I was sitting at lunch with my mum the other day discussing love, literature and the art of making the perfect salad dressing when she asked me a very poignant question: why do you ride?
At first this seemed like such a simple question it was silly to even ask – because I love it? Why else? But then it got me thinking – why is it, in my heart of hearts, that I choose to ride horses? I could fill my hours with plenty of equally worthy pastimes such as playing soccer, reading, writing poems or finally learning how to bake a soufflé but instead I choose over and over again the dusty arena, muddy paddock and endless hours of travel and cleaning. Why?
What about this is at all appealing?
That night whilst reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” I came across a passage describing two different types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. With Extrinsic motivation, “people act to win external rewards or avoid external punishments” whereas intrinsic motivation occurs when one acts for their own satisfaction. Studies have found that rewarding people for an activity will often cause them to stop doing it for fun. This is why parents are encouraged not to reward their children for reading as they will only ever read for reward and not for pleasure.
Highly recommend having a read
I could easily recognise that my motivation for riding was not extrinsic. I do not ride to win blue ribbons. Firstly: dressage competition is subjective and you would send yourself completely crazy if your happiness rested upon another person’s opinion of your shoulder in from the ten strides of it they can see properly. Secondly: there is no way I could ever justify spending thousands of dollars each year on agistment, feed, farriers, rug repairs, worming, dentists, vaccinations, competition entries, lessons and petrol (just to name a few) in the name of winning a strip of satin worth $2. I’m no commerce student but even I know that doesn’t add up.
Surely this isn’t what it’s all about?
Having established the motivation was intrinsic, I then wanted to pinpoint exactly what it is that draws me to riding, and so I wrote a list:
- The bond with my horse – is there anything quite as special as the feeling of being loved completely, openly and unconditionally by a creature so powerful it could kill you but so gentle it looks to you for guidance instead?
- The adrenaline – the rush of wind against your face as you cut out a stride in the jump off and that feeling of flying
- The ability to improve endlessly – competing in a sport measured not just in the number of goals scored but instead in the degree to which you performed a movement to a judge’s satisfaction provides the opportunity for (almost) unlimited improvement…a very tempting prize for a perfectionist!
- The reward that comes with training new skills – the tired old saying is true: knowledge is power and the reward from increasing your own knowledge and using this to improve your horse’s training is huge
I stood back, looked at this list and felt truly perplexed. I love all of these things and on first reading I would have just said all of the above and moved on. However, the perfectionist in me wasn’t satisfied with a throw away answer like that.
For the next few hours these ideas bounced around in the back of my head but nothing sat perfectly just yet. Something was missing and, as my grandmother would have told me, “you will find it as soon as you stop looking for it” so I saved this unanswered question in the memory bank for a rainy day.
Lucky for me we’ve had an unusually wet summer and today turned out to be just that day. As I headed off to ride in the rain I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and it hit me hard and fast: I was having a bad hair day.
I wasn’t joking when I said it was a bad hair day!
Smirk as you may – a bad hair day is no laughing matter and can seriously damage your confidence and put you on the back foot. But I looked at my reflection, smiled to myself and thought “it doesn’t matter.” That’s just it – I ride because for those precious hours that I spend in the saddle, nothing else matters. My horse does not care about all the little things that course through my overactive mind in the hours I spend surrounded by humans:
- I’m looking a little pudgy around the face today
- My hair is going that horrible shade of orange again
- These breeches are so last season
- There’s a hole in the toe of BOTH my socks
- And they don’t match
- That pimple on my nose is the size of Mt Kosciusko
- My lecture notes are illegible
- I need to put on that load of red washing
- I lost my sunnies…again
- My facebook post didn’t get very many likes
All of these insecurities and shortcomings are completely irrelevant to my horse. She cares if I have carrots. If I scratch her between her ears just how she likes it and if I am clear and consistent in my training. It doesn’t matter if I failed my last assignment, if my car is dirty or if her bandages don’t match.
On the flip-side of that coin is that she doesn’t care how long it took to drive to this show, how expensive my entries were or how on-point my outfit is. If I ride badly, she goes badly. My childhood instructor used to tell me that “a horse is only a mirror of its rider” and it took me a very long time to realise just how true this is. Of course there are external factors beyond your control – the wind, warmblood-eating wheelie bins and other horses in the warm up – but ultimately riding is a question of how complete and clear your training is and whether in pressure situations the horse is more influenced by what scares it or by your training.
Thanks for keeping me honest, grounded and inspired little man
Riding is a blank slate. It comes down to my focus, performance and training and nothing else. Fashion, money, how cool you are or how many Instagram followers you have will never make your horse go better. And that is why I ride – for the exhilarating, sometimes frustrating but always grounding experience of competing in a sport where the only advantage is better training and a clearer head. To achieve maximum performance you must be truly ‘present’ and in that moment of time – exercising mindfulness. Riding instils passion and passion is what drives us to dig deeper, work harder and aim higher – to better ourselves and be the best version of us that we can be.
THIS is why I ride
As a wise teacher (my facebook news feed) once told me: “set some goals, work hard for them, clap for your damn self.”
Riding is a great leveller and for that I am forever grateful.