Do You Ride Like Your Mother?

WMbriseye“Oh, Honey. You aren’t going to wear that, are you? Could you put some lipstick on, you are so much prettier when you smile. You should skip dessert, Honey, you look heavy. Are you dating anyone… don’t let him see your apartment looking this way. ”

That same voice on your horse sounds like this: “Pick up your lazy feet. No, don’t do that! *pulls rein hard, metal on bone* Go, go, goooo! *spur, spur, spur.* I know you know how to do this. Why are you pulling away from me? Do it right a few more times and you can have a break. That’s not good enough. Try again.”

“You’re not good enough.” That’s the message. Does it sound any better coming out of you than it did your mother? Maybe your mother was the soul of unconditional love, I hope so. Do you ever think you aren’t good enough all on your own? Is that how you want your horse to see you?

Before you know it, you’ve become a complaining whiner who is never happy with anything, especially your horse. Is the art you want to excel at upper-level complaining? Maybe you know better than to blame your horse, so you say something like, “My horse tried hard, but I did such a bad job of riding…” When your horse feels that through you, do you think he hears the pronouns? No, he only hears “bad job.”

I remember a Toni Morrison interview, back in 2000. She was saying that when her kids got home, she looked at them with a critical eye to see if their socks were up, if their hair looked okay. Ms. Morrison said, “You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”

I’ve remembered this interview for so long because it illuminated the choice. Both statements were true: the external surface of messy hair and the love she felt internally, in her heart. She chose the tone of her Mother Voice.

Ms. Morrison says it’s a small change to show your heart instead of your critical eye. To me it’s more of an acquired skill. It’s not about how much we love horses or our commitment to riding. The truth is a lot of us were taught to see what was wrong because it’s an easier, cheaper way to seem smart. It is always easier to find fault than it is to affirm what is good.

It’s pretty common for a client (trainer, vet, farrier) to give me the eyebrow squint for rewarding a horse with a good boy before he has done anything. When did we get so stingy with encouragement? What is the resistance to encouraging try instead of standing back doubting?

Do you think being positive is acceptable for a trail horse, but not a performance horse? Is it okay for a lower level dressage horse, but do upper level movements require more enforcement because the work is harder? No. No again. If you want your horse to advance in training, you have to advance as a rider. Some of that is technique and some of it is becoming better at training positive confidence in both of you.

In defense of women, we generally aren’t that good at receiving compliments. Sometimes it’s easier to hear we’re wrong than to accept praise, for our horse or ourselves. We deflect with a joke or awkwardness. We are self-effacing to the point of dysfunction. When did confidence become as illusive as thigh gap?

The seed that grows is the one we water, and the choice is yours. Reward the good, and for now, ignore the rest. Start with, “I’m a good rider!” Did anyone believe you?

You have a default riding position: Heels down, centered in the saddle, shoulders relaxed. Do you have a default mental position? I encourage my clients to have a riding mantra. Make it up, something meaningful to you. Something that expresses how your heart feels when you see your horse. (If you heart doesn’t light up there’s still time to take up stamp collecting.)

I’ve used the same mantra every ride for over 25 years and it’s inanely simple: I love my horse. I say it even if I’m on your horse. As soon as my seat lands in the saddle, I take a deep breath and say it. I say it every time I halt at X to begin a dressage test and every time things start to come apart. I say it twice if I’m working with a rescue.

I say what’s in my heart before the first stride partly because there is still a horse-crazy girl inside, and partly because I am a professional and I’ve proven to myself time and again that it always gets better results.

If it’s hard for you to say, if your voice sounds tiny, choose a different Mother Voice. Maybe the Big Boss Mare in the Sky chimes in with, “Good Girl. Nice job, ride on!”

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Anna Blake

26 thoughts on “Do You Ride Like Your Mother?”

  1. Thank you for what you wrote. Thank you for the reminder to speak what is in the heart. Growing up hearing mostly negative comments, switching to positive is sometimes a struggle and I never knew I might be passing on that negative to a horse I was riding. Horses are a life saver and I always want the horse to know the “love”.

