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.

Friday, 30 June 2017

A Reflection on Validation: Part 1
Over the years I have audited a variety of clinics with well-known clinicians.  Although I am an avid student of classical dressage, I find it helpful to learn from clinicians in other disciplines too.  Hearing different perspectives forces me to challenge my own ideas, and even if I come away not agreeing with a clinician, I do come away with a more solid understanding of why I hold the perspective that I do. 

I recently attended a clinic with a well-known clinician and witnessed a behavior among riders that I have seen at many clinics. It got me thinking about why people in all disciplines ride in clinics and the concept of validation.

I heard several riders after their ride with the clinician excitedly making comments like “he said I did that really well, isn’t that awesome?”  or “I’m so happy. It was worth coming just to hear him say I used my seat properly!”  Upon hearing a number of these comments, I asked myself once again “Is that why we go to clinics?  To seek validation that we are good? Aren’t we there to learn something new?

External validation is a well-known concept in psychology.  Dr. Jennifer Kromberg explains it this way:

“As humans, once our basic needs are met, much of our conscious and unconscious-behaviors are meant to make us feel loved and valued. But this love and value can come from external or internal sources. Internally, the source of love and value is self-esteem. And externally, this love and value tends to take one of two forms – either the long-term reinforcement of the self that comes from good friends, family or a committed relationship, or the short-term benefits of narcissistic behaviors in which we seek attention, admiration or adoration. If enough of your external validation comes from attention, it can become an addiction – a dependence on the affirmations of others in order to feel a sense of worth.”
So seeking validation is a very normal and natural human behavior. And in riding, especially when we often ride alone, external validation can help us understand when we are on the right track with our training (or not!). 
In answer to my own question posed above, maybe we go to clinics to seek some level of validation AND to learn something new.  Key, I believe, is not try to make ourselves feel good by repeating to others that a famous person gave us compliment.  Rather let’s be reflective about the compliment: “what exactly was it that he or she said I was doing well and how do I build on that foundation?” And then we can tell people “this famous person said this about my riding and from that I learned…”  This is validation that leads to deeper learning.
Ultimately what should be important to us all is not that a famous person said we did a great job, but that we did a great job and now we know how to do even better next time.
And in part two let’s consider external validation coming from somewhere else…
Take Home Message for Equestrian Educators
Your validation is important for your students.  Everyone likes to be told when they have done something well, and in fact it is a key to successful learning.  But only if the validation leads to deeper understanding. When a student beams proudly because you have just complimented their riding, ask them to think about the next step, or to tell you in their own words what they just did that made that portion of the ride go so well.  Help them make the leap from “I am so excited my instructor just said I did a good job” to  “I am so excited my instructor just said I did a good job and now I really understand….”

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Would You Want to Be Your Horse?

Now here is an interesting question to contemplate the next time you ride.  Would you like to be your horse right now if that meant carrying you on your back?  I heard a clinician recently ask this question and I thought it was brilliant. She was speaking to someone who was very stuck in her hip joints and was not following the movement of the horse.  She was also stuck in the shoulders so her hands were not softly following the horse’s head movement, and every time his head moved as he walked his mouth banged against the immobile bit.

The question was not asked in a negative insulting way, but rather in a supportive way that really encouraged the rider to think about how her horse was feeling in response to what she was or was not doing.  The rider thought briefly about the question and shortly afterward answered “no”.  The clinician asked her to describe why and she quickly identified her stuck seat and stuck hands.  It didn’t take long for her to refocus her awareness to these issues and correct them.

I spoke to the rider after her lesson and she was amazed.  She said that she has been told many times by instructors to “soften her hands” and “loosen her seat” and she tries to do as they request believing she has accomplished it.  Only to be told the exact same thing the next lesson.  For some reason, she observed, despite her best intentions she just couldn’t seem to make the positive changes she made stick beyond a lesson.  Being asked to consider whether or not she would like to be her horse was like someone switched on a lightbulb for her.  She was even more amazed the next day when she approached her riding from this perspective and was able to keep her seat less tight and her hands softer.

