There’s a certain element of cognitive dissonance that comes with being a re-rider.
As I discovered during my first legitimate riding lesson in twelve years, so much time out of the saddle has a tendency to cause the body to forget all the things the brain still knows. Like how to keep your eyes up, and your heels down. My heels do go down, right? I thought to myself as I squatted awkwardly in what was a poor excuse for two-point position. I mean, I used to be able to practically touch my toes to my shins! Now that was a cool party trick. The body also forgets those basic, yet at times counterintuitive self preservation techniques. You know, like sitting up rather than curling into the fetal position when the ancient off-the-track Thoroughbred you’re riding suddenly has a flashback to his racing days.
“Don’t scream!” My new trainer had to call to me from across the ring. Was I really screaming? “Sit up, and say whoa!” he said. That did it. With that most basic instruction - sit up and say whoa - a phrase I had so often called to my own pony camp students years ago, I realized just what being a re-rider truly meant. I was a rank beginner - again.
A week before this disaster of a lesson, I had written a very passionate e-mail to my would-be trainer explaining that although I had been out of the tack for some time, I was committed, worth spending time on, and above all, that I had big goals. This email was full of sentences like I take riding seriously. I hope to get back into the show ring as soon as possible, and I’m a little out of shape, but I’m sure it will be just like riding a bike followed by a veritable resume of my previous riding accomplishments. I can only imagine what was going through his head as he saw me huffing and puffing; barely making it around the arena at a slow trot, and then too panicked to willingly ask the horse to canter.
A lot has changed since that first lesson in the summer of 2012, after I decided once and for all that I was going to get back into riding. I did, in fact, get back into the show ring, but the road there was nothing like I imagined. For anyone setting out on the journey that is a glorious come back as a re-rider, here are a few tips from someone who has been there.
1. Pick the Right Trainer
The right trainer to guide me was by far the most important piece of my own re-rider puzzle. I truly believe that had I not started working with my current trainer, I would have burned out all over again. There is something special about a trainer who really pays attention, learns his or her students, and understands their boundaries and just how much pushing they can take. I’m fortunate enough to work with a trainer who is a downright prodigy when it comes to scaredy cat adult amateurs like myself. On any given day, he knows just how much past my previous lesson’s comfort zone he can get me without losing my confidence. I know now that this talent for reading people is an absolutely vital trait in any trainers that I might work with in the future.
2. Be Kind to Yourself
Getting back to riding, especially after a long absence, is not, in fact, like riding a bike. First of all, it hurts. Especially that very first fall. When we’re younger, we tend to bounce when we hit the ground. Not so as a thirty-something. And don’t fool yourself - you will fall. It is simply a part of the sport we’ve chosen. Be nice to yourself, and try not to compare your riding today to what you were capable of years ago. Your body will take some time to catch up to what your brain still remembers. It’s all about muscle memory. Keep trying, and eventually holding that two point around the ring, or finishing a full jump lesson without stirrups won’t seem like an impossible task. (Just kidding - the no stirrups lesson always feels impossible. That’s the point. Trainers use them to keep us humble and to remind us where we came from.)
3. Set Small, Short-Term Goals
After that first lesson, I had to give myself a reality check. Yes, I still wanted to get back into the show ring, but it was clear I had a lot of work to do before then. My goals went something like this. Trot once around the whole ring without feeling like you want to die. Canter without crying. Don’t circle five times before that eighteen inch cross rail because you’re too scared to jump. Eventually my goals began to surprise me, especially when I realized they were actually achievable. Get the lead change to the counter canter and actually hold it through the turn. Don’t micromanage on the way to the 3’6” triple bar or you’ll chip. Win medal finals. If my only goal had continued to be to get back to the show ring as soon as possible, I would have missed out on all of those small wins along the way that, in the end, meant so much to me.
Everyone’s journey is different, and for some, getting back to riding may be easier, or much, much more difficult. For myself, I had years of fear to overcome, which may very well have been the biggest hurdle to contend with. But perhaps the greatest gift this experience has given me is simply the knowledge that it can be done. I’m strong enough to overcome challenges and ride again - in a more fulfilling way and even better than I ever did before.
Since my journey back into the world of riding, I’ve become a re-rider a second time over after taking a year off to have my first daughter. Now, my re-rider’s path is quite different, with different obstacles to overcome. But knowing what I know now, I have the tools - and the patience - to get through it. What’s one year compared to twelve, after all?
Lexi is a wannabe Eq Princess beating the Phoenix, AZ heat by early morning, and a Digital Marketing Manager, wife, and new mommy the rest of the time. When she’s not training with Ryan Miller for the Adult Equitation Ring, working at a local marketing firm, or chasing her one year old around, she can be found blogging over at Big Bay Social on topics like digital marketing, SEO, and social media for Equipreneurs (with a little about her riding adventures thrown in for good measure).