Thinking vs Doing

One of the symptoms of being cooped up in the indoor is that I have a lot more time to think about my jumping. Doing courses outside, I get into a rhythm with the jumps. I have space to feel the movement of my horse before, between, and after the fences and because of that my body is more attuned to what it needs to do; I can rely on instinct to feel the spots. In the indoor, everything is so stop-and-go. There’s a lot more downtime between fences because we are usually only doing a single jump or a line. It requires a lot of planning, like deciding whether I prefer to negotiate a clusterfuck of ponies on the approach or on the landing. On the approach it can make me so disorganized, often putting us off-center on the first jump because the turn has to be cut short to dodge all the other horses. That makes the whole line out of whack. I find that dealing with them on my landing is preferable, although only the lesser of two evils. It means that the whole way down the line I’m thinking about where I’m going to take the barreling 1,500 lbs underneath me so that it doesn’t crash into or run over anyone.

The remedy for this, I’ve found, is to take a lot of time to get set up. To circle, to plan, to wait. And all that time, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do. How my left leg is going to push my horse over to the center of the jump. How I’m going to hold him to the base, wait to find the closer spot. These are important things to think about. But thinking about them too much in previous weeks has, I think, gotten in the way of me doing them. In today’s lesson I focused a lot more on my bodywork on the flat and because of that was able to get back to more instinctual jumping.

I rode Jasper, who I believe is my favorite horse in the barn. He’s not the best mover or the best jumper. He doesn’t have the finesse of Max or the verve of Summer. But something just between us just gels and I tend to have my best jumping lessons on him. He was fresh when I got on him, making the flatwork energetic and fun. I worked a lot on lengthening and shortening his stride, making a game of weaving in and out of the other horses to keep our forward momentum. I also tried out the technique I used last week with Max to get him off the forehand. It was not as drastic a result with Jasper, but I certainly felt his head come up and his weight shift backward. With this balance, I was able to bend him a lot better than usual as well. As Hannah described it, he “turns like a motorcycle”, just chopping corners left and right. But today he was really responsive to my leg and more flexible than usual.

The main thing I wanted to focus on today was quieting my upper body–particularly on my transitions and over the jumps. Two things helped me do that. The first is a concept that I just recently re-read in Centered Riding, where Swift describes growing your upper body out of the saddle like a tree. The image in the book shows that below the waist are the roots, while above are the trunk (your spine) and branches (your arms, your jaw, everything that hangs). She suggests trying to stretch yourself up in the saddle to illustrate that “growing” is different.  When you stretch yourself up, your seat loses contact with the saddle. When “growing”, your body extends from your center upward as your legs reach down and around your horse. You have much more stable, and much less rigid, contact with the saddle and your horse. I’ve been practicing this growing with my upper body all week as I stand at my desk at work and as I walk around. I think what has contributed to being able to do that more easily is the second thing, which is that I’ve been swimming regularly. I finally have gotten on track with my workout schedule and have been swimming a few times now. I can already feel the difference it is making in my upper body, particularly in my chest and upper back. These are historically weak areas for me and have always been a problem spot in my riding position. But with this increased strength in my chest, the upper back is able to relax open, the shoulder blades moving down my back instead of my shoulders being forced open by my upper arms. The chest itself is more open as well. The area around my sternum pushes forward and upward, allowing room for my spine to extend naturally and my neck to lengthen, lifting my head.  With everything open like that, there’s so much more space for my muscles to do what they need to do. Instead of scrunching down and rounding my lower back to firm my upper, it feels like my muscles are free to stretch out and support the framework of my bones. There is simultaneously much more stillness and much less tension in my whole upper body.

So these things helped a great deal, and I was able to do what I set out to do. With my transitions, I took some extra time to set my horse up and with my tall and quiet upper body, had so much of an easier time using my legs to push Jasper into the canter. He picked it up smoothly and then once we were there, I didn’t have to take several strides to pull myself together as I usually would do when rocking my upper body to generate momentum; we were already collected.  And then when we were jumping, focusing on keeping my upper body still took my mind away from over-thinking my fences. I was much less hesitant than I have been in previous weeks. Jasper can always use some encouragement, even on an up day. We trotted into the cross-rail and cantered out over a low vertical. I know he can tend to hold back and go for the closer spot most of the time, but I wasn’t into “knowing” today. More connected than I have been in weeks, I could feel his rhythm, and without thought I closed my leg and went for it. He was right there with me and every time, we took off from a smooth, even, slightly big spot. And it felt great. The line felt like the exciting place it is, a place containing our inexorable and united movement toward the jump.


Today’s lesson was a back-to-basics sort of ride and it felt very productive. With the end of the softball season, I’m more focused again on really trying to be an equestrian athlete. No matter what I do during softball season, it seems like a little part of me hangs back; I can’t throw myself fully into other physical endeavors because at the back of my mind is always the thought that I cannot get hurt and miss any games.

