Spooky horses can erode our confidence as riders, especially after a bad experience. We get nervous, the horse gets tense and it can derail the most well-planned de-spooking program. Don’t we all wish we were as cool under pressure as Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who carefully landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009, saving 155 passengers from a sure crash when the engines failed? What was his secret? What made him able to function so effectively in an emergency? Was he simply not frightened?

In a CBS 60 Minutes interview, Sullenberger was quoted as saying that in the moments before the crash he experienced “the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling.” So, he certainly experienced fear. How did he manage to overcome it? Speaking with news anchor Katie Couric, he said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15th, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” In other words, his competence was a combination of his rigorous Air Force training, his familiarity with safety procedures as an accident investigator, and his many hours of flight experience.

As riders, we must also educate ourselves and gain experience in order to be mentally flexible under duress. We must also have our safety procedures in place and a plan to deal with surprises.

Banking Experience

None of us should ever stop adding to that bank of experience, but simply logging hours in the saddle isn’t quite enough, either. It needs to be the right kind of experience. Dr. Shelley Goodwin (M.A., R. Psych.), of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia said, “Freezing is a physiological response to fear. This is a basic human response that supersedes cognitive processing.” To overcome this, she suggests that we build our muscle memory for desired responses. Repeatedly practicing emergency procedures and good habits will enable us to deal with brain-freeze. “If we have good solid basics – leg position, seat, hand and body position, this is what we are likely to maintain in the fear situation – or quickly return to.

“If we practice, and this includes reviewing strategies of “if this happens, I do this” such as “put your horse in a circle when he is getting strong or a bit out of control” in the practice ring then when this happens on the trail or at a show, we are most likely to respond in the way we have practiced in the ring.”

If you have developed some counter-productive habits, such as tightening the reins, consider this learning technique. Tell yourself not what you want to stop doing, or what not to do, but rather what you want to do. Here is an example: Rather than telling yourself “don’t raise your hands” or “don’t grab at the reins,” find your desired hand position and practice returning them over and over again to that spot. It helps if you can determine a visual or physical marker that means they are in the right place. Putting a small piece of tape or braiding elastic in the horse’s mane that you want your hands over is one option. To practice, swing your hands up to your chest then back to the sweet spot over and over. Keep your reins long, so you aren’t jabbing your horse in the mouth.

Similarly, you can address the familiar defensive position that we can slide into when nervous – collapsing the upper body, bracing in the stirrups and clamping with the legs. This position is not an effective one for riding, since you can’t properly apply the aids, and telegraphs to the horse that you are panicking. Develop the ability to quickly assume a stable, alert riding position by practicing diaphragmatic breathing (see July/August Horse-Canada) and strengthen your rhomboids (the muscles mainly responsible for retracting your shoulder blades) by rolling your shoulders towards your ears (where they want to go when you are stressed) and then down and back. Replace the ineffective muscle memory with more effective muscle memory and good habits.

Be a Boy Scout

Be prepared. Gather the necessary equipment for your ride. Wearing the right gear such as boots with heels, bringing a cell phone, packing a first aid kit and wearing a helmet and other safety equipment such as vests will reduce the risk should the worst happen and you get dumped. By reducing your level of risk, you increase your confidence about handling any situation.

Have a plan. If you are heading out on a ride, plan what you will do in case of problems. Use the lessons you have learned in the previous instalments in this series. Scary water crossing up ahead? Try circling, letting the horse investigate or plan a route around it until you can ride it with a buddy. Crossing a busy street? Dismount and lead your horse across. Nervous about the flapping flags at the horse show? Arrive early and lunge your horse near them or practice your shoulder-in or side passes until he is able to dismiss them.

Pay attention. If you are riding a spooky horse, pay good attention to your surroundings and your horse. Is there a flock of ducks on the pond up ahead that might fly off as you approach? Don’t wait for the spook to happen. Instead take proactive action. Go around, dismount or send another rider ahead while you are still well back. Is your horse tensing up even though you don’t see a threat? Put him to work and get his mind back on you. More than any other horse, a spooky horse is dependant on on you to help him be confident. You must be prepared to address every situation and keep your horse safe.

