RIDING IN THE PRESENT by Gincy Self Bucklin

‘Riding in the present’ has nothing to do with time machines, rather, it has to do with what you are thinking about as you ride. Who has not gone around the ring during the last half of a class thinking about the wrong lead they picked up in front of the judge on the first canter? Not realizing that the judge sees much more of what is going on than just your mistake.

I remember judging an under saddle class of about fifteen horses. The horse that eventually won had picked up the wrong lead right in front of me on the first canter. Leaving me swearing and scratching my head because he was by far the best horse in the ring. However, I dutifully marked him off and continued my search. During the remainder of the class, every other horse made at least one equally major mistake.

My winner’s mistake consisted of two steps on the wrong lead, followed by a quiet and immediate correction. Other horses bucked, ran, continued on the wrong lead forever, broke gait–you name it. My winner continued to ride as well as she could and luck was with her. She went through the class riding in the present, not worrying about what was over and done with. She focused first on correcting the mistake as promptly as possible, thus showing me that it was just a mistake, not a weakness in training. Then she continued as though nothing had happened, staying away from the horses who were acting up, showing her horse’s skills in a way that eventually resulted in a well-deserved blue.

Probably the only time she didn’t ride in the present was during that moment when she realized she would be picking up the canter directly in front of me. Instead of concentrating on how the horse’s body felt–which would have told her that he was bulging very slightly toward the gate, and thus was placed for a wrong lead–she let herself think about what might happen (in the future) if she didn’t get a good canter depart while I was watching.

Riding in the present, then, means paying attention to those things which are going on right now, over which you have some control. It does not mean riding without planning for the next fence, or ignoring what went wrong in the past in the same situation. It means taking that knowledge and awareness, relating it to how the horse feels at this moment, and deciding what you can do NOW to make what will happen next as successful as possible.

Using the same situation–picking up the canter with the judge watching–how should your mind be working? First, the judge. You think, ‘the judge is looking right at me, which is going to tend to distract me and make me tense, so I need to be sure to keep my attention on what I’m doing.’ Then, your awareness of your position in the ring and how it may affect your horse. Is there enough space to start your canter? Here your knowledge of your horse’s behavior in similar situations in the past becomes important. If he needs space to get started and some one cut in front of you at the last minute, it makes more sense to wait a couple of beats and let the other horse get out of the way, then to waste time cussing out the person who cut you off. You have no control over that now, because that is in the past; you can only control how you handle the new problem.

Next you’re ready to ask for the canter, so you have to think about how the horse’s body feels, and adjust your aids accordingly. I used to have a horse who would always pick up the canter as soon as the ringmaster gave the command. If her rider gave her a strong leg aid at the same time the result was something a bit more than just a canter. On the other hand, if the rider ignored what was happening underneath him–which is to say, ignored what he knew would be the horse’s next (future) response, and was caught unawares, he might be left back with a jerk.

You have to be careful not to ride in the past by assuming that because the horse usually picks up the canter correctly that you don’t have to worry about it at all. You can’t count on the horse always responding in exactly the same way to the aids. That will only happen if his body and his mind are in the same place. That is, as long as the horse is relaxed and correctly positioned he will respond to the canter aids the same way, but if something happens to make him nervous or change his body position, you may not get the same results without fixing the problems first. So you must be sure that you pay attention to what the horse is really doing at the moment you ask for the canter.

Similarly, if something happens that makes you anticipate a problem, such as having a horse nearby blow up, to ride in the present you must focus on what your horse is actually doing in response to the situation, and make the appropriate correction. If you try to ride in the future, you will find yourself thinking, ‘Oh my lord, my horse is GOING TO (notice the future tense) blow up too!’ which will make you panic, and then of course he WILL blow up. If you’re riding in the present, you might feel your horse start to tighten up, and take appropriate corrective action, such as circling away from the problem.

Riding in the present is very rewarding in terms of the results you get from your horse. It is even more rewarding in terms of the feeling of security it gives you. Instead of worrying about things that you cannot change–the past and the future–you only have to do what you know you can do.

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