The rider - your present self

This is part of a series of articles.  There are many tips in this article that can help anyone wanting more happiness and satisfaction in life, but a lot of the article will make more sense if you read the introductory article first.

I just live here

The present, right now, is where we live. But how often do we really let ourselves "live" here?

The main purpose of a trail ride is to enjoy the ride. And what is more important than enjoying life?

But so much of the time we aren't enjoying life. We are thinking, if only I had X, then I would enjoy life. This turns into a never-ending hamster wheel of pursuing external rewards.

Why it matters

This is why the trail ride analogy is so useful. We jump in and out of our present self role so often, we hardly know what it's like to live in the present. Imagine a rider on a trail ride who ignores the map, is constantly questioning the guide, and lets the horse go wherever it wants half the time. On top of that, the rider often allows other riders to grab the reins and lead the horse where they want it to go. Does that sound like a fun trail ride? Of course not. How could it be a recipe for a happy life then?

Two keys

The first key is separating the roles: the narrator, the planner, the experiencer. Every one of us act in these roles at frequent points in our lives. But we don't have to act in them all at once. In fact, we shouldn't. The only effective way to separate the roles when they are inside us is to allocate to each of them a separate time. Think of them as hats that you wear. Wearing more than one hat at a time is foolish and silly, so trying to perform two roles at the same time is also foolish.

The second key is establishing good communication between the roles. The guide needs to communicate with the rider, to make sure the rider is following and understands the route when necessary. The rider needs to let the guide know when she needs to slow down, take a break, or get something she needs. The trainer and the guide need to communicate in order to make sure the map is accurate. And while the handler is always eager to be the go-between, it's best not to let him, whenever possible.

What does this mean? If you haven't figured it out already, it means we need to have a good schedule. We need to allocate time for each role. We also have to make sure that each role has the information needed to make the right decisions.

Keep your selves aligned

And while we should fully embrace whatever role we are in on the schedule, most of the time it will fall to the present self to facilitate good communication. After all, the ride is all about the rider, and only the rider can give the necessary feedback about the ride to keep it enjoyable.

Thus you'll see a recurring theme in this article: When something threatens your enjoyment, pass it off to another self.  Enjoy the ride.  Also, breathe.

How to stay in charge of the horse

Handling emotions is crucial to keeping a good relationship with a horse. Anne Gage, "Horse riding confidence coach," who acknowledges learning this the hard way, suggests:

Keep your emotions in check then look at the whole situation calmly so you can come up with a plan to help your horse. If you can’t control your emotions in the moment, do yourself and your horse a favour – walk away and come back later. When you are calm, review what happened and consider how, what and why.

When you avoid blame and look for possible causes, then you're taking responsibility and putting yourself back in control.

If the emotions are very strong, don't take any action right away.  Instead, focus on breathing.  Name the emotion(s) you are feeling.  Ask yourself if you can let it go.  If not, write it down where your future selves can see it and evaluate how to act on it.  Look at the map.  Where is your destination?  Don't change course.  Your present self is not qualified to make this decision.  All your attention should be focused on getting the horse under control.  For example, are you feeling upset because someone has criticized you?  Write down the criticism so your future selves can look at it more objectively.  Then move on.

Gage continues, 

Now, when I am working with a horse that is not doing what I ask, I consider three things – how, what, and why.

How – Are you asking in a way that makes sense to your horse? Are your cues clear and consistent?
What – Is there something physically or mentally getting in the horse’s way? Is he mentally and physically ready and able to do what is being asked of him? Do you have the skills to help your horse work through the situation or change the behaviour?
Why – Why does your horse have this behaviour? Is there physical pain? Does your tack fit properly? Has he been properly trained for this activity? Does he or do you need more training?

Let's examine how we can use these questions to make our metaphorical trail ride of life more enjoyable:

The how

Are you asking in a way that makes sense to your horse? 

Bayard Fox, quoted in my last article, urges riders to look where they want to go.

Keep your eyes and head up, and remember you should always look first to where you want to steer your horse. If you are looking nowhere, your horse should be going nowhere.... You really need to look where you are going. When turning, look at your destination, before cueing for the turn. This puts you in better balance, with your chin up, and your eyes forward.

You can practice keeping yourself on track by visualizing the desired outcome instead of telling yourself what you should be doing.

Are your cues clear and consistent?

We need to give clear cues to a horse. "Having a 'go forward' cue can be essential to getting your horse to move forward when he doesn’t want to," says Morten Storgaard, also quoted in The Horse: Your Experiencing Self.  

We need to give ourselves clear cues, too.

