Muscle Memory and Horse Riding

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com)

Muscle memory has been used to describe motor learning, a type of procedural memory.  This involves developing a specific motor task and committing the sequence of events and actions to memory through practiced repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that activity, eventually allowing it to be performed without thought. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.

Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, dialing a phone, playing a musical instrument, or even for some people…driving.

One of the concepts I have long studied and thought about is muscle memory and horse riding.  Richard Shrake introduced me to this topic and thought process about 10 or 12 years ago.  Richard used to have us practice riding or even ground work with multiple repetitions.  Richard Shrake and others such as Malcolm Gladwell (in his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success) have all proposed that is takes over 10,000 hours of practice in any task to become exceptionally good.

This entire thought process of muscle memory is very relevant to riding horses.  There are things we do to maintain balance, small muscle actions that help us with our aides or cues and the rhythm of riding the horse by putting our body into time (and sway) with the movement of the horse and footfalls.  The more days we ride, the easier it often gets (so long as we make efforts to do things correctly). We all can look back and think to the past and think — my horse and I will never do that movement.  Then with practice, preparation and some good coaching and mentoring along the way — we succeed.  Likely we can all accept the idea that constant repetition helps us learn.  The important point, as my mother would often say, only perfect practice makes memories.  Part of the success of developing muscle memory is doing things correctly, and often with a coach or trainer or mentor giving you practical advice and tips to help you better understand how you should be moving your body (using your aides) to develop those “muscle memories.” All of this success comes from building our minds and muscles to work together in unison and without us having to spend five minutes thinking about how to make our horse do something.

How does muscle memory apply to your every day practice and riding?  By using foundation building horsemanship methods, we create a strong base of learning that we can then build upon.  With this base, we develop muscle memory. Muscle memory helps us to unconsciously put our leg in the right place and time that the horse needs the aide, it allows us to adjust our seat bone, move our shoulders, reposition our eyes and head, and move our hands that connect to the feet through the bit.

Some people will cringe when they see it can take 10,000 hours to get a perfect muscle memory. This may seem like a great deal of effort but I can promise you it pays off in the long run.  Others may say to me — how do I ride my horse for 10,000 hours.  There are only so many hours in a day, year or lifetime of a horse.  We must remember that becoming that perfect rider is a lifetime journey.  Building muscle memory is a lifetime journey as well.  In my over 35 years of riding, a quick calculation says I have exceeded 10,000 hours in the saddle. Some of my muscle memories are great, others still need work.

Here are some suggestions to add a few minutes or hours to that muscle memory building.

1) Ride as often as you can and think about building that muscle memory.  In fact, riding with a focused effort for 30 minutes is much better for developing muscle memory than if a person just rides hours without thinking about how to build those muscle memories.

2) Ride as many horses as you can. Each will help you fine tune your learning and muscle memory.

3) Build muscle memory at your desk, in the office, in the car, in front of the television.  You might chuckle about some of these suggestions but many of us have likely clucked to our car going up hill — why not work on our upper body muscle memory when driving (you know — look where you are turning instead of just veering into traffic). I sit in some meetings at time and work on leg aides (My legs are hidden under the table and I can work on my softness of the aides).

4) When you want to learn a new movement with your horse.  Get a good coach, trainer, or mentor to help you the first time or two so that you learn the correct way to build those muscle memories.

I hope this will help you all start thinking about muscle memory when you are riding.  Please feel free to share and I look forward to your comments.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at http://www.dunmovinranch.com. Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).