Finally, the lockdown restrictions are easing, and we can enjoy special one-to-one time with our horses again.
Understandably, months of limited training has had a significant impact on many riders’ confidence levels, particularly those who already struggled with anxieties around performance. For these riders, leaving the confines of the arena for the great unknown can be a nerve-wracking test of bravery.
The numerous challenges of more than a year in lockdown have compounded fears and affected how many of us deal with new experiences. Throw in a lack of fitness and a fresh horse that hasn’t left the farm in months, and it’s no wonder so many of us are skittish about the idea of a relaxing ride away from home
Anxiety is part of life for many equestrians, but though you can’t always control your circumstances, you can control how you respond to them. Confidence is like a muscle, and you need to work on it to maintain it.
Here are some techniques to train your brain to halt the fear response and get back into the saddle confidently — even if it’s only temporary:
But First. Define Your Fear.
Worry and fear are completely normal human responses to situations that we can’t completely control. Many equestrians harbor a fear or two related to their riding. It might be the fear of falling, the fear of losing control, or simply a fear of embarrassment in a group ride situation.
Some equestrians have a profound fear of riding anywhere outside their comfort zone, whereas others fear riding in specific situations, such as galloping in the open or riding through busy traffic.
These thoughts may be a response to worries about life events and experiences that have already happened, or events that are predicted. That’s the reason why you might fret about an accident that happened years ago or feel nervous about riding a new horse on vacation that’s still months away.
Furthermore, your body can’t tell the difference between a real or imagined threat, so it reacts in the same way to certain danger as it does to something made-up in your head.
Control the mind to control your fear
Positive visualization can help your body understand how to relax in stressful situations. There are two styles of positive visualization: one that focuses on the future, with the aim of helping you to become better at dealing with a difficult or daunting situation, and another that works on retrieving and weakening fear memories from the past.
Both techniques encourage your body to enter a relaxed state akin to sleep. Similar to daydreaming, visualization is then brought about through the use of your mind to build self-confidence and ultimately achieve a more relaxed mindset when riding or handling your horse.
Rehearse, Revise, Reset.
Before the 1980 Winter Olympics, government-funded Soviet researchers tested athletes on four different programs that varied from 100% physical training to a combination of 25% physical training and 75% mental training. The results indicate the more mental training you incorporate into your preparation, the better you will perform.
The idea behind mental rehearsal is that imagining how fearful experiences will feel ahead of time makes those experiences feel natural when they do happen. By picturing it first, you make the same connections in your brain that you would if you were physically doing it, without the associated risk of injury.
How to do this?
- Pick a scene– E.g., riding past a big dog, the last 500m of a gallop, a busy road that you have to cross at the end of every ride. It’s best to begin with quick fleeting scenes and build your way up to sequences.
- Create a running script that goes through every moment of the event. Keep it productive and positive – for example, you confidently stride past the dog, ace the gallop, or encounter friendly drivers on the road who politely pass without incident. How would you want your horse to behave, what will you be looking out for on the trail? What will the other riders be doing around you? What will weather conditions be like?
- Focus on what you can hear around you, what you can smell, and who else is with you. Make it as real as possible to get those neurons firing.
- To really impress the scene in your mind: write it down or record the sequence on your phone to go over it as soon as you wake up, and just before you go to sleep (the mind is most susceptible to suggestion before falling asleep and right after you awake).
Since this is a rehearsal, there is no need to worry about injury, and knowing that fear is often just anxiety about things you think you’re not prepared for (even if you actually are).By mentally rehearsing your contingency plan before you actually need it, you are ready for a worst-case scenario in real life too.
The next time you find yourself in a situation with your horse, you can approach it mentally prepared- because you’ve already practiced it 20 or 30 times in your head. It’s a challenge that requires dedication and practice, but the rewards are profound.
Rewrite Your Ride
The revision technique can be used to revise daily events or to review, modify and believe in an altered version of any past memory.
Our memories aren’t quite as static as we think they are – in fact, several studies have shown peoples’ memories are susceptible to being rewritten and modified – essentially confirming that you can change how you feel about past traumas because that past is entirely in your mind.
In other words, they demonstrated that every time a person remembers an episode from the past, their brain structure changes to alter the recollection of that event.
Likewise, when you remember a traumatic event like a fall, you might not remember it as it actually happened, just the memory of the last time you thought about it. Therefore, if you want to rewrite that story, then you can, because with the revision technique, you are truly the editor of your own life story.
Emotions Color Everything We Do
If you have ever found yourself ruminating about an event that happened in the past – going down a rabbit hole that magnifies the experience into something so big you can’t control, then perhaps the revision technique will help by dampening that emotional response.
It might be difficult at first to review past experiences objectively – but sometimes just allowing the memory of a traumatic experience to be fully expressed can alter how you feel about it afterwards.
You can use this technique when you want to revise a past memory, or you can incorporate it into your life as a part of your daily routine. Just be sure to change the negative recollection to the revised version rather than reliving and storing the original.
How to do this?
- If you have experienced an event that was either undesirable or out of your control, imagine the same even again while placing no judgement on it.
- After reviewing it, imagine the same situation by revising it in a way that you would have preferred.
- Now, position yourself in a relaxed state (the best time is just before you nod off to sleep or in the morning when you first wake up).
- Begin imagining your revised version of the situation repeatedly until it is firmly imprinted in your mind.
- Once you feel that this revised version feels like it has actually happened, you can either go to sleep or wake up.
- If you are ever called upon to recall the day’s events in the future, the revised version should come to mind first. Even just hazily. Then, you know you’ve done it correctly.
Letting Go Of Fear
Thoughts are things, and they come associated with behavior. By repeating positive visualizations, we are essentially presenting our minds with an alternative narrative. A braver, bolder version of ourselves.
Getting a feel for a new activity with your horse won’t happen instantly, and that’s totally fine too. Our fears put healthy boundaries on what might be considered risky behavior. But they also hold us back from what we want in life.
Through mental techniques like positive visualization, you can prepare yourself for new experiences and overcome memories that are stifling your progress. While riding can seem a very physical struggle, it’s very often actually your head that has the final say -so the better you prepare your mind, the more resilient and resourceful you will become in the saddle.