Deal with it immediately 

"When your horse stubbornly refuses to move in the direction you want, don't let him get away with it," urges Storsgaard.  "If you do, he might begin to believe he is the boss, and that can lead to future battles of wills between you. Take immediate action to change his behavior."

Get used to acting on the cues your past selves have left you (especially when you've become proficient in the narrating and planning roles) and ignoring the pull of the horse.  Don't let the horse lead you.  Instead, calmly and compassionately steer yourself back on course.  And leave your future selves lots of feedback. 

Sometimes we just have to get tough with ourselves.  Do it anyway.  Exert some willpower.

The what

Is there something physically or mentally getting in the horse’s way?

Lisa Rack, also quoted in The Horse: Your Experiencing Self, explains:

Horses are herd animals and are hardwired to find safety and comfort in every situation. The barn is their most comfortable and safe place where all their buddies are!

Is it possible we are reluctant to do what we know we should because we feel unsafe?  What message can we send to our planning self to help us feel better equipped for what we have to do?

The second reason is to help you understand that you need to be a good enough leader for your partner and that he needs to feel safe enough to follow your direction. You need to be effective enough with your mount to be understood and have built a relationship with him that he feels he can trust you. 

This is a cue to send a message to the narrating self to look for ways that we have demonstrated competence that can give us more self-confidence.

Is he mentally and physically ready and able to do what is being asked of him?

Which parts are hard?  Which are easy?  Remind yourself of the aspects that sap our motivation that we discussed in the last article:

  • Try to warm up.  Don't take on too much at once.
  • Don't overdo it.
  • Keep practicing.  Don't give up.
  • Maybe you are just hungry or need a break.
  • Smile.  It's amazing how well this works!  Try it.In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman references studies that show that people who smile feel more at ease and can accomplish more.  This is true even if they aren't consciously smiling.  Experiments were done asking subjects to simply hold a pencil crosswise in their mouth (which creates the shape of a smile).

Do you have the skills to help your horse work through the situation or change the behavior?

Don't write yourself off.  Talk to the trainer.  Leave a reminder to your narrating self to find times in your past when you've taken decisive action (we've all done it), and add them to the map.

Storsgaard tells us, "One of the easiest ways to change the mind of your stubborn horse is to distract him from the reason he's balking. Giving him the command to back up, or pull backward on the reins or lead rope so his nose sinks toward his chest. This gets him moving, even though it's not in the right direction."

Maybe it's time to take a different tack.  Try acting out a new role or doing something new or in a completely different way.  J.D. Meier suggests, "Make it a game, master your craft, pair up with somebody, change when you do it, link it to good feelings, or set a time limit."

The why

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, developed the Five whys technique to get to the root of any problem.  Each time you find the answer to why?, ask again, until you discover the root cause.  

According to Meier, 

In Start with Why, Simon Sinek discovered that the leaders who’ve had the greatest influence in the world all think, act, and communicate in the exact same way.

It’s from the inside out. They start with “Why.”

To change your ”why”, find a higher cause, make new meaning, or tell yourself a compelling story.

If you have been following the advice in this series of articles and you've taken control of your narrating self and planning self roles, you won't need to think very hard about this question because they (you) have already done it.  Find the place where you've recorded the whys and read them again.  If they don't make sense to you right now, leave a message to your future narrating and planning selves explaining why you feel differently.  But try to trust your past selves.  Together, they saw more than you are seeing in this instant.

Be in the present

Let's discuss two ways we can spend more time in the present and less time fretting, daydreaming, or escaping.

Observe yourself

Worrying, daydreaming, and escapist behaviors do not bring happiness.  Happiness comes from having a strong relationship with reality.  Both self-esteem and ego strength, measures of a high-functioning individual, have a close connection with accepting the world the way it is.  This includes accepting ourselves the way we are.

Timothy Gallwey, who really understands this concept, encourages his students to accept themselves as they are.  As he puts it, "The cornerstone of stability is to know that there is nothing wrong with the essential human being."

One of the best ways to get into the present?  Breathe.

Try to get in the habit of observing yourself without judgment.  "When a situation occurs, take a step back and watch your process, thoughts, and feelings, without trying to react immediately," says Ilene Strauss Cohen.  Think of yourself as a rider on a horse and try to observe the responses, rather than fight them.

Are you having trouble keeping your resolve to resist?  Use a technique that worked for children in the Stanford marshmallow experiment who successfully resisted indulging in the first marshmallow they were given: Those who focused on the “cool,” informative properties of the reward, its shape and color, for example, instead of its "hot" properties, such as its taste, were much better able to postpone the reward.