  2. Great thoughts and I try hard to use these ideas each time I train or do a dog event. I start an agility run telling my dog how much I love them and thank them for ‘playing’ with me. I also always keep in mind that each run could be our last. You never know what the next moment holds and all that goes with that. Make each ride or run with your dog a loving positive one that you can always treasure.

  3. My mantra somehow came from a goofy movie my husband loved: I think it was called Meatballs, about two summer camps. One was for the elite, one was for the goofball castoffs. They had a camp competition and the goofball camp leader (Bill Murray?) taught them to say “It just doesn’t matter” when they were feeling inferior. Works for just about everything.
    And I have to agree with Linda. We just don’t know when. Best thing is to be alive every minute you’re here

  4. Thigh gap? Cracked me up. While I may never know what it is like to walk without the “swish, swish, swish” akin to corduroy or pantyhose, I will start practicing my mantra today, as soon as I go out to the barn to feed. I’ve got a few in mind; need to see which one fits best. Then, will make it a habit.

  5. I love this post! I had a TB whom I rescued, rehabbed and competed with… he taught me soooooo much about myself. He filled me up inside every day just by standing at the gate waiting for me to arrive. Every day and every night before I went to sleep, I sent him love vibes, up until he passed away last year at age 23. Thank you for reminding me to do that with all creatures!

  6. Many years ago I had a brilliant teacher who told me that I was so focused on what wasn’t right with my ride that I missed the one good stride, and so never learned the feel of it, and so couldn’t get another one. Since then my mantra is that I look for the good stride, in my horse, in my family, in myself. More good strides always follow the one.

  7. I was sent to your blog by Dancing Donkey, and I am so glad that she did. I am struggling with accepting that I might be a better rider than I feel like I am. So this was a good post for me to read. One thing I have recently implemented and have even posted on the side bar of my blog is “Riding Affirmations”
    Here is my list:
    1. I am a confident rider
    2. I ride with conviction
    3. I am the leader of this team
    4. We are a successful team
    5. My horse can do anything
    6. Up the phone Pole- down the foxhole we will go.

    I can’t tell you if it is helping yet, but I believe it will.

  8. This was very timely, I had a lovely ride this weekend, no objective other than to shed some of the Winter doldrums. The trails were bad, the rain setting in after weeks of unusually bitter cold weather (Chattanooga/Atlanta area) so I did not want to take a chance on a slip. Headed to an empty arena about 20 minutes away. I had read something recently about letting the horse just wander at first, warming as your body absorbed his movement. Understand this is a green off the track Arabian. I did just that, letting him set the tone, the tempo, the mood. IMaybe it was because I was thinking about staying in a positive mind, my sister is undergoing cancer surgery today so I was full of positive energy but it was spectacular! I was so happy for him and me! I have ridden in this arena on other horses (all Arabs) and never had them relax into the work as this time. I have been changing my approach in recent years and I have to say I wish I knew then what I think I know now just for the sake of the horses I rode!

    • I love Arabians, they seem to like a good conversation with a rider more than most. Once it starts in a quiet place, it is easy to get it back any other time. And like you, I think about the horses who tolerated me before I knew…
      Thanks for the comment!

  9. Interesting blog, sign me on! This particular one, I think, no, I KNOW, European women are fine with compliments, pretty OK with dishing them out too. Tell a Frenchwoman you love her jacket and she will be very pleased, explain how beautiful the stitching, say. In North America – ? No way (usually), the same compliment will get you, oh, this old thing, I’ve had it for years. Eeargh!

    North American women, ditto, more often very self-critical, cannot accept compliments. And, they do that exact same deal with their horses. Well, horses don’t mind read (although they come pretty close).

    And, with horses you have good deed to good pat (stroke or scratch by the withers is bette) is ten seconds; or else the horse doesn’t get the ‘connect’. Better to reward between fences, and yes! you can do this even mid-dressage test (which I’ve seen in Grand Prix levels even). And, if you’re schooling a horse, from brain studies I’ve been reading, it’s way better to ride something that’s come right for 30 seconds to a minute consisently from start time, THEN reward.

    Wonder if the same deal works with humans?!

    • Great comment, I agree about the tie between jackets and horses, don’t like to admit it though… I think this quick reward thing is crucial, even if it’s a word or a small release on the rein. It’s why clicker training works.


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