Seven Stress Management Strategies for the Saddle

Photo © Heather N. Photography


I think we can all agree that there are some serious stressors in the world right now: a global pandemic, problems in the middle east, political polarization… all heavy topics thrown on top of the everyday stressors that we all deal with anyway. Stress is a response to changes that create taxing demands. It can be experienced in emotional, physical, and cognitive ways. Some degree of stress is normal and stress can look different for different people. 

Positive stress, or eustress, tends to be short-term and often acts as a motivating force. It can help us focus energy and is perceived within our capabilities of coping. This type of stress often feels exciting and can increase our performance. Think of this as the feeling you have just before entering the ring at a show.  

Distress, or negative stress, is typically more problematic. Distress can be short or long-term and is often perceived as outside our realm of coping capabilities. It feels unpleasant and often decreases our motivation. Negative stress is where burnout typically comes from. 

When chronic stress goes untreated for a prolonged amount of time, it can lead to the development of mental health issues such as anxiety, and depression. It can also cause challenges with memory, attention, and concentration—all of which can negatively impact your ride! Additionally, stress can show up as physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, stomach aches, illness, and muscle soreness among others. 

So, how do we deal with stressors in the horse world?  

Photo © Heather N. Photography

1. Avoid trying to control the uncontrollable

To be honest, this is just wasted energy! Express your thoughts and emotions about situations to try to reframe a situation and look at the bigger picture.  Thinking about what you can and cannot control can help with perspective on a situation. For example, if your horse colics, or throws a shoe in the field… one is scary and one is frustrating, but both are completely out of your control. What is in your control, however, is how much time you put into preparing your horse. How well-groomed he is, how prepared you are with different bits or other equipment, and how well you remember your course. 

2. Practice a growth mindset

A growth mindset is essentially looking at situations and seeing opportunities rather than focusing on the negatives. When you cultivate a growth mindset, you don’t worry so much about problems. Instead of wondering how you’ll get through a crisis, you ask yourself a far more constructive  question: “What can I learn from this situation to better develop my skills?” 

With riding, this might look like; “how can I work on tightening up my horse’s front end, so we don’t have a rail down during the in and out,” or “that line came up quick… maybe I should practice adjustability with my horse’s stride at home, so we are more prepared next time.” Or maybe even,  “Wow! My horse was super-hot during that round, maybe next time I should turn him out before we leave or lunge him to get the extra energy out.” These reframes will help you grow as a rider and person, opposed to staying stuck, focusing on shortcomings. 

3. Schedule time for fun and relaxation

Whether you ride for pleasure, or for competition, it’s important to incorporate fun and relaxation into your work with your horse. This could be trying something new like riding in a different environment such as going for a trail ride or giving your horse a day off! These activities don’t need to be daily or particularly long, but they should be incorporated often to break up the typical routine. All work and no play isn’t beneficial for anyone! Doing something that both you and your horse will enjoy can renew energy and motivation and might even improve your relationship with one another! 

4. Effective communication

Communication can improve relationships. If you’re feeling overwhelmed,  there is a good chance you may not be communicating effectively. Learn to state your needs, and set boundaries with others at the barn—and your horse. This also might look like spending more quality time with your horse to better understand their nonverbal communication patterns. What things do they enjoy, or things they spook from? It is all helpful and important information for your relationship! 

5. Practice Gratitude

Gratitude is the practice that teaches us to appreciate the things we have today, rather than wishing for the things we want tomorrow. This may help with perspective and can help ground you when things become difficult. Positive Psychology research has found that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude is also linked to better overall health, more positive emotions, and improved relationships. 

6. Create clear goals and plans

Think about how you might increase clarity and expectations for your goals. If you aren’t quite sure what you’re working towards, I can guarantee your horse isn’t either! 

7. Create a mantra or affirmation

Having a statement you tell yourself when you are feeling nervous, or insecure, or worried can help with confidence, self-compassion, motivation, and mindset! An example  could be “I am a strong and capable rider.” Or you could borrow Glennon Doyle’s, “We can do hard things.” Maybe even the statement from Friday Night Lights, “Clear eyes, Full hearts, Can’t lose!” Think about a statement for yourself, and when you could use it! 

Lindsey is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate located in Charlotte, NC. She knows from personal experience how symbiotic the relationship between horses and mental health is. Lindsey had spent much of her life working with, caring for, and riding horses in central New Jersey, before moving south to ride for the IHSA team at High Point University, and eventually attending Wake Forest University for Graduate school. As a therapist, she specializes in working with adolescents, and young adult females, as they navigate through various challenges related to stress, anxiety, life transitions, depression, body image, self-esteem and self-worth challenges, relationships, and grief. Follow her professional Instagram account @GageYourGrowth for more easily digestible mental health-related content!