Trying to see things as if you've seen them for the first time is a valuable way to stay in the present.  And you just might see something you've never observed before, just by taking the time to look. "Not assuming you already know is a powerful principle of focus," says Gallwey.

Resist the wrong kinds of urgency.  Keeping deadlines that your planning self has agreed on is good.  Get used to saying, “Let me get back to you,” when someone else is trying to push you in a direction you hadn't intended to go.  Don't let the other riders grab your reins.

Start learning to recognize the role of ego in your life.  If you are feeling judged, or if you are tempted to judge yourself, that is your ego trying to take over.  Remember, ego can't live in the present.  Ways to kick ego to the curb include:

  • Get engrossed in a good book
  • Work on an engaging task
  • Have a comfortable conversation with someone who values you
  • Have a flow experience (consuming engagement in some pursuit), for example:Courtesy Mark Leary
    • skiing
    • knitting
    • playing music
    • athletics
    • working hard
    • helping othersList courtesy of Jeremy Sherman, a "biophilosopher and social science researcher studying the natural history and everyday practicalities of decision making"


People are great at making assumptions with their horse, while horses live in the moment every single day. So, here is another of my top horse training tips: When things get tough, and they most certainly will at some time, it is very helpful to have that knowledgeable and objective person you can count on to help set you and your horse straight again. It is SO easy to just train your horse based on your emotions. “He must hate me” is a common phrase from riders when things don't go the way they want them to. Horses just donʼt think that way. They think in terms of comfort and discomfort. You need to understand this when learning about horses. They can hang onto past things that have hurt them. If you are having problems you havenʼt been able to improve or get under control within a few training sessions you should ask for an outside opinion from a professional or trusted friend with loads of experience before things get worse. - Lisa Rack

When you feel dissatisfied with who you are, ask yourself why.

Is it because you are having negative thoughts about things in your past?  Leave a note to your narrating self to try to frame the events you're feeling obsessed with, in different terms.  

Are you feeling dissatisfied with the progress you've made toward your goal so far?  Let your planning self know.  Write down your fears.  Write down what makes you feel dissatisfied.  

Is it because you are unfairly comparing yourself with someone else?  This is a very common trap.  Don't let the success of others discourage you.  This is your trail ride, not theirs.

Of course, your other selves aren't the only ones you can communicate with.  But be careful which other riders you express your dissatisfaction to. Make sure they are well-qualified to help you and that they won't try to steer you toward their own desired path.  Ideally, you've chosen a trail ride with other riders who are all focused on the same destination, and you'll have many to encourage you along your way, and you can do the same for them.

Now that you've written down as much as you can, stop, look around, and get on with the present.  This is where you live.

Mistakes to avoid (Work with the horse)

Staying in control of the horse is important, but sometimes it's best to pay attention to what the horse is trying to tell you.

Forgetting to breathe

According to Lisa Rack, "Beginners have a tendency to hold their breath especially as the horse moves up in speed and gait. This can give you a side ache, back ache and transmit emotional tension to your horse."

Feeling stressed?  Breathe.  Feeling angry?  Count to ten.  Breathe.  It makes so much difference.

Forgetting your map

Rack says, "If you encounter a new trail and want to find out where it goes, save the exploration for another day—after you have had a chance to research it. Don’t venture out on an unknown trail, especially if it looks like it hasn’t seen much use. If the trail is rutted and overgrown, there is likely a very good reason why it’s not being used."

Avoid making life-altering decisions on the spur of the moment.  Let the planning self make those choices.  For now, stay on the trail.

Trying to do too much at once

Storsgaard says, "The most common mistake trail riders make is overestimating their horse’s physical conditioning. Avoid doing this by knowing your horse’s fitness level in order to help you determine what length of trail ride he can comfortably do and what degree of difficulty he is up for."

Is there really anything so important that it can't wait for another day?

Relax and enjoy the ride

We can spend more time enjoying life.  To do so, we need to: 

  • Understand the roles we need to play
  • Learn to master each role
  • Learn when to play each role
  • Learn to trust ourselves to be in control

Our trail ride is well underway.  We've discussed the horse, the rider, and some of the support roles.  But there's still an important link between horse and rider we need to cover.


  • How to stay in charge of the horse:
    • Ask, how?
    • Ask, what?
    • Ask, why?
  • How to get in the present
    • Observe yourself
    • Communicate
  • Mistakes to avoid
    • Forgetting to breathe
    • Forgetting your map
    • Trying to do too much at once

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self

Back to top