What horseriding has taught me about doing a PhD

At about the same time I started my PhD I also started taking horse-riding lessons. Every weekend I travel out to the the gorgeous Yarra Ranges outside Melbourne for a couple of hours of peace and beauty. It’s been immensely rewarding and satisfying, and a real privilege to get to know these majestic animals and be taught by some excellent supportive teachers. Apart from the many health benefits it’s made me reflect that, in many ways, a PhD is a lot like riding a horse (bear with me):

It can be scary: Horses are big, powerful and can be unpredictable. This can be scary, particularly for new and inexperienced riders. While I understood undertaking the PhD would be a big commitment, it was only after a few months in that I realised the complexity and challenge of it (and got a little freaked out!). I also don’t think I appreciated what an emotional rollercoaster it would be.

Autumn riding by reindi @ flickr

Autumn riding by reindi @ flickr

You need to turn up and be present: With horse-riding you absolutely need to be in the moment; focused on the task at hand, otherwise there’s a good chance you will be putting the safety of yourself, the horse and others at risk. This is not just for during the actual lesson itself but from the time you groom and saddle your horse, through to unsaddling,  and turning out into the paddock. In the PhD there are just so many distractions and opportunities to procrastinate that sometimes you don’t know where to start and how to focus (harder than it sounds!). Using things like the pomodoro technique is a good start. Breaking things down into manageable chunks can make all the difference!

It’s about partnership: Before I started having lessons, oddly, I thought horse-riding was mostly about me learning a new skill. This is true in part, however it’s actually so much more. At the risk of going all horse-whisperer on you, it’s about the connection between horse and rider, and understanding how to form a partnership with the horse so you are working together towards set goals, rather than simply cajoling/pushing/pulling the way. The PhD can be a very solitary journey but there are partnership opportunities throughout – with supervisors, other PhD students, with reference groups who might form different types of partnerships, etc. These people can walk some of the journey with you.

Persistence (or sticking at it when things get tough): Learning to horse-ride can be a bit like learning to play a new (albeit living and breathing) instrument. One week everything just comes together and you feel so elated, but other weeks things just don’t click, both you and the horse get flustered, and you can’t seem to do anything right. But you persist and end up still getting so much out of the lesson despite (because of!) the frustration. Persistence in the face of boredom, confusion, frustration, the unknown (etc!) has got to be one of the top three traits required for a PhD – at least for me.

Learning by doing: If nothing else, horse-riding can be learning through doing; practising something again and again until it comes together. There is something very freeing in being able to do that. With the PhD I often put a lot of pressure on myself to get something right the first time, when in fact the PhD is an apprenticeship and as much about learning to do research as much as doing it (though I don’t think this is emphasised enough).

Celebrating the little wins: It’s such a wonderful feeling in horse-riding when something you have been working on for weeks comes together, even relatively small things. Last week I managed to transition from walk to sitting trot (a bit harder than the usual walk to rising trot as it requires more control of your body and the horse). With the PhD seeing the little wins (finishing coding a section of data, for instance) within the bigger picture need to be regularly recognised and celebrated!

Remember to breathe: It’s amazing how often I have to remind myself to breathe during my lesson. I’ve got so caught up in adjusting my technique or learning to do something that I’ve been holding my breathe. Apart from the fact that breathing is, well, kinda necessary, the horse quickly picks up on the tensions that it causes in the body, getting in the way of learning. With the PhD, finding the space to breathe and unwind is so important.

I used to cringe a little when reading posts that used metaphor to describe the PhD experience (or anything!). I’m not sure why, perhaps I thought it trivialised it. Now, I’m glad that I see this can be a valuable way of deepening the understanding of the experience.


10 thoughts on “What horseriding has taught me about doing a PhD

  1. Really enjoyed reading this and hearing about your studies, I think you could also compare learning to ride to living out daily life too!

  2. Thanks, Marianne, some great thoughts here, and a nice reminder of “back in the day” when I used to ride 🙂

    For the past few years I have been in the habit of taking a photo every day – usually for the benefit of my own memory and/or photography, but this year I have been doing a lot of travelling and have been posting daily on Facebbok for my family and friends to keep track of where I am. I have become very keen on PhD metaphors recently and have a little bit of a mental game going on where I try to find a metaphor or some relationship to the PhD for each photo that I take. As you might imagine, some of my metaphors get a little stretched – yesterday’s photo was of cartons of pumpkin eggnog at the supermarket! – but I find it quite useful to make myself think in different ways about my work and what I am trying to achieve.

    • Thanks so much Kathryn – Nice to hear from a fellow horserider 🙂 , and I love your habit of taking a photo every day (pumpkin eggnog tends to make me think of particularly challenging writing or data analysing session, though it’s a bit of a guess as I’ve never actually tasted eggnog!)

      • With the pumpkin eggnog I was thinking along the lines of trying to add in a novelty aspect to my research, for no real benefit, eg the amount of thought I have put into trying to come up with a ‘witty’ title is ridiculous!The connection is a little obscure, but the Americans seem to love pumpkin everything at this time of year (except as a vegetable) and it seems to me that most things they try adding it to (coffee, beer, eggnog) do not benefit from the addition.
        Today’s photo/metaphor was much more straightforward – gardeners on campus preparing a bed for spring bulbs…

      • ahh, I see! I must admit that pumpkin anything sounds rather disgusting (excluding roast pumpkin!), though can appreciate the novelty aspect. I like your photo/metaphor challenge – a non-writing and creative way to reflect and explore (it’s so easy to get writing-centric in the phd process!)

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