Riding Simulator Lessons with Lucy McWilliam
& Barney the Mechanical Horse
Saturday 12th December 2020 was my first mechanical riding lesson back with Lucy since COVID reared it's ugly head. The session was mentally draining and I arrived home after the hour and a half drive from Peterborough with a headache, ending up having a hot bath and a nap on the sofa! I never plan to do anything in the afternoon after my sessions with Lucy as I know I'll be too mentally exhausted. Despite this though, it proved to me once again, that movement and horses are two of the most effective methods of therapy (for me at least!). After 2020 being completely rubbish, my body understandably brought baggage along to the session. It's been the best part of 9 or 10 months since I last saw Lucy - a lot happens in that time, even if you are shut at home for the majority of it!
When asked why I go for these lessons I sometimes struggle to articulate everything I get out of them - not because they aren't useful, very much the opposite - but I’m going to try, as it’s far more than correcting ridden posture and accuracy within the saddle, and I believe so many people (and horses!) would benefit in a similar way to how I have. I've never not ridden. I started at about two years of age thanks to a good friend of my mums, and I'd consider myself a well-weathered rider these days. I've had a go at the majority of disciplines in horse riding, and I am not a nervous rider by any means. I've had my own ponies since the age of 11 and I'm now 25 - I am the sort of person who continually enjoys learning and experiencing new things within the horse world.
For me, a lot of the stuff Lucy concentrates on is mindset and removing the mental blocks that sit deep within my brain - most of the time I'm aware they're there but I've been previously unaware of just how much they've affected my ability to ride a horse. Our thoughts and feelings do not only exist in our mind. If left to linger long enough, thoughts and feelings will translate physically into parts of our body effecting the way we move, and the way we hold ourselves. They can creep into our posture and our mobility can suffer. Now imagine what that can do to you as a rider, and how that can ultimately impact the sensitive animal you are sat on. Even when we attempt to “just forget about it and ride”, the physical tension caused by our mindset and the pressures of every day things, still exists. When riding Barney (yes, he has a name!) Lucy has an innate ability to read it all.
As riders we have a responsibility to be aware of this in ourselves. I've always believed I'm a pretty sensitive and self-aware person who is usually finds it quite easy to accurately judge the energy of other people in a room. Since training with Lucy, I'd say this has only increased and furthered my interest in human behaviour and body language. Among all this though, sessions teach that in order to develop “feel” for riding a horse (not just simply being a passenger), we must first be willing to develop a feel for our own self. The sessions teach us to reflect on ourselves impacting the animal too.
Earlier I mentioned 2020 being rubbish. I’m absolutely not saying this year has not been tougher on me than on other people - I believe everybody's problems are relative to the individual, and every human deals with things in different ways - but this is exactly the point. Many of us think “there’s nothing significantly wrong in my life”, and we underestimate the impact every day stresses have on our bodies - even if they’re sometimes nice problems to have! The power of my incredibly intuitive instructor asking me straight about what’s been going on for me 'this year' nearly reduced me to tears. I don’t really know why and it wasn't very like me, but it was clear to her in the way I held myself that I had more on my mind than usual. Being asked to focus on areas of my body that were baring the brunt of my “mental tension” released something in my brain, and subsequently in my movement. We spoke pretty openly (Lucy does not get paid enough for this part, I swear hahaha!) and after this conversation, I put my AirPods in and rode a tonne of transitions and lead changes just allowing the music to silence my distracting inner mind-chatter. The difference was remarkable. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you get out of your own way.
Not all of my sessions go like this though. We have experimented with the power of music and headphones before, but never to this extent. Previously my sessions have been focused on teaching me to feel and correct my own wonky hips - I couldn't feel them to begin with, and the adjustment was so minor in my body but so significant in mine and my horses movement that even though Lucy has never taught me on a live horse, it's still paid dividends in my 'real-life riding'.
One of the benefits of riding Barney, is that you don't have to worry that the horse will ever do something it shouldn't. You won't come up against pain reactions, you don't have to worry that he's getting tired, or that you are busy trying to work on both of you whilst trying to work on yourself. It may sound bizarre to some people, to ride a pretend horse, but the point of Barney is not to replace traditional riding lessons or coaching, nor is it to replace riding a real horse. It's to go alongside these methods of training, to gain a different perspective and to really hold the mirror up to ourselves first and foremost.
Lucy is a very gifted lady, and I feel very blessed that I was lead to her. She is direct and honest, but very kind. I believe her intuition and how in touch she is with other humans is a gift. I don't personally believe it's a skill just anybody can necessarily learn - to a certain extent. Lucy’s ability to match her teaching style to the individual’s learning/riding style is a modern way of coaching, and one that I feel is regularly missed by many. She has helped me already so much, and I can only encourage every rider to go and have a go. I don't believe just getting on a mechanical horse is enough though - we need clones of Lucy to be based everywhere all over the country so that everybody gets a chance to have a go!