Episode 152: Stages of thought awareness

The main point of life coaching is to bring awareness of how our thoughts are impacting our results. Most riders would willingly consider that their body was impacting their horse. In this episode I discuss the stages that riders go through when increasing their awareness both physically and mentally. I also share two warning signs that you might be blocking your awareness.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In this season of the podcast, I’m discussing life coaching principles. I recently became certified through the Life Coach School, and I’m discussing topics that were covered during that and how I see them applying to working with horses. I think one of the main points is to say that life coaching is a tool for awareness, awareness of how our thoughts are impacting our results. And I’ll unpack that more during this entire season. But what I really want to bring your attention to in this podcast is the power of awareness. To help explain this I’d actually like to talk for just a moment about something that I think is similar but is completely opposite. So if we look at my four square model, the idea that everything falls into one of these four quadrants: the rider’s mind, the rider’s body, the horse’s mind, the horse’s body. If you go take a riding lesson and your instructor says to you, I’ve been watching you and I noticed that you lean to the right and it happens even more when you’re turning to the right. But I see it there all the time and your habit of leaning is impacting your horse, and it’s part of the reason you’re not getting the correct lead when you canter. Now, if you’re riding instructor told you that about your body, most riders would willingly consider that their body was impacting their horse’s performance. Now the main point of life coaching is to bring awareness of how our thoughts are impacting our results. And so let’s go back to a physical example again for just a moment. If your coach said this to you, said that you were leaning, you might not even agree with them at first, especially if you’ve been riding that way for a long time. You might be like, I don’t think I’m leaning to the right. I don’t–it doesn’t feel like I’m leaning to the right. What do you mean I’m leaning to the right? Because in your body, leaning would feel normal if you’ve been doing that for a long time. And so what happens in this physical example is that if a rider says that, then it points towards a lack of awareness in that rider’s body because of a habit that they’ve had. So your instructor–I’ve done this before when I’ve had people in a similar situation–has some different ways that they can try to increase your awareness. So if the if the student doesn’t just accept the idea that they’re leaning, if it doesn’t really resonate with them because they don’t feel it, then maybe the instructor would record you and then show you the video. Or maybe the instructor would suggest that you drop your stirrups. So there are a number of different things that I can have a rider do with their body in order to help them find that first level of awareness, just the level of awareness where they go, oh, I can see what you mean when I watch that video. Or oh, I notice when I dropped my stirrups that I felt really off balance and I have a desire to, you know, push down on this one side. So what I often call this “moment of awareness” when I’m teaching is a light bulb moment. Because when I’m coaching people, I’m usually working around and around and around until I can see them just have that little bit of a shift, just enough to have awareness of the concept that I’m trying to bring their attention to. So to me, this is that first level of coaching, and I just talked about it in a very physical setting that many of us are familiar with. And this is also very possible in the mental side of the thinking side of riding the rider’s mind, and I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Stacy Westfall: So the very first level of it is that coach offering an observation. Hey, looks like you’re leaning, and then having that student discover it for themselves. If the student doesn’t actually feel like they’re leaning, if they don’t actually recognize it on some level, then if they try to make the physical shift without actually feeling that out of balance, they’re never really solid in it. Because when I’m watching them and they’re just trying to pretend that–that they feel what I’m saying…like, don’t get me wrong, that’s a piece of actually discovering as kind of like wiggling around and trying to find it. But I know when it happens because you can kind of see this awareness light bulb, it looks like they just kind of perk up like, oh, I felt that even if it’s just for one second. So a lot of times that comes from the somebody, the coach offering the observation and then the student discovering it. Sometimes that coach is a horse, by the way, but let’s try to keep Stacy on topic. So let’s stay in this physical example for a minute so that student goes home and rides and tries to recreate what they were doing with the coach. Maybe they record themselves and they