3 Calm Down Techniques for Riders
It's showtime. There are people watching. Your pulse is racing, you feel tense, and your horse is tight because you are. That sexy hairnet is't helping. What can you do?
Don't worry, you aren't special. This happens to all of us. But if you want to move through your blocks and onward towards your riding goals, here are some very simplified tips that have helped me and my clients get through the shakey shakes, tense joints, and terror of riding in front of other people (and horses).
Last minute fix:
Just inhale, exhale, and notice where you are at. Is your breath stuck in your throat? Your chest? Imagine the breath flowing below your belly button. Imagine each inhale fills you with clear, cool, fresh calmness. Imagine with each exhale you are pushing out anxiety, tension, and fear.
In preparation/months/weeks/days before showing:
Practice some simple pranayama (breath exercises) to tone and strengthen your breath. The above exercise, every day, will help greatly. You can also practice alternate nostril breath and other pranayama exercises.
You can also balance counting: Inhale for 1, 2, 3, 4; Exhale 1, 2, 3, 4. Or whatever count you find sits best with your breathing. While you groom your horse practice inhaling and exhaling with awareness. While driving, eating, talking. There is not a wrong time to try noticing where your breath is and asking it to relax and go deeper into your body.
Imagine smooth cool air smoothing out tension, imagine your breath as water pouring into your body, imagine healing coming in, and what is not serving you leaving.
When you get really practiced you can rhythm breathe while your are riding, timing your inhales and exhales with the rhythm and tempos of each gait. Inhale to prepare for a movement, exhale to execute the movement.
2. Become Aware.
Notice how you are feeling inside your body, what is going on around you, and take in all the details. See if you can do so without reacting to any stimuli (don't worry if you mess it up--this takes a lifetime! That's why we call it a "practice.").
If you are scared, do not tell yourself not to be scared, just be scared. Notice what that feels like and where in your body you feel it. You take layers of pressure off of yourself and begin the healing process when you just NOTICE WHERE YOU ARE AT in that moment. Breathe into the scared feeling, using the techniques mentioned above.
Then put that scared feeling to work! Tension can be sent downwards to help you ground and get the weight into your lower leg and seat. Anxiety can be put towards balancing energy. Thank these feelings for showing you what you need to work on, then find a place in your body that needs help and send it there! For instance, my thought pattern goes something like, "Hello nervous increased heart rate and tense feeling in my hands! (deep breath, helping to release feelings). Let's put you to work in remembering to keep my elbows in, my shoulders back, and my eyes up." (Or insert whatever mistakes your trainer repeats to you like a broken record).
Be aware of where your horse is/how your horse is feeling. Maybe you feel calm, but your horse's reaction to stimuli is starting to throw tension your way. See if you can "breathe for the both of you."
Don't shame your horse for reacting, or try to rationalize with your horse. I've heard so many people (myself included) say to their horse, "But you've seen that thing like 500 times, why spook now?!" Don't spend your energy rationalizing why your horse is scared, just be aware that they are, and move on from there. Validate the horse's feelings and sing your horse the "It's OK" song. Something like, "You are scared! It's ok, you're ok, it's ok." The horse will respond to you working to shift the tension for the both of you. If you can and need to, it's ok to dismount and start over, breathing for two. If you can't dismount, sing the it's ok song and make calm little circles (even if they don't start off calm!). Be AWARE of the reactions in your body to the reactions of your horse's body. If you feel your heart rate increase, breathe into the feeling, and just be present.
3. Focus on What you DO Want
You've taken your calm, deep, aware breaths, so now what? The booger bears might still be there once I have practiced breathing and being present but now need to ride my test, my course, or a new horse in front of a prospective client. If I focus on what I don't want, whatever it is that I don't want will be amplified. If I focus on what I do want, I will increase my chance of success!
The most obvious example is of a rider going to a fence. This rider might be thinking, "I hope he doesn't run out, I hope she doesn't spook, I hope he doesn't stop" or even more poignant "He's totally going to run out, she's totally going to stop I know it!!" There's a chance your saint of a horse might pack you over the fence anyway. Give this horse a carrot, lots of grass, and tons of pats and gratitude.
But if you want to get better and increase the pattern of positive thinking in your riding, switch the thoughts to "We are going over this fence. We are one. I believe in us. There's the line, right over the middle, we are going!" Tell your horse and your mind what you DO want instead of what you don't want. The horse will hear you. If you are thinking "I hope we don't run out" all the horse hears is "Run out? OK!!" If you are thinking "we are GOING OVER!" The horse hears "Going Over!! Ok!!"
Of course other variables in my jumping example might be experience of the rider, training of the horse, effectiveness of that horse/rider pair, etc. If you are trying to start your 4 year old warmblood over 4 foot fences using only positive thinking and no proper groundwork, training, etc., simply thinking positive won't work.
This also works with worry about judges, patterns, audience opinions, etc. You might be worried about what others think, and the negative thoughts can act like downward spiral magnets until you enter the ring feeling like a lump that has no business being on any horses back. But if you try thinking and focusing on how you WANT to feel, and allowing a little shift to occur, and you can do the heavy work of staying in that lighter place, the positivity will reproduce inside your mind and you might enter the arena with a huge grin, glowing because you see how lucky you are just to be riding a horse!! You might not be able to access feelings of the last time you felt happy on a horse. That's ok! Think of something, anything that made you even a little happy, no matter how trivial, and focus on that. If positive focus doesn't work, you just need to practice it more.
Don't expect these things to work without work on your part. This isn't an app you can just upload into your being. Just thinking about your breath helps, but going into practice with it for months is what makes it an effective tool. If you find you just can't find positivity on your own, do some homework, call a life coach, hang out with positive horse people who you look up to.
Horses are so forgiving, the one you ride will be tickled that you are even trying and won't demand perfection from you overnight. If you are still having trouble shifting, just hang out with your horse, or go watch little kids riding, or put on some good old horse movies. Tap into why you got into horses in the first place. Horses love a good hangout session, especially if it involves grass eating and favorite-place scratching. Start to notice if your horse gives a releasing breath after you have let go of your own breath, while grooming/hanging out or riding. Horses are simply happy when the humans remember to breathe, be aware, and lighten up.
The Infinite Equestrian
About the Author: Mindy Wiper is a Houston based Rider/Trainer/Instructor/Life Coach who also teaches Equestrian Yoga. Check out www.infiniteequestrian.com for more info and to book barn yoga, a lesson, coaching session, or clinic!