Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Harms of the “No Stirrups November “Fad

There are two things I dislike about November. One is the time change that serves no useful purpose at all except to throw off animal and human biological clocks. The second is that equestrian fad known as “No-Stirrups November.” Can riding without stirrups help improve a rider’s seat? Absolutely if, and that’s a BIG if, it is done correctly AND is always done with the welfare of the horse as the most important goal. Over my many years of teaching riding, every time I work with a student who proudly announces they have been riding without stirrups for the last few rides, I spend our next few lessons trying to readjust their seat to undo all of the bad habits they have formed when riding without stirrups.

Unless a rider is quite advanced, when they work on their own without stirrups, they inevitably keep themselves in the saddle by gripping some part of their leg, usually the thigh. This has many detrimental effects. Their seat pops out of the saddle, their seat can no longer follow the horse’s back because gripping the leg locks the hip joint and they often tip forward on their pelvis which throws them off balance. And then, much to the further detriment of the horse, they keep their balance by hanging on the reins. I have seen many riders who think they are not gripping with their leg, who actually are hanging on with muscles that do not support a balanced following seat. And their poor horse is subjected to unyielding or pulling hands and an unfollowing seat that is uncomfortable or damaging to his back.

The lack of understanding about what makes for an effective seat is evident when you hear riders boast proudly “I am doing no-stirrups November and will have thighs of iron!” Yes, I have heard and read that more times than I can count. I also often hear “oh my thighs are so sore from no stirrups work!” Why? Could it be that they were gripping with their thighs? An effective seat has nothing to do with strong thighs, and everything to do with balance and appropriate use of the muscles that stabilize the pelvis and torso. There is a reason the Spanish Riding School in Vienna requires new students to spend six months working on a lunge line (with and without stirrups) with an instructor before they are allowed to touch the reins.  It takes time to develop balance and only when we are balanced can we be sure we are not balancing on the horses’ mouth or blocking the movement of his back.

So here is a better No-Stirrups November challenge that is more respectful of the horse underneath us and will ultimately lead to a better seat. No matter how good a rider you think you are, find an instructor who is knowledgeable not just about riding technique, but also about human and equine anatomy and movement (like a Centered Riding Instructor or Balimo Seat Instructor for example). Take a lunge lesson with them without stirrups and without holding the reins. Carry your hands as if you were holding the reins and work on the lunge in all three gaits and if you are a jumper, over low jumps. When the instructor is confident you have mastered these lunge lessons by staying in balance with a softly following seat through all three gaits and through upward and downward transitions with no gripping of the leg and your hands softly following with the imaginary reins you are holding, THEN you are ready to work without stirrups on your own. But not before. Even the most advanced rider can benefit from lessons such as these. 

Our horses deserve this approach to no stirrups work rather than the gripping and pulling that so often passes for no stirrups work today. Oh yes. And it really can be any month of the year.

Take Away Message for Riding Instructors

First and foremost, consider the horse when you ask your students to ride without stirrups. Have you ever seen a group riding class where the instructor says “OK, everyone cross their stirrups because it’s time for no stirrups work.” As the class trots around the ring, riders are bouncing on horses’ backs, gripping with their legs, and balancing themselves by pulling on the reins. The horses have hollowed backs and are anything but comfortable.

 As instructors we have a responsibility to ensure that the exercises we give our riders never compromise the welfare of the horse. 

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Riding, Smart Trust and Letting Go

We have ridden on the beach several times, enjoying splashing trots and canters through the salt water, or just walking about exploring the sand or sandbars in the ocean. Yesterday when I asked my stallion for a canter he leapt forward joyfully and I felt a question. “Should we go faster?”

I have thought many times about asking him for a full-out, fast-as-you-can-go gallop on the beach. And every time I have left it at a thought. I realized a few days ago it’s all about trust. Not blind trust, but smart trust.

Smart trust is a concept explained in a book by that name by Stephen MR Covey and Greg Link.[1] It is about the importance of opening ourselves up to the opportunity of extending trust, and then assessing the implications of extending that trust, including risk. Extending trust without the analysis would be blind trust, and blind trust often leads to heartache.

I opened myself to the possibility that I could trust Kalimo enough to go for it at high speed down that long beach. And then I did the analysis.  Would he stop when I asked? If he jumped a pile of seaweed (which he has done in the past) at that speed could I stay with him? I sorted through the answers of these and other questions in my mind and that exercise plus my experience of trusting him in many other situations led me to the conclusion that I could indeed extend the trust to Kalimo that was needed to push outside of my comfort zone.

So when the question was asked “should we go faster?” the answer was “yes, I trust you.” I applied a little bit of leg aid, let go of my fears and put my trust in him. I felt him shift gears from a three-beat canter to a four-beat gallop. I changed my seat to a two-point position to free his back and we flew. According to Wikipedia, the average speed of a canter is 16-27 km/hour and the average speed of a gallop is around 40 km/hour.[2] So compared to our fast canters down the beach, this really did feel like flying. As we sailed down the beach at the water’s edge I felt the salt spray on my face, I heard the thundering of his hooves, I felt the power of his strength beneath me, I enjoyed the way we moved together, and I experienced a lightness and joy that is hard to describe. And it occurred to me that from trust comes joy.

