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July 19, 2013

Don't Think, Just Do

Quieting the chatter in her mind and letting muscle memory take over helped Paige Cade in the show ring. Photo by Abigail Frye.

I’m not a golfer, which is a good thing for everyone in the general vicinity of a driving range. I don’t mind the whole Bagger Vance ensemble, but the game itself isn’t for me. So, I had dismissed most things I’d heard about golf, assuming that they didn’t pertain to any of my equine endeavors. Then the other day while flipping through the channels, one of those monstrously nerd-a-rific shows came on about how the brain works. Being the ultra-nerd that I am, I watched a few minutes (OK, who I am kidding, I watched the whole hour).

There was a discussion about how two separate parts of the brain control physical activity. I won’t get into the actual neuro-science details, which I am utterly inept to explain, but the gist of it is that you have an innate, almost involuntary, muscle memory part of the brain (which has developed over years of training and practice) and the voluntary, decision making, over-thinking, getting-in-your-own-way part of your brain. Athletes (specifically golfers in their example) have to learn to tune out the latter and allow the muscle memory to take over. And for a brief moment I thought, perhaps, golf was more than the misuse of arable pasture. Because sinking that putt is a lot like finding a good distance.

So, I went into the beginning of last week at HITS Culpeper with that thought in mind. I’ve been riding since I was 5 years old; one would hope that I could be-bop around the level 2 jumpers without thinking too hard. It was a distinct and deliberate shift at first. I forced myself to stop analyzing and considering the “what ifs” and just ride the trip. I walked the course; I knew the track and how many steps down each line. But instead of my usual mental gymnastics in the opening circle, I just rode. I got on a good canter and headed to the first fence. I trusted my horses, and green as they may be, they delivered.  And I found that when I turned the volume down on all the mental chatter that usually surges through my brain I could focus on actually creating a quality canter.

I think most people who strive to excel in any sport are what I call “try-ers.” They’re the kids who drop their stirrups for two laps of posting trot without being asked and the adults who religiously canter courses of poles on the ground to work on their rhythm. They’re the people who aren’t annoyed by the tedium of training, but rather view each hour in the saddle as another opportunity to be better. This kind of work ethic is at the core of every great athlete. All that hard work transforms voluntary action into the involuntary. But none of it matters if you can’t turn off the mental chatter and let your body do what it knows how to do. I’m a try-er to my own detriment. And last week I learned to stop trying and start doing in the show ring.

I talked to my husband about this. He said, “Well duh, it’s not like Tiger Woods’ swing coach is standing at the tee critiquing him during the Masters.” Yes, trying has its place on the driving range—not on the PGA tour.

Don’t worry, I’m well aware that the low-level jumpers don’t really compare to the pressure of a PGA tournament. But the mental game remains the same for many riders. Even the 2’6” special hunters can feel like the Olympics for a green adult amateur. The mental side of riding is always the hardest for me. It’s the counter-intuitive ability to trust that you’ve tried enough at home, to trust that you’re able to get it done on autopilot.

In order to trust yourself and your horse, you have to give up a degree of mental control and let your body take over. And that’s scary. Like really scary. Giving up that control opens the Pandora’s Box of real and imagined fears that we have as riders. Fear of making a mistake, fear of embarrassment, fear of getting hurt, and the list goes on.

But I’ve determined that the best way to deal with those fears is to be brave, to let go and trust in my ability. For me, riding is like breathing. I can control it, but in a tricky situation things are better left on autopilot. 

Hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.