Anxiety is loosely defined as a feeling of worry or unease that can be mild or severe, which within the equestrian field can present itself in many ways, affecting both your and your horse’s behaviour. Worries may present from having difficulty handling your horse, from injuries, as competition nerves, or from financial and professional obligations each with the potential to be debilitating. Unmanaged these worries can not only leave us feeling mentally deflated but can become physically affecting, so enabling yourself to recognise and deal with them is important for both you and your horse.
Jo Davies is a sports and performance psychologist and has dealt with both recreational and competitive riders from grassroots to National, International, and Olympic level. She sees a variety of problems, from hackers who are worried to get on or to hack out alone, to 4* event riders who want to talk about the pressures of managing a yard, dealing with owners or getting to Badminton for the first time. She explains:
‘When most people speak about nerves, there’s an episode that they can link it back to. Maybe a fall or a scary situation where the horse has reared or bolted or had a near miss, perhaps XC. There doesn’t even have to be one episode that jolts you and a near miss could make you realise what you’re doing is dangerous and that is your inbuilt sense of protection and safety”.
This is connected to a part of the human brain called the limbic system, which supports emotional behaviour.
“This part of the brain picks out danger that might be a physical threat”, says Jo, ‘For example if a rider has had a XC fall, next time they go XC it might be this part of the brain picking out that it could be a danger. If you like, that part of the brain becomes hypersensitive to environments or situations that the rider may have had problems with in the past”.
The warning could be for fear of physical safety, but this part of the brain also detects emotional threats. Performance nerves might be picked out as such, in terms of not wanting to feel humiliated by doing badly or a threat of pressure from owners watching or a last chance to qualify for a competition. This emotional part of the brain will try and protect us from harm and initiate the fright, flight, freeze response if it senses we’re in danger. It’s then that we get a release of adrenalin and hormones which create the increased heart rate, clammy hands and butterflies that we associate with nerves.
It’s important to be able to manage this, as physical symptoms of anxiety have potential to affect your horse’s behaviour. Sarah Clark, Equine Behaviour Consultant, explains that a horse’s natural flight response (from the fear emotion which is a strong motivator in a prey animal) can be heightened because of rider/handler nerves and they can learn through conditioning to be scared of something that previously didn’t phase them.
“Horses are highly sociable, prey animals, whose survival in a natural setting depends on others in their herd. In the absence of a herd to depend on, your horse can instinctively look to you for confidence. As horses are highly sensitive they can feel tension from their rider, perhaps even an increased heart rate can be picked up on. This will turn on horse’s natural flight response more readily”.
Sarah estimates around 50- 60% of her clients experience some form of fear or anxiety around their horses’ challenging behaviour. Sometimes the behaviour comes first then the human fear gets established, and at other times it’s simple miscommunication of two different species living and working together.
Jo’s coaching centres on self awareness which usually begins with a number of unmounted sessions geared around finding out about the rider’s experiences and challenges that they’re facing.
“Quite often the belief or feeling the rider is having about a situation can be subconscious. So, a rider might say, ‘I feel sick before I go XC and I get tense’ but they won’t necessarily have understood what the emotional part of the brain is telling them. It’s unravelling what the rider is telling themselves about the situation and then starting to challenge it”
The emotional part of the human brain works very quickly and more so than the ‘intelligent’ part, the outer frontal cortex, where rational thinking happens. Consequently, we experience irrational, emotional thought processes first.
“What’s important to remember is that thoughts aren’t necessarily facts”, says Jo. “It’s about sitting down when you’re outside of the situation you’re worried about and starting to challenge those emotional brain thought processes”.
She questions whether worries are thought, fact or opinion. Are there positive experiences that challenge that thought? What advice would you give to a friend?
“Quite often people give a really confident answer to that which they haven’t thought to take themselves. And it sounds simple, but we talk through a list of more helpful thoughts to have in that situation”.
Jo teaches relaxation techniques to help tackle the physical tension that can upset horses. Breathing techniques, listening to music to relax and progressive muscle relaxation – an exercise where you tense different muscle groups and release them to release subtle tensions you often don’t realise you have. Mindfulness and body scans are important too. Thinking how your seat bones feel against the saddle, and how your legs feel against the horse’s sides are ways of noticing whether you have any tension and being mindful of the moment can make you more alert to what you and the horse are doing while letting some of the unhelpful thoughts pass by. Sarah Clark notes that a horse that was previously straightforward to handle, can become rude or seem aggressive in the hands of a nervous or apprehensive person.
For those experiencing such nerves she recommends riding/handling a straightforward and confident horse to build the rider’s confidence, or even taking a few private lessons at an advanced riding school.
“This can build mental confidence, remind the body how it feels to be confident with a horse, and also build ‘positive muscle memory’”.
A recent cause of anxiety in the equestrian world and hot topic of debate online is the notion of WOPT – what other people think, and a very common challenge presented to Jo in several ways.
“Social media can be a double-edged sword”, she says. “On Facebook or Twitter there can be a really supportive community, but then equally, a sense of everyone’s doing better than me and unhelpful comments so I suggest being careful what you post, who you listen to and who you surround yourself with”.
Other worries are of results going on the BE website after they’ve been eventing, about what people will say when they look up their records, or about letting down support teams in an expensive sport.
“Often the worries we project onto other people are our own though. If you’re worried of someone saying, ‘she’s bought that school master and she isn’t good enough to ride it, look how badly she’s doing compared to that last rider’, I question, ‘Is that your belief? What do you think about why you bought this horse and how you’re doing on it?’.
It’s useful for people to reflect on whether it’s their own concern, working through and challenging those thoughts. Then you can address what is needed to be confident, which varies from rider to rider. It might be what training is needed or to set new goals to get to where you want to be.
A fundamental aim for Jo’s performance and rider anxiety clients, is to be able to look at the situation with an altered perspective and to set the right goals. The aim might be qualifying for Badminton grassroots by needing a sub 30, double clear, but to achieve that ambition there needs to be a helpful focus in each stage of preparation, for example how prepared are in your warm up. This bears the importance of collaboration and homework.
“It might mean coming to see me in conjunction with having a decent trainer or support in the yard. If we’ve talked about positive imagery, even if it’s 10 minutes every day, they need to do their homework, so there’s commitment to it on all sides. It’s like any sports science therapy. You wouldn’t expect to go to a physio and be better straight away. You go a number of times and do your exercises. In the end it’s about making people so they’re not reliant on me. It’s not a one size fits all and my aim essentially is to make myself redundant so the rider becomes self sufficient and takes ownership of their confidence”.
Which is the crux of the matter. Having the confidence to enjoy your hobby and sport is paramount, so is understanding that no matter what the anxiety you’re dealing is, there are achievable physical and psychological solutions. Enabling yourself with new perspectives and achievable goals means you and your horse can continue to experience the joys that riding offers.
Jo Davies http://www.jdpsychology.co.uk
Sarah Clark https://helpwithhorsebehaviour.co.uk