“I have been one of those mislead riders who believe that the top professionals in our sport are crazy, fearless nutcases who eat glass and brake fluid for breakfast then nip out to pop over the Cottesmore leap for fun!
Well ladies and gents, that’s actually not the case at all. These riders are brave. Not brave in a sense that they are happy to tackle death defying feats or what seems to be impossible questions to ask of a horse or rider, but brave in the fact that they have had their falls and are fully aware of the consequences of getting it wrong… and yet go out there and do it anyway. I am lucky enough to be coached by Yogi Breisner, who has coached the British Eventing team for over 17 years. I was told by him that some of our best riders are so nervous before an event that they actually have to excuse themselves to go and be sick before competing. Now that came as a bit of a shock to me, and it made me realise that these athletes are normal people just like you and I.
So what makes them so different? How do they conquer that fear? And how on earth do they achieve so much under immense amounts of pressure without having a complete meltdown?
Personally I have more fear riding my dressage phase than any other. Yes unusual for some I guess, but the scrutiny of the judge, the need to be foot-perfect, the requirement to remember a test under competition conditions really frightens me. More than leaping over large solid fences where I have free reign to choose what I want to do in order to tackle a question.
I think The Fear can be controlled to an extent and riders are able to progress beyond what they thought they were capable of but sometimes it takes a few things to help them get over these barriers. For me the huge turning point in my dressage fears were watching the interview with Charlotte Dujardin after she won her Gold in Rio. She says ‘I swear he knew I was nervous… I NEVER GET NERVOUS’…………..!!
THOSE words put it into perspective for me:
Here is a woman who has won every title in the world of dressage, broken every record, and competed at the highest level the sport has to offer, and she NEVER GETS NERVOUS. Why the hell am I worrying about my unaffiliated Novice test, or my BE100 dressage phase? Wow I need to take a reality check here….!!! Do you know what, it really helped me. Every time I worry about my dressage I either watch the clip or I think of her words. If she can do it at that level, well then I can do it at mine.
Here is a link to the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bC-9PsJ_EKE
So other than trying to get a grip on your fears and see what works well for you, what else can we do to reduce ‘The Fear’.
There is no shame in it, you don’t have to be declared a failure or have ‘issues’ to seek help. I personally have found that the help I receive from my sports psychologist has helped me immensely with lots of issues from worrying about remembering a test to actual competition nerves. Also you don’t need to be competing or riding at a high level to benefit, even beginner riders who have the passion for riding but just are a bit worried or nervous of the unknown will benefit from a little guidance. I think it’s really helpful and important for riders to be able to understand what makes them worried because it can sometimes make the horse wonder what the rider’s fears are and if they are justified. A lot of riders can influence their horses with their nervousness and this is a fact. Horses are incredibly perceptive animals, they are prey animals and their survival depends on them picking up signals which might lead to them ending up as a tasty snack for a local predator. We owe it to our horses to be able to ride with a clear mind, provide a bit of reassurance and comfort when necessary and not panic when something happens.
There are a few sports psychologists out there who deal with equestrians and who actually ride themselves and understand horses. There are also a few organisations who run rider confidence courses which can involve learning to sit on a trained rearing horse, hypnotherapy and other techniques which will educate and retrain the body and mind. Always check if you apply for one of these courses that it is professionally run and fully insured.
Desensitisation or ‘despooking’ of your horse.
I watch a lot of videos by Emma Massingale, a friend of mine, and her training is amazing and just by helping horses over their fears can boost the confidence of the owner or rider.
Despooking classes with reputable, insured professionals (I am aware there is an ex mounted police officer who offers these classes as well as many top individuals in the business, again make sure you know exactly what you want and who you are getting to ‘help’ you with your horse.
Getting the right coach:
Ensuring that your riding instructor works with you and is able to provide exactly what you need in order to improve. If they can’t then you need to keep looking, there is no point paying for lessons that aren’t going to benefit you or your horse and it’s certainly not fair to the coach either. Most professional instructors have had a lot of experience and training in equine behaviour and equestrian psychology and will help you to achieve a more relaxed and competent approach to your riding. If you are having lessons with someone who is not experienced, trained or insured it could be highly risky, counterproductive and a waste of money.
