Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Natural Rider: A Right-Brained Approach to Riding," by Mary Wanless


I remember exactly where I was when I found my copy of "The Natural Rider" – Powell's bookstore in Portland Oregon. I'm less clear on exactly when, but I'm thinking it must have been 1996 or 1997 when we drove up to Portland to visit my brother. Among the favorite places he selected to show us, Powell's was high on the list.  It was, and still is, a destination worthy of a trip to Portland on its own.

We hadn't intended to be there for hours, which was stupid, because no one entering that idyllic zork-maze of books, shelves, and alcoves could possibly keep track of time. I'm not sure how they manage to clear the place at closing. Perhaps they can't. It's not hard to imagine living there – sneaking out occasionally for a shot of expresso and a breath of fresh air, then diving back in again to explore yet another subject area and page through just one more volume.

Among other subjects, I always find myself drawn to the shelves housing books on animals – whether wildlife or pets. At the time I had recently started riding lessons, so I was particularly interested in books that might help me improve at my new activity.

I had imagined horseback riding was something I could learn to do in a few months, and so be ready to take pack trips in to the Sierra with my family (which seemed easier than carting the gear on my own back!). My oldest son (aged six at the time) was interested in riding too, so I pictured it as something we could do together. Well, he broke his leg that year, and to make a long story shorter, I started my adventure with horses on my own. While I loved the contact with these amazing animals, as well as the challenge of learning a new skill, riding turned out to be far more difficult than I'd anticipated.

Like many adult beginning riders, I had issues with fear. It's a long way down, and horses can be unpredictable. While riding does have its dangers, dwelling on them is not helpful. At all. Tension in the rider can make the horse respond with echoed unease, which is not taking things in the right direction – as nervous horses tend to spook and run. So, looking to books for some help was the most natural thing in the world.

At the time, I had never heard of Mary Wanless, but I liked the diagrams in the book as well as the use of mental imagery and visualization. I'd experienced such techniques over many years of dance training, and found them helpful. Sometimes too literal of instruction gets stuck in intellectual analysis, and never makes it to the musculoskeletal system. In other words, sometimes apparently fanciful imagery can get us out of our own way.

Turns out that Mary Wanless is quite a well-known master riding instructor in the UK, as well as in Australia and the US. So, clearly I'm not the only one to find her approach helpful. That first reading of "The Natural Rider" did leave me a little panicked with the realization of how much of it went right over my head. I was way more ignorant than I'd known. There were a few key points, however, that I was able to put to work right away:
  •  Our automatic physical reaction to fear is to curl forward into the fetal position. This is about the worst thing you can do when things go wrong on a horse. It takes a lot of work to relax instead, but it's probably the most important aspect to work through.
  • It's okay to not be innately talented or find riding easy. You can progress a long way by improving your skills. Gaining those skills will make you more confident in every aspect of life, not just interacting with horses.
  • It's really not about you; it's about the horse. Your job is to use your body as a positive influence on your horse's way of going.

It's been almost 20 years since I bought this book, and I've had a horse of my own for the past nine of those years. These days we are both arthritic enough so that our rides are more like mutual physical therapy sessions than an athletic event. But we're still together, and both still benefit from the exercise and paying attention to good form.

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