Images courtesy of Amy Skinner
How do I become a more mindful rider?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for the past few years. Being fully present, setting aside the endless chatter going on in your head, listening to your horse’s needs when you’d rather take care of your own, these are easier said than done.
When I came across Amy Skinner’s words of wisdom on Facebook, I knew I had to chat with her. A classically trained dressage rider who bases her philosophy on sound horsemanship principles, Amy believes in serving the horse’s best interests without getting sucked in by fads or quick fixes.
The best part: mindfulness is at the core of her approach to both riding and training.
When I reached out to her to see if she’d be willing to answer a few questions for the blog, she kindly agreed.
Get out your note pad, grab a warm cup of coffee, and settle in.
Here we go.
Q: Let’s start with the three pillars of your training philosophy. I’m really interested in how you incorporate those values into your work every day.
Amy: They are balance, trust, and respect. I have rethought them over the years, taking parts out and adding to other things. For example, the more we learn about the horse brain, the more I realized that I understood respect in a way that anthropomorphized my horses. Horses are not capable of having respect for us. So I’ve kept that word in there but shifted my ideas of respect in terms of the human’s respect for the horse and respect for their needs.
And this includes self-respect because I deal with a lot of clients of all types who struggle with the idea of self-respect.
The longer I train, I’m not just playing horse trainer, but I’m playing a sort of therapist. You know, you can’t be a good communicator with people to help them with horses until we tackle some of the ideas they have that are preventing them from getting along with their horses.
That’s how I think of respect. It’s really just respecting ourselves and respecting the horse as a horse and nothing else – really understanding their needs.
Then there’s trust. When I think of trust, I think of it in terms of not just getting the horse to do something (which is difficult.)
Because my job as a horse trainer is to teach them to do things. Either it’s a skill, a movement, or gentling the horse to accept certain things. But I approach it, not in the sense of getting them to do that one thing, but to getting them to trust that my overall agenda will make them feel better and not cause them harm.
Once they understand that, then they can accept a lot of things. Whereas if you approach it as “I want to put the saddle on you”, or “I want to put this halter on you”, or “I want you to learn to do flying changes,” that feels very confrontational and predatory to the horse. So having that mindset shift has really changed the game for me.
I like to think that if we’re partners and you trust me and I trust you, then we’re having a more dynamic conversation that’s less intimidating.
Finally, there’s balance. Balance is super important to me because it’s about balancing the horse’s life from a holistic perspective.
Do they need more turnout? Do they need to go barefoot? Do they need a better herd situation?
Is the horse physically balanced? Am I physically balanced? And am I balancing my approach between being a little too serious and too playful, too slow, too fast?
I think balance is really taking into account the horse’s entire life and how that affects my work.
Q: You talk about mindfulness on your website and that being part of your approach. How can we as riders develop more mindfulness to help our relationship with our horses?
Amy: Yeah, that’s a great topic. I tell my students that you can’t come to your one hour a week lesson and suddenly have it. You have to practice it in your day to day life.
And there really are a lot of things in our day to day life that are boring, unpleasant, or mundane that we tend to glaze over and not give any attention to. Or, we tend to not be in the present moment. If we don’t like this moment, we can’t wait for the next one. Or we are wishing for some past moment that happened. Being present with horses is really just learning to be mindful – that there really is no moment other than now, and whatever now is, is perfectly okay.
So if your horse is not learning a skill fast enough or you expect them to do something and you’re impatiently waiting for the next moment, then you aren’t able to be present in the now and see what your horse is offering. And then you aren’t able to offer them anything because you’re not here with them.
Horses live very much in the now. We tend to be a little bit more in our heads. That causes us to not be aware of their needs, to not be able to support them.
I tell my students to try to be aware. Be aware when you brush your teeth. What does the toothbrush feel like gliding over all of your teeth? It’s something as silly and as simple as that daily practice. Eventually, you have this moment where you wake up and you’re like, “Wow, am I still driving home?” I haven’t been paying attention the entire drive.
Becoming aware of things like that can make a huge difference. I have literally retaught myself how to walk, how to ride, and how to run many times over because I wasn’t aware at all of my movement patterns. I had no idea how they were affecting my riding. Just having mindfulness about how your own feet hit the ground will make a huge difference when you suddenly are up in the saddle and you have no idea what your right leg is doing.
