How You Think and What You Say is How You Ride

'What you say and how you think determine how you ride' is behind Montie's philosophies.

by Montie Eagle

Our horses often faithfully mirror how we riders think and speak about ourselves as well as our horses. At some time in the past each one of us has struggled to master riding skills that seemed to be elusive, but few of us realized how our mastery often depended on how we spoke about what we were doing.

One frustrated student wails, "I’ll never learn my posting diagonals!" A second states, "I can’t sit the trot," while another rider claims, "My horse always runs out at a stone wall." None realize that their way of thinking and talking about their riding is their biggest problem. Using words like "never," "can't" and "always" says to the rider's mind that change is an impossible dream, attainable only by gifted others, and not by themselves.

When a student uses terms during a lesson that act against her goals, I ask her to change how she is speaking about what is going on. Saying, "I have some difficulty feeling my correct diagonals but I am correct more and more often" opens the door for increasingly correct choices in the future.

Changing how we speak about what we do changes how we can do it. There is a big difference between saying "I will ride this jumping gymnastic" and saying, "I'II try to ride this." Also, if I as a teacher say to you, "Try to ride a 15-meter circle at B," it sounds like I don't have much faith in your being able to do so.

Several years ago I was warming up for my fourth level class at a dressage schooling show. A friend of mine was warming up her lower level mare at the same time. When she saw my horse, she proclaimed, "Oh, I could never ride in a double bridle!" I quoted one of my favorite authors to her, "Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours." (Richard Bach, Illusions) She must have taken my words to heart, because in subsequent years, I saw her compete with a double bridle.

If you argue for your limitations, that must mean you want to have them be a part of your life; you are insisting they become yours. But is that really what you want?

There is another aspect of this, and that is expecting things will go a certain way. But where does this expectation come from, and how did it get to be so pervasive?

How aware are you of what you think when you ride? How diligently do you tune in to the monologue in your head? And where did that critical voice come from, anyway? These are speech and thought habits and patterns you may not have noticed until now. It is only when we become aware of something that we have the capability of changing it, with our power of choice. We can choose to do things differently, but first we have to become aware of them so we can choose.

Awareness goes hand in hand with diligence - paying attention to what is going on in your head and externally. Are you really tuned in to what your horse is doing right now, or are you replaying a problem you had at work? Are you thinking about an argument you had with someone two weeks ago at your barn? Did you just realize you forgot to take dinner out of the freezer?

If you are thinking any of these things at all, you may be physically sitting on a horse, but your mind is elsewhere. When you become aware that your attention has strayed, bring it back to what you are doing at the moment. Be diligent in your pursuit of focusing your attention on your riding and your horse by gently - not critically - bringing your thinking back to what you are doing right then.

Stay more and more in the moment by getting your mind out of the past or the future. This is a skill that increases with practice, but to develop this skill, be persistent, even if you catch your attention wandering often. Think of strengthening this skill like you would increase your body strength. Muscling is developed over a period of time. Think of this as building mental muscling. Praise your horse’s and your own good efforts. Learn to shut off the critical voice by becoming more aware of it and choosing not to listen.

Let's return to the concept of expectation. We have a hunter rider who says, "My horse refused this fence last Wednesday." So as she approaches this same fence now, she replays last Wednesday's refusal in her mind. By concentrating on "refusal" she puts a strong expectation on the possible outcomes of coming down to that fence. Horses, those wily experts of reading our expectations, usually deliver exactly what we visualize. Predicting a disaster helps bring it into existence. "My horse hates this." "I always mess this one up.” You get what you think and say.

I saw this happen recently with one of my dressage students who had gone to a weekend clinic with her nice young Thoroughbred. She had previously started him over crossrails and was delighted with his eagerness to please over the low jumps the clinician helped her master. But that night both her husband and her mother berated her burgeoning interest in their overwhelming concern that she might be injured. These two strong authority figures planted the concepts of danger and injury in her mind, which came to fruition the last day of the clinic in a fall over a fence. I told her that I felt the fall actually began the previous evening, in her own home.

Expectation can manifest itself in a different way. Another student started coming for lessons in worn and dirty breeches and boots. Since she began this, the quality of her riding had fallen off. I told her to come for her next lesson as though she were going to a major clinic; her riding that day was the best she had done for months as it matched the external manifestation.

How do you really think of your horse? Does everything about your relationship say to him that you think well of him? I bought a horse one time whose previous owners treated him as a rogue, and he was intermittently lame. For them he was just that. But I loved him on sight and thought he was a wonderful horse; for me, with time, that is what he became.

