Old Habits Die Hard

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

At one very simple level, we can think of riding as the development of a set of physical habits. Through repetition and reinforcement, we develop conditioned responses to a given set of stimuli. These responses or habits help us put our muscles on autopilot, so to speak. Communicating and coordinating the correct aids to influence your horse while you are also trying to remember the sequence of movements in your dressage test or reining pattern requires physical and mental multi-tasking. The right habits can make the job a whole lot easier and eliminate a lot of frustration.

When these habits (some people call them “muscle memories”) serve us well, we call them “good habits.” When they do not produce the results we would like, we call them “bad habits.” Sometimes the difference between the two is not as clear to a rider as you would think.

Many students arrive at Meredith Manor with riding habits that, at some level, have served them well. Take for example, the rider who learned to ride and jump with her ankles locked to keep her heels down. This locked position may have served her well as a beginning rider because it gave her a sense of security and safety when riding cross country. It gave her a sense of control and that boosted her confidence in herself and her riding abilities.

What she arrives thinking of as a “good” habit, however, will severely limit her progress toward the upper levels of riding. To become a better rider, she needs develop an independent seat. That means she must learn to ride with all of her joints loose, absorbing the motion of the horse without bracing or stiffening in any part of her body. Riders with the habit of bracing anywhere in their bodies, including their ankles, tend to depend on the reins to turn their horses.

When this rider is asked to give up her locked ankles, to use all of her body parts independently, and to turn her horse primarily from her seat and leg, she will become incredibly frustrated. She’s likely to say, “I’m going backwards! I used to be able to turn and now the horse doesn’t pay any attention to me.”

Riding with loose joints so that each body part can work independently is a true “good habit” that will enable this rider to reach the upper levels of whatever sport she chooses. However, first she needs to be willing to let go of her old habit and to give up the sense of control it afforded her. That is not easy. She will have to retrain muscles that have learned to work in constant tension so that they work with elastic strength instead.

I tell students they have two choices. They can hang onto their comfortable habits and the sense of control they provide. However, if they stay where they are, they will be giving up any hope of being able to ride a grand prix jumper or grand prix dressage horse or just the horse of their dreams. Or they can accept the fact that they are going to regress for awhile while they do the hard work of developing an independent seat so that they can truly influence their horse’s performance.

I can empathize with students who arrive thinking they are good riders only to find they are regressing as they start in our program. The frustration can be enormous. I like to golf. When I wanted to improve my swing, I discovered that I was going to have to give up what I had already learned. The new way of holding a club and following through felt very uncomfortable. I wasn’t a beginner so the sense of starting all over again was hard on my ego. I was very unhappy when my swing became worse instead of better. Today, however, I’m glad that I listened to the pro and gave up the bad habits I had previously depended on. The regression was awful but once I developed new and more productive muscle memories, the feeling of progress was awesome.

When you are correcting bad habits and replacing them with good ones, it is important to have an instructor who can explain the goal you are trying to reach and how each exercise she recommends can help you get there. It also helps to ride a variety of horses. Again, it can be frustrating to find that the skills and habits that enabled you to ride one horse competently simply don’t work when you start riding a different horse. However, the individual responses of each horse to your seat and aids will enable you to feel the difference that good habits can make. Just keep riding.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Meredith Manor is far more than "just" an equestrian centre. Ron and Faith, I wish for just one moment you could feel the gratitude I have for you and what MM means to me. There will always be a little bit of my heart there. Thank you for such a wonderful education in many areas of my life!
Cynthia Moore Greene: 1992 Riding Master III Graduate