record a video. They go and they ride it, and for 80 percent of the video, they don’t notice anything. But then they do notice that when they turn to the right, they do notice how they can see that they’re off balance. But they still didn’t feel it in the moment when they’re riding, they’re just seeing it on the video. And then what happens is if they keep exploring it, they might not be connecting it in the moment, but just the awareness of looking for it begins to make them more aware of it in general. And so just these little tiny moments, just one second, you know, of awareness is the beginning of it. And then for me, I know what happens personally is that as I start to really look for it, I start to notice these habits in a lot of places. And so if it’s something like leaning and my instructor says I’m doing it frequently, then a lot of times when I start looking for it, it’s common uf it’s a really big one for me to kind of see this showing up in a lot of little places. Maybe it’s really tiny. One thing I love about riding horses is realizing how much of what I do there I do in other places. So for me, I actually do struggle with my right side being tight. And so with that, when I’m bringing my awareness to it in my riding, I start noticing it in my walking or I start noticing, oh, it’s interesting when I’m doing the dishes I don’t even keep the weight on both of my feet the same way. I wonder why. I wonder how that started to happen. I wonder why I’m doing that. You know, maybe I’m carrying groceries and I notice that I’m –that I’m holding my body in a certain way or carrying water buckets or if I filled hay bags and I’m carrying those and something, I’m carrying weight and that brings more awareness to my body and how I am landing on each of my feet. So it’s really interesting when you start to increase your awareness of something like that. And to me, during all of this, a lot of times I see students that are trying to like change what’s happening at the same time that they’re trying to become aware. And I’m just saying, like for me, I recognize now that there’s–the more I can increase, increase that awareness before I try to change anything, the easier it is to change. Because once I begin in this physical example, once I really start to notice that habit and I start to really feel it frequently, now I know that my awareness is high enough that I can start to shift it and then I’ll notice it right after. So a lot of times when my body awareness begins to be really high, I’ll start to be able to change that habit. But a lot of times I notice it after. So put it back in this riding example, maybe my riding instructor told me I was leaning and I’m riding around and I get ready to turn to the right, and that’s where it’s more exaggerated. And so I turn to the right, I lean, I notice that I lean, and then I correct it. This is actually like further down the scale than you’d think. And then what happens is eventually after enough of those moments, then what happened is I begin to go into the right turn and because I’ve corrected myself so many times because I did the lean notice correct, then what happens is I begin to go to make the turn and remember that I’m probably going to make this mistake and so I actually correct it just ahead of time. Because basically I remember my old habit of leaning and my new habit of staying in awareness of where my weight is and just that awareness, that moment in between, that’s where I start to prevent that leaning from happening. And that takes a little while. What–the reason I wanted to go through this physical example is because I think that is something that a lot of riders experience if they go to a clinic or get feedback at a riding lesson or do some kind of video lesson or something. If some coach offers them some new ideas about what they’re doing with their body, then that’s a very typical way that people will explore working it. Now, what is really interesting to me is that in thought work, I’ve noticed a similar pattern. And so the first point of this is to bring awareness to our thoughts, and a lot of times that awareness is going to go through that same stage where it’s like, I’m not aware at all. And then I’m aware when somebody points it out and then I’m aware, you know, just after it happened and then I’m aware just before it happens. And I think looking back over my life, it’s like as soon as somebody brings my awareness to it, I just want to be at that final stage where I’m aware of it beforehand. I want to skip all the in-between where it’s like building that awareness, and that’s actually where all the–the awareness lives. That increased awareness lives in that middle spot where–where it feels like you’re making all the mistakes and you’re aware of them. And I think a lot of us like to avoid that stage. I know I do. And so when I’m thinking about this, it actually reminds me of that earlier podcast about the–the stages of competency being unconsciously incompetent, consciously incompetent. That’s kind of the one we’re talking about, consciously competent and unconsciously competent. So you can kind of see the overlap here in this–in this awareness.

