BY LI ROBBINS
It’s been ages since I made New Year’s resolutions. I fell out of the habit for the obvious reason—I probably won’t keep them. Still, I always like to feel I’m making progress with everything I do (except housecleaning, in which case I just want to get it over with). When it comes to riding, lately I’ve been feeling unfocused. So, if I were to make a resolution, what would it be? “Get better at horses” seems a little vague.
Recently I’ve been listening to a podcast called Horse Training in Harmony with Karen Rohlf. I play it on my way to the barn to forget about other stuff I should be doing (see: housecleaning). It’s frequently inspiring and always calming, kind of like being told a story… just one where the storyteller says things like, “Stop trying to get your horse on the (bleeping) bit!”
Last week I listened to an episode with sports psychologist Dr. Jenny Susser, who worked with the U.S. Olympic dressage team. It was about goals, failure, and confidence. She had great insights into how failure plays into success, and how to connect setting a “big hairy goal” with daily ones.
But as a rider who isn’t currently competing, other than with myself, big hairy goal-setting confuses me. Is my big hairy goal doing dressage tests, even though the only human being who might see them is my coach? Should my big hairy goal be finishing the groundwork certification program I started, since I currently rest on a low level plateau? The more I thought about it the more I realized there’s a difference between goals and resolutions though. A goal is a destination you want to reach. A resolution is a decision to pursue something.
Back to “I resolve to get better at horses.”
Then I remembered an earlier podcast episode called “Diamonds in the Dark,” about charting your own progress. One of the ideas was to approach each ride with a daily mantra that fit into a weekly theme. I admit, my first thought was “that’s a little woo woo.” But I decided to try it anyway, starting with a mantra since it seemed more manageable than coming up with a theme (let alone a big hairy goal). I told my cynical side that if mantras are useful in yoga, why shouldn’t they be in riding?
As I walked through the paddock gate towards Whitey, the elderly Oldenburg I ride, the mantra that popped into my mind was, “This is fun.” You can’t just decide something is fun… can you? Of course, who but me and Whitey would know if my mantra worked or not? So when I slipped on his halter, I tried it.
“Hello, Whitey. This is fun.” And, because I had apple pieces in my pocket, he agreed.
Throughout our ride that day the mantra kept popping up. Of course, I usually have fun riding Whitey, but the mantra heightened my awareness. In fact, it brought out a kind of giddy joy. At least it did until I hit a rough spot.
I was doing a lousy job of trying to ride a shoulder-in, and my frustration grew. But I reminded myself of the mantra. I even said it out loud. It made me smile. It made me breathe. Both of which made Whitey lose some of the tension I was creating. Plus, saying the words was a reminder—there actually can be fun in trying things even when they don’t work out the way you’d hoped. It’s the old journey-versus-destination thing.
So, I think I’ve found my resolution. But it’s not to always believe I’m having fun. Not to always use a mantra. And definitely not just to “get better at horses.”
My New Year’s horse resolution is this: Always keep an open mind to trying new things. And never lose sight of the value of simply trying to learn. Sometimes, the journey is where the fun is.
Li Robbins is a freelance writer and former CBC producer whose work has appeared in publications including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and The Walrus magazine. As a teen she competed on the local hunter/jumper circuit; as an adult she has become a passionate “re-rider.”