Creating a Thinking Rider

by April Clay

© 2000 April Clay. All rights reserved.

I distinctly remember attending a George Morris clinic where he posed this question: "what is your most important aid on a horse?"

Predictably, we all smugly yelled responses like: "legs!", "seat!", "hands!". It took a moment for George to untangle his face from the distortion that disgust had made it before he yelled back to us: "no, no, no - it's your brain! Your mind is the most important aid you have!"

He was right of course, and we were humbled.

I think no one would dispute that riding is a 'thinking' sport. Unlike sports like weight lifting or shot put, where the act is one of sheer power and force, riding is about strategy. You have to delicately balance the demands of the course, your horse and yourself. Often, however, we may lose sight of just how important a tool our brains are, and become entrenched in self-defeating patterns.

So what distinguishes a thinking rider from well, a non-thinking one?

To begin with, a thinking rider is a mindful rider. Mindfulness, according to psychologist Ellen Langer, is a state of mind in which we are in the present, actively drawing distinctions, generating options and asking questions.

In other words, when we are mindful, we are alert and focused, challenging incoming information to see whether it can help us to solve problems or improve our skills. Professional riders are thinking riders.

They can't go into a competition thinking "I sure hope this works out today".

They have to have developed a strategy from the knowledge of months or years of training and be prepared to carry it out. Thinking riders also take responsibility for their own progress, and have developed a problem solving orientation.

They are constantly evaluating and reevaluating the merits of their plan or strategy to see whether they are meeting their goals. Further, they realise that there is always more than one way to accomplish an objective, and welcome creative options.

If thinking riders are mindful, then non-thinking riders are certainly guilty on occasion of 'mindless' behaviour. Mindless behaviour involves taking in information uncritically, making assumptions from past experiences and operating from a single, often closed perspective. The latter often translates into the axiom: "but this is the way it's always been done before!" How often have you been frustrated by someone with this belief, wanting to scream "but why! It doesn't work anymore!"

Mindless behaviour can also involve becoming glazed over through the repetition of a task, something which we all know as 'being on automatic pilot'.

Have you ever been guilty of mindless behaviour?

Well, let's see, have you ever: come out of a round thinking "what did I just do?", gone off course, assumed that you could not do something (a course, a skill, a jump) because in the past you were unable to do it, make the same mistake again and again, assume there was only one solution to a problem, or done something because it was the 'way somebody else did it'?

Even if in the past few minutes you have judged yourself to be guilty of mindless behaviour, take heart. Here are some ways you can become a more thinking rider, or if you are a coach, encourage the development of thinking riders:

1. TAKE STEPS TO INCREASE AWARENESS: Mindless behaviour is characterised by a lack of awareness, or when you are just allowing things to happen.

Remember that awareness is the essence of mindful behaviour. One easy way to increase your personal awareness is by asking yourself, or if you are a coach, asking your students questions which provoke thought and challenge self knowledge.

When I was teaching riding lessons, it suddenly dawned on me that here I was saying "put your heels down", "don't let him drop his shoulder in that corner" and 'do this exercise" and my students didn't really know why in a lot of cases I was asking them to do these things. They were just mindlessly following my instructions and getting through the lessons, sometimes things would work out, sometimes not.

After I realized this, I began to teach quite differently. I wanted them to think about why the exercises and skills I asked them to practice were important, and in what other context they could use this knowledge to solve a problem.

So I began asking questions to test their knowledge, and using exercises in one part of the lesson that could be used in another portion of the lesson to help solve a problem. I also left time at the end of lessons specifically for questions, encouraging their queries as much as I could. The effect of this approach was that everyone stopped ridding around in a daze and were a lot more alert. They also became more interested in their riding.

The questions I asked about riding skills and exercises were designed to promote physical or technical awareness and knowledge, but I also asked questions to increase psychological awareness. For example, I might say "you did that last exercise really well, how did you prepare yourself mentally, and what helped you to concentrate so well that time?"

2. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY: Thinking athletes are responsible athletes. Riders who take responsibility for themselves are the kind of riders who know that their progress is dependent upon themselves, and not a trainer or coach.

They keep track of their goals and are able to ask for feedback when they need it. They are continually working towards knowing how to take care of their own needs, whether this involves being able to look after oneself at a horse show in the absence of a coach or trainer, or taking note of what kind of feed seems to work best for their horse at a competition. In short, thinking riders are in charge of their own riding career.

3. LEARN TO BE A PROBLEM SOLVER: Think of a problem you have with respect to your riding or some other area of your life. Have you begun to brainstorm about possible solutions or are you just hoping that it will somehow work itself out? Problem solving involves generating options and taking action.

In order to become a proficient problem solver, you must be open to different and creative possibilities. Remember that 'mindless' problem solving involves stubbornly sticking to one solution, even if it doesn't appear to be working.

If you watch the professional riders, you will notice that all of them will attack the same course in a very different manner. Part of the reason for this is the restriction of different horses, but in large part they differ because problem solving is an individualized process. It takes time to develop confidence in your own decision making and problem solving ability, so don't be too harsh on yourself if you don't think you have yet developed this skill. If you are a coach, you can encourage the development of problem solving ability in your riders by allowing them to generate their own solutions to a problem, and by allowing mistakes to occur when necessary.

If you can learn to become more of a 'thinking rider' the rewards are many: increased feelings of self-esteem, a reduction in stress, and feeling more in control.

A natural by-product of participating in sport is that it can promote self-awareness and responsibility, two skills which are as invaluable in life as they are in sport.

Possessing awareness and accepting responsibility translate into solving problems, into being in charge of your own physical and mental training, and of course, into being a thinking rider.

April Clay, is a Psychologist and former rider, instructor and judge residing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She regularly instructs riders in sport psychology skills and has just completed her first book, "Training from the Neck Up: A Practical Guide to Sport Psychology for Riders",