Daniel Stewart’s Equestrian Athlete Camp Part 2: Outgrouping, The Threat Response, and the Danger Zone

Photo courtesy of Jess Clawson


This is part two of my recap of the Daniel Stewart Equestrian Athlete Camp. Click here to read the first post.

I knew that once the workouts started at the Daniel Stewart Equestrian Athlete Camp that it was going to become clear whether or not I really could handle things without Mo around to make up for my shortcomings. I’d been working out a little bit at home, plus I ride horses and do farm chores every day, but I was under no delusions that I was actually prepared for this on a physical level.

“Two a day workouts,” I groaned to my friends before I left. I was so wrong. Try five a day workouts. But between high intensity training sessions, we would all shuffle, whimpering, into the seminar room to listen to sports psychology seminars. The harder we exercised, the more the things Daniel was saying made sense.

Outgrouping & The Threat Response

Outgrouping is a simple concept that carries a lot of weight for most riders. It’s the idea that if we make a mistake we’ll be cast out from the group. You’re letting what other people might think about you become a point of stress.

This promotes a threat response, which Daniel talks about as our nervous system’s perception that we’re in danger. Our nervous system can’t tell if we’re worried because we’re being chased by a polar bear or because that one girl who always has a nicer horse, nicer jacket, nicer trailer (you know the one) is already warming up while you’re barely getting to the ring on time and feeling like a loser again.

But at a horse show, you’re not being chased by a polar bear. You’re worried that the rail birds are saying mean things about you, which is much less dangerous to your health than an apex predator (and they probably aren’t, and if they are they’re not nice people so we don’t care what they think). The thing is, your amygdala lights up as if you were in mortal danger and shuts down your ability to think clearly and remember things. It’s why you go off course or forget your dressage test when you’re nervous.

So now what? The good news is, Daniel has advice.

Photo courtesy of The Plaid Horse

Goldilocks vs. The Danger Zone

When you’re in your comfort zone, you’re comfortable, right? But you’re not learning. If you get pushed too far outside of your comfort zone and fire up the amygdala part of your brain, you’re in the danger zone, also not learning.

Hence, the Goldilocks zone. Here, you’re just outside your comfort zone enough for things to be hard so you can make progress, but not so difficult that you can’t actually do them or are in real danger. The goal is to grow your comfort zone–do things that are hard until they become easy, and then step into the next hard thing. The comfort zone gets bigger, the danger zone gets smaller, and you get better. The threat response diminishes.

But what about show jitters?

Even when we’re working hard on learning in the Goldilocks zone, we’re still going to find our threat response triggered, especially when we’re at a horse show. Daniel has a lot of advice for how to get the adrenaline and cortisol to slow down so you can focus on doing your best instead of on how nervous you are. For instance, complimenting a competitor and introducing levity to the situation are both ways of overriding the threat response. Deep breaths, telling yourself you’re excited (as opposed to nervous), and repeating “I’m going to do my best” are also good ways to overcome show nerves.

Photo courtesy of The Plaid Horse

The Team

Riding competitively is really hard, but the reason so many of us stay in it for a long time is because we love it. There’s a lot to be said about how to promote longevity in the sport, but part of it is about feeling like you’re part of a team. Yes, it’s an individual competition–even if your score counts for a team, you’re still riding in the ring by yourself–but you have a big team of people that gets you to the ring.

We made a list of 28 team members we all have, and then thought of a few more. But what’s important is how we feel when we go to the barn. Is it our happy place? Do we feel like we belong? We need to promote a good barn environment by treating everyone else in the barn like our teammates–not our competitors, enemies, or people we’re envious of. A supportive environment goes so far, and don’t settle for less. It isn’t worth it. You might win a lot of ribbons at a barn that’s killing your soul, but your time in the sport will be limited. It will stop being fun. Just walking into the barn shouldn’t trigger your threat response.

Stay tuned for part three, when the workouts and the mental game came together and we all had the chance to learn what “our best” really meant.

To learn more about Daniel Stewart, visit Pressure Proof Academy. You can enter his mounted clinics and camps (as well as other equestrian clinics, horse shows, and more) at Event Clinics.

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