ‘speaking’ to him quietly! I am reminded of my mother-in-law asking her nurse to explain what she had just said. Instead of using different words and speaking more simply, the nurse just said the same thing again, only louder. Mother heard her just fine the first time, but didn’t understand!

    You have great insight into riding as well as in life. Thank you, Libby!

  10. tackandtalk

    Thankyou so much. Libby

  11. tackandtalk

    Hi , I do it all the time too lol 🙂

  12. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Larissa Cox Training, Larissa Cox Training, elizabeth keenan, Elizabeth Gove, Karyn Cowdrey and others. Karyn Cowdrey said: RT @ridingcoach: To achieve lightness and collection, "work SMARTER, not harder!" Read Libby Keenan's insight into dressage training here: […]

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