The danger of frustration in riding is most easily seen in riders, but what about our horses. I know when I feel like I’m riding into a rut and I can take steps to get myself out of it. Recognizing the same feelings in our partners is a little trickier.
As a dressage rider, and a lower level one at that, I feel like I’m in more danger of creating a stagnant learning environment for myself and my horses because the number of things we can do is fairly limited compared to that of say, a grand prix rider. That said, frustration is certainly not exclusive to dressage.
So what can we do to avoid it?
1.) Know the signs
When I get frustrated I start to whine, I start to make excuses, and I stop actively thinking. When my second level horse gets frustrated he bunches up his neck, his stride gets bogged down and stilted, and he starts looking for opportunities to act out. When my Appaloosa gets frustrated he bucks, reliably. When my OTTB gets frustrated he just gets a dull look in his eye. No acting out, no visible signs of frustration or boredom but plenty of internalized angst.
Know the signs in you and your horses. Don’t forget that they’re individuals and will deal with frustration or boredom in different ways.
2.) Switch up your location
This could be as simple as riding in a new space. If you always ride in an indoor, try riding in an outdoor arena. Better yet, take your horse for a hack. If you’re nervous about riding on trails or cross country try riding around your horse’s pasture. Hopefully when it’s empty, but if it makes you and your horse feel more secure, try riding while the horses are still turned out in neighboring pastures.
3.) Make a change to your training
If you or your horse is stuck on a challenging movement don’t keep hammering away at it. Stop for a second and think about why it is challenging. For you, are you understanding how to ask for the movement? Are you coordinating your aides in a way that is effective for your horse? For your horse, do they have the proper foundation to know how to do it? Are the properly muscled, trained, and prepared for a more advanced idea? Either way, approach the situation from a different angle and give you and your horse an opportunity to regroup and reset.
At the same time, ask yourself if you and your horse are ready for something more advanced. Are you pushing yourself forward toward your riding goals or are you basking in the glory of being a big fish in a small pond. No two riders are the same, but I know that I like to avoid situations where I’m not going to do my best so I tend to fall back on movements and patterns that I know how to do well, the exact opposite of what I should be doing.
Here’s some links to great books about mental training, for you.
4.) Try something new
If you find yourself riding into a rut it could be a great opportunity to try something new. Always wanted to try jumping? Find a trainer and a reliable mount and try it out. Yes, you can try it by yourself and with your own horse but if neither one of you has done it before…
Here’s some links to a few organizations with certified instructors that might be able to help.
Always wanted to enter a show or ride in a clinic? Why not do it! I always seem to be more productive and focused when I’ve set a date and invested some money into a goal. No, you don’t have to spend a whole lot of money but sometimes the value of an outsiders perspective, be it a clinician or a judge, is exactly what you need to give your training a boost.
5.) Take a break
Sometimes just stepping away helps. I used this technique for the last two weeks when I felt myself working back into the same negative head space that I found myself in a a year ago when I was ready to quit riding all together. By coincidence, my coach had to go in for surgery and couldn’t teach. Instead of trying to do a lot of work during this break I didn’t ride. I went to the barn and just spend time with my horses. I cleaned the stalls a little more than usual. I took the time to scrub down their walls and strip out all dust that had accumulated around their windows. I had a couple of very nice, calm, and settling long lining sessions with them.
I took the time to connect with my horses on a level other than riding and I know that it helped strengthen our relationship.
These are just five tips to avoid riding into a rut that have worked for me. If you have any other tips or tricks to help break a stagnate cycle in you or your horse please feel free to share!