Back to basics

It would be good for him to go back to basics... Maybe you should go over the basics again... Perhaps you need to go back to basics... It’s a good idea to go back to basics... and so on and so forth.  How many times have you heard one the above phrases?  How many times have you said one of them (or words to that effect)?

We all know that ‘going back to basics’ is a good idea, and at times could be necessary to help you move forward.  No matter where you have gotten to in your training and no matter where your horse is in his training, the basics are important.  If you don’t have some key fundamentals it won’t be long before you start to get problems and reach road blocks, and you have to go back and start all over again.  Many times you will have to undo some of the work you’ve done, in order to get the basics going right again, before you can move on!

How many times have you actually done it?  For more than five minutes?  For more than one day?  It isn’t a phrase anyone really wants to hear.  It gives us the feeling of going backwards, of getting worse instead of better, and of feeling incompetent.  A yet we all know it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and needs to be done from time to time.  I believe it’s important for us as much as it is for our horses.

This topic was bought to the front of my mind today while I was riding.  Last week I rode a new horse for the first time.  This horse (Nip) is an Endurance horse and I’m riding her (and potentially a few others) alongside her owner to help her with her time.  Her owner (E) has recently moved with the horses from another country so has a lot on her plate with getting the new yards and fields set up and keeping her horses exercised.  She advertised for a rider to help and having had a passing interest in Endurance I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about the sport while being a part of a team preparing the horses.  E is also a BHS AI and has been competing internationally in Endurance for some time, so I’m sure to be learning a lot from her while working alongside her.

That first ride I felt like I was all over the place.  E wanted to see me ride in the little area of field she uses for schooling.  The thought of people watching and appraising my riding always makes me nervous.  The background I was given about Nip is that she is quite sensitive, can be silly but won’t do anything nasty and hasn’t been ridden for about 12 months.  Ps. Nip is an Arab, and my main experience with Arabs comes from my old Mare Coffee.  Coffee was no easy ride either but rather than making me feel better about this situation it made me feel worse.  It’s been a few years now since Coffee left us and a few more than that since I was really riding her regularly.  I don’t know if I will be able to gel with this horse like I did with her, and I didn’t know if I wanted to either.  Coffee really was my one in a million, no other horse will ever take her place, and just because this is another Arab mare it does not mean we will be able to get along.  I would also really like this to work out and after E explains she is quite particular about how her horses are ridden I’m even more nervous.  I manage to get it together enough not to make a complete hash of it, Nip and I seem to get along alright but I wouldn’t say we made friends or anything.  I think Nip takes a lot more than a 20 minute ride to win her over and it sure wasn’t my best riding!  E seemed happy enough to let me return again this week though and gave me some pointers to go away with.  While I was riding another horse this morning I finally remembered to give it some thought.

The pointers had to do with the weight distribution in my stirrups from left to right.  I was putting more weight down through my left stirrup than my right which was giving Nip the opportunity to fall through her shoulder.  I can assure you it’s been a little while since I looked at my position, and weight distribution in the saddle and stirrups is one of the first things we do when we learn.  I can remember it being drilled in to us in those early riding schools lessons, ‘Even weight in both stirrups, heels down, long legs, one leg either side of him...’ and so on.  So, essentially I’m going back to basics; again.  My morning rides went well and I managed to reflect on my weight distribution, found a good fix to get the right muscles engaged to balance me out, and I’m really glad I did it.  Nip proved to be just as testing on our hack round the nearby field, and I really needed to be on my game.  She’s quite skilled at gradually and gently pushing you of balance to slowly get you to follow her thoughts!  I relaxed quicker today, and Nip and I got on better than last time (even though we had a little more wiggling about and strops from her) as I felt we had a job to do, rather than just having my riding scrutinised.

I'm always going back and revisting things I've done in the past.  I've had to go back to the begining with Buddy and loading after he had a bit of an episode (this has taken some time but we are now loading again as well as we ever have).  I've noticed in the last month or so Buddy has started to show signs of tension when being tacked up and mounted, so Freya and I are going back to basics with tacking up and really concentrating on how we present ourselves to him.  This was clearly having a knock on effect in ridden work as a few niggles in riding have disappeared all on their own after we've started taking this time to go over 'old ground'.

I had revisited the basics with a new appreciation for them.  I’d been able to look in to them deeper, and I now have more knowledge and skills as a rider and coach than the last time I looked at these areas.  This means I’m not just ‘going back to basics’ I’m adding a new level to the basics and scrutinising them in a new light in greater detail.

So the point I want to get across is, the next time you feel you are having trouble moving forward maybe you need to try ‘going back to basics’.  Try not to look at it in a diminishing light.  Consider the new knowledge you can bring to the table when looking at the basics, and see it as a chance to go a polish these skills.  I can assure you taking the time with them, really breaking them down and opening up the topics can be quite interesting, and it’s certain to help you improve.  When you go back to these basics and find they are rusty, don’t be disheartened, you knew that already, that’s why you went back.