With that distraction removed, I’ve also started doing some reading about riding theory. As much of a voracious reader I’ve been for my entire life, I mostly read fiction when I was a kid. I read thousands of stories about horses but I don’t think it ever occurred to me to seek out any books on riding. There was a separation in my mind: sports and the physical world in one area, and words and the world of ideas in another. This was one of the reasons I was so excited to get back to riding as an adult, now that I have learned how to learn and cannot stop doing so for how much I love it. Now riding can occupy both worlds; it can be a sport but it can also be a study.

The book I’ve started recently is called Centered Riding by Sally Swift. Her techniques are focused on reducing stiffness and tense riding in order to connect more fully with your horse through body awareness and the reassessing of habitual responses. It’s a philosophy that makes a great deal of sense and jives with what I was thinking a while ago about how similar riding can be to yoga. I love the feeling when I read an idea that is so simple and obvious that it seems like it should be something I’ve already known, but it takes this particular writer putting it in just this way for it to resonate so perfectly. I’ve only just begun reading Ms. Swift’s book, but I’ve experienced that feeling a couple of times already.

I went into my lesson today intent on using some of the techniques she described, particularly focusing on breathing and centering. Breathing has historically been a big issue for me while riding, particularly while jumping courses. As a teenager, my trainer was concerned that I might be suffering from asthma when I would be gulping and gasping for air after even a short course. But I never had breathing problems in any other context and it was soon discovered that the truth was I was holding my breath. The entire course. So from then on, while she would call out suggestions about my position–“heels down” or “eyes up”, interspersed would be intermittent reminders to “BREATHE!” I still notice myself doing this while jumping and after cantering around the ring for a long time. I think I do it because I’m trying too hard. I can feel my muscles getting tired and I’m focusing so intently on keeping them tense and strong and tight in order to remain in position that I’m actually forgetting to breathe and depriving them of what they need in order to keep performing.

The other technique, centering, made me aware of my body and posture in a completely new way. Swift suggests that our center is in the front of the pelvis halfway down from the navel. There’s an illustration in the book that shows that area in cross section and demonstrates that at that point the spine is so thick that it actually resides in the center of the body.  Being aware of this makes me organize my body in a completely different way, and not only in the saddle. I realized that my posture is often with my shoulders and head pulled forward, leaning in that direction instead of stacked over my hips and spine. This is true when I’m sitting, when I’m walking, at my standing desk at work, and certainly when I’m riding.

The horse I rode today was a medium-sized blood bay named Thibault (blood bays are like regular bays, brown body with a black mane and tail, but the brown part is a beautiful reddish color). He was a little challenging for me, or maybe just not a perfect fit because of the unevenness of his gaits. He had a tendency at both the trot and canter to start off by getting a little speedy. He would respond right away when I half-halted to collect him, but then shortly after he would start flagging and I would have to nudge him forward again, and he would speed up too much, starting the circle over again. He did the same thing with turns, cutting one corner only to go extremely deep into the next one. It was difficult to maintain a steady rhythm with him, as I felt like I was constantly chasing him back and forth to extremes in search of the mean. (As I’m writing this I’m having the realization that that’s another particular challenge of mine, balance. It’s probable that he was just more sensitive than I was aware of at the time and that I was overcompensating slightly in the use of my aids. I hope I get to ride him again sometime soon to test out that theory and try again with him because he was a good boy.) Thibault also had an especially lopey canter; the motion was very down and forward, like he was running into the ground. After my trainer mentioned that he was trained as both a Western and English horse, the pieces clicked into place and this made a lot of sense; throw a Western saddle on him with its deeper seat and longer stirrups and that would have been a lovely canter, but it could be a little difficult to sit perched up there on an English saddle with my stirrups short for jumping.

So while I was riding and focused on doing my best with this horse who, while not an instantly easy match for me, at least was very responsive and willing, I thought that I didn’t have much attention for trying out my new techniques. But actually, the challenges I faced with Thibault today were great for working on both of them.  The off-rhythm of our movement was a little frustrating, but when I remembered to breathe deeply through my whole body there were moments of connection. At the canter, it took a lot of effort to keep his head and center of balance up, but picturing myself weighted down in my newly-discovered center and sitting deeper there rather than just creating the tension on the reins through my arms and shoulders was much more effective. It was the same over the jumps. Sitting back and waiting instead of leaning forward and rushing to the first jump made me able to get into a rhythm with my horse and choose together our take-off point instead of one of us deciding and the other being like “oh now, ok now? OK!”

Today we did not jump a full course again, but rather worked on the basics over a couple of lines. It was a bit more in the realm of “study” and I appreciated it. I’m excited to keep reading this book and to keep applying the techniques in my lessons. I’m just excited about life, really, these days. So much to learn and I feel very open and ready to soak it all in.