Stacy Westfall: And so what’s interesting is that if I want to bring this back to a like the very first time that I really felt this, this awareness walk journey happening for me was in 2003, when I was doing my very first bridleless freestyle. And I–it’s interesting for me to look back at it and realize the how clear the stages really were and all the red flags I was skipping. And to me, the exciting part about knowing now that I was skipping those warning flags is that that means that I can still mine this for valuable information so I don’t have to repeat it. Next time I can see the red flag and do something different. And so for me, the light bulb moment and the awareness actually started coming….I–looking back now, I can see that going into that first freestyle riderless, I was very, very, very nervous. And that very nervous feeling made my stomach upset and I started saying to myself phrases like, I’m just going to do the best I can. I’m just going to do the best I can. And every time I felt really nervous, I would say something like that phrase. And it’s interesting because if you had quizzed me going into that show, I 100% thought that I was OK with just going and doing the best that I could. So I just kept saying over and over that I was going to be fine. I was just going to do the best I could. And I truly believed it–I’ll get to a minute and how the red flag was there telling me I actually kind of didn’t–right up until I scored a zero. And I scored a zero because I left out a movement, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute. But as soon as I scored the zero I was devastated. And I remember the light bulb moment for me, I remember thinking when I was really aware of that devastated feeling I remember thinking, oh, what I was really thinking was, I’m going to do the best I can (and I know my routine is capable of being in the top three). Which is interesting because when I had myself–when I was trying to sell myself on the idea that I’m going to do the best I can, and I was trying to tell myself that that was all of the story. The interesting thing is that my body wasn’t reporting back to me that I believed that. So knowing what I know now, let me talk about this. Knowing what I know now, I can see several red flags that would have warned me that I probably wasn’t fully exploring this. So the biggest thing that could have warned me was this distinct feeling that this phrase was just in my head. So when I look back at it, I realized now that when I kept repeating, do the best I can, do the best I can. I was using it more like a mantra. And I double-checked in the dictionary before recording this podcast that that basically means a statement or slogan repeated frequently. And I just kept repeating it, just kept repeating it, best I can, do the best I can. And there were different versions of it, but it kind of all boiled down to that same thing. And what I understand now is that I was practicing a thought that I thought should work, but I wasn’t checking in with my body to see basically if I was believing myself or if that thought was working. So here’s the short story. A phrase can help if it reaches your body. If you believe it down to your core. And so there’s definitely a lot of of of awareness that has to come between this phrase and then how it feels in your body. So I was using this phrase and similar phrases. And now looking back, and even then, if somebody had quizzed me, I realize now I was using that phrase to kind of hold down the other emotions I didn’t want to address. I think in the last week’s podcast, I mentioned it being like trying to hold a ball underwater kind of thing. Like if you ever gone to–gone swimming and you’ve been trying to hold something underwater that wants to pop to the top, it’s like these emotions I did not want to address. I didn’t want to look at them, didn’t want to think about them and so every time I felt any kind of discomfort, fear, concern, anything, I just said those phrases over and over again and ignored the fear of failure. And I pretended it wasn’t there which didn’t actually make it go away, just shoved it further down. Which is interesting because this clearly goes with this second idea, which is I really, really ignored my body.

