“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it..”
-If, Rudyard Kipling
We all know that riding and horsemanship in general is a physically demanding activity. From cleaning stalls, lifting heavy water buckets (or breaking up frozen ice buckets if you don’t have a heated option), and no stirrup work, riders must be in tip-top shape in order to keep their cores strengthened and their cardio in adequate levels to keep up with the task of riding their horses regularly. If you compete, that regiment of keeping in shape for riding and competition might include flexing your muscles at the gym, going running a few times a week, yoga for core strength and balance, and more.
However, stress-relief and anxiety management may often be put to the wayside when it comes to the things a rider carries in their “fitness” arsenal. As a result, all the hard work you might put into your equitation, position, adjustability of stride, and more might fall apart as soon as you step into the schooling ring, the show ring, or maybe try a new skill in your next lesson.
Ask any equestrian who their biggest critic is, and the answer 99% of the time is themselves. So often, we put unnecessary pressure of where we are vs. where we “should” be, compare ourselves to other riders who seem to win everything, fancier horses, or think “I’ve been riding for so long, why are riders half my age doing better than me?” Then we sit and dwell on these negative thoughts, beat ourselves up over and over, that by the time we go into the ring we are shocked when we get a refusal at a jump or a dressage test that falls apart as soon as we salute at X. Our negative thoughts get affirmed and we are stuck in a vicious cycle of thinking “I’m never going to get any better, maybe I should just quit” – or something along those lines. We beat ourselves up, we punish our horses with our tension and nerves, that so often riders wonder, “How can I get out of my own head?” Add into the fact that a lot of riders in the hunters and equitation world voluntarily walk into a ring where the first words uttered over the loudspeaker are, “You are now being judged.” We immediately stiffen our spines to sit up straight, make sure our heels are at the correct level of “down,” and strive to create the image of perfection for the sake of a blue ribbon.
I know that riding and performance anxiety plagued my equestrian career for a long time. I always read different books and articles, watched videos, and attended clinics on what “correct” riding should be even before I started taking lessons over 16 years ago. I tried so hard to emulate the greats like Beezie Madden, Geoff Teal, Ian Miller, and others. Unfortunately, I was so set in a black and white ideal of what is “good vs. bad” riding. I developed a bad habit of not finding “feel” but rather trying to “force” horses into a correct carriage, even if their own physical or mental abilities weren’t at that point.
As a result, I would get frustrated with myself because I assumed I was doing something wrong, or my equitation was incorrect. At one point, I was riding in a clinic, nervous because I was riding a young, unfamiliar horse. By the end of the clinic, I felt accomplished and proud of the tools I added to my riding toolbox. However, all that crashed down when I was told my trainer at the time had deemed me “untrainable” to parents and auditors in the viewing area. At that point, I was at a crossroads – why should I even continue trying if my own trainer didn’t even believe in me?
It’s very easy to internalize and dwell on negative memories. It’s even easier to get stuck in those thoughts, and think we aren’t capable with more. Speaking in my own experience, I’m was told (or gently screamed at) by my trainer to “Get out of your head!” However, it took me many years of practice and hard work to eventually get out of my inner critic mindset.
Flex Your Brain
Developing your mental skills and emotional fitness is a lifelong journey. It’s not a matter of eliminating fear – fear is a good thing. It’s what keeps us from putting a beginner rider on a 6-year-old stallion in the 1.30 speed showjumpers. The difference between fear and anxiety is that one is a response to an actual threat (fear), and the other is a response to a perceived threat – or one that we make up in our own minds (anxiety). Just like training horses, results will not happen overnight, and you can’t do too much too soon, otherwise you’ll only end up forcing, which will result in more stress/anxiety.
Often, people think that by simply avoiding anxiety-related thoughts or not allowing your brain to have these thoughts is the solution to not being anxious. However, that thought process is like avoiding the annoying neighbor who lives next door or the creepy aunt at every family reunion. Eventually, you’ll have to face those thoughts head on and acknowledge that they exist. However, you are ALLOWED to have these thoughts and they do not define who you are as a rider. Just like lifting weights, you’ll have to take time to flex your brain to develop the skills needed to tolerate those uncomfortable thoughts and realize. With regular practice and repetition, it’ll be as effortless of knowing what the correct posting diagonal is.