Stand by any in-gate at any show you please and you will see what I mean. The well-turned out horse and rider show a readiness that says, we expect to do our best, we have put planning and preparation into this moment. This does not necessarily mean the rider who can spend the most, but it does mean the rider who prepares the appearance and performance of her horse regardless of what she can spend,

What we think about finances is important, because horses and all horsy endeavors seem to cost lots of money. It is easy to be intimidated by competitors who seem to have unlimited funds. Many years ago I was telling a trainer at the racetrack about competing on a horse I had purchased from him for a very moderate price. One of the horses in our class at a recent show had been imported for a reputed quarter-million by his well-to-do rider. I still laugh when I remember our conversation; I said, "Tom, her saddle cost more than my horse." Tom shot back, "But Hero doesn't know that!" His savvy answer put it all into perspective.

A member of the Columbia Riding Club in Pennsylvania, during the Introduction to Dressage clinic, gets a taste of the basics of dressage.

So we have to look carefully at what is really going on with ourselves and our horses, and not what other people spend, not what is the current fashion touted in trade journals, and not what someone else in our barn says and does. In the event that you are unsure in your assessments, look for a competent teacher or trainer to help you sort out your perceptions.

The great Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton once said, "The only disability is a bad attitude." His observation applies to horse sports as well. Many horses do their best for riders who may not be technical virtuosos but who have great attitudes and understanding of their horses.

And this brings us to another subject- what does your horse say about your competence? This is the true test. Maybe you have an inflated notion of your skills. Perhaps you are in such a hurry to get ahead you have neglected to spend proper time on attaining basic skills. Those skills are the true building blocks, the foundation of your "house of horsemanship."

Yes, working on the mastery of basics may seem tedious, but not to the truly dedicated rider, regardless of level. Skimping now only results in disaster and disappointment later when your hastily built "house" tumbles down…

At any level of expertise, you can use visualization to help your riding. Using this technique will help you see that what you want is attainable.

In visualization, you take the very best parts of your ride and allow your mind to dwell on them. Relive that moment of the perfect canter transition, the round circle, the supple and collected shoulder-in, again and again. Think of this as though you were making a video to play to yourself over and over, editing out and discarding all but the very best parts of your ride. You can play this video whenever you have a few moments to yourself. Make this as complete an experience as possible: what did the air smell like, was it sunny, what color leg wraps did your horse have on. Concentrate on every detail.

This works because of the connection between our minds and bodies. Psychotherapist Joe Glogowski says, "The mind doesn't know the difference between what is real and what is imagined." He tells people to imagine tasting a juicy lemon, then feel their mouths water.

But visualization can also work against you, as in the case of an amateur hunter rider I knew who repeatedly allowed her mind to dwell on a bad spill she had had. Instead of having one fall, the actual one, she probably experienced the fall hundreds of times in her mind. She may as well have had hundreds of actual spills. Either way, this had devastating effects on her confidence and subsequent relationships with horses.

As you become more aware of what you think and how you speak about riding and your horse, you will become more adept at analyzing what you are doing. Is what you are saying and what you are thinking really true? How accurate is what you are saying? Is it really so, or just our perception? Is your horse really ready for First Level, Test four, or do you only wish he was?

You can also be unwittingly harsh about your self-assessment. At one show many years ago, I completed a class and the young woman who was grooming for me asked me how my ride went. Terrible, I told her. You can imagine how surprised we both were when the scores were announced and we found my score was sufficiently high to qualify for a ride in a nationally held championship finals. So you never know.

The important thing to remember is that we are still the same person, whether we are on the horse or standing on the ground. Our perceptions, our flaws and our virtues are still with us; we do not somehow change into someone else.

When I discussed my plans to write an article about "what you say and how you think is how you ride" with a close friend, she said, "That's about how you live."

I answered, “That too."

About the author:

Montie Eagle has ridden dressage since 1984, studying with Karl Mikolka (former Oberbereiter of the Spanish Riding School), Karen Ramsing-Bixler, Lori Wolgamuth, and Pat Smeltzer, in addition to having clinics with Erik Herbermann, former Olympic Team Rider Lendon Gray, and Steve Kannikkeberg. She has brought former racehorses from right off the track to working third and fourth levels and some F.E.I. movements. Past and present students include dressage enthusiasts, hunter-jumper riders, eventers and western pleasure riders, reflecting her philosophy that "dressage is for everyone; the things making a horse into a joyous ride and a lifelong companion, whatever riding discipline one chooses, are the same."

"Eagle Glenn Farm, 717-243-7859, is located just north of Carlisle, PA, only three miles from either I-81 or the PA Turnpike.