Interesting how horses can look beautiful when they are on the edge of exploding. Granted, this is not the most flattering photo of me in the saddle, but it IS one of my favorite photos of my horse, Bear. The photo was taken in 2011 during a weekend of casual camping and participating in a timed obstacle-course competition. To say that Bear was pumped that day would be an understatement. I was worried about riding that much horse out into this big, open field of obstacles. The photo was taken as we rushed back to the finish line. It was like 95 degrees with 100% humidity. I was nervous, overheated, exhausted. It was all I could do to keep Bear together and not get completely out of control on our return run. The photo definitely captures a time when I felt nervous in the saddle. 🙂
I know I am not the only equestrian that struggles with their nerves while riding. As much as I absolutely love to ride, I still get nervous. I feel most alive, most electric, most vibrant when in the saddle. Yet I can get quite apprehensive at times too. Weird but true.
When we learn to ride, much of what we are taught focuses on the mechanics of riding. What we should do with our bodies. Less attention is often paid to the mental aspects of riding. What we should do with our thoughts, emotions and energy. It is often left to the rider to figure this out for themselves.
I know for me that when I start to feel nervous and then think about why I am nervous, that pattern takes me out of the present moment and out of my body. Thinking about those nerves takes my attention off my horse and what I need to be doing in that moment of my ride to help my horse.
It is really hard to stay with my horse when I am ruminating about my nerves and then jumping into the future imagining some disaster scenario. For me, the saddest part about rider nerves is when the horse gets blamed for spooky and anxious behavior that actually originates with that nervous rider.
Even if we are not a naturally relaxed and confident rider, we can still learn to channel our mind to refocus negative thoughts/emotions and increase positive ones.
One of my favorite techniques to help relax and refocus myself is to recognize when I am starting to feel nervous and then implement three proactive steps that bring me back into the present moment. Here’s an example. If I am riding and then I feel my stomach tighten, my heart rate rise or my body curl forward, I know that I am getting tense and need to implement my action steps.
My three proactive steps might change depending upon the horse I am riding or where I am riding (at home verses a show) but they often include
(1) Taking a deep breath where I breath into my belly ( and exhale too)
(2) Looking up and out between my horse’s ears
(3) Feeling the rhythm and hearing the sound of my horse’s hoofbeats.
Other ideas are to make sure I can see my horse’s inside eyelashes as we are going around the ring (aiming for correct bend in the arena). I might also check in with my body to address some of my less than helpful habits such as seeing if I need to bend my elbows, roll my shoulders back or point my toes forward. I might remind myself to smile.
I’ll go through this pattern every time my nerves come into my awareness, as often as I need to during my ride, until I forget about my nerves and refocus on what my horse and I are physically doing in the present moment.
If I can’t seem to refocus and the nerves stay, I take that as a sign that I need to slow down. Maybe change the activity. Maybe ask for some help. Remember, nerves CAN be useful in keeping us out of dangerous situations.
We riders have to regularly practice discernment in figuring out when we should proceed with an activity while simultaneously managing our nerves VERSES using our nerves as a sign that we need to stop and change course.
I know this can be tricky as all horse activities carry an element of danger just by the very size, strength and nature of the horse. It can be a journey to try to mitigate the dangers and yet also make peace with a certain amount of risk inherent with horses.
I try to do all this in a spirit of positivity. With a spirit of generosity towards myself. Some of us will never be the bold riders that we would otherwise like to be. We just aren’t’ wired that way. I know I am not. I feel sad about this, but I also don’t want to beat myself up about it.
Even with nerves, I still think we can be successful riders with the right type of the horse in a suitable discipline, surrounded by the right type of support. We can still enjoy the ride.
How about you? Do you struggle with nerves while riding? What are your favorite ways to cope?