Fat to Fit to First Level: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Decision fatigue = bad riding.

My administrative assistant TinyMite, clearly worn out from decision fatigue. Photo by Esther Roberts.

John Tierney is a science columnist for The New York Times. In 2011, Tierney wrote an article about decision fatigue. I found the article so intriguing I printed it out and kept a copy and re-read it from time to time.

Tierney’s premise is fairly straightforward: the more decisions one must make, the less likely one is to make a wise or smart choice. Tierney backs up his theory with so many facts, figures, and examples you almost feel like you’re reading a scientific paper instead of a news article.

Relative to making smart food decisions, or wise riding decisions, Tierney’s theory that “there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control” seems very much on point. With respect to food choices, decision fatigue is an accepted part of marketing strategies, especially at stores that sell food. This is why there is candy near almost every checkout register anywhere, from your local grocery store aisle to the checkout stands at ladies’ department stores.

By the time you’ve made the hundreds of decisions required during grocery shopping – cow milk? whole? 2%? skim? soy milk?  almond milk? original? vanilla flavored? unsweetened? Gads, I’m already worn out! – it is no surprise we feel so tempted to toss a candy bar or gum or magazine in our cart as we wait to check out. That, friends, is decision fatigue.

The remedy for decision fatigue is no surprise. Rest. Relax. Refuel the brain with quality sources of slow-burn glucose like fresh fruits and veggies. Go for a walk. Or, better yet, go ride your horse.

But many of us can only ride at the end of the workday. By that point in our day, we’ve already made a bazillion decisions. And then we get on our horse and, you guessed it, we have to make another huge batch of decisions in rapid sequence, as if our very life depends on it, because it does. Even if you take a leisurely trail ride or hack, every stride still requires a decision: avoid this hole, step around this rock, stay away from that precipice, support your horse’s front end on that downhill slope.

If you ride a “precision” discipline, like dressage, you must make multiple decisions every minute you’re in the saddle. Maintain the outside rein, ask with the inside leg, flex with the inside rein, support with the outside leg, release, reward, repeat, repeat, repeat…  If you ride a “speed” discipline, like eventing or cutting, you must make multiple decisions down to the second. Read the distance, and the turf, and the angle/height/pitch/width, change lead mid-air, bend towards the next line mid-air, stay out of the horse’s way so she can land you both safely… Oh yes, our hobby/passion/profession requires rapid-fire decision making and there is no luxury of “decision fatigue” until we dismount.

Acknowledging decision fatigue exists gives one a great advantage both in and out of the saddle. When grocery shopping or dining out, I strive to make as many decisions beforehand as possible. “I have a list and I’m sticking to it!” “I’m going to ignore the menu and order a salad with no dressing.” Such a strategy eliminates perusing the menu and getting tempted by the photographs of fried foods and gooey desserts. It also means I won’t feel overwhelmed by the many choices available.

When tacking up, I strive to lay out three main goals for each ride. What do we need to review from the last ride? What one thing do I want to teach Kaliwohi during this ride? What additional thing do I want to begin preparing Kaliwohi to learn in future rides? Not only does this three-goal approach help me avoid some aspects of decision fatigue, it also helps make sure the ride is fair to Kaliwohi, so he doesn’t get overwhelmed or frustrated, which I believe would be the horsie-equivalent of decision fatigue.

As an example of the above, I sometimes need to remind Kiwi to be soft and yielding at the halt. He can be a bit bullish at the halt, not because he wants to go faster (“nap” is his favorite gait) but because it is easier for him to keep doing whatever he’s doing – walk, trot, etc. – than come to a balanced and forward-thinking, but physically neutral, halt. So I must be very well-timed on the “ask” for the halt, followed immediately by the release-reward, and then immediately be ready to “catch” him with a quick half-halt if he doesn’t maintain the halt.

Next, I teach him something new or a nuanced addition to something he already understands. These days, along with getting him tuned up from our winter hiatus, I’m reintroducing canter. Like many young horses, Kiwi is still on his forehand a bit, especially at the canter, and he prefers a strung-out slow gallop to a true canter. So we are working on all aspects of the canter. My method to do this is to get him in a balanced trot, ask for the canter and almost immediately ask again for the trot, allowing three to five canter strides to occur as Kaliwohi transitions up and then back down. Sometimes I ask for the canter and then the trot before he goes up to canter. I want him to immediately obey whatever I ask of him, whether it makes sense to him or not.

Last, I begin introducing something he will learn soon. Shoulder-in begins with a wee bit more bend but not yet asking for three tracks. Then we go back over something he’s done really well during that lesson, so we end with him feeling confident and secure.

We are busy people living busy lives in a busy world. We have enough things that exhaust us without adding additional “decision fatigue” to the list! So here’s an easy decision: Go Riding!

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