Are you stressed? Do worries about your ride, fears of falling, or does angst about other parts of your life burden you as you step into the irons? If so, you’re like almost every one of my riders. Especially now, in these unprecedented times, everyone is struggling with stress and anxiety, both in and out of the saddle.
Not so fun fact #1: If your mind is burdened and tense, then your body is too. We hold emotions in our body, and anxiety makes us tight and closed.
Not so fun fact #2: If you’re burdened and tense, your horse feels it too.
Not so fun fact #3: Stressed mind and tense bodies, in both horse and rider, do not set the stage for optimal performance.
Needless to say, we need to do our best to leave tension, anxiety, and worry at the stable gate, or at least in our tack trunk, while we ride. The goal is to be present, grounded and focused for our rides, not anxious and filled with tension. Most of all, we don’t want to ask our horses to feel unnecessary stress.
Here are some tried and true strategies to help both your mind AND your body relax and engage. You can do them on the ground before your ride and even continue once you get on. I recommend, however, that if you are feeling really tense and preoccupied, that you address those feelings before you jump in the saddle.
You’ve heard it many times before, but relaxation breathing is quick, easy, and effective. It’s the best way I know to take the edge off fast — any time and anywhere. My favorite is 4-2-6 breathing, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and gives me a quick way to calm and center myself. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts. Hold for 2 counts, then release your breath out of your mouth for 6 counts. Repeat 3-4 times.
While you’re doing your 4-2-6 breathing, feel the ground underneath your feet and pay exquisite attention to where you are in present time. Follow your breath in and out. With each cycle, set the intention to drop all the mental chatter. Feel yourself getting heavier, deeper into the ground. Allow gravity to help you.
As you do the two exercises above, call yourself into the present. Notice the sounds, smells, and sights around you. Let all other thoughts in the front of your brain drop to the ground as you gently guide yourself back to the here and now. If you’re in the saddle, be deliberate about connecting with your horse—physically and mentally. If you need help, put your hand on his shoulder and feel the movement of his walk. Touch him, and be focused on connecting with his heart and opening yourself to clear communication with him.
Don’t forget that our fears and anxieties, communicated through our bodies, suggest to our horses that there is something to be worried about. And, our distraction or preoccupation with worries leaves them alone, without support. In this fearful state, it’s unlikely that your horse will be able to focus on the job at hand, much less do it well.
Tip: Use your grooming time as a grounding, meditative, and connecting time for you and your horse. Steer away from your phone and barn gossip that interferes with your state of mind and connection with your horse.
Notice that these three steps are both mental/emotional and physical. Breathing relaxes and energizes both mind and body. Grounding calms and centers the mind, and also brings your mind in connection with your body. Engaging is both a mental/ emotional state but also a way to energize the body and get it ready for performance. I am sure you can recall a feeling of being super focused and energized on a ride— right? That is the state we aim to cultivate in every ride, but we can only achieve that clarity and energy if we clear out the static of stress and worry.
Remember, there is no separating mind and body in sport. And, that is true for both horse and rider!
Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. We are thrilled to include this ongoing element in our publication to help riders improve in all aspects of the sport.
Learn more about Darby Bonomi and how she might help you and your riding at: www.darbybonomi.com