Learn to Love Your Adrenal Glands

Adrenalin (or epinephrine) is a powerful hormone released by the body in response to a threat. It causes our heart and respiration rates to increase and we may feel ill or jittery as the blood is redirected to our lungs and muscles from other areas. These are involuntary responses that produce the ability to fight or flee the threat. In fact, they make you stronger, faster and more alert. Elite athletes learn to use this energy or “adrenalin rush” to pump themselves up for a performance. The same adrenaline response is what makes activities like roller coasters and scary movies fun. You can use it too!

So why does the same physical reaction thrill some and paralyze others? Goodwin explained that “the difference lies in the level of confidence and experience. Often those who feel demotivated by challenges have been previously over-faced by circumstances. Understandably, they have learned from these experiences that when they feel this adrenalin rush it is scary and [dangerous] and then they lack the confidence to take on the challenge. Those of us who have been gently and kindly challenged by circumstance and events just beyond our comfort level, and yet within our skill level, feel more confident and, in turn, excited by the next challenge as we see it. In other words, we cognitively process it as an opportunity to challenge ourselves and have success. We see the possibility of success where those who feel de-motivated do not. Thus, we get excited by the opportunity.”

There are plenty of techniques for turning around our perception of this kind of stress, including positive self-talk, deep breathing exercises, positive visualization and “confidence training.” In her book, Build Complete Confidence with Horses, author Kelly Marks calls one confidence building exercise “Flip it Round.” She suggests writing down the facts of a positive experience, one with a successful outcome, then pick out as many as possible that were the result of your own actions. Keep this list handy and add to it as events occur. This way you will build up a list of personal reasons for success that you can refer to when your confidence is wobbling.

When something goes wrong, instead of focusing on your faults, spend at least half your time identifying contributory factors that were beyond your control. The main goal is to restore some balance to your self-image rather than blaming yourself or bad luck, depending on which erodes your confidence the most. You shouldn’t deny all responsibility – taking responsibility gives you the power to change what you do – but it is not helpful if you have a defeatist attitude from the start. You should acknowledge any positive abilities you bring to the table.

Marks also wisely suggests that you “don’t wait until you’ve won the Olympics to celebrate your successes; try to find something to appreciate in your horse and yourself every day.” Don’t let the memories of bad experiences blot out the good ones. This type of thinking is habitual and you can change it.

Similarly, we can develop inner conversations that are negative and self-damning. A common technique to circumvent this habit is to think up some personal affirmations. An example could be, “I am improving as a rider. Every day I am learning something new” or “I will ride up that hill today. I am ready, my horse is ready.” This will take some practice, but will eventually become your default mode. It will hardly take any effort to replace a negative thought with a positive one.

Goodwin recommends talking out your concerns with a confidant, friend or coach. Sometimes, verbalizing your fears and discussing your plans to improve can bring clarity and a sense of control rather than panic. And, from your discussions you may be able to develop some effective affirmations and strategies that will help you stay calm and focused in times of crisis. Be your own Sullenberger.

Tips for Building Confidence

Goodwin suggests the following tips for recovery after a serious spook or fall that has created far in you:

  1. Ride only when you are fresh and alert. Fatigue can contribute to sluggish thinking and actions.
  2. Go back to your groundwork to get your horse focused and get out any kinks.
  3. If you are not mentally prepared for a ride, either spend time with your horse in other ways or de-stress through exercise, a nap or other pleasant activity beforehand.
  4. Choose your safest mount for the next few rides or head out on a friend’s old campaigner. Ensure that you get plenty of positive experiences to outweigh the bad.
  5. Plan a less challenging ride for the first few times, not the most risky trail, the local parade or a course of monster jumps.
  6. Take a lesson with a coach or other mentor that has been told you are having confidence issues and has the experience to understand nerves.
  7. Do just enough that you feel challenged without feeling paralyzing fear.
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