Why Do You Take Riding Lessons? Don’t You Already Know How To Ride?

Recently, I have been following the reports about David O’Connor’s approach to the USEF Eventing High Performance training sessions.  It got me thinking about coaching and mentorship and how it relates to attitudes about sport psychology.  In every sport, athletes seek out and receive coaching regardless of the their level of accomplishment and their knowledge of the game.  For the dedicated athlete there is always room for improvement.  There is always room to hone skills, expand knowledge, and strive to get better.

At the highest levels, this is often less about being directly taught than it is about seeking out a different perspective.  Having a skilled and respected colleague provide perspective and allow us to see ourselves through their eyes often leads to valuable insights and understandings that we might not otherwise come to on our own and improve our performance.

What puzzles me is that, so often, our attitudes toward the psychological side of our sport differ dramatically from our attitudes toward the physical side.  While we actively and consistently strive for improvement in our riding skill and ability through lessons and regular clinics, my experience suggests that sport psychology consultation has been primarily relegated to the role of fixing problems.  It is a lot like the way we deal with medical doctors.  We go when we get sick and are far less likely to engage their help in developing and maintaining a wellness program, more less improving a wellness program that seems to be working “well enough”.

It is easy to question the riding community for using sport psychology in this way, but I have to wonder if sport psychologists and mental skills consultants carry a large part of the responsibility in the way they we promote what we offer.  I looked at my library of sport psychology resources recently and took stock of what was offered.  Most of what I found focused on presenting and explaining how to use one or more of the traditional sport psychology skills; goal setting, energy regulation, visualization, motivational strategies, etc.  There is something about the way we present this information to the public which gives short shrift to the complexity of the human experience.  Don’t get me wrong, these skills are very useful and helpful to people.  They are an integral part of my professional arsenal and often provide almost immediate relief and assistance to clients struggling with a host of concerns. However, focusing so much on discrete mental skills shifts the attention away from exploring the rider as a whole person.

Who we are as a person is profoundly important in how we engage in equestrian sport.  For example, how we deal with conflict has a direct impact on how we react when our horses have a different idea than we do about something that we are going to do.  Our characteristic patterns in coping with stress will impact our behavior during competition.  Our preferred emotional style will determine the nature of our responses to emotionally intense events.  Our characteristic patterns of orienting our attention (inward vs outward) will impact the type and level of awareness we have as we ride.  The nature of our self-concept will shape our evaluation and judgement of ourselves.  These are just a few examples of how facets of our personality or broader psychology can impact our ride.

In dealing with riding concerns applying discrete mental skills can help, but at times it may feel that you are only chipping away at the edges of a problem.  There have been many instances in my work with clients that helping a rider come to a deeper understanding of the themselves and who they are as a person has been instrumental in creating lasting change.  I am also convinced that, in the absence of a crisis or significant riding problem, a rider’s commitment to personal growth and greater self-awareness will have  a profoundly positive impact on their engagement in the sport.

My commitment in the coming years is to explore ways in which I can help riders can grow in their self-knowledge and awareness and actively use that awareness to improve their riding.  I hope to provide a service that goes beyond “fixing problems” and, like riding lessons and clinics, ultimately support each rider’s personal growth in ways that help them grow as equestrians.

This weekend the good people at Sprout Therapeutic Riding and Education Center along with several of their friends have graciously volunteered to test out a new clinic format which combines experiential activities with horses and small group work sessions.  The expressed goal of the clinic is that each participant will come away with new self-awareness and a plan for applying this awareness in their riding.  I am grateful for the enthusiasm of my courageous volunteers and I hope they leave the day excited about what they have learned and hungry to learn even more.

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