Training in the Right Way: Habits

Since this is the season of New Year’s resolutions, it seems to be a good time to talk about habits and changing them, since the ability to do so is directly related to your ability to progress as a rider.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

Since this is the season of New Year’s resolutions, it seems to be a good time to talk about habits and changing them. Essentially, a New Year’s Resolution is a habit-changing decision. I regularly joke with some of my instructor/trainer friends that we are “in the business of changing habits,” both in horses and in people.

A habit is something that we do repetitively, often compulsively and situationally, but not necessarily intentionally. It can also be a very disciplined, ordered, intentional activity, which is also repetitive.

Repetition can be good or bad in terms of the desired end result. In horse training, we say that training is simply repetition of an action or result over time. This means that whether you intend to cut the corners off in the arena every time you go around the ring or not, you are training your horse to cut the corners off….. You are also training yourself to do the same. If you “always” have to pull on the reins to keep your horse from going too fast, you are training your horse (and you) to keep the reins tight so he doesn’t go too fast. If you can “never” get your horse to bend left, then you are training your horse (and you) to never bend left.

Likewise, an expert competitor competing in any equestrian discipline repetitively and habitually repeats what they wish the horse to perform. No corner cutting, unless specifically requested by the rider. No holding the reins to keep the horse from ”leaving,” but instead carefully timed and intentionally repeated half halts with the effect of teaching the animal to slow down from the aid. While you absolutely need the necessary knowledge and skills to change a horse’s habits — which may make doing so somewhat more challenging — you do have the ability to change your own.

At one point in my career, I ran a large lesson and training stable with a bunch of lesson ponies and a bunch of kids taking riding lessons. We had one really wonderful pony, Cinnamon, who could produce a lovely Training Level Test with her child riders. She would also regularly trot happily right over the low dressage arena fence we had at home and take the child to the door that lead back to barn. No matter how much that kid would try to turn her, she would blow right through the turning aids and keep going out of the arena. This became a habit. Both for some of the riders, and particularly for the pony.

Back to instructors and trainers (the educated experts) being in the business of changing habits. Habits are not always intentional, but they can be. Habits are also usually ingrained and are generally difficult to stop. The only way to become an expert habit changer is through practice. How do I know this? I started out as a beginner rider and had to change numerous habits in order to become a Grand Prix Dressage trainer. I had to change my corner-cutting. I had to change my left arm curling up, my right shoulder dropping down, my right heel being too high, my hands being too high, looking down too much, rolling my shoulders forward, leaning back, leaning forward, posting too high, the list goes on and on. By the time I was competing at Prix St Georges, I looked like I knew what I was doing. My students would say to me, “You can do this because you’re you.” No, I could do that because I worked my butt off changing my habits.

Gwyneth riding Dio de la Guerra in piaffe.

As I was transitioning to being a Grand Prix rider, my trainer told me, “In order to become a Grand Prix trainer, you have to change who you are.” Wait. WHAT?!?! That sounds incredibly ominous and foreboding (it did to me anyway). It made me think of movies, books, and musicals (think Phantom of the Opera) where the villainous teacher twists the student into becoming some highly talented monster…. Ok, so that was pretty over the top, and kind of dramatic considering the situation. But it did scare me a little bit. What do you mean I have to change who I am? Change WHAT, exactly? What’s wrong with who I am? I mean, I’m a Virgo, and a perfectionist, and a dressage rider, and I am highly concerned with every detail and can over-think absolutely anything, endlessly….

Perhaps you can see where this is going. But if you aren’t sure, the point is that whatever you are, in order to improve, you have to explore parts of yourself (and your habits) that may make you uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.

Now back to Cinnamon. How did we fix the barging over the arena fence and running to the door? I had the kids deliberately steer the pony over the fence (because we knew she had no trouble trotting over it from previous experience) and then they would ride around the arena to the entrance and ride back in, over and over and over. This caused two things to happen: the child began to feel in control by deliberately turning the pony out of the ring and then riding it back in (nothing bad is happening, and I can actually make this pony do what I want) and the pony lost the desire to run out of the ring because she never gained control of the situation by using her strength to overpower the rider. I will add that the arena fence was inside a very large indoor arena and the doors to the barn were closed. So the child and pony were in a very safe environment, even when they were outside the low arena fence. While I’m not saying that this will always solve this problem, it did for this situation, and this pony.

How does this apply to changing who you are? The rider has to change their perspective in order to change the habit. Rather than looking at leaving the arena as a failure, you look at it as something you desire, because it will solve the problem. You could get angry at the pony for running out of the ring. You could get angry at yourself for not being able to prevent it. You could feel inadequate, or like a failure because you can’t stop the pony from taking you out of the ring. Or you can take control of the situation by changing your perspective.

Research has shown that it takes 10,000 repetitions of a physical activity to become an expert in that activity. Keeping your heels down doesn’t come from keeping your heels down. It comes from putting your heels down over 10,000 times. Likewise, allowing your heels to come up 10,000 times will make you an expert in keeping your heels up. If you do both an equal number of times… You guessed it! You will be an expert at both. Which will not solve keeping your heels down, as you only do that 50% of the time.

Research has also shown that changing habits is situational. This means that many times the person who wishes to change how they are doing something simply cannot change until the situation changes. This is real, and no amount of willpower can overcome it. What willpower can overcome is the inertia that keeps you in the situation that forces you to continue the habit you wish to end. An example is if you want to stop relying on constantly pulling on the reins to keep your horse from going too fast, you have to put your horse in training to change his habit, or ride a different horse to change your habit. Both of these solutions may be very difficult to achieve because you cannot afford to buy a new horse or pay for training. However, the solution lies in changing the situation, in order to change the habit.

Ultimately, becoming an excellent (or proficient) rider requires the rider constantly evaluate, and often change, their habits. This can be as simple as focusing more on keeping your heels down, or as difficult as deciding to sell your horse so you can ride a horse that is better suited. Habits are often hard to change, and always require repetition and intention to modify. The higher your aspirations, the greater the changes required of you as a rider and person in order to achieve your goals. While that can be daunting, you may find that focusing on the process and managing your perspective can help you succeed.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.