Take Home Message for Riding Instructors
As riding instructors we have a role to play in helping our students understand the difference between blind trust and smart trust. Blind trust is when someone trusts their horse to take them through situations that perhaps they or their horse are not yet ready to tackle. Blind trust results in disappointment and injury. Smart trust helps riders determine if they and their horse are ready to try something new, and if through the analysis process they determine something is missing, new goals emerge. Riders also need to be able to trust themselves, which is easier done after a smart trust analysis.


Monday, 21 August 2017

Transformational Leadership with Your Horse

When we built our summer home on Prince Edward Island (PEI), we also built a shed with a stall and a paddock so when we come for vacation every summer I can bring a horse with me and ride on the beach. There is something about riding on a beach that soothes my soul and the two weeks I do this every year is the highlight of my year.

Today was Kalimo’s return to PEI after his first visit last year. He knew exactly where we were going this morning for our early morning ride. Normally quiet and patient to be tacked up, this morning he was impatient. He was definitely “up” when I mounted and as we headed out for the ten-minute walk to the beach we had several conversations in which he suggested that a fast trot was in order and I suggested walk would be better. We compromised on a very fast walk. Kalimo is a powerful Andalusian stallion so when he is “up” he is a lot of horse to ride. I kept calm and grounded and just guided him to the beach, consistently letting him know that fake piaffe down the clay road was not the plan. He relaxed as soon as we reached the beach with a few mighty snorts.

At the beach, I let him explore. He sniffed the air and seaweed. He chased a retreating wave and ran backwards when it came crashing back towards him. He splashed in a tide pool and tried to dig a hole in it, soaking us both. Then it was time to ask him to cross the flowing stream which he had pointedly avoided since coming to the beach. But by crossing it we would have access to a much larger expanse of sand, perfect for a good gallop.

There is a tidal pond by the beach and since the tide was high and just going out, the stream was flowing faster than he had seen before. It is not a deep stream (only about halfway to his knees at the deepest part), about 12-15 feet across, with somewhat “squishy” sand along the edges in some places. Kalimo was not sure this was a good idea. As we approached he tried to impress me with his half pass skills to convince me that lateral work was a better idea than trying to cross that running water.
“Well buddy,” I said, “here’s the deal. We are definitely crossing this stream. I don’t care how you do it or when you do it. The end goal is the other side and you figure out how you get us there.” And that is just what he did. I kept my intent clear the whole time, focused on the other side. He approached in one area, found the sand too squishy, tried another place, didn’t like it and so on.  Within three minutes we were across the stream.  When we came back to the stream about 30 minutes later we did the same thing. It looked different because the tide had gone out further. He investigated a few places and this time decided to stride out into the ocean a bit and go around the end of it. He preened just a little bit at his cleverness.

After we returned home I was reflected on how much fun we had together. And about leadership. I recently coached a new manager about the difference between transactional and transformational leadership and my experience with Kalimo today stood out as an example of how I try to be the latter. Transactional leaders tend to be task and outcome oriented within a defined approach, and use rewards and punishments to promote performance that meets expectations. Transformational leaders create the vision, focus on the strengths of those they lead, and create situations that enable people to find their own path to the outcome, leaving people feeling more empowered and with stronger capacities as a result.

Today I created the vision for Kalimo (crossing the stream), encouraged him to figure out the way across without any expectation of where or how we would get there – only that we would get there. And we did, even though he did not choose to cross where I thought might have been the best place. Whether we are helping our horses learn to cross a stream, learn a shoulder in, or execute a correct flying change, we are leading them through this process and have a choice about whether we are a transactional leader or a transformational one.  I believe the latter is not always the easiest but is ultimately the path to the greatest success.

Take Home Message for Riding Instructors

Are you a transactional leader with your riding students or a transformational leader? A riding instructor who is a transactional leader will teach a “command” lesson with most of the lesson being a series of instructions (turn left, now shoulderb-in, change the rein, lower your hands, etc). The transactional riding instructor tends to talk a lot during a lesson. The transformational leader will also use commands, but there will be periods of silence as she allows the rider to feel what is happening or she may work the horse in- hand with the rider mounted so the rider can experience a particular movement and then go try it on her own. If we use a transformational leadership style while coaching as much as possible, we will have a better chance of creating curious riders who are able to work through riding questions and problems.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

When Dedicated Rider Meets Peri-Menopause 

I am not aging gracefully.  The symptoms of peri-menopause started creeping up on me slowly with an occasional hot flash and irregular periods.  Then, all of a sudden, “WHAM!” my body started some radical changes that were definitely not for the better. 

The worst was the crushing fatigue. I am used to having lots of energy and being involved in many activities throughout each day. I work full time, own a couple of businesses, care for my two horses and a boarder at home, ride my two horses 4 or 5 times a week, teach a few riding lessons, work out regularly, look after a large country property and still find time to do a little sewing, singing and dancing the tango with my husband.  Suddenly, last fall, I just couldn’t do it all anymore.  I would come home from work at  6 pm, do the stable chores and feed the horses, eat supper and by 7:30 pm I was so tired I could not even think about lifting a saddle on a horse much less ride two of them.  Even when my chronic insomnia was not making me tired, being exhausted seemed to have become the new normal.

