‘Live every day as if it were your last’, is a powerful motivational quote. Maybe sometimes even a tad too powerful, urging us to cram everything possible into a tiny moment. (And it’s probably a good thing we don’t all follow it to the letter – waking up every day broke, exhausted and hungover!)
For me it’s more useful to understand its message as it relates to staying in the present. The trendy term is ‘mindful’. This means not thinking about past mistakes and not worrying about the future. This is so important in our relationships with horses.
My last article touched on the trials and tribulations of dressage. When my skills improved to a point where a 20m circle wasn’t egg-shaped, then showjumping became more of a focus. Less brain-power right? Oh no, so wrong! There’s much more need to be mindful.
Most people think about how they are going to ride physically – will we jump high enough, long enough, turn the corner sharp enough, kick soon enough, be fast enough? Little attention is paid to managing all the emotions and stress that we, the riders, carry inside our control centre – The Brain.
Having a degree in political science from Sydney University certainly doesn’t qualify me to talk with that much authority on sports psychology. But I am a case study of several situations where the mental game has been lacking. This has led to falls, knocked rails, bad halts and severe hangovers.
Sometimes there can be too much determination, and instead of leaving the horse alone in front of the jump I may have tried a lot of micromanagement and argument. One day it finally clicked that I needed to improve some of the mental skills that can determine victory or defeat at a competition.
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” ― Sharon Salzberg
One glaring example of a mental lapse in competition happened at a Silver Hills One Day Event a few years ago. My champion partner Barrel of Fun was ready to repeat his earlier CNC2* victory on this great course.
From the start things started to go downhill – and downhill became the theme of the day. Our dressage was positively average leaving us midfield and well below the top.
Onto the cross-country. This was my happy place. Silver Hills has quite a tough course to make the time on due to the terrain but we barnstormed around, making the leader board well ahead of 4* horses ridden by great riders such as Stuart Tinny and John Twomey.
Normally the showjumping wasn’t too much cause for concern since I had started training with Colleen Brook and we were skyrocketing. Thinking back though… maybe I didn’t take enough time to walk the course and take in the actual conditions. Truth be told, there could have been a few laurels sticking to my butt from previous wins. I was probably thinking “Just point and shoot, think of the glory!”
Now, it’s important to note that the showjumping arena at Silver Hills is a lush grass surface on a slight gradient, but nothing harder than what I had been practicing at home. Yet the surface was probably a “slow six” in racing terms so it took a little more effort than normal for a jumper to get up off of the ground.
The penultimate rider was Stuart Tinney who made the entire course look easy with just one little rail tapped down. Barrel of Fun started brilliantly, continued confidently, and turned towards the two last lines. There was a turn to a vertical, then slightly forward five strides to a combination. Remember that gradient mentioned earlier? Well, this final combination was traveling up the hill on a wet track and into the setting sun.
As we cantered around that final corner do you think my focus was on the job at hand? Nope. It had drifted off and was probably calculating how many jugs of beer could be purchased with the first place cheque. So with two rails in hand, this space cadet jockey managed to stop at the second last fence. Then a befuddled and lackluster second attempt led to worse…elimination.
It was a great wakeup call to focus on what was happening at that point in time. I was clearly thinking of after, and not just riding the horse on the field and the jump in sight.
One tip for mindfulness is to just concentrate on what’s happening around you. Just look at the ground and the jump ahead, feel the wind, sense the stride of the horse, hear the hooves. Catalogue what’s happening now. Let go of glories past and monsters future.
The other big tip is breathing. I actually do yoga. Ommmm. But there are lots of ways. Clean out the brain box. Don’t think of what might happen on the other side. Just ride – and what a glorious feeling it can be indeed.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.