Change is Hard on the Brain

When I work with riders one of the trickiest parts of making improvements is that the changes don’t always feel right at first. As riders, our nervous system becomes programmed to what we think is good form based on habits that may have nothing to do with good balance. I went through this myself as a rider and so I am entirely sympathetic to the process. It is not easy when an instructor helps you change your position for the better and your brain screams out, “This can’t be right!”

Riders who have been taught to keep their shoulders back, heels down and arch their backs tend to wind up in a forward seat – ahead of the horse’s motion. When I adjust their posture to be straight, they tend to think I am making them slump.

Here the rider "felt straight" internally

These photos are a great example. I took the photos on my phone during a lesson (which I now do often) because the rider “felt straight” in the too forward position and “felt like a slumping, sagging sack of corn” in the straight position. I had to take the photos so that she could see what she looked like. She genuinely could not believe me without the photos. Isn’t it interesting how powerful our nervous systems are? She could easily see which position looked better, but her brain was not helping her feel good balance because her body had been trained into a false interpretation of correct riding.

Here the rider "felt slumping"

The same thing happens when riders have been slouching, they feel stiff at first. Riders that tend to lean back feel too far forward when I help them get straight. Whatever posture has been adopted by the rider obviously “feels right” because they keep doing it. Making a change towards correct balance will most often “feel wrong” at first simply because the body is in an unfamiliar posture.

Exploring a range of motion is how I generally help rider’s bodies “remember” balance from a habitually imbalanced position. If the rider has been sitting too far back, then I have them explore too far forward for a few minutes. If the rider has been too far forward, then I have them exaggerate too far back. Exploring both sides of imbalance, a complete range of motion in the body, helps clear the default setting and find a natural sense of balance again.

In this example, the rider was exaggerated in her attempt to keep her shoulders back and heels down.

With shoulders back she "feels straight"

Straight was not enough because her nervous system kept pulling her back to this posture. I had her explore the “drunk cowboy” position by becoming equally exaggerated in the opposite direction. After a few minutes of riding like a drunk cowboy, her body was more comfortable actually remaining straight.

The rider is exploring the opposite imbalance with rounded shoulders

So how do you know? It helps to explore a range of motion wildly and see what your horse says about various positions. Correct balance always helps the horse go better. The horses are such great mirrors because they change or are able to change more easily when the rider becomes truly balanced. Your horse will let you know by stretching, going straighter, turning better, moving forward more freely or some kind of positive feedback. Horses seem to accept change much more readily than riders. Notice when your brain is screaming, “This feels wrong” and your horse is relaxing underneath you saying, “Yes, that feels good.” Ouch baby, very ouch!


2 Responses to “Change is Hard on the Brain”
  1. dayers says:

    Change is hard on the body as well. I had been riding for 30 years before I met Kirsten and started to learn a better way to ride. All of the little imbalances and asymetries that I have been ignoring for 30 years are suddenly meaningful and important for me to notice and address now to improve my horse’s balance. So I have to get rid of a lifetime of bad habits and learn new good habits at the same time I am trying to teach my horse to balance better. Thankfully, both my husband and I began taking lessons with Kirsten at the same time, so he can help me focus on learning these new skills. He has had an easier time developing the feel for what she teaches than I have because he doesn’t have to get rid of a lifetime of bad habits. Slowly, but surely, I am changing for the better.

    • Tomoko says:

      hi, i am a beginning fmsehran in college and am insanly in love with barrel racing. i have barrel raced at my local fair and have placed high. unfortunatly, my partner in crime and friend in the barn, pepper, has had some foot problems and can no longer race. i am not a member of the sabha but would LOVE to be one. are there any good barrel horses (preferably quarter horses) out there for under $1,000? if so, i would love to know. i dont need anything too young or too old. somewhere around 5 or 6 yrs and has some experience running the barrels. just a note: i am just looking with no intentions of buying just yet. thanks

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Quote Of The Day

"I call horses 'divine mirrors' - they reflect back the emotions you put in. If you put in love and respect and kindness and curiosity, the horse will return that"
~Allan Hamilton