Sometimes it is important to take a few breaths, a step back, and reset in order to progress in your riding. That is what I did, albeit unintentionally when I traveled to Mongolia this August for the Gobi Desert Cup.
I spent three weeks out of the saddle between travel and giving my horse some time off with his anhidrosis. For many days I traveled by car and watched while eighteen riders had the adventure of a lifetime on the backs of a Mongolian horse, a breed largely unchanged for thousands of years. Was I jealous? Of course.
The final day of the race, I did join in the Officials Race, to gallop a short distance from the finish line to the base camp and horse line, while our riders cheered us on. The anticipation was almost too much to bear and I almost didn’t go through with it. But the exhilaration of racing against others while we were cheered from the sidelines gave me the boost I needed, and I felt powerful.
“Okay so I didn’t come in first, but I never thought I would! Here is to galloping a Mongolian pony across the Gobi Desert for a short time and NOT coming in last.”
The weather turned shortly after returning home from the desert and I was finally able to mount and ride Ferrous. I expected him to be a bit fresh after three weeks of rest and fully expected some bucking, or even spooking. But it never came.
I rode quietly, my body giving clear signals to him and we picked up every lead, every transition, and every moment completely in sync. It was just one of those perfect days. And I thought to myself- why? As a rider who spends too much time in her own head, I stepped back to ask why and analyze what we were doing right.
When a rider, such as myself, thinks too much we often get in our own way. We “do” too much, give too many mixed signals, or don’t sit quietly. This can be confusing to our mounts. Perhaps it is time to reset your riding and start over fresh.
1. Take Time Off
While you don’t have to travel to Mongolia on an equestrian adventure like I did (although I highly recommend it), the time spent out of the saddle was bittersweet. I was surrounded by horses and watching other riders. I saw them handle calm horses, fresh horses, and even naughty horses and filed all the information away in my little brain. I also had time to miss the riding for myself. After all, I was in a truck while I watched other horses for six days straight.
My passion for horses is such that I spend as much time as possible with them, writing about them, or photographing them. But dismounting and being an observer allowed me to miss my time in the saddle. It also gave me time to stop thinking so much about lessons or shows, and just enjoy the time without pressure.
2. Ride Other Horses
It is easy to fall into a routine with your own horse, or a horse you work with regularly. Riding different horses not only teaches you different things but also develop different skills. Ferrous is sensitive and responds well to aids, so much so that I have to sit quietly or get in his way. He’s taught me to trust myself more but yet be clear in my intention. For the last year, I’ve only ridden him. That is until I raced on that little Mongol horse I nicknamed, “Spanky”.
Spanky was gentle and kind, much like my own pony. However, he had been trained differently than my Hunter. Ferrous has had extensive groundwork, has voice commands, and very forgiving. Spanky was broke to ride and ready to go. After watching the others ride their horses, I knew I’d have only a few minutes to get a feel for him. From the beginning, I noted he was fine as long as he kept moving. The herdsman showed me the best rein hold (the Mongol horses steer with a neck rein) and had me repeat the “go” sound, a deep-throated “Choo”. So I experimented quickly with an opening rein, using very little pressure. Less is more because I didn’t know how forgiving he would be.
I sat quietly, asked, and we were off. I needed no leg to coerce. In fact, when walking behind the other riders to the starting line for the race we experimented by falling back and trotting to catch up using the voice command “Choo”. Who was I to question the Mongolian horseman who has ridden since before he could walk?
Listening to both the herdsman and my horse, we successfully galloped our way to the finish line. Maybe not to victory, but to finish is to succeed! And, I was happy not to come in last.
3. Change Disciplines
While I ride both English and Western depending on mood or need I have never ridden like a “Mongol”. Talk about a learning curve that I’m sure all the Gobi Desert Cup riders will have comments on. I absolutely stepped outside my comfort zone and many things that I have learned in the barn until then. The most important being, relax and communicate with your horse. Changing disciplines meant taking everything I already knew and adding to it, and in some ways, ignoring it for a bit. I had to adjust to the needs and education of my horse.
4. Pursue New Panoramas
Routines can be stifling and no matter where you ride, chances are you’ve seen it all. How many times will you travel the same trails or visit the same schooling rings? When you are uninspired, your riding will be uninspired. So, change it up! Trailer if you can to the beach, to a new state park, or go on an equestrian adventure! Equitrekking has a PBS show and website dedicated to equestrian travel if you are looking for ideas.
Choose a relaxed trail through the jungles of Costa Rica, a gallop along the beaches of the Caribbean, a canter along the meadows of Ireland. Or, if you crave a real adventure you can apply for The Gobi Desert Cup and have the thrill of a lifetime in Mongolia. I promise the scenery is about as inspiring as it gets.
While I perhaps spent 20 minutes in the saddle over the last three weeks, I learned a lot about horsemanship and my own riding. So much so that when I rode Ferrous today, it was effortless. The time spent away and out of my own head provided a blank slate. I learned more about myself in this time off than I had anticipated.
I needed to reset my riding. Not start over, but clear the slate and begin again fresh with a clear head and an open heart. Try it, and tell me what you think.