Yoga has been super helpful for me in this regard. When I went into it, I had this idea that I was supposed to be the teacher (which I wasn’t.) I felt like I wasn’t doing it well. I had this preconceived notion about how yoga was supposed to be, how I was supposed to be.
It finally clicked for me that exactly how my body is right now is the practice.
Like meditation, when you get distracted the practice is about coming back to attention no matter how many times you get lost.
Realizing this created a huge shift in my riding. We’re not on this perfect linear, upward path. If you stray off the path you always have the opportunity to come back.
And that is the whole practice.
Q: This leads to something that I’ve had to grapple with a lot in the last few years which is patience – with my horse and myself. So often we have unrealistic expectations of what our horses “should” be able to do for us at any given time. What are some of the ways you help your students (and even yourself) get away from what I like to call “shoulding” on ourselves and our horses?
Amy: This idea that we need to accept or be okay with where we are at any given moment is really difficult for us as humans to do. I will go to teach a clinic and people will have hauled out to a new place for the first time. Their horses are nervous. Inevitably, they’re upset that they can’t get what they thought they were going to get done.
At the end of the lesson, after we’ve done the calming exercises to bring the horses’ adrenaline down, they’ll say, “We didn’t really get to do anything.” As far as I’m concerned, they did everything.
You brought your horse to a new place and taught them to trust you and be relaxed even with spectators watching you and horses running around. Adjusting your expectation is key. And that goes back to being in the moment. If you’re in the present moment, then you can be happy with what you got instead of disappointed about what you didn’t get.
When I teach people and I notice they’re getting a case of the “shoulds,” I try to bring them back to the present moment by pointing out what their horse is doing.
I’ll say, “Isn’t it amazing that your horse is really calming down? His breaths are so nice and his walk is getting much more fluid.”
I try to make those really obvious. So the person comes back to what’s happening beneath them. I learned that from having my own anxiety. When you get anxious, everything is this disaster. When you can point to something that you can physically see and hear, it brings you back to reality.
Q: To me, it’s about shifting perspective and taking inventory of even the smallest wins. Would you agree?
Amy: Yeah. I try to point out those tiny, tiny things that they might be missing and make a huge deal about them. That way my students start to pick up on them themselves and create more awareness.
That’s one of the reasons why aside from continual learning, I still take lessons as often as possible. It really helps to have somebody else with a fresh set of eyes point out what improvements are happening or what’s appropriate for the moment.
Because it’s really easy to get caught up in what we think should be happening in the length of time that’s passed and what progress you should be seeing for that.
I have a Lusitano that I’ve owned for three or four years. He’s had intermittent lameness and all kinds of things wrong. He had a very difficult life and rough beginning. I’ve never had my own horse of this quality. So it’s hard for me to not get excited about what we could be doing or should be doing. But what he needs is a lot of really slow, slow work. So I’ve been just working on getting him to lengthen his neck at the walk. And part of me feels like I can’t believe we’re still doing this.
But then I go to my teacher and she tells me how great he looks. Her comments confirm that doing way less than I really want to is creating the biggest progress.
Q: You recently posted on your FB page about taking responsibility as riders to teach our horses the importance of saying, “yes,” not only for our safety but for their own. I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that.
Amy: I’ve been training about a decade now and I’ve seen a huge shift in the horse world in a really positive direction where it’s going from what the horse has to do and how I’m going to make him do it to considering if the horse wants to do it.
The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. Right now I see the other extreme where people think, “My horse doesn’t want to get caught today, so I’m not going to bother him.” Or “He doesn’t like the bit, so I’m not going to put it on him,” or “He doesn’t like arena work so I only trail ride him.”
A lot of those assumptions are anthropomorphic and not necessarily accurate.
The problem could be in the way you’re presenting the bit. If you hit him in the teeth, of course he hates the bit. He maybe doesn’t hate the bit in his mouth, but he hates the way you put it in his mouth. Um, or maybe he’s scared and needs a little more support before he can think about going through the puddle you want to cross.
