Research Paper By Lisa Eklund
(Equestrian Performance Coach, USA)
I have spent the last 35 years training horses and riders at one level or another and the last 18 years teaching riding and equine science at the college level. During all of those years I have experienced some major life events, some related to the horse business and some not that have shaken my foundation and sent me on the search for life’s meaning and purpose. In this journey I have learned better how to be more mindful and stay in the moment (sometimes) and have also found that it has helped me become a much better trainer. It is a constant work in progress. There are definite ups and downs along the way; falling off the mindfulness wagon and climbing my way back aboard. Each time this happens I feel I am a bit more mindful, a bit better at enjoying what is now and not looking forward or back. Every lesson I learn though these times of struggle helps me to be better in every part of my life, including training horses and riders. But I am not the only person exposed to the life lessons in this journey. My riders and students are as well. It is quite hard to separate learning a skill from the learning of life. We cannot separate our SELF from the skills we want to learn, as at each step along the way the issues we have with our SELF get intertwined with the learning of the new skill. Until we can take an honest look at who we are and see how we stay blocked in our path to learning we will be constantly stuck in a struggle with the learning process in all aspects of our lives..
I am going to share some of my training experiences to help show how life experience is woven into the learning process of a skill. The beauty of learning a skill is that, if you choose to do so, you can learn more about yourself and begin to live a more purposeful and mindful life. As you begin to live your life more authentically the new skill you are learning will become much more effortless. This doesn’t have to be about riding horses, it can be about learning anything. It just happens that I teach riding. The other element that makes the process of learning how to ride horses a real life lesson is that, when riding, you are working with another living being. Horses are very honest as they have no agendas like we do. They live in the moment and they mirror back to us how we are feeling and being. They are prey animals so they do remember what scares them and what makes them feel safe. They seek to stay in a comfortable, safe place and get away from the uncomfortable. That is how they survived in the wild. They are very honest about those choices but the rider has to really be in an honest conversation with the horse in order to notice. They have to listen to the answers the horse gives them. The following quote is from Shana Ritter’s article “The Horse is Your Mirror.” Sounds a lot like life coaching.
There is an old Arab proverb that says, “The horse is your mirror.” This applies, of course, to physical issues as well, but it is important to not overlook the psychological issues that it applies to. If we are open to what the horse is telling us, and what our riding is telling us, we will learn MUCH about ourselves and our issues. This isn’t always easy. We do not always want to know all of our faults and weaknesses. We don’t always want to acknowledge our impatience and habit of shifting blame (for example). BUT… if we take the opportunity this has presented to us, it is an incredible opportunity to DO something about it. Once you are open to it, and acknowledge it, you can begin to work on it. Just the simple act of acknowledging it often dis-empowers it to some degree. Suddenly we realize there is a pattern here. And it applies to how we live our lives, too, it is not just how we ride our horse, but also how we deal with our boss, our relationships, whatever.
By listening to what the horse and our riding is telling us, and by being willing to acknowledge and work on these issues, we will find that it carries over into other aspects of our lives. When you learn patience in dealing with your frustrations in riding, you realize you can also have patience in dealing with your frustrations in life.
Of course, this is not the easy path. It is much easier to stick to our habits of shifting blame and losing patience (or whatever patterns you may have). It takes great work, and incredible humility, to embark upon the task of improving ourselves.
In the following examples I will show how as a performance coach and trainer I work to shift the rider’s perspective in the same way I would as a life coach. Once learned on top of a horse the skills can be transferred to day to day life and once learned in life they can be applied to riding. It is really impossible to separate the two.
