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How Trying Harder Can Keep You Stuck

What do you do when you come up against a problem in your riding? Do you try harder, do you do more, do you do less, do you back off and look for a different approach?

Many riders have highly “driven” personalities. We want to succeed, to do well, to progress quickly.
However, the drive to succeed can get in our way.

I’ve spent the past three weeks getting a break from the cold Pennsylvania winter and enjoying four of the elements in life I enjoy the most: sun, water, horses, and helping others learn.


We just finished the first destination riding retreat I’ve offered, working with both Wendy Murdoch and Equisol retreats, in Nosara, Costa Rica.

It is always interesting to see the themes that come out of these types of immersive events. These are not planned, but simply rise out of the group dynamic.

This past week, the theme that came up across the unmounted sessions, riding lessons, and even the morning yoga was one of recognizing our own patterns, especially the tendency to always “try harder”, to attempt to push through challenges when that may not be the best solution.

This concept of our human tendency to keep doing something, even when it isn’t working for us, can be explained by basic brain science.

When we do an action, such as sit in the saddle, push our legs forward, and brace against the stirrups, a memory starts to be created in the brain for that movement. As we continue to repeat that pattern of movement or behavior, the memory becomes stronger as a neural pathway is created.

When we run into a challenge, and what we did before no longer works, our brain will stick with what did work in the past.

For example, if pushing into the stirrups provided a sense of security (however false) at the walk, but when we try to pick up trot we feel stiff and out of balance, our brain will go to what worked before – pushing harder in the stirrups.

I refer to this concept in our behavior as “more of the last thing”.

When we feel that something is working we repeat it, and when we hit a challenge or roadblock, we do more of what we think should work, often on a completely unconscious level. This is how our patterns of behavior and movement are created. Many are useful, such as remembering how to drive a car. Some will not be useful, like our earlier example of bracing on the stirrups.

This working harder in a pattern is how a small amount of tightness at the walk turns into feeling completely rigid and unable to go with the movement at all in canter.

As soon as we put our conscious mind to it, purposefully trying harder, we go deeper into that old pattern, and our amount of tension, physical and mental, increases.

The harder we try to get it right, the more we tense up, blocking not only our movement, but also our ability to feel the horse.

Of course, there are situations where the answer is more effort, but what came up for the participants of our retreat and for many of the students I work with on a regular basis is that solving a problem most often requires a new solution, versus simply trying harder.

This requires “stepping back”, softening physically and mentally, before looking for a new way forward.

Consider how you typically handle challenges… is your initial response to back off from a problem or to push yourself harder? If it is pushing harder, what if you had another option and could try something different?

Here are a few questions to get you thinking about other possible solutions:

Think of a current problem you have in your riding… what have you been doing to solve this problem? Is it working? What have you been assuming you need to do to work through this problem? What if that was not true, what else could you try?

See you in the comments!

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