No matter how much you love horses and riding, you’ve probably had motivational slumps more than once. You know, those afternoons when you sit at your desk scrolling through Facebook and checking your email 10 times per minute, looking for an excuse to avoid riding. While usually you’d ride in the rain, if there’s a cloud on the horizon, you decide to stay home and watch TV because the weather does not permit. You’re usually happy to scrounge 30 minutes between knocking off and eating dinner to ride, but today you only have an hour… let’s see… 10 minutes to get to the paddock… 10 minutes to catch the horse… 10 minutes to saddle up… 10 minutes to untack… 20 minutes to groom… nah, there’s no time to ride.
Lack of motivation is probably most common among professionals or seasoned competitors who spend hours and hours every week in the saddle. Amateurs feel it too, but pros have the most trouble, because riding isn’t just for fun – it’s their daily grind.
The bad news is, you’ll probably always have unmotivated times, no matter how well you ride or how awesome your circumstances are. The good news is, it’s possible to get out of them and back to your enthusiastic horsy self. Here are five tips that have helped me to stay motivated through the years.
1. Take care of your body. While most motivational slumps are more psychological than physical, sometimes you just literally don’t have the energy to ride. Eating the wrong stuff, getting dehydrated and not getting enough sleep can make you dopey, irritable, and feeling drained before you even hit the saddle.
For me personally, I have to avoid the slimming diets that are so in fashion these days. I’m active (around 20-30 hours of light to moderate exercise per week), have a fast metabolism, and am slightly underweight. If I was to drink only water, stick mostly to veggies and snack on fruit and nuts, I’d pass out. Most serious horsepeople are athletes and shouldn’t be eating like couch potatoes. I need at least three helpings of carbohydrates every day to keep me feeling strong, as well as a goodly dose of fats and sugars to keep me energised. Fruit and vegetables are essential for vitamins and minerals – you should still get your five-a-day. But if you’re of a healthy weight, generally healthy, and have an active lifestyle, there’s no need to be dead scared of starches and (in moderation) sugars. I’m not a nutritionist, doctor or dietician, but this is what’s worked for me. Trans fatty acids like takeaways are still trouble, though – try not to dig into a pizza for lunch every day or you’re at risk for nasty stuff like heart disease.
Dehydration is probably my number one reason for feeling tired, sick, or weak. Especially for an athlete, getting enough fluids is extremely important. I’m guilty of not getting my eight glasses of water a day, but on the days that I get at least eight glasses of some type of fluid, I can feel a vast difference in my energy levels. Again, I break the dieting rules with my drink of choice: chocolate milk, and please not low-fat milk – only the full-fat creamy Jersey-produced stuff, thanks. The sugars in the chocolate and fats in the milk give me a hectic energy boost. As an added bonus, calcium from the milk is good for bones – always essential for a horse rider to prevent breaking bones in falls. Plus, it’s just so much nicer than water 😉
Staying fit is also important. Fit people generally feel happier in their own skins and are healthier than unfit people. Riding will feel less strenuous, keeping a correct position will be easier, and muscle soreness will be reduced if you’re fit. There’s the added bonus that falling is less hazardous for people who aren’t overweight: bones can only handle so much pressure being put on them, and a fat person falling puts more pressure on their bones than a lean one.
Last, but not least, get enough sleep. I don’t need a lot of sleep, but I still feel it if I don’t get my eight hours in. Sleep deprivation makes you irritable and tired, and leaves you feeling itchy and heavy and generally zombie-like. Yeah, not the greatest mood for hard physical and cognitive activity like horse riding.
2. Try something new. Ride a horse you’ve never ridden before, go for an outride somewhere you’ve never been, or just try some new exercises in the school. Too often the boring routine of warming up, putting the horse through its paces, grooming it, putting it away wears us down and leaves us feeling like there’s nothing interesting left in riding. And if you’re bored with what you’re doing, chances are your horse’s training is going nowhere, and the horse is just as bored.
Try going to a clinic or taking a lesson with a rider you admire, other than your usual trainer. Maybe book a pleasure outride at a facility where you’ve never been before and take a friend/family member/significant other along. Teach your horse something completely new and out of the box. Doing something different can revive your interest in learning, which is what you should be doing throughout your riding career.
3. Break out your favourite horse movie. Sometimes, seeing horses in an idyllic, fictional tale can inspire you and remind you why you actually love these animals so much. Most people have an old favourite – re-watch it and remind yourself of why you actually do this crazy thing called riding. Or try a new movie; Secreteriat, Dreamer, and War Horse are my personal favourites.
Alternatively, read a horse-based novel or some nonfictional work like articles on the Web, a horse magazine, or a horse training manual. You could watch YouTube videos of your heroes of horse riding. All of this will send you back to riding with renewed perspective, respect, and inspiration for this magnificent sport.
4. Set a goal. Nothing motivates me like an upcoming show. When you have something concrete to prepare for, your drive and ambition doubles. Even if you’re not planning to attack A-Grade showjumping or Prix St Georges dressage, look for a little local show you can take your horse to, and test your training and riding on a manageable level for both of you.
If you’re not the competitive type, maybe you can set a goal in your horse’s training. It doesn’t have to be massive; it can be as simple as having consistent square halts from your dressage donkey by the end of the month, or being able to take a solo outride on your youngster by the end of March. Or it could just be schooling your favourite project five times this week instead of the usual four. Whatever it is, make it achievable and then set out to achieve it. Having a goal in sight motivates you to try harder, and it’s such a good feeling when you reach that goal.
5. Prevention is better than cure. While it’s inevitable that you’ll feel unmotivated at some stage or another, it’s possible to try to minimise it. By consistently taking care of your body and setting training goals, you’ll already make a difference. My favourite method of preventing motivational slumps is simply to keep on changing my routines, reading articles and books that will help me improve my riding, and being in a constant quest to ride and train better. Never stop tweaking your riding. Always look for different exercises you can try and things you can improve with yourself and the horses you ride. Never get too comfy or complacent: if you’re bored, chances are you’re not growing, and it’s time to step out of your comfort zone.
I also try to vary my horses’ routines. My two jumpers only actually jump once a week. In a single week, if things go to plan, Arwen is jumped, lunged, schooled, and ridden out. And if even that gets us bored, I’ll play some mounted games on her or try some groundwork. This will keep both you and the horse engaged and interested and always learning.
Riding should be a constant learning curve. Keep that in mind, and you’re set to go.