Getting back in the saddle; How to take back the psychological reins!

This week has been ‘one of those’ weeks for me.

I have recently returned to horse-riding, dusting off my boots after 10 years of virtual dormancy save for the odd casual trek here and there.

As a young rider, I was fearless, competitive and brave – all of the requisite hallmarks for a progressive rider. I was confident in my ability and I never shied away from a challenge. On the inevitable occasion where things didn’t go as planned, I dusted myself off, hopped back in the saddle and powered on, all the more determined for the mishap.

As an adult rider, I am astonished at how my ‘riding personality’ is utterly polarised from that of my younger self. I am cautious, self-conscious and (arguably) overly self-critical. I was always a careful, diligent and respectful rider in my youth, yet I the confidence in my ability was strong and rarely wavered. Now, my default mindset is self-doubt and a confidence deficit.

Horses, being the majestic, clever, intuitive creatures that they are, are acutely attuned to our emotions. Even though we may be able to thinly veil our fears and doubts from other riders and instructors, there is no chance of blinkering a horse to the underlying emotional reality.

This fear has translated to my riding performance. As a result, I find myself in a negative loop whereby the fear is causing a disconnect between myself and my mount, which has resulted in a situation where the horse, picking up on these emotions and nervous energy, is acting on this psychic charge and running with it – quite literally. Due to my dip in confidence, my skills and capabilities as a rider are being blunted, and I am not asserting myself as a rider. After the initial incidence, the fears bubbling under the surface were effectively validated. This in turn caused a downward spiral whereby my fears and anxieties began to escalate, and the next day, the same issue occurred once again, reinforcing the issue and compounding my nervous energy ten fold. And so the cycle has continued for the past three days – just yesterday in front of an arena of fellow riders, all witness to my ill-controlled jaunts and rushed catapult over the simple combinations.

So, what to do? Dismount and hang up my hat?

No chance.

Fighting back the sting of embarrassment, and admittedly a bruised ego, I tried again. Same result. And again. Same result. AND AGAIN.

Each time I tried and failed. Each time I bit my lip and fought to crush the butterflies and snakes of fear and shame rising from the pit of my stomach up through my chest. Each go-round chipped and gnawed that little bit more at my radically diminished self-belief and what was left of my tattered confidence.

As I untacked my not-so-trusty steed, sympathetic nods and supportive words passed from my fellow riders, my spirit pooled in my boots. I had tried so hard, I had showed up, I had refused to give in to fear and doubt and embarrassment.

And yet, and yet.

After I got home, I began to approach the situation with a fresh mindset. Rather than wallow in my defeat, I decided to take a step back and view this from the perspective as if this were a challenge presented by a client. What advice would I offer?

I contemplated what I know of Goal-Setting Theory, Deliberate Practise, Grit and Growth Mindset. I thought of the application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, of negative thoughts, of breathing exercises and of visualisation. I thought on the complexity, reach and impact of our psychological meanderings on our behavioural outputs. When I reframed my equestrian challenges in the context of this knowledge, the emotional charge began to mellow and the obstruction to rationality began to dissipate.

I began to consider the fact that this problem, of the horse running with me and my relative inability to control the situation effectively, has only become an issue this week. Prior to this, in the weeks I have been riding since returning to the sport, I have not experienced this issue at all. I began to tease this out and accept that perhaps my equestrian excitation may perhaps be a manifestation of nervous energy stemming from outside sources, adapting and translating to other areas of my life, namely my riding technique/confidence. It is true that animals, and particularly horses, are incredibly sensitive to such energies, and this subconscious transference has resulted in an embodiment of challenges arising in a different ‘arena’ to that from which it stems (pun wholly intended, no apologies!). This got me thinking about my work with clients, and how in many instances, the issue as presented is merely the surface value of what is really going on, and as we delve into the challenges at hand, the intrinsic root of those issues can often be far reaching and oftentimes stem from covert or unacknowledged places.

I began also to break down the cycle of events, much akin to the ‘Hot Cross Bun’ Five Aspects Model developed by Padesky (1986). Identifying the manner in which I was processing these incidents and how I was ultimately managing my reactions was insightful. I teased out some integral issues that were contributing to the recurring cycle which had been established, namely my self-admonishment following an incident and thereafter my negative biases and visualisation preceding the subsequent attempts. Though I was persevering insofar as making another go at the exercise, I realised that my mental preparation for these subsequent attempts were seriously lacking, and proving detrimental to the process. I have simply been repeating the same action without making any alterations to the approach. As Albert Einstein is attributed as sagely positing, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’. I realised that where visualisation is an integral part of success, so too it can be the pivot of ones downfall when used, subconsciously so in this case, adversely. I had been picturing things going wrong before I had even started. I have been replaying the negative sequences over and over in my mind so that these unfavourable outcomes had taken root. I also identified that my goal had moved from completing the technical exercise successfully to simply ‘not falling off’ or ‘surviving’ through the attempt. My focus had been utterly sullied and my performance was suffering as a result.

I have decided that over the next week, I will be placing particular emphasis on positive visualisation and focused, specific goal-setting in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing (see my last article for more on this!) and working on those outside psychological factors feeding into my confidence levels in all areas.

Sometimes, we just need to step outside of ourselves a little to gain the perspective we need to adjust, recalibrate and dive back in with a fresh mindset!