Seven Ways to Move Past a Riding Plateau

Sometimes when working toward a goal, riders hit a plateau. Check out these seven tips to ride it out.

Don?t beat yourself up when you think you’re in a rut. Instead, embrace the opportunity to improve your horse’s skills and your own horsemanship. Photo by Kimberly Boyd-Vickery

Plateau: The perceived inability to move forward when learning a new skill.

Based on “Please, help me!” questions and other forms of reader feedback, this is how many horse owners regard a riding or training plateau–as a place where one gets stuck. Frustratingly stuck.

But what if you could experience a plateau from a different perspective? Rather than treating it like a negative, discouraging spell in your riding, why not spin that around and see it as an opportunity for improvement? A chance to work with your horse to better understand each other to reach a goal?

Here, with input from a pro with experience guiding aspiring riders up the achievement stairway, we’ll define what a plateau is and isn’t, and offer seven tactics that will help you and your horse off a plateau and back on your way toward reaching your goals.

What a plateau is
Whether experienced in athletics, education, personal relationships, or elsewhere, plateaus are universal facts of life. The key past frustration lies in seeing a plateau for what it is:

  • A chance to brush up on foundation skills to ensure that the needed building blocks are in place for improvement.
  • An opportunity to work toward a well-defined goal.
  • A time to refine and finesse the nuances of your riding.
  • A chance to learn about yourself and your horse.

Embrace the plateau and realize that on the plateau is when real improvement occurs–for both you and your horse. Set an attainable goal, develop a vision to reach it, and then start working. Move slowly in the right direction, and be sure that all of your actions support the end goal. (Example: If your goal is to improve your horse’s lope, you aren’t likely to achieve it by devoting most of each training session to the jog.)

When you get there, you might call it a breakthrough, but, in fact, you’ve been working toward that end all along, taking baby steps that led you to achieving your goal.

What a plateau isn’t
Don’t get bogged down in seeing a plateau as a source of frustration and even boredom. A plateau isn’t:

  • A place that you and your horse are stuck and can’t get past.
  • Something you can “bust through” or rush to get through.
  • A time to give up.

If you focus on this negative view of a plateau, you run the risk of getting burned out and rushing your horse for results. This can lead to resentment between you and your horse, and even to injury.

To get back on a positive track, use any of the seven improvement tactics suggested below.

1. Step Back to Go Forward
Improvement tactic: Return to the basics of your horse’s training.

Why it works: When something isn’t working as you attempt to advance with your horse, it’s likely that one or more elements of his foundational training needs tuning. Before you can successfully move forward in building a reliable, solid mount, all the basics must be solid.

For example, if you’re having trouble backing your horse in a straight line, go back and examine your ability to move and control each of his four corners (both shoulders and hips). Your horse’s ability to back straight is only as good as your ability to isolate and move those individual corners. Maybe he doesn’t yield his right shoulder well or is stiffer in one hip than the other. Improve these areas, and your back-ups will improve as well.

2 Cross-Train Your Brain
Improvement tactic: Read a book or watch a DVD, but think outside the box when choosing it.

Why it works: Books and DVDs are chock full of information. Not only that, they’re something you can study almost anytime, and without trailering to a lesson.

To get the most out of them, think critically when choosing which one you read or watch. Let’s say you want to improve your Western riding patterns. Reading a book or watching a DVD about Western riding might offer some new insight while reiterating what you already know. That’s fine, but why not think critically and choose a discipline that’s tangentially related, so you can learn something new? Choose a dressage book or DVD and apply its techniques to your own training methods.

For example, Western riding calls for flying lead changes that require your horse to demonstrate suppleness, balance, and straightness. Dressage exercises develop those skills in the horse so he can perform those advanced maneuvers.

3 Go to Class
Improvement tactic: Attend a clinic-as an auditor if you’re not able to participate as a rider.

Why it works: Auditing a clinic is a cost-effective way to learn and gives you some unique opportunities. You can closely watch other riders and really listen to questions and answers without the distraction of your own horse.

Obviously, if you ride in a clinic, your issues will get special attention from the presenter. Either way, watch the expert closely to give yourself a better picture of where you’re headed. If you’re not sure whose clinic to attend, ask other horsemen who you respect whom they admire and would want to learn from.

4. Switch Horses
Improvement tactic:
Ride someone else’s horse.

Why it works: Think about the professional riders whom you admire. They ride a variety of horses every single day. This automatically hones their riding skills as they compare and adapt from one horse to another. This tactic of riding more than one horse can work for you as well.

Ideally, ride a horse that’s better trained than your own. Riding an advanced horse gives you a feel for what a maneuver is supposed be like, which you can apply to your own mount. Having a first-hand understanding of how what you’re working toward feels can make all the difference. But you can also learn from a horse that’s not as far along as yours. At the very least, you’ll come away with an appreciation for what you have taught your horse so far.

5. Employ Fresh Eyes
Improvement tactic: Take a lesson from a trainer or other instructor who’s new to you.

Why it works: You can elicit a light-bulb moment simply by having another set of eyes look at you, your horse, and what you’re doing. The trainer/teacher might address the exact same problems other trainers, books, or DVDs have covered, but in a different way that speaks to you on a different level. Or he/she might see a problem that’s gone unidentified by others who’ve tried to help you.

If it’s not feasible for you to haul to or pay for a lesson, don’t fall into the excuse trap of “I can’t.” Get creative on your own behalf. Some ideas: Look into instructors who might be willing to travel to you. Ask a friend if you can observe one of her lessons. Have someone video your riding, and then post the result for comments via your favorite social media.

6. Seek Balance
Improvement tactic:
Carefully manage your work/play balance.

Why it works: Over-training and under-training both lead to burnout and boredom. Committed practice is important, but be sure to balance it with healthy breaks.

How you define a break is up to you. Maybe you go for a quiet, relaxing trail ride after–or instead of–an intense training session. Or perhaps you need some time away from the barn. Figure out what gives both you and your horse time to take a deep breath and relax mentally and physically.

7. Lighten Up
Improvement tactic: Enjoy the process and the journey.

Why it works: When you get completely wrapped up in getting to the end goal, you might miss things your horse is telling you, such as when he reveals holes in his basic training (see No. 1). Furthermore, tunnel vision eliminates your ability to identify other ways to reach your goals, leaving you stuck

Have a vision and set a goal, but don’t try to push toward it too quickly at any cost. That can lead to injury, burnout, and frustration for both you and your horse. Instead, take your time, pay close attention to your horse’s and your own actions, figure out what will work best for you both, and enjoy the learning process. The next time you find yourself in a rut, you’ll rely on the experience you gained getting off this riding plateau to move forward again.

Don’t Call it A Breakthrough
“People will work on something for a long time and feel like they’re grinding away every day,” says trainer Carol Dal Porto, Brentwood, Calif. “They don’t think they’re getting it. They think they’re stuck. Suddenly one day, they get it! They think it’s a breakthrough! but, in my experience, the breakthrough didn’t happen on that single day with that single ride. All the practice on the plateau solidified the horse and rider’s skills. if you’re working toward something every day, you know that something great is bound to happen.”

The editors thank Carol Dal Porto for contributing insight to this article. Carol and her husband, Steve, run Dal Porto ranch in Brentwood, California, where they’ve trained multiple open, amateur and youth champions across many breeds.

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