Mindfulness In And Out of the Saddle

A college student learns to be more aware of her riding amid academic pressures
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Last semester, a group of girls and I carpooled to the barn once or twice a week for a riding lesson. Getting off campus, driving through the rolling hills of Ohio and arriving at my trainer’s barn in a deep valley was mostly a therapeutic experience—a physical escape from everyday studying and attempting to navigate a social life. This is not to say, however, that being at the barn was a situation in which I temporarily let go of my anxiety for the upcoming day or week.

Credit: Courtesy, Karsten Cao Kat and Slick, a 15-year-old Arabian-Paint-cross gelding

Credit: Courtesy, Karsten Cao Kat and Slick, a 15-year-old Arabian-Paint-cross gelding

Especially as the stress of projects and presentations at school inceased toward the end of the semester, I would spend my few hours at the barn with a lingering anxiety for all the study time that I was missing. On a few occasions, I remember lessons in which I’d ride a 15-meter circle while trying to remember French verb conjugations for an upcoming exam. It made for spectacularly disorganized riding, none of which I was particularly proud of.

My college trainer often emphasized the term “mindfulness.” At first, I shrugged it off. I’m a focused person, I thought. I’m intense about my riding. But then I realized that I was riding leg yields and giving them only half of my attention. Half of my mind was thinking about my horse’s bend and connection but the other half was scattered in an array of academic stress and social dilemmas.

At my lessons I sometimes rode an OTTB named Hawk. He was a big horse and could sometimes be a bit spooky, especially when the Ohio snow melted and slid off the arena roof. Being only 5 feet 2 inches tall, I found that riding a big horse like him takes a lot of focus and, occasionally, a lot of strength. After a spook that nearly unseated me, I realized that I needed to intensify my focus, which sometimes wavered. I needed to be more mentally present in order to react better.

When my trainer mentioned mindfulness again, I started thinking about it and exploring the topic more. The very basic meaning often includes “awareness” or “a state of being aware.” Mindfulness is also a method of stress relief and meditation.

Achieving a more present mental state certainly seems to have its benefits—both in and out of the saddle—but being mindful in the saddle is one of the greatest tools that I think we have as riders. For me, being mindful allows me to feel more secure and connected to my horse and also lets me de-stress. By devoting my mind completely to my riding and reminding myself to bring my thoughts continually back to what I am experiencing in the saddle, I am able to create consistently better rides for myself and, hopefully, for my horse. In addition, because I’ve become more aware of my present state of mind, I can temporarily let go of the stress and pressure from school that often permeate my day-to-day life.

This summer, I’m working full-time away from home and I haven’t had access to a barn or a riding lesson. It’s a strange experience—the first time in my life that I haven’t had regularly scheduled time on a horse. Because of this, I’ve spent quite some time reflecting on my riding experiences and wondering how I might be able to use my time out of the saddle to prepare myself for my return to the barn. I remembered my experiences with Hawk and I started thinking about how practicing mindfulness might apply to my life right now.

These days, I spend a lot of lovely afternoons and weekends in downtown Washington D.C. For anyone who regularly uses public transportation in a major city, you know it can be a superb time to people-watch, but it can also be draining. Try practicing mindfulness in a crowded metro. By simply focusing on your breathing while navigating hundreds of tourists and commuters, you might feel more grounded and rejuvenated. Even though I’m not riding at the moment, I’m still trying to incorporate mindfulness into my day-to-day life. And I hope when I get off the metro and back into the saddle, I’ll continue to find more ways to incorporate this new way of thinking or, should I say, not thinking, into my daily routine. 

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