What if everyone applied this question to their riding all of the time?  And then made an effort to change whatever it is that would make it undesirable to be your horse, whether it be riding position, tack or something else.  I think we would find more people with better awareness of their own balance (would you like to carry around a knapsack weighing one tenth of your weight that is lopsided?).  I think we would see closer attention paid to saddle fit, girth over-tightening and bit fitting. For example, have you ever held a bit in one hand that has leather reins attached to the bit ring and a bit in the other hand that has reins clipped to the bit ring by a metal clip?  Try it, and get someone to jiggle the reins.  The difference is remarkable.  The harshness of the metal clip on the metal bit ring travels through the bit and is horrible compared to the leather on the bit ring.  Many people use these types of reins for convenience, but if they thought about which reins their horse would choose if he could, their choice would likely be different.

So, periodically as you ride ask yourself “Would I want to be my horse right now?”  If the answer is no, make a change that would enable you to answer yes.

Take home message for equestrian educators
As equestrian educators we have as much responsibility for the welfare of the horses that help us teach our students as we do for the students.  Therefore, we should take every opportunity to foster empathy for horses in our students.  I asked a similar question to the one above to a student of mine once.  We had been working on a lesson program over several months to help her horse move less on the forehand.  He was coming back to riding after being laid off due to a lameness issue that was exacerbated by being ridden on the forehand.  He was gradually beginning to develop a stronger back and hind end muscles through lots of slow-paced careful work in hand and under saddle.  One day I came out to the arena and to my surprise, I saw my student riding her horse at a very fast trot with a hollow back.  The student was smiling and the horse looked miserable.  He was clearly uncomfortable.  Although it was not a lesson night I stopped her and asked her what she was doing. 

She replied that she just really felt like going fast tonight for the first time in a long while because she finds it more fun to go fast.  I asked her “how do you think your horse feels about that?”  She was quiet for a moment and then she identified that this was probably not the best thing for him right now. I agreed and left them to the rest of their ride, which she refocused on work that was both more comfortable and more beneficial for her horse.  Later, she found me in the stable and thanked me for stopping her.  She identified that she had not been thinking of her horse first and that was wrong.

There was no question in my mind that I had to try and intervene in that circumstance for the benefit of the horse.  Doing it in a way that asked the student to think about how her horse was feeling proved to be a useful way to refocus her thinking and an opportunity to try and improve her empathy.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks
Many of us have seen or experienced this scenario.  The riding student finishes her lesson with her riding instructor and as she leads her horse back to the barn, she is feeling frustrated.  She wonders why after five lessons where it seems the instructor is teaching exactly the same skill, she cannot seem to adequately perform this one simple thing.

We all know that it takes time to learn something new.  And that children seem to learn new things faster than adults. But why is that?  It has to do with something called “neuroplasticity.”  Our brains actually physically reorganize themselves as we learn new things.  New connections happen between the neurons in your brain as you learn something new, and existing connections are sometimes reorganized.  This appears to happen faster with children compared to adults.

There is a great video produced by Smarter Every Day that demonstrates this concept brilliantly.  In the video, an engineer designs a bicycle that works opposite to the way that normal bikes work.  When you turn the handlebars left, the front wheel turns right and vice versa.  Everyone who knows how to ride a bike simply cannot keep their balance on this bike.  Two people who practice daily finally master the skill, only to find out that they now cannot ride a normal bicycle – because their brain has reorganized neural pathways to learn the new way.

There is also evidence that experts in a particular skill have larger parts of the brain associated with that skill when compared to non-experts.  Dr. Pascale Michelon*notes that professional musicians who practice at least one hour a day have a larger brain cortex than amateur or non-musicians.
Neuroplasticity has several implications for people who ride and for people who teach riders.  Sometimes we get frustrated with ourselves when we cannot master a skill we are taught in one lesson, or two lessons, or ten lessons.  But the reality is that it takes time for your brain to reorganize itself to learn new skills, and everyone’s brain grows new neural pathways at different speeds.  Accepting that it takes time to learn can help reduce frustration, and reducing frustration is important because it is a great impediment to riding for a whole host a reasons.

