Book Report

As promised, I want to give you some highlights from a book I’ve been reading called “Ride With Your Mind” by Mary Wanless. She talks a lot about the way the brain works and processes information and how this applies to learning to ride, or learning to fix ingrained habits to become a better rider.

First interesting concept: She talks about what happens in your brain when you simply sit on a horse. It’s similar to standing on the edge of a cliff. Your brain is overwhelmed by the sensation of being up high, and in the case of horseback, having something moving underneath you. Your brain has to constantly adjust your balance and center of gravity to match that of the horse. Your brain can only process so many bits of new information at once, so a very beginning rider’s brain is hard at work to simply balance on the horse at the walk. As the rider begins to get used to the motion, the trainer will often say things like, “Keep your heels down and your hands quiet.” Often a beginner can only focus on one body part at a time. If the heels are down, the hands may be all over the place because the rider has not reached the point where she is able to control both these body parts at once while keeping her balance. I remember as a beginning rider (which was not that long ago) feeling like a hot mess. Trying to keep my lower leg still was hard enough, nevermind keeping my hands in one place!

As the rider gets more time in the saddle, the brain learns to “parallel process,” which means control and be aware of multiple body parts at once. The rider starts to gain control of the lower leg while simultaneously being able to concentrate on having quiet hands. Obviously, the longer you ride, the more accustomed your brain becomes to the sensations of riding and the more able you are to control your body and simultaneously your horse.

Second interesting concept: A good portion of the book is photos from lessons with riders at various levels. She goes through each rider’s weaknesses and explains what has to happen in the brain in order to correct these weaknesses. Many rider weaknesses are results of things like postural abnormalities. For example, if you have a spinal curve that causes you to lean slightly to the left, your entire posture and seat will be affected. Instead of being perfectly balanced in the saddle, one of your seat bones will be more heavily weighted. Horses are very sensitive to these little imbalances and their balance is affected by our imbalance, however unaware we may be. A rider who leans to the left has to consciously fix this. Think about how hard it is to sit with perfect posture in a chair. After just a few minutes, your core muscles will become fatigued because they are not used to being used correctly. Similarly, if a rider is constantly shifting left, making a conscious effort to shift back toward the middle will be exhausting at first. Many riders underestimate the effect these small imbalances have on their riding and on their horse’s ability to move in perfect balance. Because they are very hard to correct and require a retraining of muscles, many riders never make the necessary changes. It’s easier to say, “Oh, my horse is just stiff on the left rein. Always has been.” In actuality, the horse may be responding to small imbalances in the rider’s seat. To correct these, the rider will have to work extremely hard and create new “muscle memory.”

More to come….

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