Stacy Westfall: And when I think back to this, I think it’s really interesting because especially in bridleless riding all my horse has to read is my body, and my body was so tight I could hardly sip water on the day of the show. My mom kept trying to get me to eat something, and I kept trying to tell her that I was just going to–it was going to come back up and so there was no real point and I just was so tense and so tight and–and so I was ignoring my body while I was saying that phrase, those different phrases over and over again, just trying to soothe myself into being OK with this. So for me all of those, those things, those would have been red flags like–like the fact that my phrase I was saying over and over again wasn’t actually impacting my body and the fact that I was denying what was going on in my body, you know, even when my mom was like, it’s not OK that you can’t even eat. Even though other people were trying to bring some awareness to me, I was still like, no, I’m fine. So here’s what’s kind of interesting to me. My first moment of awareness actually happened during my freestyle ride. So during that ride, I went in there without a bridle, super tense, trying to pretend I was going to be OK and, you know, just really tight. And I cued my horse to stop. And then I’m going to tell you what happened. It happened so fast, but I’m going to try to explain it so you can follow along because these happened really quickly. So I cued my horse to stop and I felt her tense, and I realized I hadn’t released the tension from my body, which actually means it became another cue, and then she rolled back. I’m going to say that one more time, then I’m going to explain it a little bit deeper. So I’m in there. Music is playing. Thousands of people are clapping. It’s really loud. I cue her to stop. I feel her tense. I realize that I’m causing that tension because I didn’t release the cue or the tension from my body and she rolled back and I instantly knew why, I knew it a fraction of a second before she actually rolled back, but not in enough time to actually stop the rollback. It was that that was when my first light bulb moment happened because I knew why she was confused. Because on a normal day in my bridleless stop queue, I release my legs, which means to me that I pull them away from the horse’s body and slightly forward. And then as soon as the horse stops, I relax my legs and that’s my cue for, “stand here”. But my rollback cue, and just to be clear, a rollback means in reining, that means that you’ve–you’ve stopped. So you did a little sliding stop or a big sliding stop, you stopped. And then you cue them and the horse does a 180-degree turn on their haunches and lopes out on the same exact track they came in. So my cue for the rollback, when I’m bridleless, begins with exactly the same stop cue. So I release my legs forward. The horse stops and then for a stop cue I relax. For a rollback cue, I don’t relax. I hold the tension in my body and then I lightly touch with like my left leg to have them roll back to the right. So because I didn’t release the tension from my body, I felt that moment where my horse was like, which direction? Which direction? And she was just so spring loaded, I guarantee that I just wiggled and she just went. And in that moment, I could see why my horse had done it. I could see that I had caused it. And it probably goes without saying that since–since I was in this state leading up to this, I did not mentally recover during that ride after that rollback. And so after that unintentional rollback, I was kind of scrambling around trying to basically make up a new routine, and I did not end up completing the required maneuvers. And that meant that they gave me a score of zero because I didn’t do everything I was supposed to do. And then it was interesting because my next light bulb moment happened pretty quickly after that. My next lightbulb moment, my next awareness moment happened pretty quickly after that because I felt devastated. And I tried on that same thought mantra idea that I had been saying but this time when I said it after the fact when I tried to soothe myself with this phrase of the best I can, that’s the first time that I really heard the end of the sentence. In my own head, I heard myself, best I can and I’ve seen my routine and I’m capable of the top three. And it was not really until I was not in the placing at all that I really, really understood that secretly somewhere in my mind, I had been clinging to the idea of being in the top three. Now it’s interesting because this desire, as I describe it, I just want to be really clear that a desire to be in the top three didn’t cause my tension. Me pretending that I was OK with any outcome when I really was aiming for a different one, me denying the thought of being in the top three, my–my chances of placing in the top three, my complete denial of it by trying to pretend I was completely fine with anything was actually causing a lot of tension in my body. And really, until that moment, I had not truly been aware of that actual thought. And now looking back, I can see that if I had been journaling or getting coached, it would have been very likely that these phrases that I was using would have been questioned by either myself or by my coach because there are basically currently there’s two ways that I get coaching, and there’s two ways that I recommend you get coaching. Number one is that you can learn how to coach yourself. And number two is getting coached by someone else. And both are amazing, and I would compare them to this. I would compare them to if you want to improve your riding, and you’ve heard me say this before, and if you want to do that by yourself, you can actually set up a tripod, record your ride even just five minutes of it, watch the video, and increase your awareness. It will change the way you ride if you watch yourself on video, even with nothing else. If you have a vague idea of where you want to be and you’ve seen it before and you start doing some kind of awareness cycle watching your physical body, you’ll be able to do that. And another option is to get coached because basically what that coach is going to do is they’re going to review what you’re doing, whether that’s you record yourself, you watch it, you make your observations, you send it off to somebody else, they watch it, you talk about it. Whether you go get a live riding lesson, what the coach is going to do is they’re going to offer you different thoughts and different things to do to increase your awareness.

