Neu Perspectives

Muscle Memory

I’m tired of just going through the motions. 

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks really focusing and trying to retrain my body to change certain habits and reactions that I’ve developed while horseback for over 20 years. It’s a frustrating, uncomfortable and fairly exhausting process. My mind is telling my hips “No – move to the outside and open up a space for your hand to pull through with the reins,” but my body automatically defaults to leaning in the opposite way – blocking any genius movements my hands would otherwise like to make. Turns out, it’s not just Kelli problems, either. The term for this is called “muscle memory.” Basically, it’s when we make a particular movement without conscious thought, due to countless repetitions of said movement. 

I’ve never been a particularly flexible person. For the first 23 years of my life, I couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees; however, I respect and admire the benefits of being stretchy and bendy. One year, I made a new year’s resolution to finally train my body to touch my toes with ease. I signed up for a yoga class three times a week, and in three months’ time (and a thermostat turned up to 104 degrees), I was there. Me. The girl with overdeveloped hamstrings, whose body was lopsided from my left leg reaching up for my stirrup day-in and day-out. I felt like anything was possible the day that happened. The rest of the year, I continued to practice, learn and grow with this newfound flexibility. My life has never been the same. 

Muscle memory can be changed, modified and improved. A lot of the changes we desire as horsemen need to be mindfully addressed. Mimicking others can be an especially great tool, but we need to be realistic about what we think we look like, and what we actually look like. I worked my husband’s futurity horse on a cow a while back. It felt great. In my mind, I look like Tatum Rice winning the World on Hashtags, but in reality, I more closely resembled my toddler on the horse outside of Walmart that eats quarters. I need to continue forward with some confidence, sure, but also recognize that just because I THINK I’m doing it right, doesn’t mean I’m automatically making improvements. 

Some muscle memory is very useful. For example. If I’m on a green colt or a tight horse and he bogs his head and goes to buck, my muscle memory kicks in, my arm reacts, reaches and gets short on my reins. This helps me stay in my saddle and keeps my horse from taking over and using his power to unseat me. 

It’s also key to remember our horses encounter the same training obstacles we do when it comes to repetitive movements. When mentioning a horse that’s accustomed to doing things only a certain way, I hear the terms callused, rigid, hardened, even seasoned to certain responses. Perhaps that’s why I like colts so much. Most of them are like young, blank athletes, eager to learn, just waiting to be trained, molded and nurtured in the direction of their talents. As their coaches, we need to consider their body soreness when we teach them how to use it differently. It’s also important to recognize their patience with us as we guide their bodies to move and carry in such a way that they’d never do naturally alone. 

Beyond the strain, difficulty and strife, it’s most important to recognize and celebrate the gains we make. We need to see the “win” in the small improvements to decades-long habits with conscientious discipline. In the words of author, Navy Seal and All-American badass Jocko Willink, “Discipline = Freedom.” If we are disciplined enough, we will create the freedom and opportunity to become accomplished horsemen, competitors and riders. We just have to remember to utilize opportunities that garner results, and continue to flex our mental consciousness over our automatic muscle memory. 

And please don’t ask me to touch my toes without at least three months’ notice.

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