Learning a new physical skill as an adult is SUPER hard. My teaching is made up of a mixture of Adult Riding Clubs and private lessons, mainly with adults who’ve either returned to riding after a long break or people who’ve learnt to ride as adults. They’re generally riding at lower levels of competition.
I often have riders in their first lessons with me tell me ALL the things they can’t do. I recently had a student tell me all about the things she ‘can’t’ do by ten minutes in the lesson. I must admit to thinking I had my work cut out for me for the remaining time I had with her! The horse won’t bend correctly on a circle, he won’t go ‘on the bit’, he won’t take the right canter lead, dressage tests are getting low marks and so on. This is all, apparently, because they’re a ‘crap’ rider. Now don’t get me wrong, a ‘better rider’ could get on and have the horse bending, in a good contact and cantering on the right leads. The ‘better rider’ may of course have been riding since they could walk, have no fear, be riding more than one horse every day, be training at a much higher level, take your pick! I see many people become almost trapped in this non-productive head-space.
I work together with riders to set achievable goals and increase their skill base, starting from whatever level they’re at. The bottom line is they may not be a super duper rider. This does NOT mean you’re unable to get better, it does NOT mean you’re destined to stay at an entry or lower level for the rest of your days. It simply means you’ve an opportunity to learn, to improve and most importantly continue to enjoy what you love doing! This process takes time and often I feel like the word ‘time’ is treated as an obstacle on the way to success instead of something valuable.
Think about how long it takes you to learn how to do something new. Who remembers learning to ride a bike; learning to ski; learning to drive, or learning a musical instrument? How inadequate did you feel in that state of being consciously incompetent at the task at hand. Did you tell everyone how ‘crap’ you were or did you tell people this was your first go at it and with practice you’d get better? Let’s also remember a bicycle, skiis, cars and pianos don’t have minds of their own, although after my last experience with skiis I’m prepared to debate that particular one! Take a moment to look through the your relevant competition levels carefully. Take careful note of the expected level of the horse and rider. The guidelines there are really useful in giving you things to focus on and work towards in your riding.
If you strike a key or pluck a string on a piano or guitar, you or I or the next person are pretty much going to make the same sound regardless of our skill level. The three of us line up on respective horses and apply the same aid and we may get very different reactions, and sounds! This riding caper is not easy. We’re on top of something which moves at different gaits, (sometimes uncalled for) and goes in different directions (also sometimes uncalled for!) and we’re asked to maintain an ‘independent seat and hands’. Add in a horse who may not have had an extensive education himself and the difficulty increases. Now add to that the fact you’re an adult trying to learn to do something new physically. You’ve all seen the 5 year old kids skiing with no stocks and not a care in the world. I’m pretty sure no one over 30 with a job and/or family responsibilities has taken that approach at Mt Buller the first time at the snow and it’s the same on a horse. When we’re kids we just ‘do’ stuff. As we get older it’s harder work to learn something new physically. Some of us are scared of the ‘what if’ factor, others need to understand what and why intellectually before they’re prepared to try, others still find it hard to shut down the brain and just feel what’s going on.
So take a moment…think about where you were last year and where you are now and celebrate what you’ve achieved instead of being disappointed with what you haven’t. January’s just around the corner and it may be time to review your goals and set some new challenges for yourself in 2014. Often by focusing just on yourself for a little while and not getting worried about flexion, contact and all the rest you’ll find those things improve as a result. By focusing just on your position, your evenness, how balanced you are for a little and improving those things you’re going to find asking for bend and contact easier. Your horse needs you to be balanced, secure and confident in the saddle for him to offer you his best work.
If you’ve not achieved what you set out to do in 2013 due to just not being bothered…well you know where the issue is there. If you’ve genuinely given it a good go and are not happy with where you are really look at where you are January 2013 and where you are now. Sure the change may not be from Preparatory to Elementary but you need to ask yourself if that was a realistic goal in the first place. If you’ve gone up one level in a 12 month period that’s something to really celebrate! If you’re out competing reasonably regularly and aiming to make progress, one level a year is an achievable goal. If you feel you’re a long way from that next level still then we need to look at what else is going on: are you a good match with your horse; are you in a position to receive regular instruction; are you able to get regular work in; what tools do you feel you need to improve?
Then there’s the issue where some people are just better suited to riding. They’re those riders who get on and just ‘get it’, they’ve natural feel, they look like they’re part of the animal. Of course those riders, even if they’ve come to riding later in life are going to find things easier than someone who doesn’t have a natural feel. It’s, again, just like learning a musical instrument. My brother has an incredible ear for music. He hears a tune and can play it back to you on the piano, he’s always been able to do it. I, on the other hand, played instruments but didn’t inherit that natural ability. I could certainly play but it came through hard work for me. I would practice much harder than he and he still sounded more natural than I. I understood way more of the theory than he but he still sounded better. Sound familiar? I love music and I loved playing so I kept going, I kept practicing and I received good marks in exams. It was just something which was always going to be a bit harder for me than for the natural player. It didn’t diminish the enjoyment I gained from playing one bit, it did add to the frustration factor now and then, I’ll admit to that!
It’s exactly the same for many adult riders. We come in all shapes, sizes and coordination and confidence levels. At the risk of sounding like I’m all kittens, lollipops and rainbows who cares how good you are or how long it takes you to learn to do something as long as you love what you do. So please, be kind to yourselves. This is your hobby, your love, your downtime, ‘your’ time away from life and its stresses. Enjoy it, work hard at it but find things to celebrate instead of focusing on what you can’t do!