Warning:There was a point to all of this.... but I'll be damned if I remember it. I completely forgot why I was writing this half way through, ironically enough.
I'll admit, I don't have the greatest attention span... to say the least. Riding is one of the few times I am able to actually focus and block everything else out. When my head's 'in the zone' so to speak, I'm lost to the world; the task at hand receives 100% of my undivided attention. But when I'm not on a horse's back, its hard to find that zone. I suppose playing an instrument also allows me to focus. In some ways the two tasks are similar, but in music, I'm influenced a lot more by my mood. If I can't find anything to play that fits my mood, focus proves as elusive as the music. Even then though, I never focus as well as when I'm on a horse's back.
This presented an interesting obstacle for me to overcome when I started catch-riding horses for other people. I'd be asked to ride somebody's horse and work on this, that, or the other thing, but people often wanted to know what I was doing and why. Fair enough, but it was extremely difficult at first for me to talk and ride simultaneousy. I've always taken lessons, and have had people yelling at me from the second I first swung my leg over a horse's back. So receiving instructions has never been an issue; it's all I've ever known, in a way. But explaining to somebody why bending exercises in the walk and trot are important when working on keeping a horse from falling through their shoulder in the canter? Totally different story when you're trying to execute said exercises at the same time.
Learning to divide your attention in that manner while still exacting the best possible results from the horse you're working with is something that I don't think can ever really be accomplished. However, the more familiar one is with a task, the easier it becomes to do that task perfectly even with very little attention. I'm sure most people could say the alphabet while rubbing their stomach and tapping their head. However, if I asked them to rub their stomach and tap their head while saying the alphabet backwards... we'd end up with a bit of a train wreck. The same principle can then be applied to riding. The more familiar you are with an exercise, and the better you are capable of explaining said exercise, the more successful one will be at doing both tasks simultaneously. Though the rider may be more effective when completing each task individually, familiarity allows the brain to go into 'autopilot' for the parts that are understood best, so that the rider's attention can be diverted to whichever area needs it most.
Riding is, in and of itself, a test of one's ability to multitask. For example, when was the last time you consciously thought about putting the rein between your pinky and ring fingers? I personally never think about it... to a point where I will grip bag handles with my pinky on the outside and not notice. When someone first begins to ride, their focus is on keeping their heels down, eyes up, fingers closed on the reins, etc. Placing the rein between their pinky and ring finger is something that requires much conscious thought. However, as a rider progresses and muscle memory kicks in, keeping your heels down becomes instinct, and the rider shifts their attention to new concepts like straightness and balance in both horse and rider. By that measure, those who progress most quickly should be the people with a high level of physical awareness, and fantastic muscle memory. Right?
Thought that may be true in many sports, I think riding is a somewhat special case. To ride successfully, emotional/mental control is often as important as the physical aspect. Like several other sports, to be a good rider you have to be able to control your fear. As a (formerly) avid skier and snowboarder, racing down slopes at high speeds, hopping over jumps, and speeding through mogels definitely requires you to swallow your fear and just focus on the task at hand, in the same way jumping through a coffin complex for the first time might. However, in riding you have the added challenge of participating with a partner who can detect and feed off of your mood in a way your skiis never will. In addition, a rider's ability to read the emotions of her horse is quite often equally as valuable. Knowing whether a horse is acting up or if they're just frightened can be the difference between permanently scarring a horse or having an absolute menace, and creating a successful, well adjusted, confident, and respectful equine partner that is a pleasure to ride and work with, and in my opinion, therein lies the difference between riding and all other sports. To be a successful equestrian, the rider must learn to be an athlete, to achieve a heightened level of emotional awareness and control, and to speak a language that involves no words, and yet is quite as complex and nuanced as any language that does.
Okay, rant over for now. I've really enjoyed thinking about this though, and would like to return to the subject... perhaps fit some science in to back up my hypotheses. Thanks for reading!