“I hate my comfort zone,” George Morris said into his microphone as he addressed a group of nine advanced riders. It was the first day of a three-day clinic in Buffalo, NY, one which yearly event riders travel from as far as Hawaii to attend. The group had just finished doing a grid exercise where, after each time the whole group was successful, the height of the jump went up. His goal was clear: push each horse and rider to become better by the end of the exercise. To get each horse and rider out of their comfort zone.
With the next exercise, eyebrows raised. Two swedish oxers were set up at an angle close to walls. Each rider would have to ride a figure eight over the jumps. That means there are two very short, quick turns both horse and rider have to learn to plan for mid-jump, or they’d hit the wall. The distance between the jump and the wall didn’t look very big from the auditor’s seats. Some of the participants made the job look easy. One rider kept knocking over the polls while jumping on the short turns. Morris told the rider to keep going “…to help your horse be aware of his hind end while he’s turning.”
If I’ve learned anything about horseback riding, no matter the discipline you must be good at multitasking. Each rider was reminded to keep weight in their heels and their upper body forward while preparing for the next turn and the next jump. But while their mind was working, they needed to let their horses carry them over the jumps and into the turns. “Don’t interfere with your horse’s back,” Morris instructed as riders went into the short turns. The horse needed to be free to judge the distance and turn for themselves and to be aware of where their bodies were and where they needed to be to judge the distances correctly.
But, psychologically, Morris was pushing these riders – many of whom hadn’t been to one of his clinics or ridden with him before – out of their comfort zone. It’s easy to get used to running the same exercises in your lessons. Both you and your horse get used to the same heights, the same turns around the arena, and even the same side you use riding crops on. When you start to change things up, suddenly your lesson becomes more challenging for you and your horse. Both of you are forced to use your brains, push yourselves, and pay attention to what’s going on rather than relying on muscle memory.
When you leave your comfort zone, your horse becomes reliant on you for direction. It’s up to you to use the correct aids, the right amount of leg pressure, and “keep your heels down!” That’s how, in George Morris’s eyes, you become a better rider.