The fact that it takes time to learn also explains the importance of regular practice.  This is true of every skill.  However, often in the equestrian world I come across people who ride once a week and are frustrated that their skills are not progressing.  In order to build new neural pathways, regular practice is critical, and that means riding often to practice specific skills.  If riding more than once a week is not possible, then it is important to adjust expectations about progress to match what is physically possible for your brain.

Take home message for equestrian educators:
We have to be creative in helping our students learn the art of riding, to ensure that we teach in ways that match the learning style of each rider.  But we also must be aware that learning involves a physical change process in the brain.  It may take some students many months to learn a new skill, and that may have absolutely nothing to do with how well they listen to your instructions or focus while in a lesson. It may have everything to do with the fact that their brain is taking time to develop new neural pathways, and this is why it is important that instructors not get frustrated with students if it sometimes feels like you are teaching the same lesson over and over again to the same student.  Sometimes that repetition is necessary to support the growth of new neural connections.  And then one day – voila!  The connection will be established, the skill will be there and the student will have what we often call an “aha!” moment.


Friday, 5 May 2017

Shared Energy

If you have ever watched horses in the pasture together you have an understanding of what shared energy is all about. Without signs that are obvious to the human eye the horses clearly communicate with each other when it's time to move to better grass or when there might be a predator lurking in the field. Most riders have also experienced shared energy with their horse. It is in those moments where it seems like you only need to think what the next movement will be and suddenly you and your horse are doing it. The best riders in the world, the ones who ride effortlessly with their horses and seemingly use very few aids are accomplished at establishing and using shared energy.

It is my experience that shared energy also happens during riding lessons. There is a three way sharing of energy: between horse, rider and instructor. Good riding instructors make an assessment of the state of shared energy between horse and rider early in the riding lesson. Sometimes there are very clear disconnections in the sharing of energy.  An example is when a rider does not take time to calm their mind and body after a stressful day at work.  The rider will often not be able to move harmoniously with the horse and the horse will move less fluidly than normal. Their shared energy is blocked by the riders’ stress and tension.

There is also a shared energy between the student and the instructor. Astute instructors who are tuned into the energy of their students can often tell even before the student mounts their horse what the student’s emotional state is. There are cues through what they say, how they move and how they interact with their horse that can tell an instructor whether or not the rider’s energy is mainly positive or negative.. I have had situations where a rider has come into my stable and before they even talk to me or visit their horse I can tell that there's something wrong simply by the feeling of energy that they bring with them into the barn.

I have done numerous experiments with shared energy in riding lessons. I have had situations where I'm working with a very nervous rider who may have had an escalation in anxiety due to some event such as a spook from the horse. I have consciously centered and grounded myself, slowed my breathing and thought about projecting calm towards horse and rider. In all of the occasions that I have tried this, the riders have without exception indicated that something changed for them and it became easier to breathe, release tension and refocus on the ride.  

I have also observed on many occasions how much the instructor’s energy can impact the horse. There is the long-standing joke that the instructor who stands in the center of the arena is often a horse magnet, especially for school horses that have learned coming to the center means a chance to stop while the instructor talks to the rider. I do not tend to teach lessons in riding schools with school horses, but rather in private barns with privately owned horses. I also do not stand in the center of the ring - I move around a lot so the traditional experience of the instructor magnet doesn't really hold true for me. I have experienced on numerous occasions lessons where riders are perhaps having difficulty learning a new skill or communicating with their horses. The riders and I have noticed that their horse keeps gravitating to me throughout the lesson no matter where I happen to be standing.  I believe the horses are seeking quiet supportive energy as a break from the negative energy their rider is projecting at the time. I have watched this phenomenon with other coaches whose work I admire as well.

So when you walk into the riding arena with your horse ready for your lesson, keep in mind that your energy impacts your horse and it impacts your instructor. It is important to be aware of what energy you're bringing into the arena. Is your energy positive or negative?  Is it at a low or high level? I encourage you to experiment with understanding shared energy. Please share your thoughts and your comments about shared energy – it is a subject that fascinates me and I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of understanding.