So I think it’s a dangerous game to play. What if your kids woke up every day and said, “I don’t want to go to school.” Would you tell them they could go back to bed? You’re setting them up for a life of failure.
That doesn’t mean you have to get out the stick and beat your horse into doing something. You simply present your request in a way that the horse can understand why you’re asking them, then give them the tools to get the job done. That comes with a responsibility to understand why you’re asking them for something and to know whether it actually benefits them or not. If you are trying to teach your horse to sit like a dog and bow and he doesn’t want to, does that actually benefit them or not?
That’s the question to ask yourself. How will this benefit my horse?
Let’s say you want him to be prepared for his trim and his shots, well, that’s essential for his health and wellbeing. They aren’t particularly pleasant, but they can be done in a way that can make him less afraid.
So it doesn’t all have to be unpleasant and it doesn’t have to be gummy bears and gumdrops either. There’s a middle road. I think the horse definitely should have a say, but if you take that to an extreme and don’t prepare them for everyday life, that can be very dangerous.
There are two ways that you can destroy the confidence of a horse.
One is to present them with excess pressure that they can’t deal with and the other is to never have them do anything they don’t want to do.
Both situations create equally dysfunctional horses.
Q: The last thing I wanted to touch on was riders taking responsibility for their own fitness and abilities in the saddle. You talk about the importance of riders not relying on fear-based control methods. What types of things do you suggest riders do to get stronger?
Amy: Often I see people who are very unstable in the saddle, riding a horse who’s a little nervous, a little hot, or a little green. That person knows that they are at risk. And then they will revert to methods that slow the horse or cause the horse to submit in a way that doesn’t allow them to go forward.
Instead of gaining stability in their seat or riding a horse whose skill level is appropriate for theirs, many people revert to doing things like using harsh bits as a means of control.
When someone says that they’re very afraid or very nervous in the saddle, I tell them they have every right to be. Because the situation they’re in is very dangerous.
People are always surprised when I say, “I wouldn’t ride that horse if I were you.” I’ll get a response like, “Whoa, what? I thought you were going to teach me a one-reign stop or something.”
They don’t understand that’s not the solution.
Body awareness is super important. I think picking the right horse for you is super important. And if you’re older or have some stability issues or have some injuries, it doesn’t mean you can’t ride. But, you really need a horse who is not a three-year-old that needs the confidence of being able to go forward.
Buy the right horse, find a good teacher, and keep working on your seat. I’m still working on mine. I still take lessons on it. Then find a fitness program that you like, that works for you. Stick to some routine that makes you feel good. I think that pays off hugely in the saddle.
I had a yoga class at my barn and I offered the ladies that rode with me a discount on the riding lessons if they would stick to the yoga classes. and they did. In six weeks I noticed these ladies were all riding so well. And it was once a week for 30 minutes. I mean, there were dramatic changes.
So just doing something regularly that makes you more aware of your body – a little more stable in places where you should be stable and loose in places where you should be loose. That can make all the difference.
Key takeaways on becoming a more mindful rider
- Think balance, trust, and respect when you’re with your horse – Think holistically about how you approach the relationship with your horse. These three values apply just as much to how you conduct yourself as your horse acts in response. (Life, like riding horses, is never easy.)
- Be present to be mindful – Horses live in the moment. Sadly, most humans find that nearly impossible. But, you can teach yourself to be more aware of what’s happening moment by moment by simply taking inventory of the sensations in your body. (Put the phone down and stop checking Instagram. Your horse doesn’t care how many people love the last picture you posted of your cat.)
- Stop shoulding on yourself – Your horse doesn’t have an agenda. That doesn’t mean you can’t have one but you need to remember your timeline may not match your horse’s physical, emotional, or training timeline. Instead of being constantly disappointed, take stock of even the smallest wins. (Just like expectations, your accomplishments compound with time.)
- Teaching your horse to be comfortable with discomfort is the life lesson that keeps on giving – A horse that constantly says, “No,” is not a safe partner. The key to helping them navigate their world is thoughtful, patient, and persistent training. (I’m told this works well with children too.)
- Work on your seat and get fit – This has become one of my mantras. When you’re unstable, you’re a liability to yourself and your horse. (Yoga, Pilates, strength training, pick your poison. They all help.)
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