Listen to the Horse Happening Podcast, with Lindsey Partridge
The mental game of riding horses and competing with horses is such a huge part of the equation, and not always do we give it enough focus. It is always, what is my horse doing and how can I help my horse and what is the horse training part. But what about the human mental part of what is going on.
I was teaching the other day as we are prepping to get back into show season. And for us here in Ontario, shows have been shut down because of the pandemic for a really long time and, our students didn’t get to compete in anything last year. Luckily, this year, we have got students that are going to be heading into the show ring and so we were prepping for competing. Whether you are competing or trail riding, whatever it is, there is a mental aspect to it. And this came up in the lesson because I was rushing the students the same way that would potentially happen at a horse show. I set it up so that way, we had a bit of a quick warm-up, they could only do a couple of fences and once the horse was jumping, well, then they went into the ring to do their jumping round without getting to practice over the individual fences first, the same way that would happen at a show where you have a couple of fences that you can do in the warmup ring, and then you’re expected to go into the ring and go right into full courses. It was a little bit fast-paced, the same way that it might be at a horse show because you do not always know where you are going to be in the lineup for order of go. When you do jumpers, it is not like dressage, where you have a scripted time. So, there is that element of being rushed which can build up anxiety.
So, one of my students ended up refusing some of the jumps and, even after she had been over the jumps and gotten her horse around, she was still having some refusals and was not riding the way she usually does. We spent the rest of the lesson trying to find her mojo, again, is what I called it and we started doing some different exercises to help her get her confidence back, especially once you get into your head and get stuck, and you are nervous, and you are a little bit of a wreck like that, it is hard to get yourself out of it. But also, if you have had then some refusals, or let us say your horse spooks at something, now, your body is going to tense even more because you are going to get even more defensive than what you were. Then as your body starts to get defensive and starts to tense up, you are not going to move and flow with the horse as much; it is going to cause things to spiral into a worse state. Because your tense, the horse feels that they get tense and not responding the way you normally would expect them to. So, then you start getting tenser and, it gets worse and worse and worse.
So, what are some strategies that we can do to help us in our mental state, so we can be calm and confident and communication-focused, and ultimately present in the moment to communicate with our horse? These pieces are important, whether you are competing or are out on the trail. If you are getting into these negative thoughts, and you are like, oh, something could jump out of the bush there, what was that over there, your horse is going to feel all of this tension in you. And if you do not gain control of those thoughts, then that worry can take over. So, there are a lot of things that we can do to help us stay in the moment and be present. Having that control over our emotions, also called self-regulation is really, the key to being able to communicate with our horse effectively and ultimately have a safe and successful ride.
For those of you guys that do not know, I am a registered nurse. I have a bachelor’s degree in health sciences. And I specialized in public health and mental health for several years in positive mental health specifically, where I would spend a lot of time researching positive mental health strategies or resiliencies and self-regulation. I specialized in working with schools to implement different strategies and programs to help kids in schools be more resilient and have better positive mental health, so that is some of my background. I will be pulling from some of that knowledge to give you guys some tips and things that you can use, but also pulling from other knowledge that I have gained from working with other professionals.
One of our Harmony Horsemanship certified instructors is Asa Woodman. She is from Maine, in the United States and, she is an Equine Assisted Therapist. She has been a therapist for many years and has been doing Equine Therapy for well over a decade, helping people with different stresses and anxieties and stressors. We filmed an online course together called the Horse Human Connection where Asa shares a ton of different tools and strategies to help gain control over your worry, anxiety, stress, emotions, and your energy so that way you can be the most effective leader and partner for your horse; truly a remarkable person, with lots of knowledge to share. But I am still going to give you guys some great tips that pull from some of the things that Asa has taught me and pull from my background as a public health nurse and the things that I have learned over the years. And again, whether you are a competitor or a recreational rider, it does not matter. If you are becoming stuck in your head, and you are getting stuck on this worry, or this anxiety it is going to affect your ride, whether it be the performance in front of a crowd or just the performance for you and your horse, the two of you together.
The biggest thing is that we need to stay in the now; we need to stay in the moment. Horses do not know if we are fretting about what is going to happen in the future, or what has happened in the past; they just know about what is happening right now. They live very much in the moment, and they need us to live in the moment too. So how can we do that? What is going to stop us from getting into those spirals of negative thoughts?
One of the easiest things that you can do to stay in the now is to be looking around you and noticing the things that you see. And it can help to even say those things out loud. So, where I am sitting right now, what do I see? I see trees, a fence, two lazy dogs sleeping on the ground, wood, grass, leaves, doghouse, and the barn; just saying things out loud helps to get you to the present of noticing what is around you. If you are with your horse, you can be more specific; I see my horse lowered his head, my horse flicks his ear back, my horse twitches for the fly, and my horse blink. So there are lots of things that you can notice and some that are going to be useful information that you can use to help you in your decisions when working with your horse on the ground, or whatever it is you’re doing, or it might just be information about your surroundings, that is helping you get out of your head and that worry area, instead of focusing on what is right in front of you and that’s really important for moving forward and getting your thoughts to this present moment.