Take away message for equestrian educators
As an equestrian educator you have a dual responsibility when it comes to managing the energy in the learning environment of a horse and rider. The first responsibility is understanding the current state of shared energy between horse and rider. Do they seem to be working well together? If not, and you can't find the cause in the rider’s physical body position, it could be that there's a disconnect in the way that horse and rider are sharing energy. I have found if I can identify there's an issue in the way that horse and rider are sharing energy, I can bring it to the rider's attention we can almost always correct it often the issue is one of lack of awareness on the riders purse of the fact that there is a disconnect.

The second responsibility as a riding instructor is monitoring your own energy that you bring to the lesson. In the same way that you as a riding instructor can read the energy of horse and rider, so too will your energy affect the rider and horse and the way they are able to perform in a lesson. It is our responsibility as educators to make sure that we bring a positive energy that supports learning to a lesson. I have a habit of stopping at the doorway to the riding arena and before I enter, taking a moment to ground and center myself in order to respect the fact that I may have just come from a bustling busy environment but now my attention and my energy need to be focused on the learning experience of the two learners in the arena. I would love to hear more about other riding instructors’ experience of shared energy.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Thumbs on Top…But Do You Know Why?
Rider hand position is often discussed in riding books and by riding instructors.  Many of us have been told to make sure we hold the reins with our thumbs on top, slightly pointing inwards.  “Piano hands” (with the knuckles on top) or “puppy dog hands” (knuckles on top, wrist floppy) are well known “no-nos” when it comes to riding.  When I first started riding I was told: “Thumbs on top!” but when I asked why, I wasn’t happy with the answer I got: “because it’s important.”  Many people don’t know WHY it is important to keep thumbs on top.  So let’s explore.  It’s all about bones, muscles and tension.

There are two main bones in your forearm: the ulna and the radius.  The ulna is located on the same side of your arm as the little finger, running from your elbow to your wrist.  The radius is located on the thumb side of your arm.  You can feel these bones if you palpate your arm.  These two bones are connected to each other by a fibrous membrane.  Hold your forearm down by your side and let it hang naturally.  Raise your arm out in front of you so that the fingers point inward and the knuckle of the thumb faces up.  Now turn your forearm so the palm faces downward; the thumb rotates inward.  As you turn your arm, you activate two muscles that cause the radius and the ulna to cross over one another.  See the diagram.  One muscle that you activated (called the pronator quadratus) is located near the wrist joint.  It pulls the end of the radius over the ulna as you rotate the forearm so the palm faces down. 

You can feel the effect of activating this muscle when holding the reins.  Hold your arms as though you are riding: upper arms hanging softly from the shoulders, elbows bent at about 90 degrees, wrists straight, hands softly closed around your imaginary reins, thumbs on top with a slight bend in the thumb knuckle.  Become aware of your wrist joint.  How does it feel?  Don’t move the wrist joint, just take note of what it feels like.  Now, rotate your forearm so that the knuckles of your fingers face downward.  Now what does your wrist joint feel like?  Most people will feel like there is more tension in the wrist, which comes from a combination of activating that pronator quadratus muscle and the crossing of the two forearm bones.

Achieving an elastic connection with the horse through the reins can only be achieved if we minimize the tension in our arms in such a way that the horse feels invited to take contact with us. Riding with the knuckles pointing down increases the tension in our wrist, which is communicated to the horse through the reins (whether they are attached to a bit or to a bitless bridle).  This compromises our ability to achieve a harmonious connection.  And that is why we must ride with thumbs on top.
Take away message for instructors: For many people, understanding WHY we ask them to do something is an important key to helping them figure out how to do it, and to keep doing it.  Body awareness only comes when we understand how and why our bodies work the way they do.

Diagram is from Hermizan Bin Halihanafia.  Anatomy Musculoskeletal: Radius and Ulna, Elbow and Radioulnar Joint.  College of Allied Health Sciences.

April 1 2017