Anxiety and Horses
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk online and through other forms of media about anxiety. It’s positive to see people opening up about how they feel and how they experience anxiety because it really does come in all forms and severities. Recognising that this is something that some people have to deal with is often the first step into making a positive change. It’s a step towards being more supporting and understanding to those people.
For me, now that I’m an adult, my life has become more stressful. And I do have my moments of anxiousness. Sometimes I’ll be at the mall and I just feel like I have to get out the store. Or I’ll be driving on the highway and I’ll feel trapped when I'm surrounded by other cars with no way out. I wouldn’t say that I have panic attacks because I can still function, but I will say that I can definitely feel anxious at times.
It’s manageable though. I can work my way through the situation, get some relief and start to lower my heartrate again.
It's just when I’m in the saddle that things get more complicated.
See, I’m sure you all have realised by now, horses pick up and mirror what we are feeling. So any bit of anxiety or nervousness is picked up by the horse. Which means that things can escalate quite quickly. Thankfully, I haven’t been a dangerous situation yet, but I thought that this is a topic that would be good to discuss.
When I’m riding, I can feel a bit unsure which will result in me tensing up. This has caused me a lot of problems in the past that, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know by now. One of the reasons for my nervousness is getting back in the saddle after about 5 years. And even though I’ve been riding regularly for 3 years now, I’m only riding twice a week. That’s not a whole lot of practice time to work on my confidence and break bad habits.
I’m naturally a person who strives to do things right and I’m very hard on myself. What I’m finding is that when things don’t go to plan or I’m expecting them not to, my anxiety goes up. Not because I don’t like riding, but because my mind decides to go down a negative path. I start to shut down and tighten up which the horse will pick up on and the downward spiral begins. For some reason, I never really thought of my nervousness as being a result of anxiety. I always just blamed it on being out of practice.
Now I’m starting to finally see that that’s maybe not the case.
So where do I go from here?
Obviously, controlling and dealing with anxiety while on horseback is the number one goal. For my safety, my horse’s and those that may be in the ring with me.
Let me say again that I have never had a full-blown panic attack and I have never been clinically diagnosed with anxiety. I just have moments of anxiousness.
The game plan for me is first to recognise that it’s happening or that I can feel it start to bubble up. Then I can deal with it.
Making sure that I’m breathing and distracting my mind seems to really work for me.
A great way to do this is by counting out loud. Not to count down the strides to the jump in front of me, but just counting the strides my horse is taking. That way, it’s in a rhythm and it allows me to recognise if I'm asking the horse to change his pace without knowing it. I’ll normally count up to eight and then start back at one again.
And you know what? It really works! You don’t have to yell out the numbers if you don’t want to, but make sure that you’re saying them out loud no matter how quiet. This is because saying them in your head doesn’t actually get you out of your head. It also doesn’t get you to breathe (which is super important!).
Some other strategies, if you don’t like counting, is singing or breathing at the same rate as a canter stride. My coach will sometimes say something to make me laugh just to snap me out of my spiralling train of thought. Because that’s really all it is for me. If I can get out of it and focus, everything works out smoothly. I have to just make sure I focus enough to put myself to work, but not enough to make me overwhelmed.
As for riding a particular pattern or course, I make sure to break it down. Break it into each turn, transition and straight line. If you get nervous going over jumps, like I sometimes do, try to think of riding a straight line and that the jump is just in your way. No big deal.
Keep your eyes up instead of at the fence AND COUNT, SING, WHATEVER!
The more times you do something successfully, the more you can train your brain to think that it’s not so bad after all. Sure, you will fall into old trains of thought from time to time. Don’t let that discourage you! The more you work on it, the less often those slip ups happen. And the more likely you are to train your brain to follow a new, more positive, path when dealing with things that make you nervous.
I’d love to know if any of you have other tips and tricks when you get anxious in the saddle. I think the first thing is recognition for sure. Realising that you are feeling anxious. That it’s no big deal. Just breathe. Know that it's something you can work with and don't get frustrated when you make mistakes. Because you will. Like we all do. But the more you work at it, the easier and better it will get.
Until next time, happy riding!