Then there was the weight gain.  Even when I strictly regulated what I ate, and intensely worked out regularly in addition to riding most days, I gained weight.  This was frustrating to the point that I gave up on eating well and working out for while – it seemed pointless to bother.  Workouts that used to help me keep feeling fit and vigorous just added to my exhaustion.  

And it would be rather ironic to forget to mention the forgetfulness. I am a detail person. I do NOT forget to do things. Or at least I didn’t. Now I regularly lose my keys in the house, forget why I walked into a room and have to check several times to make sure I have actually remembered to lock doors when I leave the house.

All of this is not unique to riders.  Most women go through some sort of their own special torture in the transition to menopause.  However, it does have implications for those of us who ride.  Here are some of the things aging women riders deal with:
  • ·        Guilt over not riding on the schedule that you used to follow.  My horses are used to workouts 4 or 5 times a week but now, sometimes I am lucky if I can manage to find the energy to exercise them twice a week.  And I feel guilty about not being consistent because I know how important consistency is in training.
  •       Our bodies physically change shape and size in peri-menopause, and sometimes this is not within our control.  In addition to the body image issues this causes, it also in some women can change their balance in the saddle and make them feel like suddenly they cannot ride correctly anymore.  
  •      We cannot underestimate the impact of body image issues either.  I know a woman rider going though peri-menopause who will not ride if anyone else is present because she feels so ugly in her riding breeches after a period of rapid weight gain.
  • ·        For some women, mental focus becomes challenging.  I have had mature women riders in the middle of lesson that’s going really well suddenly stop and look at me in horror and say “I have no idea what I was just doing or what to do next.”
  • ·         Some women have heightened emotions during this phase of their lives.  Even the slightest of things can make the waterworks start.  I have taught lessons with women in this phase of their lives who have ridden something like a lovely shoulder in and then dissolve into tears because it was so beautiful.  And then be horribly embarrassed that they are crying.

Peri-meonpausal riders need to learn to be kind to themselves and they need understanding from others as they journey through this phase of their lives. The most wonderful benefit we peri-menopausal riders have is our horses, who accept us unconditionally even when we have trouble accepting ourselves. 

Take away for instructors

For male riding instructors or younger women riding instructors who have not yet experienced the trials of peri-menopause, it is really important to understand the magnitude of the physical and mental changes and challenges women experience at this time.  Being aware of it and talking about it can help the rider not feel isolated or like they are “losing their mind.”  Encourage them to discuss their experiences with other female riders who have passed through this phase in their lives.  They can often provide reassurance that only can be provided by someone with a shared experience.  If a peri-menopausal woman suddenly feels like she just can’t seem to ride correctly anymore, help her find her centre of gravity again and go back to working on the basics of proper position.  It is always OK to teach a lesson on the basics with even the most advanced rider. And if she unexpectedly breaks into tears, reassure her that tears are just one form of release and are very normal. Encourage her to stop, take a few deep breaths, rub her horse’s neck a few times and giver her time to compose herself, and then carry on when she is ready.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Validation Part 2: Seeking External Validation
 From the Right Places

In the last blog post, I mused about the need we as riders have for external validation of our riding skills from instructors and other riders. As discussed in the last blog post, we can seek external validation in many ways, one of the most common being attention seeking from others.  An example of seeking this type of external validation is the posting of photos of you, your horse, and winning ribbons on social media. The sole point of posting such photos is to send a message “hey, look what I did” and then read the congratulatory messages from friends.  If we were not seeking external validation, we might have the photo taken but we wouldn’t feel the need to show it to everyone.

But what if we sought our external validation from a more meaningful place?

Riding is an equal partnership between horse and rider.  So, what would it mean if instead of seeking external validation from our friends, we instead sought it from our horse?  What if at the end of a show when we make a social media post about how happy we are with our horse, we also focused on the question “how happy was my horse with me today?”

Receiving external validation from our horse requires us to become a good listener as we ride.  When we apply an aid, we need to listen for the response, not just keep repeating the aid.  If you put your legs on your horse to ask her to be more forward with every single stride in her trot, how will you ever know if she responded to your aid?  In fact, soon she most definitely won’t respond!  But if you give the aid, wait for validation from the horse that yes, she understood your clear aid, you will have a horse that is going more forward and has externally validated that you just did a good job.

If your horse is spooking during your class, he is telling you something.  Have you been his calm base of support in what is likely a stressful environment for him? Have you ridden focused in each moment giving whatever aids are needed to keep his mind and body attuned to his job and you instead of spooking at the flowers?  Is he telling you something else? If your horse jumps a clear round in good time without resistance, that is clear external validation that you did a great job.

When we switch the focus of our outward approval-seeking from other people to the horse we are riding, some wonderful results can occur.  We learn more about what our horse needs from us and we deepen the relationship.

April 1 2017