I am about as "right brained" as they come. I am intuitive, creative, and a very visual learner. As a child my favorite subjects surrounded art, music, and creative writing. I still remember my excitement when my fourth grade teacher finally assigned something I was good at for homework. We were to write a creative short story about whatever we wanted and present it in front of the class. I spent weeks on my project drawing artwork, creating characters, and devising props for my oral report.
My assignment was a huge success. I got the chance to read the story in front of the entire school. That was to be my only A of the year. As the subjects shifted to math and science, gold stars and smiley faces turned into notes of concern. All my report cards from that grade on read about the same. "Kelly is a bright and intelligent child, however we are concerned that she is not living up to her full potential." Growing up an extremely right brained child in a left brained education system can make for a less than pleasant learning experience.
Since then I have learned to view my style of learning and intelligence as a gift rather than a disability. My struggle as a student led me to discover my strengths as a teacher and trainer. Fortunately today there is a much greater awareness of the different ways in which we all learn. Our methods of teaching should be as varied as the learning styles of our students.
This realization in my riding did not occur overnight. I spent a long time trying to learn to ride like I was solving a math problem or following a recipe.
As most of us learn to ride we are met with left-brained, step by step instruction. This piece by piece approach is a necessary part of the learning process but it also has limitations. Paying too much attention to individual body parts can interfere with the coordinative functions of the brain. This has often been called "paralysis by analysis." One of my favorite writers uses this old rhyme as example:
I look back now at how differently I viewed riding as a child. I remember standing in the stirrups galloping through a field on an old quarter horse mare with no thoughts of how I looked or how the horse was going. Just about the only thing I could tell you about the horse was that her name was "Cinnamon" and that she really liked to run. In fact I think thats all we did all summer long. My goal with Cinnamon was simple. I just wanted to go as fast as we possibly could without falling off. I think by summers end I had done a whole lot of improper riding and fallen off a time or two but I had a great time, and as far as I could tell I was a pretty damn good rider.
Somewhere along the line riding turned into serious business. Horses were my passion, and making a living with them was a life long goal. To realize this dream I had to develop skill. I had to become a rider. In fact how I viewed myself, my success and failure hinged on this great desire.
I have literally spent what equates to years riding in circles. Trying to force my skill into reality through contortion, manipulation and repetition. Riding was no longer about fun it was about hard work, commitment and dedication. There was no more riding just to ride. I was going to get this horse to go onto the bit if it took all day, all week, all month.
I watched naturally talented riders with envy and wondering what was taking my stupid body so long. I was doing everything they were doing with much different results. I worked harder, practiced more, read more books and still I could not rise to the next level. I was still mostly a passenger at the mercy of my mount, and I still knew more in my head than I could realize with my body.
Even worse I berated myself and cursed my body for being so useless and stubborn. I rode around thinking about all the things I was trying to do, just did, and was about to do then berated myself for each mistake. The harder I tried the more quickly it all fell apart. I had several instructors in my time at Meredith Manor and all were good but only one could really push me past this painful plateau.
She stopped me mid circle one day and asked me what exactly I was trying to do. To which I replied " I'm trying to get my horse to soften" She smiled and said "Well thats not a very soft look on your face."
Slightly irritated and very confused I rattled off all the aids I was applying and the steps in sequence I was working on to achieve results with this particular horse. I certainly did not see what my face had to do with it. My instructor walked over and said "Stop trying so hard to ride and just ride."
My heart sunk. I heard so many great things about this instructor. I thought surely she had the answers. The missing ingredient to my riding recipe. I expected her to look at me and say. "There is the problem. Your left leg is just a few inches too far back." All I wanted was the missing piece to my puzzle which would transform me from a decent rider into a great rider.
The last thing I wanted was for someone to imply that it was easy. There was certainly nothing easy about it. I had been trying to get this horse to stretch down for weeks and not only had I not succeeded but my true teacher (the horse) was even more intent on running around with his head in the rafters.
She began to ramble on about "finding the feel" about "setting the rhythm" about "directing my energy" and on and on. I looked at her with a blank look on my face and said. I understand what your saying but how do I do that? I could not even begin to understand feel because I spent my entire time on the horse listening to voices. Not only the voice of my instructor on the ground but also the little left brained instructor whispering in my head. "OK get your stupid leg on, drive into the corner, He's going to try to stop at the gate again... Come on Push him past it...He's gonna stop...Dammit... Hes gonna stop...I knew it!...He stopped...
How can you do any listening to your body or more importantly your horse with all that noise going on in your head. I couldn't feel anything. I was far too busy barking orders at my body to process anything else.
I was sent to the small round pen in the back of the arena alone. My assignment was not to try to get my horse to soften but instead to just ride for 25 minutes collecting feedback from the horse and feeling responses of what I was doing with my body. My only other instruction was to remain relaxed and rhythmic and to avoid any negative self talk. This sounded silly but It would change my riding forever. I ended up riding for almost and hour and had an amazing ride. I just relaxed, rode and recorded. Obviously there is more to riding than that but that one moment opened my mind to other possibilities.
It was then that the same instructor led me to an absolute must read for any rider facing these challenges. The "Natural Rider" A right brain approach to riding. By Mary Wanless It was if she wrote this book just for me. It gives great insight into the mind body connection in learning to ride, offering right brained solutions to left brained problems. She provides great tools and exercises both for mounted and dismounted work.
This approach is a tremendous advance in teaching and learning. It shows any rider how to organize her mind and body in the same way as the riders we call "talented". This enables each person to learn the same feels and to achieve the same results. By increasing the rider's body awareness and using images which help her understand both what to do and how to do it, incredible improvements can be obtained in a very short time, defying traditional expectations.
This book is one of many must haves for the right brained rider. I also suggest what I refer to as my riding and teaching bible; Centered Riding by Sally Swift. CR is an invaluable tool for riding instructors searching for imaginative ways to teach self awareness, and effectively communicate the concepts that lie at the heart of good riding. Helping riders progress thru the use of vivid, unusual and creative images that go beyond mere mechanics.
There is no precise recipe for learning to ride. Understanding how you best learn information (description, image or feel) can make all the difference in getting the most out of your sessions. We all want to find the elusive "magic" that allows horse and rider to achieve true harmony. I think we all have that potential, Its not a matter of learning the right way, it is simply a matter of finding the right way for us.
"Feel is no black magic, and anyone can acquire it to a considerable degree." - Wilhelm Muesler