Stacy Westfall: In the coaching world, we’re trying to increase your awareness of your thoughts. And so if you’re wanting to do this thought work version all by yourself, what you can do is you can just grab a piece of paper. I like to journal. People do it all kinds of different ways. Basically, you need to write down whatever it is you’re currently thinking about. So if I’d been approaching this ride back then, I would have been writing down about this, you know, freestyle that was coming up and what was going on and what my thoughts were. And I would have written that down and I would have taken a look at it. And then I would have looked for phrases that stood out to me. And so if I had done this back in 2003, when I kept saying, I’ll do the best I can, I could have looked at that phrase, seen the frequency that it was showing up at, and I could have just said something to myself like, what does that mean, I’ll do the best I can? And then maybe I would have written a whole page about what that meant to me, doing the best I can, and that would have brought more awareness. And then I could have even said something to myself like, when you think the phrase, I’ll do the best I can how does that feel in your body? And it’s interesting, even looking back, I remember at the very beginning when I thought that phrase. It actually kind of worked for me, but then as it stopped working for me, probably because I added on that little parentheses, (and I should be able to finish in the top three because I’ve evaluated my routine) when that switch happened my body was actually reporting it to me. Because in the beginning, when I was experimenting with the bridleless, it was like, I’ll do the best I can, and that felt really good. But then as I got closer to the show and I would say that phrase, even looking back, I knew if–the phrase–I felt like I was going to be sick. So, so a coach would have definitely asked me like, that doesn’t seem to fit. Like when you say that phrase and it feels like you’re going to be sick, like, what are you making that mean? Like, why are you–why are you having that feeling in your body? Let’s explore that a little bit. And then I might have actually found the end of that phrase, that one that that got added on the parentheses, (and I’ve seen my routine and I’m capable of the top three). And it’s interesting looking back and I love that I can look back that many years and really still learn from this experience because I know that thought was floating around because I remember doing my ride, I remember evaluating my practice rides and deciding it was a solid routine. I was basically evaluating it to come up with that thought that it was–I was capable of the top three. But it’s interesting because I didn’t ever let myself go to the actual discussion in my own head or with anybody about being in the top three or not being in the top three or being in the top at all or not placing at all. Like, none of that was explored because I was too busy pretending I was OK with anything. But that all came apart when I didn’t end up getting a score at all. So my score of zero did not place me.

Stacy Westfall: So it’s interesting because I’ve given you a couple of examples here of things that where–where the awareness took a lot of time to develop. But I do want to make sure that you actually understand that the cool thing about awareness is that sometimes you can have this light bulb moment of awareness and be immediately just solid and changed. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that, but I’ve experienced it at different times where it’s like, oh, I can see where I’m thinking this thought, or I’m doing this behavior and I want to change it. And just that first moment of awareness, it just instantly shifts. I see this a lot in people when I’m coaching them, especially when we’re doing this, the video coaching that I’ve been doing because the reason I think it works so well is because they videotaped themselves and they’re there in the moment and they’re doing it and they’re completely concentrating. And then I look at the videotape with them and what happens is that during the videotape, I’ll say, can you see this right here with your horse? And because they’re kind of on the outside looking in, even though they’re looking at themselves in their horse, I can really see that light bulb moment go off when I say, how do you–what do you see happening right there? And all of a sudden, even though they were the one that just–were–they were doing it on the tape, they can actually make the connection be like, I see whatever’s going on. And they pointed out and I’m like, yes. And they’re increasing their awareness, and then that’s how they’re going to be able to change that going forward. So the first topic I really wanted to bring up was just this idea of awareness being something that you have this–it can be–maybe it’s something that takes you a while to–to work on and maybe it’s something that happened in a very short moment. The the last example I want to give you is this final closing thought on awareness is that here’s a totally evolutionary thought, I think. You can have awareness of something and not even decide you want to change. And so just let me give you an example of that