The Stables

Don’t Over Think: Overcoming Horse Riding Nerves

The older I get the harder it becomes to control my nerves – while I’m not afraid of riding – in any situation – I am aware, constantly of everything that could go wrong. This I feel stems from a lifetime of riding and a lifetime of seeing and experiencing things going wrong. Now – I am hyper vigilant – constantly aware of what can go wrong.  Ridiculous I know… Especially when it spoils my fun and I’m sure has to impact onto my horses.

This over-thinking is not something that just I suffer with – it is something that may battle with constantly.  The following is part of an article by Jody Jaffe  a journalist whose  articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman.

“The truth is, I think most of us struggle with overthinking both in athletic pursuits and life in general. We are a cerebral society, or at least much more cerebral than when we had to hunt or gather to survive. As a result, the thinking part of our brains has become a bully.

All the chatter that hijacks us as we try to jump a course is about as useful to humans as ticks are to the ecosystem.  It does nothing but screw things up and make you doubt your abilities. How many times have I been on course when I started thinking about the latest injury I read about in the Chronicle or wondered if my horse would shy at the man behind the bushes or worried about that long ride to the single oxer? I’ve been riding now for 40 years, plenty of time to develop enough muscle memory to at least get around a puny 2’6” course.

So the question becomes how do we shut up the bully brain?  Many years ago, I read an article about the limbic system, our paleo-mammalian brain in charge of survival, sensory perception, movement (and a host of other things). I extrapolated that must be where whatever shred of athletic ability I have resides, along with the muscle-memory I’d accrued from all those laps around the cornfields with no stirrups and jumping courses on my machine of a horse, Brenda Starr. The illustration in the article showed the limbic brain to be at the base of the head, near the neck. So I devised an exercise where, just as I’m about to jump, I visualize shutting off the top of my brain and shifting control to the base of my neck. I augment that with words to the effect of, “OK limbic system, you’re in charge.” My thinking brain is a very big bully, so periodically I have to push it back under the rock by repeating the visualization and verbal affirmation, much like I was taught in meditation to lead the mind back to the breath or the mantra.

That’s visualization, which works. But for me, what works better is trickery.  Psychologists have a nicer name than trickery. They call it hyper-focus technique, and I learned it when I went to get help after my son almost died. I couldn’t stop obsessing about him in the ICU, and as a result I was in a constant state of grief and anxiety. The psychologist asked me to get to that obsessing place, which wasn’t hard. Just as I started feeling the barbed wire tightening around my heart, she told me to look at the flower in the fabric on the sofa and then describe it in exacting detail.  Best wire cutters ever. Before I even got to the leaf, the barbed wire was gone. I continued to use that technique whenever I felt the wire start clamping shut until eventually the obsessing stopped.

In other words, I hyper-focused myself out of anxiety, which is exactly what Gordon, my trainer, had me do in my last lesson. You don’t need the major anxiety of a loved one’s brush with mortality to use this technique. It works if you get a little tense as you approach the fence and works just as well when you are fearful while riding.

I was riding my OTTB mare, Cassie, who had been quiet and steady. But as we started jumping, she got a little quick. Gordon told me to focus only on keeping my shoulders back and think of nothing else. So the more I hyper-focused on keeping my shoulders back, the quieter my bully brain got. I’d given it a task. I’d so thoroughly occupied it that it could no longer flood me with images of me in a cast or a coma or whatever new horror it could devise. I tricked it into submission, so my innate, muscle memory brain could take the reins. And guess what? My horse jumped perfectly.




Article via Lavender & White Equestrian Publishing

Image Credit: Shutterstock