There is a saying: "Bad habits are easily obtained but hard to live with, whereas good habits are hard to obtain but easy to live with."
We develop bad habits when we spend most of the time riding by ourselves. With no one to give us feedback, it's easy to develop a little pull on the rein, heels that point up rather than down, or eyes that focus on the ground rather than where you are going.
As we slip into these habits, they start to feel normal, and after some time we don't even realise that we ride like this. Since we are creatures of habit, our subconscious mind stores information about movements or thinking patterns, we perform regularly and form what's called neurological patterns. These neurological patterns enable us to perform skills and movements without having to think about them, making them automatic consciously.
Let's say, over time; you have developed a 'little niggle' with your hands. An instructor comes along and tells you that your hands are interfering with the softness of your horse and asks you to keep your hands still.
Is this going to be easy to do? The answer is most likely no, not straight away.
See, what happens is your body has taken on the 'involuntary' movement of your hands and has formed a habit. To you, it feels normal, and you don't even realise that you are doing it.
Sounds familiar? So, what can you do?
Firstly you have to become conscious of the movement again. It would help if you had someone, an instructor, a knowledgeable friend, or family member to 'keep an eye on you' and give you feedback whenever your hands are moving. This will help you to 'feel' the movement again.
Secondly, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Keeping your hands still will most likely feel odd, strange or even stiff. What do most people when they feel uncomfortable? That's right they go back to doing what feels comfortable, in that case fiddling with their hands.
Thirdly, put words to what you want to achieve. Whenever I help a rider to overcome a bad habit, I get them to form words around their new position. For example, a rider might say "I imagine I balance two eggs on top of my fists and I don't want to drop them", or "I feel like I have a plaster around my wrist and can't move it anymore." By having a language that explains how you feel, it makes it easier for you, the rider to know when you are doing the right thing.
Instead of always telling you to keep your hands still, I can ask you if you are still balancing the eggs or if you can still feel the plaster.
And finally, make the change easy on you. For example, if your horse is safe and your riding area is suitable, ride on a loose rein for a while, if you can't feel the contact to the horse's mouth you are less likely to pull on it. Even though your horse will most likely not be on the bit and you might feel like your riding is going backwards rather than improve, remember that in the long run, you will be a better rider for it. So be patient.
It is essential to focus on one thing at the time. So pick one habit, work on it until you are happy with the change and then move on to another one.
Remember to set yourself up for success rather than failure.
It generally takes around 28 days to form a new habit and turn it into a neurological pattern which means that it becomes unconscious again. Depending on how regular you ride, you can see that it doesn't take that long to improve your riding and get back on track.
The key is to be consistent. Riding once per week and then nothing for 3 weeks is not going to work. If you are unable to ride your horse regularly, then there are things you can do off the horse that will help you as well.
Walking around the house, pretending you are holding the rein and merely feeling what a steady hand feels like.
It helps to form a picture of what you look like on the horse with a steady hand. Improving your balance will help as well. The best time to work on changing bad habits is when you don't have the pressure of upcoming competitions. Choose a quiet time like the middle of winter or at the end of the competition season. Change is not as hard as you might think so give it a go and remember to have fun.
Happy riding, Tanja
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