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You know, when you know things, but suddenly, you understand things?  It’s awesome, isn’t it, when you have an ah-ha moment.  It happened to me recently…

When you’re a beginner, in whatever, you tend to move and wobble.  Think of a beginner on a bicycle. A beginner on a slack line. A child beginning to learn to walk.  As your brain tries to figure something out, to keep itself above your feet, and you balanced and upright, to keep that brain on top, it makes you throw your hands out to the side to find balance and make your feet shift.  An elite cyclist can balance on those ridiculously thin racing wheels with no deviation in sight. A slackliner can walk that tight rope, pause, sit, stand, pivot, as if they’re on the ground. And, it’s the same with any of us, doing anything new compared to something we have practised and are good at.  AND, if we are good at something, we enjoy doing it. So, we practice more, get more comfortable with the skill, and stiller while doing it.

walking on a slackline, or a hanging plank, can challenge your balance and stillness

Walking on a slackline, or a hanging plank, can challenge your balance and stillness

Novice riders are easy to spot, as they kick their legs or move their arms and hands.  “Sit still” is the instruction yelled across the arena, which is as useful as telling the child learning to ride a bike, “don’t wobble”.  The elite riders – watching them is often not overly helpful to a novice rider trying to learn the aids, since the aids are all but invisible.  

Why am I think this now?  Well…. I’m currently catching up on some scuba diving, which I haven’t done for about 18 months for one reason or another.  And a switch has flipped in my brain, for a different reason. Watching someone learning to dive, they move around a huge amount, and the more experienced they get, the stiller they are.  

In diving buoyancy is key.  If you are on the surface and want to descend, you have to go into negative buoyancy, and you drop through the water.  When you want to get back to the surface, you need to find positive buoyancy, and your rise. Simple. As you are in the water, you will often need to rise or drop fractionally, to deal with the topography of the underwater landscape.  And, you need to maintain your height with neutral buoyancy along the way. Experienced divers hover wherever they need to, without so much as a twitch – it’s largely breath and brain control. When I very first began to dive, I struggled to stay down – on the start of a dive, I would find it tricky to descend, and often during a dive, I would angle my body, my head to lowest point, feet higher, and move my fins to propel me downwards.  Over time, that got easier, but one thing would still catch me - as you are coming back up, you pause for a safety stop, hovering at 5m for 3 minutes. And for me? Oh My. I’d wriggle, move, turn, go horizontal, swim, and, hover??? No. I’d just pop up...

Riding in the sea brings surprising challenges – your eyes are drawn to the moving water, and your body has to deal with the horse’s movement as well as the tug of the tides

Riding in the sea brings surprising challenges – your eyes are drawn to the moving water, and your body has to deal with the horse’s movement as well as the tug of the tides

Last week, I had some archery lessons.  The coach I had was interesting and very pedantic about posture and stillness.  (Hmmm, I may have heard about this before…). “Your body should be a T”, he said, “spine upright, shoulders dropped and relaxed, and same degree of stretch or reach on both sides.  If your posture is wrong, your bow cannot shoot” (Yip, definitely heard something similar…). “Your bow is just a piece of wood and string, it cannot shoot an arrow on its own. Treat the bow as an extension of you…  If you are in a hurry, if you are distracted, if you lose focus, your arrow is not going to hit the target, it cannot shoot straight if you can’t hold stillness and breathe straight to the target”. It’s all about posture and being still.  The better the archer, the stiller he stands, the faster the posture is repeated, the straighter the arrow. It’s really just simple physics. “You’re in a hurry to make the perfect shot” he said, “just breathe, slow down, not too slow or you get tired and wobble, but slow your brain”.  Oh yeah, easy. Still.

So, fast forward now to my diving.  On chatting to a dive instructor, I said, my issue is this buoyancy – I just can’t stay down when in shallow water without working.  And her answer? “Focus and breathe. You can stay anywhere in the water if you think, focus, breathe. If you’re in a hurry for it to happen, you’ll move and lose your aim.  Stillness is the key to everything. If you feel you are coming up in the water, freeze, like a statue, breathe out, think down, and you’ll find your stillness. And, you know what…  Safety stop at 5m? Piece of cake. Hovered in the water as if attached to lines in all directions. What is the overall instruction again? Still.

If you move in the water, for one you look like a beginner, but two, more importantly, your fins and arms move you up, down, around.  If you move in archery, you look like a beginner since your arrows don’t cluster in the middle, and your bow cannot shoot straight. And, if you move around on a horse, you look like a beginner (oh yes) and your horse cannot do his job of being a horse.  Still.

I wouldn’t have thought about this so much if I was just riding or teaching, since being still is something that happens instinctively (after many years of sitting on a horse…).  Especially if on a young horse or a horse who is a little too exuberant about life. And, I know that yelling “Sit Still” across the arena does nothing for the novice rider who is already trying.  But having two instructors in two weeks, in two different sports, both saying “you’re doing too much, you’re trying too hard, you’re letting your hurry interfere with your focus” Bing – lightbulb.

As I move around the world teaching, being still is probably one of the biggest issues for most riders

As I move around the world teaching, being still is probably one of the biggest issues for most riders

So, why am I writing this?  As I meet riders who I haven’t met before, I always ask, what other sports do you do?  If they say, “nothing, I spend all my time riding”, (often very proud of their dedication) I sigh inwardly.  Dedication is lovely, it really is. And in this tough sport, it’s needed. But you know what? You won’t learn to ride by only riding.  Our body and our brain need to be challenged by different things in different ways. So, my advice to people wanting to improve their riding?  Choose a sport, or a couple of sports, and dedicate some time to those too… Go kayaking, or rock climbing, diving, swimming, archery, martial arts, cycling, whatever.  Find a good instructor and play. And yes, play, is so much more important than learn, because in a childlike state of play, we learn much faster than in a stress state of having to make progress.  I play at a variety of different things, and each time I go back to riding with a greater understanding. Dabbling in the odd bit of yoga type stretches sometimes? A little jog around the block?  Sorry, that won’t cut it either. Go out and learn something properly, unpack it’s elements and understand it, and have some fun doing it!

Ashleigh Sanderson
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 23-04-2019
Ashleigh Sanderson is a riding coach who travels internationally full time. Part coach, part nomad, part thrill-seeker, Ashleigh is always looking for new ways to explain the principles of ethical, logical and horse-friendly riding and horse care. Her website name,, comes from the Malay and Indonesian languages and so reflects the amount of time she spends in Asia. Kuda meaning horse, and guru meaning teacher. Although initially this was a nickname given by the local staff, she has turned the meaning around a little, thinking of it as, “Your horse is your teacher, I just translate”.