First, it’s important to build an awareness of what creates anxiety for you. Maybe it’s the fear of falling that stemmed from a bad accident years ago. Maybe it’s being afraid of your own horse due to him reacting poorly in the cross ties or spooking on the ground when you weren’t prepared. For me, I’m at the point where I’m not working through a horse or riding-related fear, but rather wanting to bring my competitive edge to the next level. Battling the monster of perfectionism, if you will, and defining the delicate balance between overthinking, not thinking at all, and being totally in sync with my horse at every exact moment of my ride.
Learn to stay focused on yourself. Comparison is truly the enemy in any aspect of life, but especially in riding. Learn to stay focused on your horse and what he needs helps you to not get caught up in other rider’s performance, giving you a clear mind to be fully present on what your horse is telling you in that moment. Trust that where you are now in your abilities did not happen by accident – that can not be taken away from you. Trust that each time you step into the irons, you firmly believe you have the best plan to success. As soon as you start second guessing is when you lose focus and things start to fall apart. A lot of the times, we can get hung up on a particular fence, a particular dressage movement, or a particular scary corner in the end of the arena that our energy and our mind is so isolated.
Instead, the trick to avoid getting hung up on those potentially scary situations is to create a mental film of seamlessly blending all your horse’s steps together from start to finish. Imagine a magnet pulling you toward the finish line at a comfortable pace, rather than rushing like a train off the tracks – frantic and scattered. That way, all those tools you have in place will help you adjust if there is a certain screw you know has a tendency of coming loose (ie: your horse loves to cut the corner on his left lead). Being mentally aware about 3 to 4 seconds before you reach that corner will help you prepare and set your horse up for success.
Don’t anticipate and focus on him cutting the turn, but that he is quietly lifted and balanced down the quarter line with plenty of encouragement in the outside rein to keep him square between your legs and hands. Keep focusing on that mental movie you have in your mind and set yourself up so that the magnet pulling you toward the finish line doesn’t have any bumps or shimmies.
Second, remember that your horse is your mirror. If you’re working a green baby, it’s especially important to be that reliable holding hand that is always present during particularly “scary” moments. Keeping focus on your breath will help him stayed cool and collected, the plan you have in your mind will give him a soft, safe place that he will want to stay inside. If you feed off your horse’s tension, it will become a nasty, vicious cycle, and your mental movie will quickly turn into a horror film. If he spooks or bucks, keep your deep diaphragmatic breathing and continue without a second thought. Keep your focus on the seamless line you have in your mind and come back to the teaching moment later. I find that keeping a journal in my riding backpack is helpful because I can “dump” all my thoughts on paper rather than holding everything in my mind without a structured way to see them, and can ultimately come up with a course of action after my lesson, ride, or show round.
Lastly, give you and your horse time to decompress and enjoy each other outside of work. For Rotti and I, that means lots of playtime on the ground, massages and long grooming sessions, jogging over trot poles with him in a halter, groundwork, trail riding, and reading lots of books so I can keep my training toolbox sharp and gives me inspiration for fun things to try in the future. It’s not fair to your horse if the only time he leaves his stall is to work and have pressure put on his own fitness and mentality – give yourself the opportunity to bond with him and figure out what each horse needs.
I want to mention that these tips are not a hard and fast rule. Some people prefer more of a “tough love” approach, while others prefer to work things out quietly in the privacy of their own meditative states. Even so, once a person masters these techniques, it’s important to mention that it doesn’t mean the thoughts will vanish into thin air. However, you’ll have the confidence to know the tools you have in place are meant to set you up for success. And if you screw up, chocolate-chip your distance, canter when you were supposed to sit trot, or whatever else, tell yourself, it’s okay! Go back to your mental toolbox and give yourself and your horse a pat on the back. Tomorrow is a new day to try again.
Enjoy the ride,