Just before his 6th birthday

So here is an unusual little tip I was never told by any riding instructor, ever. If you are having a difficult ride, smile about it. Yup, that’s it. That’s the whole tip. Find something about the situation that brings a great big smile to your face.

For you Harry Potter fans out there, think of a bad ride as your very own personal Dementor, sucking the life energy out of you and stealing every happy feeling. To combat it, find a happy thought and hold on to it. Allow some part of the experience to amuse you enough to make you smile and you may well find your Patronus is the horse you are sitting on.

Harry Potter analogies too much? Okay, how about some facts.

  • Smiling slows the heart rate and relaxes the body.
  • Smiling releases endorphins that actually lifts our mood.
  • Smiling helps to counteract and diminish stress hormones.
  • Smiling lessens pain, as the same endorphins that give us a sense of wellbeing, also serve to reduce pain.
  • Smiling widens our focus and opens us up to insights that come from the fringes of our perception, by reducing the ‘tunnel vision’ which limits our perception and narrows our view, that is symptomatic of stress.
  • Smiling is contagious. When others see you smile, many will smile with you and the positive effects of smiling are reflected between people, increasing the benefits for all involved.
  • Smiling opens you empathically to other living creatures, allowing you to ‘feel’ your horse’s emotional state more accurately and influencing it for the better.

Okay, that last one is a more of a personal observation than a provable fact, but I believe it to be true.

There are other observations I have made while working with riders over the years. I cannot prove any of this either, but this is what I believe I have experienced. If you give it some thought, you can probably connect these observations to the list of effects above.

  • Riders who smile are more likely to remember to praise their horse for correct behavior and less likely to punish for perceived mistakes.
  • Riders who smile move more freely with their horse.
  • Riders who smile are trusted more by their horse.
  • Riders who smile retain more of their instruction.
  • Riders who smile can ride longer before becoming fatigued.
  • Riders who smile appear to others to be having a better ride and receive positive reactions from observers. (Except of course for judges in sports were smiling is frowned upon. Something I have never understood.)

Even my students who are so focused on trying to follow some instruction or master some technique that their faces become a mask on concentration but who are not actually unhappy, perform better when they sacrifice a little of that concentration and allow themselves to find and express joy in what they are doing.

The smile need not be some toothy grin either. There are those who ride with an inner calm and serenity, and don’t express it with a broad smile on their face. Such riders are often so engaged with the joyful experience of riding that they are appear to be almost in their own reality, but I am willing to bet if you could step into that reality with them for a time, you find they are smiling radiantly.

Everything I have mentioned above holds true for me just as it does anyone else. Just like everyone else I have rough days and bad moods. We have all experienced that downward spiral, or ‘snowball effect’, where one minute things are going well, the next some small issue appears that annoys or frustrates us; that turns into tension, which makes the issue worse, making us more stressed, making the problem worse, and so on, and so on. Eventually the rides ends unsatisfactorily for us. We put our horse away gruffly and take our dark mood home with us. This situation is damaging to our riding and training as it is to our emotional state. It is also terribly unfair to our horses who cannot help but feel our emotional state, being fantastically more aware of such things than we are.

To avoid this, we have to first realize the spiral has begun and strive to reverse it before it reaches a point of no return. Letting go of frustration and stress is as easy as finding something in the situation to genuinely smile about.

How do we find that something to smile about when the ride has taken a turn for the worse, with all the accompanying darkening of mood that comes with it? I wish I could tell you a simple trick. Hell, I wish someone could tell me a simple trick. All I can tell you is try to keep things lighthearted. We all have to strive to see the humor in every problem, the light that is casting the shadow, and remember why we ride horses in the first place.