There are so many things to think about as riders - whether we are learning to ride, or progressing up the levels as competition riders. "Are my shoulders level? What about my hands? Are my heels down? Is my horse straight? Is he on the bit?" And on and on and on! Because of this, it can be easy to lose focus - you start off your ride thinking you will work on x, y and z, and you end up doing something completely different and wondering what happened to your original plan!
We've put together 5 easy tips to help you stay focused during each ride, which means you can stay on track with your training and hit those goals!
Pick ONE thing to focus on
Because horse riding is like a puzzle with so many different pieces, it's very tempting to have vague goals for your ride, where you're essentially simply hoping to "improve" generally.
However, this lack of clarity doesn't tend to bring the best results. Instead, try to pick just one thing to focus on. It may be something that you worked with in your last lesson, or something you noticed on video, or even because of consistent comments from judges.
When you pick one thing, it should be as specific as possible. For example, "improving my position" is too general. What in particular will you work on? Is it your leg position, your straightness in your saddle, your hand position? Similarly, saying you want to improve your horse's rhythm is too broad. Instead, try something like "I want my horse to maintain a regular trot tempo through 20m circles and bent lines".
The reason that picking one specific task is important is because of the way our brains work. Our brains can't actually focus on multiple things at one - it has been proven that "multi-tasking" is just the brain switching back and forth between different tasks. The issue with this is that every time you switch between tasks, you tend to lose focus. If you are a very experienced rider, for whom many aspects of riding are automatic, it probably matters less. On the other hand, if you are still at the active learning stage (whether it be as a beginner, or even an advanced rider working on new movements, or with a new horse), then switching between tasks too often will be very distracting.
It is very important to go into each ride with a plan. Otherwise, you can easily become distracted by your own feelings, and the way your horse feels. Perhaps you wanted to work on your position, but you get on and you feel that your horse is too stiff, so it all goes out the window as you spend the next 45 minutes trying to "supple" her. In the meantime, if you had done some position work instead, you may have made significant progress that would have carried through into your next rides, and your horse would have felt better as a result.
Of course, horses are animals with a mind of their own, and bodies that can be achey and stiff just like us, so you should have some flexibility. If your horse is feeling very agitated, it may not be a good time to do position work involving no stirrups and reins in one hand, for example! However, as much as possible, try to ahead.
Your plan should be specific, and most importantly, you should think ahead about the exercises you want to do to address the area that you are trying to improve.
You could choose exercises that your coach has you do, or you can google some ideas, or get exercises from books. We have quite a few suggested exercises on our website (here) and on our social channels, which can help with anything from rider position to rein contact (and we are always adding more!).
Ideally, choose about 3 to 5 exercises. Any more, and you will be at risk of rushing through them. Any less, and there is a chance you could bore your horse with too much repetition.
Take regular planned breaks
In between each exercise, you should plan for a break of 3 to 5 minutes. Your break is ideally at walk, on a long rein. Without taking breaks, you simply won't be able to focus for sustained periods, and neither will your horse. Studies have shown that our attention span is getting shorter (thanks to social media!) and if you don't take a break, you may veer off course from your plan.
Of course, you don't want to take a break just because something feels challenging or boring. That is why it's good to plan breaks between each exercise. Once you have finished an exercise, take the break and reflect on what went well, and what could have gone better, during the exercise.
Just a word of caution - sometimes you will accidentally plan to do an exercise which is actually just too difficult for you and your horse for now. If you feel that an exercise is just stressing your horse, or you, and that a lot of tension is creeping in, then consider stopping that exercise for the day and revisiting it when you are both more ready. Replace it with an easier version of the exercise, if you can.
During your break, you should also give you and your horse permission to switch off for a couple of minutes, and take in your environment through your senses (what do you see, smell, hear and feel?). It will help you to refresh and to come to the next exercise with more brain power to focus.
Once you are finished your ride, you should try to reflect on it as soon as possible after taking care of your horse. If you leave it too long, you will most likely forget the details of what went well, and what could have gone better, during each exercise.
It's important to make a note of it to refer to later - you could use notes in your phone (written or voice notes), or some riders prefer to use a paper journal. Either way, you want to take note of the exercises you did, how you feel that they helped, which parts you found more challenging, and what you learnt (like any lightbulb moments) during the ride.
This is important not just to look back on your progress later, but to help you plan your next rides and set goals that are both achievable and challenging. You can also use it as a reference guide for a list of exercises you can use whenever you face a certain problem.
Rinse and repeat!
Once you've reviewed your ride, you can choose to plan your next ride straight away. It's time to pick ONE thing again! Although it could be the same thing, remember that horses can get bored doing the same thing over and over. If it is the same thing you want to focus on, you could do different exercises and see what improvements that makes.
On the other hand, if you want to do the same exercises again, you have to use your judgment. Twice in a row will probably be okay for your horse, and could really help you to reinforce what you are learning, but three times or more, and your horse could start to switch off and lose focus (and so could you!). It does really depend on both you and your horse's personality.
A good idea is to work on certain things on alternate days (remembering to mix it up with trail rides and jumping/cavalettis) until you have achieved a level of improvement that you are happy with in that area. This doesn't mean perfection of course, but it means you feel you have made a significant improvement in the one thing you were seeking to work on.
We hope these tips will help you structure your rides in a way that helps you be more focused, and remember to enjoy the training journey along the way!
Happy riding 😊