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Confidence-Building Tips from an Equestrian Sports Psychologist

Flying over jumps, dancing in the sand–it’s the stuff of childhood dreams. Until you’re hanging on for dear life, and your dream is suddenly a nightmare.

Top image: HorseAndMan

“Too often, you’ve got a 40 year old’s checkbook and a 6 year old making the decisions,” as Dr. Jenny Susser put it.

She’s a sport psychologist who has helped everyone from Olympians trying to get a competitive edge to adult re-riders who want to build their confidence. But for all types of riders, she helps them to develop and practice psychological skills to reach their individual goals.

Managing Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are some of the most common issues among amateur riders—especially those coming back to riding after several years. Dr. Susser has a surprising take on managing those feelings:

“Overcoming fear is not possible,” she says, “Fear is a necessary survival response. So you really don’t want to overcome it. It would be like overcoming hunger.”

Instead, she differentiates between fear (a response to an actual threat) and anxiety (a response to a perceived threat). Of course, both fear and anxiety can feel the same—your chest tightens, your breath gets quicker, your thoughts start going in circles—and your horse picks up on it whether the threat is actually dangerous or not. So how can you manage anxiety so you can stay safe and happy in the barn?

For many fearful adults, problems often stem from the fact that horses are a dream come true…but that dream is not always based in reality. Ever heard someone say, “My horse loves me—he would never hurt me?” Doesn’t always end so well.

Dr. Susser explains, “If you were going to go scuba diving and you had never been in water, that’s not such a great decision. But there are many people who have never really trained a horse, yet decide to buy a three-year-old.”

Dr. Susser is a longtime Parelli student, and finds their concept of “emotional fitness” to be a useful concept for people who find themselves over their head in the horse world. She’s even partnered up with Parelli for a presentation on emotional fitness for both humans and horses.

“Emotional fitness comes in when you can start to build awareness of what builds anxiety for you. Let’s say I’m working with a woman who’s afraid of her horse,” Dr. Susser says, “She might say she’s not great at handling her horse on the ground, and of course that translates to the saddle. A lot of it is getting grounded in what her actual skill set contains. If you understand that, then you can make good , then better, and eventually excellent ideas. Safety comes from excellent decision making.”

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Flickr: Roger H. Goun/ CC

Just like working a weak muscle, progress to combat anxiety isn’t immediate. But little by little, when you repeatedly create opportunities for success, a rider can become emotionally and physically fit.

Not so different from good training for a horse!

The Competitive Edge
Now what about if you aren’t anxious around horses, but rather, you want to bring your competitive game to the next level?

“The thing that I see with very accomplished riders is that they’re so good at what they do that they don’t think about it anymore,” says Dr. Susser.

Competitive riders often benefit from practicing focus—which can be mentally exhausting!

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Flickr: Dominion Valley Pony Club/ CC

“Some of the research of cognition shows that most people can’t remain focused on something for more than 60 seconds. But focus is like a muscle, and you have to develop and maintain it.”

Brain games like Luminosity can help, as can focusing on a “thought script” when entering the show ring.

“You might spend hours in lessons practicing the physical aspect of your sport, but people don’t prepare mentally for stuff, and this is a huge part of mental fitness. Rather than thinking about how they will manage nerves on show day, people tend to just think about something else. It’s uncomfortable, so they avoid it. Then, when they get to the horse show and they’re jittery, they’re not prepared.”

The difference between a ride on “autopilot” and one where you’re totally in the moment, in sync with your horse, is like night and day.

“It’s like avoiding an uncomfortable conversation because it’s uncomfortable. We just have to learn to tolerate it…and the great thing is when you work on these mental skills for your riding, it all spills over positively to other parts of your life.”

Thanks for your insights, Dr. Susser!

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