We all have something, right? That thing we do that every time we catch ourselves doing it, we feel a tinge of guilt… But without fail, regardless of all the beating ourselves up, we will be back doing it again soon.
Now, I could have been talking about anything there… any number of bad habits that you have cultivated (yes… cultivated) over the years, however today I am referring specifically to the habits we form in the saddle that are less than helpful to us as riders.
As with anything in life, the more time you spend riding, the more opportunities you have to become complacent about the little things. Things which, initially might not count for much but that compounding effect can be a real nightmare once it gets going in the wrong direction!
Consistency will bring you results, regardless of what you are being consistent with. Meaning that the old saying that practice makes perfect is definitely not always the case. Rather ‘perfect practice make perfect’ when it comes to consistently improving your riding skills.
However, where do we begin? What do we start with?
Identify the Habit
Identifying what you are doing in the saddle is the first step to breaking the habit and overcoming the issue.
However, before we proceed, a word of caution… Very often what we perceive as riders to be the problem is actually not really the issue at all. It is merely a symptom of a greater flaw that is manifesting itself as the more obvious thing you are seeing.
The quickest and easiest way to identify the root bad habit is by asking a professional riding instructor or trainer to evaluate your riding for you. They should pick up pretty quickly what is happening to cause your problems and then also, give you pointers or exercises on how to improve this aspect of your riding.
But, I realise that you may not have access to a trainer or instructor to help you solve this. If this is the case, there are a few ways you can locate the core habit yourself. Firstly, find a rider that is doing what you want to do correctly. Keep in mind that a lot of riders, while successful, may not be the best person at that particular thing… So choose wisely! Once you have found this person you are going to begin comparing yourself in similar situations to this person. Photographs or videos of yourself riding will help you, but in order to be really successful you will have to take quite a few over a period of time in different situations. Compare them and begin looking for patterns in your riding. Using the photographs or videos, along with a riding diary which will record how the ride went, you can then begin to find the pattern you are looking for.
Identify the Trigger
So, once we have become aware of the habit, we then need to begin working backwards to identify the trigger or the circumstance that begins the sequence of events which leads to you falling into this pattern that you want to break in the first place.
This will involve working backwards a little, from the point where you notice you are indeed doing it again, so you can find the exact point where you transition from a correct way of riding to where you are doing the thing you wish to put a stop to.
Is there a particular horse, or a particular movement that seems to trigger the habit more so than others? Does riding in a certain area or with a certain person attribute to your downfall?! Or perhaps the trigger has nothing to do with riding itself and everything to do with the food you ate last night, the glass of wine you drank, the argument you had before you left the house for the stables?!
As pleasure riders, our emotions and moods are tightly woven and integrated with our riding and time in the saddle, so don’t forget to have a look at this aspect of your life as well.
What causes the trigger to happen?
Just like everything else in life, your bad habits in horse riding can probably be traced back to either a perceived fear (or stress) or a lack of knowledge. It’s hard to know you are doing something wrong if you don’t know what you don’t know!
With regards to the knowledge aspect, this can be rectified by simply researching the subject, having lessons or classes on the topic and just finding out more about how to do it correctly. The part that will take time is then reprogramming your habit; removing the wrong way and inserting the correct way for doing that particular thing.
If you realise your trigger is more fear based, this may take a little more work on your part. A lot of the time when we feel stressed, whether in the saddle or out of the saddle, we learn to react in a certain way that we think will benefit us. The downside to this is that our mind is a wee bit clouded by the ‘fear’, so it may not really be the best way at all. Identifying what is causing your fear and then thinking logically and rationally about it will help to uncover this. Also, working on how you react in day-to-day life will also help. Very often merely learning more about the subject that is stressing you will help to shift your mind from fear, to more of a healthy respect… Which will allow you to begin acting differently.
Cultivate awareness in the saddle
So once you know what your habit is and what is causing you to react this way, you need to begin noticing those points in your ride! This is easier said than done. Remember the habit or behaviour is your ‘go to’ action. Noticing you are doing it or about to do it will be difficult at first. However, it can be done. By consciously thinking about what you are doing and when you are doing it you will soon be able to notice little things that previously you were unaware of.
Be aware of your body at all times in the saddle and ride the movement you are riding at that moment. Stop thinking about 10 steps ahead and what will happen during dinner tonight! Instead, for the coming weeks, make your intention for each ride to be really present and in the moment throughout.
Focus on how you want it to be
This is where a lot of us get caught up. We know what we don’t want to do, but ask us what we want to do…. We draw a blank! Just like when riding a naughty horse, rather than focusing on the bad habit or behaviour, focus your attention on the opposite. The good action or behaviour that you want to replace it with. By placing your attention here, you will have a far greater chance of making this happen, repeatedly, and thus becoming your new habit.
Use visualisation to see yourself succeeding
Did you know that your brain does not know the difference between what you think and what you do? Use this to your advantage by continuously visualizing yourself successfully riding the way you want to ride. Include in there all the good habits you wish to cultivate, all the skills you want to learn. When you are visualising yourself doing it, don’t just see it, feel it as well. Perhaps you can just sit on a chair and imagine your body moving as you want it to move. Spend your time travelling to and from the stables thinking about how it will feel to ride that movement correctly and with confidence.
If you are struggling to even imagine yourself changing your current habit, imagine someone you know of who can easily do what you want to do. Once you have this person in mind, visualise yourself copying or mimicking how they react in a situation or ride a particular movement. Slowly, it will become easier and easier for you to picture yourself doing the same.
Safety and Success in Numbers!
Things are always more fun when done with a friend… Breaking a habit is no different! Get a partner or a friend to help you overcome your bad habit, either by pointing it out each time you do it or working on a habit or behaviour of their own that they wish to change. Hold each other accountable, support each other and when either of you slip up or revert back be there to offer support and motivation to try again tomorrow.
Change the circumstances or situation
Finally, if you are still struggling to overcome your bad habit I suggest changing things up a little. Get out of the arena or paddock you usually ride in. Try that movement in a different place in the arena. Build up to it with a different exercise. The choices are endless with regards to how you can make differences in your ride and often just changing one small circumstance is enough to form a crack that will eventually break the habit.
Time… Time… Time…
Remember not to overdo it at the beginning… It will take time to replace the pattern that you are currently doing with a new and better way, but remember that you can do it. Also, what will seem difficult at the beginning will soon become second nature to you as you soon make your new habit the go to one when that trigger occurs.
Go easy on yourself and acknowledge that you will have some slip-ups along the way. When they do happen, remember the fact that you are now noticing them happening is half the battle to changing your patterns and setting a new rule about how you react in a given situation.
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