so that you can know where I’m going with this. So I have had a very interesting relationship with sugar my whole life. So going up through probably 2014 or so, I was the person that if you got to know me, people would buy me hats that said, you know, eat dessert first, life’s short, eat dessert first. And I would go out to restaurants and people would be ordering appetizers and I would start with dessert. I would order like if I went to the Outback Steakhouse, I was going to order that lava cake. You know, the one, the little chocolate cake with a little melty chocolate stuff in the middle and the ice cream? That was going to be my appetizer. And so I was really sold on sugar, sugar, sugar, and sugar first and all that. And then I was listening to a podcast and the person that I was listening to, Cliff Ravenscraft, I was listening to a podcast and he was doing this 30-day no-sugar challenge and I remember thinking he is crazy. And then I kept listening to his podcast and he was kind of talking about why he was doing it and what he was interested in finding out and all this different stuff. And I remember going through all those different stages. Like at first, I’m like, yeah, that’s craziness. And then I started to get a little bit more like, oh, that’s kind of interesting. Maybe I can see why you’re exploring that. And I walked through those stages up until I was like, you know, I’m actually curious to know what would happen if I cut out sugar for 30 days. And so it was the easiest decision to make. I was just like, I can do this for 30 days. And when I thought I can do this for 30 days, I felt powerful. I felt determined. I felt it was like a done deal. Even though I had to change my habits, even though that meant that I needed to start reading the labels on different things and realizing how much sugar was in ketchup or peanut butter or different things like that. And so even though there were habits that had to change, my decision was quick and my habits followed very quickly. And it was really interesting because without going into all the details, the–the thing to me is that after the full 30 days of no sugar, I then settled on the idea that my body felt really good if I stayed at about, you know, 20 grams or less a day. Now, it’s so fun because I just went to the freestyle reining at the Quarter Horse Congress with some friends that had never been before. And they hadn’t been, one of them hadn’t ever been to the Congress. And so she was in town and I wanted to take her to the freestyle and I wanted her to have the full experience. So one of the things I wanted to do was introduce her to all my old favorite foods. So that meant that I ordered a giant pumpkin eclair thing that is just amazing. If you’ve ever had it down there at the courthouse Congress and then there is a shop there that’s famous for their cinnamon rolls and these things are so good and so much sugar between both of these. And not only did we eat both of them, we ate them both together while watching the freestyle right then. And I’m talking I don’t even want to do the math on the sugar, but 20 grams times a hundred, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know how many it is. It was a lot. It was a lot, a lot, a lot of sugar. So it’s interesting because I wanted to bring that up for a minute because you can have awareness and then you can still choose what you do with that awareness. I fully knew how my body feels if I eat a lot of sugar. While we were sitting there, it was kind of funny because my heart rate increased almost 40 beats a minute. Yeah, part of it is probably because I’m not used to eating that much sugar and so my body hasn’t been acclimated to it for quite a while. So my heart was just beating like crazy from the sugar. And the next day I was like, yep, I better not plan anything super strenuous because I’m going to have like a sugar hangover feeling the next day. And I did, and I totally chose it. So I think when I look back at my earlier life, I think one of the reasons why I was actually so set on denying even looking at my thoughts about, you know, how I might finish in that first freestyle was that I was denying myself awareness because I was scared of what that meant. Because I think sometimes that when we think about increasing awareness that then it means we have to change. And I know for sure the increased awareness just gives me the option to make different choices. If you’re interested in increasing your awareness this week, do one of the two things I’ve offered in this podcast. Either record yourself for five minutes and watch that video and bring up the awareness of what you’re doing in your body or you could also just sit down with a piece of paper is my favorite way. But you can do it on the notes on your phone, or you can do it on a computer and just write a page about whatever you want. Or better yet, if you want to crisscross the two record yourself riding for five minutes and then watch it and then write down a page worth of thoughts and take a look at them and see if you see any that aren’t quite as useful. Or maybe you’re curious about what they might mean. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again next week.

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