It’s cold. It’s wet. You and your horses are either knee deep in mud or stuck indoors. The big shows are months away. You’ve just paid all your Christmas bills. What gets you out the door and to the yard every day when the couch and reruns of Peaky Blinders are calling to you?
This time of the year is a struggle for most. We’re broke and we wonder at the sanity of a sport that takes us out in all weathers every single day to, at the very least, spend hours caring for our chosen piece of sporting equipment. Of course, the love of horses is a calling and a passion or we wouldn’t be here at all, but for even the most zealous, the affection will wane occasionally. We need to get our most valuable asset on board to help us through.
Often we refer to our equestrian pursuits as an addiction in a half joking manner, however it’s worth looking at the science of addiction and channelling that understanding for motivation. Addiction to substances and behaviours occurs when our brain learns to release dopamine in anticipation of feeling good. It’s what drives someone to pick up the glass of wine (no, it’s not your teenager refusing to pick up his washing) or to continue to play a video game into the small hours of the night hoping to get a high score. Just as with the gamer, dopamine is released in anticipation of reaching a goal. So how can you use that with your riding? Most people will talk about goal setting in relation to equestrian sports as the big goals – this year I will qualify for nationals or one day I want to complete a 4* event.
As a motivational tool it is far more valuable to set micro goals on a daily basis. The key is to make them achievable, yet exciting. It’s no good aiming to ride a line of tempi changes if you’re yet to ride a single change, but aiming for a clean left-right flying change is certainly a great goal for a training session if the canter is good, you’ve got an excellent simple change that way and you’ve already nailed the right-left change. Likewise riding a course over 90cm is unlikely to happen if you’re still rushing a cross pole but give it a whirl if you’re calmly cantering down a grid at that height, you can negotiate single fences and related distances and you’ve got the flatwork established to make the turns well. The key is to have goal that motivates you. There is nothing quite like the dopamine release that occurs when you achieve your target and even better, it will keep you coming back for more. The video below is from the first time I rode a clean line of ones in a Grand Prix test. It had taken me a very long time (almost two years!) from the time I first rode two one time changes (1-1) to having a full 15 in a row and for a while it seemed I’d never get them at a show. I can tell you that when I did, I was so thrilled! I remember this event vividly, even though it was just a small local show that meant very little in the scheme of things.
The next thing that can really help is having a soundtrack. I know a lot of riders that play a certain playlist on the way to the yard or as they’re grooming or tacking up. If there is something out there that energises you then put it on repeat. I spent a season living with a Jamiroquai fan and to this day I can’t hear the opening bars of Virtual Insanity without getting amped for the day ahead. Even more powerful is self talk, so be careful how you speak to yourself. We all get frustrated and upset and it’s so easy to tell ourselves we are stupid or incapable. It really does help to have a mantra available you can go to quickly when you catch this happening. It doesn’t really matter what that mantra is, as long as it interrupts the negative train of thought and has you focus on where you’re going. At present I’m using ‘Touch the frog’ & ‘Drive through the skid’, reminders to take opportunity and to keep moving forward and both stolen from a recent reading of Adam Hill’s book ‘Best Foot Forward’.
Finally, while an achievable goal can be a great motivator to get to a training session sometimes it really helps to be able to switch the focus from the outcome to the process while actually riding. So instead of thinking ‘I must get my horse to do a flying change’, concentrate on what you need to do to achieve it - am I straight, with an even contact into both reins, does the canter have sufficient jump, am I giving a clear canter depart aid to the new leading leg? Visualisation is a great help for this – take a moment close your eyes and think clearly through the movement or course. What does it look like, what are you doing, what is your horse doing, what does it feel like. If it’s something that is new to me, I’ll try and emulate a top level rider, riding for a ten. WWCD (What Would Charlotte Do)? By making the process your focus, the result you want will come much faster.
And don’t forget to be grateful. Riding is a huge privilege. The way our brains are wired is to seek more of what we enjoy. At the end of each ride, no matter how it went, find something to be thankful for, no matter how small. That incremental gain or moment of joy will accumulate to huge success if you let it.
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