During one lesson a few years ago the riders and horses were just getting back into shape after a Christmas break. I wanted to concentrate on feel and letting go of a forced position. These riders work very hard to perfect their equitation and in the process they lose their feel of themselves and the horses they are riding. They were riding with forced heels, stiff joints and stiff hip and fixed upper body. I had them relax and wiggle their hips, unlock their knees and just feel their horses move at the walk. Suddenly the horses relaxed and lowered their heads and opened their walks. The horses also let out their breath and relaxed their breathing. The riders felt that and were pleased with the change. We continued this at the trot and worked over poles turning different directions. There were other riders in the ring and a couple of times there were close calls with the riders in the lessons feeling like they were being cut off. They got angry with the other riders. In actuality the close calls occurred because the riders in my lesson were only focused on what they were doing and not on the rest of the ring. They had a plan and were not going to make any adjustments as they went along. Actually, they couldn’t make any adjustments as they were not looking around them. They had no intention of changing their paths. I stopped them and asked them to reflect on the cause of their problem and to look responsibly at what was going on. They admitted they needed to take responsibility for what was happening and not shift the blame to others. Once they realized they needed to be aware of their surroundings and to let go of the fixed plan they navigated well over all of the poles and they did not have any more near misses. They realized that they had been as much or more at fault as the other riders in the ring. As they were more aware of the world around them they opened up to the horse more as well and stopped focusing on mistakes. If they made a mistake they relaxed more and learned from them instead of dwelling on them.
So, isn’t this all a good life lesson as well? The riders were blaming the others in the ring for their problems instead of owning the responsibility of the required awareness and etiquette needed to navigate a ring. Eventually they understood that they needed to have awareness of now and not be on a fixed and unbending path afraid of change and failure. They let go of holding their breath jut as the horses did. They allowed themselves the freedom of openness. If we all go through life with our eyes and our hearts open to what is around us and ready to change our plans and take responsibility for what we are doing we may go down paths that are more enjoyable, unexpected and interesting. Hopefully we will have new experiences along the way. We may make mistakes but we will also learn. If we stay open we have the opportunity to experience everything we do completely.
Another exercise I work on with my students is relaxing and feeling the horse while riding. We do shortening, lengthening and transitions. I have the riders concentrate on sitting deep and communicating with their seats first before they go to their hands. I encourage them to stay elastic the whole time. In order to do this the riders have to fight their muscle memory so they can change old habits. Riders will sometimes say to me something like, I feel it, but I can’t maintain the feel. That is probably the toughest thing about riding and definitely the toughest thing about life. We finally get this awareness about something we need to change. We know it is right and it is what we need to do, but we keep slipping back into old habits. That is okay. It takes time to change something we have done as a regular habit. It took time to create the bad habit so it definitely has to take time to change it. I acknowledge my riders for finding those moments of feel and encourage them to work on recognizing what is happening at that time and how they have come to that moment. I encourage them to be more mindful and in the moment in order to fully recognize what is going on. Letting go of self-judgement also allows the process to occur and it will helps to discover the feel again and stay with that feeling longer each time.
We often get angry with ourselves for slipping back into old patterns We get so caught up in worrying about this that we lose sight of our new sense of awareness and that we have found the new good habit. We don’t reward ourselves for that great accomplishment. If we let go of this anger and frustration we will eventually, with much practice, slip less and less back into those old ways while developing new, good habits. It takes dedication and perseverance to do so. It is not a quick fix. This is true in riding and any part of our lives. Becoming mindful and aware are the first and most important steps that need to happen before a change can occur. Then it is a matter of practice. One thing we always have to remember though is to forgive ourselves for making mistakes so that we don’t stay stuck in them. We are human after all and this life is a constant journey of trial and error and practice.
Mistakes and failures are often considered to be negative occurrences instead of opportunities to grow and learn. This thought process often keeps one stuck in a cycle of judgement. It becomes impossible to move forward as the fear of making mistakes and failing becomes stronger than the drive to move forward through the struggle, reflect on what has happened and learn along the way. Good riding requires more than passion. It takes perseverance and grit. The most successful riders are not afraid of making mistakes as they know that is how they get better and grow. Successful riders have goals and make a plan to achieve them. When their path towards their goals is blocked they find ways around the road block and create a new path. New goals are always being set. There is no end to their journey as they know there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection implies an end to learning and growing. Successful riders see learning as limitless. The advice I give my riders wanting to have success in any level of riding is to have what author Carol Dwek calls a growth mindset. Keep looking at failures as opportunities to grow and understand that with hard work and dedication there will be success. The success is actually in the process of the learning. There really is no end point. The passion should be for learning about riding not for winning.
