BY LINDSEY ANUZIS GAGE
Stress can be defined as physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension. It has also been defined as a condition or feeling experienced when a person believes that demands exceed the personal and social resources that the individual is able to utilize. Essentially, stress is how our body responds to pressures, responsibilities, and threats, both real, and imagined.
While stress is present in everyone’s lives, untreated chronic stress can develop into serious implications for physical and mental health. Then, on top of that, throw in the stress that comes with riding and competition and you may begin to feel overwhelmed…
So, I want to share with you some research-based practices that can help you with managing your stress. Even better, you can do it right in the saddle! These concepts I am about to share with you are all forms of Mindfulness Meditation.
Mindfulness has been a trendy word over the last few years. You may be wondering what it even means? Do I have to have a soundtrack of ocean waves or hum to be mindful? The answer is no! Mindfulness meditation is something that every single person is capable of doing at the drop of a hat (or helmet!).
Mindfulness is defined in the dictionary as being a quality or state of consciousness. It is a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations without judgment or intention to change—but rather curiosity. We spend a significant amount of time planning, problem solving, thinking, and even daydreaming while rarely spending any time in the present. Always thinking ahead or reflecting on the past can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress. Engaging in mindfulness helps to be present. When we engage in mindfulness, we are able to acquire insight and self-awareness of our thoughts and feelings, which helps us to better interact with others. Being mindful aids in the reduction of stress and can even enhance our performance.
If this mindfulness sounds intriguing, how do you do it? Below I have included a few quick and easy mindful exercises you can practice while sitting in the saddle before a class or any other time at the barn.
Slow, controlled, and intentional breaths. When working with clients, to explain the process of mindful breathing, I tell them to act as if they are continuously smelling flowers and blowing bubbles. Smelling the Flowers means, slowly breathing in through your nose, continuing to take in air past your lungs until it fills and expands your belly. Being visual I try to imagine filling a balloon with air in my stomach. Then, you hold it for about 3-4 seconds, and then slowly release the breath from your belly as if you are blowing bubbles. Then hold. Complete this process for a few rotations. Sometimes this is referred to as belly breathing, or “square breathing” because you spend the same amount of time breathing in, holding air in, breathing out, and pausing before re-engaging in the process a few more times. As long as you are in a safe situation, I find this exercise especially helpful when I close my eyes as it really helps me to focus on my slow, intentional breath with fewer distractions.
Mindful breathing works for stress because it literally signals to our brains that we are not in danger. It helps relax our bodies and refocus our minds. This is most helpful when you sit tall and squarely on your seat bones and drop your shoulders (releasing tension) for optimal results. Give this a try sitting in your saddle, at the in-gate of a class, or walking as you cool out your horse. Practicing this breathing for a few repetitions will be helpful. I would also encourage you to practice this often, even if you don’t “need” it. That way, like muscle memory, it will be more beneficial when you do need it!
This is a great one for quick on-the-go use that can easily be done while sitting on your horse. Grounding refers to the ability to return to the present moment with sustained attention. Take some deep mindful breaths, and then notice how you are sitting in the saddle. Are you sitting squarely on your seat bones, or is your tailbone rolled forward? How do your feet feel in the stirrups? Are your thighs tightly clenched around the saddle, or more loosely draped along your horse’s sides? What are your fingers doing around the reins? Are you wearing gloves, or are you holding the reins with your bare hands? What do they feel like? Smooth, or sticky from sweat and fly spray? Are your fingers tightly clenched, or relaxed? What does the motion of your horse walking feel like? Is it a rhythmic 1,2,3,4 or is your horse stumbling or rushed? I want you to practice noticing all these different sensations without any intention to change them. By bringing attention to your surroundings, you redirect your focus, which will ultimately relax your body and your mind—great for riding.
This is a grounding exercise that is especially helpful when we may be feeling stress, anxiety, or just simply overwhelmed. This exercise uses all five of your sense to bring you into the present moment. Wherever you are, start with finding five things you can see—notice and name them. Then move to four things you can physically touch—notice and name them. What are three things you can hear? Again, notice and name them. What are two things you can smell? Notice and name. Finally, what is one thing you can taste? This grounding exercise is great for engaging all senses, as this isn’t something we typically pay much attention to in the moment. You can practice this while riding, doing barn chores, grooming your horse, cleaning tack, or anywhere.
Guided Imagery is a form of focused relaxation which aids in promoting harmony between mind and body. You utilize your own imagination to create a sense of calm and peace which works as a literal mental escape. This is one I love to utilize in my sessions with clients who are stressed, or anxious. However, a great time to utilize this technique is during a work break, or even right before bedtime if you struggle to “turn off” your brain from the day!
There are lots of accessible guided imagery scripts on YouTube, or another easy fix is utilizing a meditation app such as headspace which offers a selection of guided imagery options. Guided imagery asks you to think of your “happy” or “calming” place and imagine what it is like being there using all five senses. Ex. Think what it would be like walking through fields in a pasture to get your horse as the birds are chirping, sun is rising, and you can smell the summer morning dew.. or imagine being in the mountains or at the beach!
Now that you are equipped with a few ways of how you can practice mindfulness, you might be wondering how it will help you, specifically! Well inevitably, competition tends to produce some level of stress. Practicing mindfulness right before you enter the ring can help you relax your body, calm your nerves, improve your concentration and memory and promote flexible thinking to help you in the moment.
There are some additional resources you can download on your phone to help you develop these skills. Most of the apps are free, but some do have a paid version. Check out : Headspace, Calm, Breethe, and Insight Timer for more support with guided meditations!
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 are. 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!