"If you’re not willing to go back every day and start over, you shouldn’t have started to begin with, because you might have to start over a lot of days in a row before it carries over from one day to the next, or one month to the next or one year to the next. I could start over 500 days in a row and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I’m going to be the same guy at the beginning of the day each day as what I was the day before. Not everybody has that in them. I often tell people that it doesn’t make any difference to me where I start my day, it makes a difference to me where I finish my day. Did I leave things a little better off than how I started? It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it’s just a little better off than how I started, I got along just fine." - Buck Brannaman


Ok it's been a while again, especially since I wrote a horsey blog, so here we go.  I'm just going to recount a little story for you and then give you some of my thoughts on the subject.  The story came to mind while I was reading about confidence strategies today.

The other day I was riding a young horse.  I've been riding this particular mare for some time now.  She was sent away to be 'broken in' after the owner and I had done some basic groundwork to lay a good foundation for her.  I've then ridden her weekly to continue her education and build on that foundation in the saddle.  She's doing very well and is starting to find a little joy and relaxation on our rides.

We had taken a route that goes along the bottom of the woods, around the end and then back up through the trees to do a loop, before we would then make our way back to her field.  On the way up the hill she started to get a little extra 'keen', she pricked her ears forward and I could feel her energy rise.  She'd seen or heard something that I hadn't yet.  

Knowing her background (except for the two weeks 'breaking in') I knew a lot about what this mare can handle and how she deals with things she is unsure of.  I would say I know her reasonably well and I know that I can deal with most anything she is going to do (given the potential situations I could imagine at the time).  After a small lift in my adrenaline at her response, I had very quickly bought my 'arousal levels' back down by thinking of a few solutions to scenarios I could bring to mind.  

I ducked under some low branches hanging down and as we rounded the next corner I then saw what she had heard.  It was two other riders going the other way.  No problem, they were going down a track off to our right and we were carrying on to the left on the path they had just been on.  I talked to my horse, telling her it's ok that they are going a different way and to keep her concentration on where we were going.  Talking to the horse is more to help me keep on track as to what I need to do and I find it works well.  I give her a little scratch at the withers and we both carry on as if nothing happened.  The riders call out as they see me/hear me 'There's a tree down on that path, you can't get through'.  I'm focusing on my own young steed so I quickly thank them for letting me know and carry on to see what the blockage is. 

This wasn't because I didn't believe them that a tree was down but because I like to go through the problem solving process with a horse.  It's good for them I think, to experience a little waiting, to come across a blockage and realise that their rider will find a solution, and that they may be given a new job to do. 

I soon saw the tree they were talking about, it was a long dead tree, the bark stripped from its trunk and very few branches on it.  It had indeed fallen across the track, and it was too low to duck under, too tight and too high to jump.  However, I quickly scanned the surrounding area, I saw a gap in the trees to my right.  Looks good.  I assessed the ground as we approached and apart from a few brambles, that looked good too.  I decided to go for it, checking the ground as we went to look for any sign of rabbit or Badger holes and a few seconds later we were on the original path again and on our way as planned.  No drama. No trouble.

What stood out to me, a few minutes later on my ride and again with a little more understanding today, was the use of the word can't.  The rider had taken a completely different path (which curves round  and cuts out the end of the woods) because a tree was down.  It was very simple to get past it though, as far as I could see.  So I wonder, did they have a similar 'adrenaline lift' and were unable to get their own arousal levels down? Did their horses react more strongly to the sound of me and my horse coming? Did they react to the tree?  What made them decide to take a new path rather than finding a way round, and why the word can't?  They didn't sound stressed or flustered, it sounded like a very matter of fact statement. Maybe they had to make that decision, and tell themselves they could not get by in order to rationalise a fear or other feeling that the tree blockage bought up?  Perhaps this was caused by a previous unfortunate incident, that had involved a blocked path and had ended up going wrong....? 

Now, please realise here I don't know these riders and I am merely speculating, and musing over the situation.  Please don't feel I'm laying out any judgements here.  I won't ever know the answers to these questions, but these musings made me think about how often we hear a story, a statement of 'fact' from another rider and just take this on, without question?  How often do we hear 'it's windy up there' and we choose to take our ride somewhere else or not to ride?  Maybe it's not windy but it's too hot, it's slippy, there's sheep, or cows, it's busy... And so on and so forth, and even if these things have never been a problem before, all of a sudden, it becomes a problem.  Maybe it's only a little bit but it makes us think twice, and sets our subconscious mind to finding a problem, a negative scenario.  It's ready to protect us from this perceived danger, that we hadn't considered dangerous until now. 

Next time you have a similar situation, I'll bet it will be the next time you chat at the yard, really have a good think.  How have you processed the information provided to you? Can you consider it with interest, know you are capable of dealing with whatever that perceived problem is, and move on, or does it begin a negative thought pattern and get you rearranging your ride/plans?

If it gives you a negative thought pattern, just notice that the person relaying this information is fine, and their horse is fine, and I'll bet you will be fine too!  This should help you to realise what is happening is fear, the perception of danger, not actual danger.

*Disclaimer: please do take note of anything actually dangerous, like a lion loose in the woods.  I don't want people running around willy nilly throwing themselves in to truly dangerous situations.  But do consider is this perceived dangerous, and so just fear, or actually dangerous?

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