In her 2014 graduation speech at Naropa University Pema Chodron had great advice about failure. “I said, ‘I think the most important thing for you kids going out into the world right now is to know how to fail really well,'” Chödrön says. “[Learn] the skill of knowing how to hold the pain of things happening that you really don’t want to be happening.”
Chödrön calls the pain of failure the “rawness of vulnerability” and says we can train ourselves to welcome those feelings, rather than run from them, by seeing failure as an opportunity. “Something is going to come out of this,” she says. “Something new. This can end you up in a whole new place — a better place, a much more open place.”
When my riders finish an exercise I will sometimes ask them a simple but powerful question in order to get them to shift their perspective from staying stuck in their mistakes to one of open mindedness. That question is, “What is it that you like about the ride you just had?” If this is the first time they have been asked this in a lesson they often get caught off guard and have trouble coming up with an answer. As coaches and trainers we often talk about the mistakes riders make in order to look for places to improve. Sometimes that way of training can get the riders only focusing on what is going wrong instead on what is going right. If the focus is shifted to what is going right the riders begin to relax when they ride and build on what is working and let go of the judgement about their mistakes. So they build on the positive and look for possibilities instead of feeling shame. It is a great tool to use as a performance coach and as a life coach. This helps your client open up to what is happening instead of shutting down when there is a bump in the road.
It is quite evident that when learning a new skill the same things we are blocked by in our day to day lives are mirrored in our struggles with the new skill. The examples are endless. Performance coaches, life coaches, career coaches, teachers, trainers and bosses at work and anyone else with a teaching role all would benefit from learning and using core coaching skills and techniques. The fabric of our lives is woven like a fine tapestry where everything is interconnected. People can gain self-awareness and have perspective shifts when trying to learn and improve a new skill. They can then take this new awareness and apply it in other areas of their lives. My love for life and career coaching has grown organically from my career as an equestrian coach and trainer. As I have opened my mind and awareness through the years and shifted many perspectives in my life, I have become a better equestrian coach and share my passion for self- growth and awareness with my students. It is a wonderful opportunity to both teach someone the new skills and techniques needed to become a good equestrian and also partner with them in in their life journey. I now look not only at a rider’s skills but I also listen closely to what they say and how they express themselves both verbally and physically. I have, through the years, improved my emotional intelligence. That has helped me become a better equestrian coach, teacher, life and career coach and self. Daniel Goleman explains that, “If you’re a coach, you’ve got to engage the person, get them enthused about achieving the goal of change. Here it helps to draw on their dreams, their vision for themselves, where they want to be in the future. Then work from where they are now on what they might improve to help them get where they want to go in life.”
“In life” can mean any part of life. It can be when working with someone learning any skill or changing any habit whether it is in day to day life, school work or in some sport or leisure activity. Coaching in any part of someone’s life can help them in the whole of their lives. As coaches we have the opportunity to help clients shift their perspectives. Since all parts of our lives are so connected each time a shift occurs the client brings that new mindset with them in everything they do. Each time this happens the world becomes a little bit better place.
“Pema Chödrön On Why Failure Is A Skill We Must Learn To Do Well” Own Video. Huffington Post. 14 Oct, 2014. Web 28 June, 2015.
Dwek, Carol. Mindset: The Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006. Print.
Goleman, Daniel “Developing Emotional Intelligence. “ Emotional Intelligence. Daniel Goleman. 3 April, 2013. Web 5 July, 2015.
Ritter, Shana. “The Horse is Your Mirror.” Artistic Dressage. Classical Dressage and Artistic Dressage. 2000. Web. 26 June, 2015.