Once upon a time, in a land far far away, I was able to ride and show without fear.
Horse shows were a breeze. Somewhere in my 30’s however, my brain did a 180 on me and the fear creeped in. Not a fear of being hurt, though maybe it should be – at least that makes sense. No, my fear is a fear of being embarrassed. A fear of not doing it right. A fear of not being the best. And sometimes (cough, cough, ok often) that fear is so strong that it physically affects my riding.
My trainer, who no doubt was tired of playing ringside psychologist (and has probably toyed with the idea of spiking my morning coffee), suggested I talk with Erin McGuire with Remarqueable Athletic Solutions. Before I attempt to explain the process and the things that were helpful versus the things that were hard to wrap my hear around, let me be clear about this: Erin is amazing and has a gift of making everything sound so simple. If I could figure out how to have her just follow me around everywhere and tell me what to do, I’d be golden. She’s pushing me out of my comfort zone, for sure and that is always hard. But what’s the expression? Great things happen just outside your comfort zone.
I’d venture to guess that lots of my struggles aren’t unique to me. Riding lends itself to several personality/mental traits that can be assets, or detrimental.
I’m a perfectionist. I hold myself to an unreasonably high standard, and we are in an industry that strives for perfection. The perfect hunter score, perfectly fitted tack, the right attire, perfectly lined up braids. We eat that stuff up. And there is good reason for all of it. The devil is in the details, right?
Because when your “equipment” is 1500 lbs with a mind of it’s own, there is no room for a margin of error. In riding, literally everything matters and everything has consequences. There is a clear right way and a clear wrong way. Wrap a leg incorrectly, you could do significant damage. Don’t inspect and clean your tack regularly, you could end up with a serious disaster should it give out unexpectedly. A good horseman can tell you about every bump or scrape on their horse, every supplement, eating habit, every pin of the ears, poop consistency…you name it. We notice, and we want it RIGHT (and right now). The struggle is what to do when things aren’t perfect. What to do when life gets messy.
I’m a do’er. I like plans and directions. Y’all give me a whole room of unassembled IKEA furniture, and I’m on it. “Attach part A to part B, using bolt C”…done, done, and done. Love math and logic. “If A, then B, and if B, then C, therefore if A, then C”. Memorize the formula, plug in the info, get the right answer. I can’t balance a checkbook to save my life (seriously, ask my husband…actually don’t ask him unless you are prepared to have a likely LONG conversation about how much money we spend on all things horse related, but I digress) but I can solve for X all. day. long. There are steps, and a clear plan, and a specific order.
Again, this is what we are taught in the barn – from learning to tack up in the very first lesson, all the way to the upper levels of our sport, there is a “way” to do everything. A proper order and method. The downside comes in the moments when we need to be able to think in the abstract and act on the fly.
I’m a pleaser. I HATE to let anyone down (myself included) so the idea of disappointing my trainer, or giving my horse a ride short of what he is worthy of, is really hard to deal with…because, you know, perfectionist and all (see above).
Keeping all that in mind, enter Erin and RAS, and y’all, bless her heart, I may be more than she bargained for. I’m only halfway through the intro bootcamp, so lots more to learn but I may need a little extra buffer time to wrap my head around this new way of thinking. It’s all been very enlightening and super eye opening to learn how much power the use of simple words, or basic techniques can have on performance. Well, some are basic, some I’m finding to be harder to put into practice.
I’ve never noticed before how often we tell ourselves, or others, what NOT to do, instead of what we want to do. Both in and out of the saddle. For example, going into the ring my mental thought is “whatever you do, don’t chip the first jump.” And for the love of all that is good, more often than not, I’ll march right in and chip the first jump. Changing that mental prep to “I will ride forward and past the first fence” means the same thing, but drawing attention to what I want, instead of what I want to avoid, makes a tremendous difference on your subconscious.
Sometimes it’s easier to see the effects if I use my child as the guinea pig, so I tested it out. She has a habit of planting her outside hand when she gets nervous. Her pony is no dummy and takes that as his opportunity to exit stage left. So I tested the theory a little and spent one day reminding the kid (to the tune of MUCH eye rolling) to “not put her outside hand on the neck.” Wanna guess how many times he bulged and ran out towards the trees that day? I lost count. The next day I tried to remember to say “keep using your outside rein and leg,” and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. It works at home too! Other child is supposed to read and clean his room before having any electronics on non school mornings. Despite my repeated reminders to “not pick up his phone” until the other things have been done, he would “forget” all the time. But when I flipped it and started saying “remember you are going to read your book before you use your phone” more often than not, he did it! I’m not saying it’s a magic fix, and it’s not easy, but it is simple. And it’s remarkable how often we reinforce the negative without even realizing we are doing it.
That was the easy part. This next bit is way harder for me. We’ve touched on the idea of visualization and meditative breathing to help relax and focus. To be honest, this has always sounded a little too “pollyanna” to me, but if it works for the Beezies and McLains of the world, who am I to knock it?!
My personal struggle is that I only want to do it if I’m doing it “right.” So my immediate thought is “Do I visualize myself as if I am riding or like from a drone perspective?” “Whatever works for you,” she says. Well sure… but which way is best?
So, I googled it.
Yes, I actually typed in “how to visualize correctly.” You’ll be pleased to know the good people at WikiHow can tell you in 14 steps (with pictures!). Unfortunately, it was not exactly what I was looking for. And then, do I visualize first and then do relaxing breaths, or breathe and then visualize? Obviously, I am overanalyzing (see above – no surprise there), but I do think we are onto something here.
In my very elementary translation, the reason visualization works is because our brains go on autopilot when we get anxious. Unconsciously, we take ourselves back to that time when what we fear will happen, actually happened. In that moment, my reflex is to freeze and block out all my knowledge and skills, and the thing I keep fearing comes to fruition. If I can get past the hippy-dippy-trippiness factor and practice visualizing success, then I can reprogram my brain so that in that moment of freezing, my reflex becomes riding the course that I’ve already practiced mentally. Easier said than done, I know, but athletes in all kinds of sports have been taking advantage of this revelation forever, and they must be onto something.
I’m not sure how all of this mental training will play out, but I’m optimistic. I’m excited about trying out my new mental skills at our next show, instead of feeling anxious about failing. That’s a pretty great improvement already.