Trainer Tuesday: What do you do when you have a student that holds their breath?


Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: What do you do when you have a student that holds their breath when they get nervous during a lesson or on course at a horse show?

Here are their answers: 

“When riders don’t breathe, it puts a great deal of tension in their body, and of course gives them less oxygen to the brain. It’s a hard habit to break. In lessons, ask riders to take two or three deep breaths before the start a jumping pattern and ask them to do the same after each element, line or combination. By reminding them at each of those places, they may begin to feel the difference in focus, relaxation and concentration.” -Robin Greenwood
Listen to Robin on The Plaidcast here.

“Take deep breaths and focus on your pace.” -Don Stewart
Listen to Don on The Plaidcast here.

“It is a great question …
1. I take a step back.
As a riding instructor building the riders confidence at every level is the only focus.
When is it time to ask for a little more from a horse and rider combination?

2. Solid, secure riding position.
If a rider is loose the nerves grow higher, if they canter faster or leave a little long and weak on a perfect horse and feel loose.
Work at the walk holding the reins in one hand, then trot, then canter, eventually over poles on the ground. Both directions.

Many times I have found riders relaxing through counting out loud… this changes the rider’s focus and the question of counting out loud over rails on the ground then translates into their confidence jumping.

3. Teach the pulley rein
Give all riders the ability to understand how to go to a corner to halt or use the pulley rein to stop. They may never use it but they have it as an option.

For me, the question is about mental and physical security when riding the horse.” -Diane Carney
Listen to Diane on The Plaidcast here.

“I have my students count their rhythm (1, 2, 1, 2, etc.) or strides out loud. This way I know they are taking in air and it helps with their anxiety. Also, when showing, I have them take 3 deep breaths before they step into the show ring.” -Donna Pace, owner/operator of Nautilus Farm
Read about Donna here.

“If I have a student that gets nervous enough that they hold their breath, I ask them a lot of open-ended questions during the lesson. If the student is responding to specific questions, that causes two things to happen. First, they refocus on their ride and what they are doing, not the thing making them nervous. Second, talking breaks their breathing pattern, making them less able to hold their breath.

For shows, I start before we even leave the farm. My students always show at a level lower than what they are doing at home to boost their confidence. We also establish a clear goal for going to the show that does not involve ribbons to take off the pressure. For example, better turns on course or better scores on the lengthened gaits than their last dressage test is a good goal that we can clearly assess after the ride and work to improve going forward.

I also take the time to know my students well enough to know exactly what triggers the nerves and if they have something they do or a specific routine that can lessen the impact. For some students, brushing their horse helps calm them down – so grooms know to let them do that to prep before a class. Some have a very specific “get ready” routine that they follow including the order in which they tack up and get dressed – and as long as it is not dangerous – I let them keep their habits to calm their nerves.” -Linda Schultz

“We train breath starting day one, for the riders and for the horses. Before every turn and curved line – every one-sided engaging situation – we instigate by ‘exhale; loosen-all-joints’. Our horses feel our deliberate loosening and follow suit. This makes more ‘room’ in the haunches for them to flex those big joints inside. For the riders, this habit, tends to make the ‘stage-fright-breath-holding problem’ be much less of one! Deliberate looseness from the breath is task #1 in riding and training!” -Jane Frizzell

“I have several clients that hold their breath as they ride, and many that are worse in the show ring. I find that if I tell them to talk to their horses as they go around the ring they are forced to breathe. We come up with funny things to say or sing as they go around the ring.” -Elzabeth Lampert

Read what top amateur rider and Mental Skills Coach, Tonya Johnston, says about breathing here.