There is a lot of published work on how to desensitise your horse but I have never heard of anyone saying ‘well you need to desensitise yourself’. I personally believe that a lot of horses problems develop directly from the rider if there are no pain or previous mental issues at play. I also see a lot of ‘helpful’ people at yards, offering advice and putting riders in a position where they feel unworthy or despondent. I personally never take any advice from anyone other than my coaches or my sports psychologist, unless of course I am being given advice by someone who has a proven track record and knows more than I do. My advice to my clients who have issues with nerves is usually:
~ Don’t listen to anyone other than those who know what they are talking about, some people think they do but if they are not a professional and trained then it is possible that they might not be the right person to give you advice.
~ Only do what you feel confident doing, for instance, don’t force yourself to jump higher than you feel comfortable doing because ‘the horse is capable’ or ‘everyone at the yard thinks you should be moving up a level now’ or ‘you’re holding him back’ or ‘you need to push your boundaries’. I always advise staying in your comfort zone until you feel bored with it and are keen to move on and do something a little more daring. That way your hunger to push the boundaries will override the fear and you will be more positive in your approach.
~ And remember, if you want to get out there and do things, start small, get out regularly and desensitise yourself by going to lots of little shows or get-togethers. By doing this you will eventually realise that they are not such a big terrifying event and you will begin to relax and enjoy yourself.
Mind over Matter: If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter
In this sport we tend to look at the top riders and compare ourselves to them, but at the end of the day if you are happy just taking your horse for a walk in hand, doing some on the ground work or riding and competing, it must be a decision you make based on what you want for yourself, not a parent, not a partner, not a friend…but you. By remaining true to yourself you can enjoy your horse and not fall victim to ‘The Fear’ unnecessarily.
Feelings of fear and apprehension can trigger the flight-or-fight response, a natural change in your body as a result of feeling threatened either physically or psychologically. Fear can result in a big change in your ride which signals to your horse “look out, something is up!” You can minimize the communication of your fear to your teammate by taking a few steps:
Feel the Fear
Never deny how you feel. Too many riders try to deny their feelings, act tough, and white knuckle their way through things. It really doesn’t work. Accept what your body is trying to tell you, and know you will have some control over how you interpret and ultimately deal with the message you are being given. You can’t be anywhere in this moment other than “where you are” and accepting this is a vital first step to change.
Assess the Fear
What is it that you are afraid of, exactly? Is it getting bucked off? Crashing at a cross-country obstacle? If you have had a bad accident, then you need to understand how and why it happened: my horse was too fresh; I was over-faced; I took that turn way too tight. Simply understanding the elements will make you feel better; the “known” has a nice way of calming us down.
Make a list of resources
What do you have that will help you deal with the risk involved and shrink it? Some examples are a good coach, years of riding experience, how to do an emergency dismount, etc. There are always tools you can use, and others you can develop. If you are about to learn something new, make sure you link your current skills and resources to your new task. Even if you have never jumped a ditch in your life, for instance, chances are you have the necessary ability to tackle the task.
Organize your inside voice
Be ready with some replacement thoughts. Thoughts that you identify as productive and helpful can be used to keep your mind on the task at hand. Two examples of planned self-talk are task talk and cool talk.
Task talk connects you to how you need to ride: “rhythmic pace” or “sit tall and square.” Choosing and planning specific cue words can help keep your mind anchored firmly in the here and now. One thing fear does really well is take you out of the moment. It either sucks you back into the past to re-experience a scary experience, or catapults you into the future and the world of “what if?”
Cool talk brings perspective and reassurance to your ride. Consider a mantra like “you’ve got this” or “it’s in the vault” (you’ve trained for it, it’s in there). Have fun with planning and creating your self-talk. You’ll be surprised how much this can help shrink fear.
We owe it to our horses to let them enjoy our time with them, the interaction between the partnership of human and horse is the most important aspect of horsemanship we can achieve….and if we can help them by alleviating our fears then it is worth it all!
Get out there, love your horse and have fun!