The other thing is that we need to become very aware of what works for us to help get us into a calm alert state. So, in Harmony Horsemanship, we talk about the Harmony Energy Scale, where we want to be in a calm, alert state, which is something we talked about with kids in schools for self-regulation. We talked about the colour zones yellow, red, and green, yellow meaning that you are half asleep and not ready to learn. Green meaning your calm alert; you are ready to learn, red means that you are on high energy or high alert, and you are not ready to learn because you are too high on alert, you are not able to focus well. Then the fourth colour is black, which means that you are in full panic mode, and you are going fight or flight, which is something that we want to avoid. In schools, with kids, we teach different strategies recognizing first am I in yellow, am I in red or am I am black? And how do I help myself get to green? The first step is to recognize; shoot, I am in red right now and I need to figure out how I am going to get myself down to the green. This could mean that you need to get off your horse and just breathe for a second, it could be that you need to see somebody else work with your horse to give yourself that confidence boost to know you can do it, it could be that you need to go back to a calm connection exercise, maybe go back to your “S’ pattern from calm connection, and get you in your horseback breathing, relaxed, and calm and then go back to whatever exercise it is that you were handling, or it could be that you need to focus on your breath.
Doing those inhales through your nose and exhale like you are blowing out birthday candles nice and slow, nice long exhale can help trigger that parasympathetic state, which is that relaxation, thinking frame of mind nervous system that we want to be. We want to get away from that fight or flight response and do things that are going to help us get into that thinking frame of mind using that parasympathetic nervous system.
Not everything we can do on our horse we can do to help our parasympathetic nervous system, only some of them we can do on a horse like exhaling with blowing out the birthday candles or saying things that you see is one thing and then you can move through your other senses as well.
So, you can say okay, I know I see the trees, the fence, etc. And then you can go on to what do I hear? I hear my dog licking her feet right now in the background I hear the wind blowing, I hear construction going on in the distance. So, you can go through your different senses, and then into smell and taste and even touch like what you are feeling and, that can help you become more present and get you synced up with your parasympathetic as well.
Focus on what you can do, so if something is going to upset you, pr you do not know what is going on, you can focus on your solution options. There is no point fretting over what is happening, this is upsetting me; instead, we can try to stay solution-focused and, that is going to help you have control over the situation and help you not go into a full-blown panic. So, for example, let us say you are on a trail ride and suddenly, you notice that there is a flock of birds up ahead, maybe some turkeys are in the grass and, you can see them. You know they are there and, you are worried that they are going to spook your horse. Well, instead of worrying that they are going to spook your horse and putting that negative energy into your horse, you can focus on what are the solutions that you can do to help get out of the situation. So, you could dismount your horse and lead your horse through the turkeys; you could try to make some loud noises to get those turkeys to fly away. If somebody else is on the trail ride that has a braver horse or is not scared, they could ride up ahead first to take on the turkeys to get them to get out of the way. You could choose to circle or go back or just stand and wait until the turkeys get out of the way, like stay at a safe distance. So, you have lots of options that you can choose from. Then you can think about which one you know is going to make the best sense for you at that moment. There is no right or wrong answer. It is just these are your options and think about the pros and cons and which one is going to help you out the most.
If you are in the competition ring, and you have a horse that is refusing a particular jump in the ring, or maybe they are scared of a particularly scary corner, then maybe you can go into the warmup ring and try to mimic that situation as best as possible. I see a lot of people doing this sometimes; let us say a horse is scared of a Liverpool jump or something in the competition and a lot of horses sometimes look at Liverpool’s so people will do things like bring a blue blanket into the ring and place it underneath the warm-up jump to get the horse to jump over a blue blanket as part of the warm-up jump because it looks similar to the Liverpool. So that is an option to help the horses to practice, like try to simulate as best as possible what is going to be in the ring and get your horse to do that in the warm-up ring. Or if maybe somebody has an umbrella that is in the crowd, and you are worried your horses going to be spooked by that. See, if you can find an umbrella or something that looks like an umbrella and get a friend or a family member or somebody who is at the side of the warm-up ring to open and move it around a little bit outside of the rings, you can mimic that situation and help prep your horse for that. It is not just prepping your horse, but it is also prepping you to have the confidence that you can work through it and that you and your horse are going to be okay when to get into the arena. It is having that confidence as you ride by that scary corner, that umbrella or as you ride into that Liverpool that is going to make a world of difference. Being able to focus on the jumps ahead of you and not fretting about all that other stuff makes the biggest difference to your horse; they need to feel that confidence from you, which means that you need to be in the moment, focused on what you are doing. Not off in your head thinking about other things, they need to feel that you are present. And that is the other thing is you might not necessarily be scared and anxious, intense, but you could be distracted, or just not there in your thoughts and your movements.
So, if you are thinking about your stressful day or an argument that went on with your family or friend and you are thinking about all these other things, you could be having some subconscious tension that is going through your body and causing you to tense different parts of your muscles, your legs, your butt cheeks, all those different things that your horse can actually feel. And when they feel that they do not know that you are thinking about something that has nothing to do with what is going on today. They know that you are feeling tenseness stress, and so that can put your horse on higher alert and then spiral into other issues. We must be so careful about being present, which is one of the reasons why I love working with horses because it helps you too just be here now. And that is what it is all about. Be here NOW, focus on what is going on in the moment right here with your horse. Forget about everything in the past, forget about what you are worried about in the future. This is you and your horse right here right now, this lets you let go of all that other stuff, which is one of the reasons why horses are can be great therapy for helping us to just find a better happy place and be here. So those are some tips to help you with that mental aspect of horses. And at the end of the day, you can do that. Deep breathing with the blowing out of the birthday candles, you can think about your senses and notice what you see hear smell, taste, touch. So, you can become more aware of what is going to help you be in that green calm alert state. You can be solution-focused so that way you are aware of what your options are, give yourself some control over the situation. And in the end, it all sums up to be here now.
So, I leave you with those thoughts for today. Hope you guys enjoyed today’s blog post. And as always, thanks for reading.
Thanks so much, bye for now.