Ask the Equishrink: Why Sports Psychology for Equestrians?

We’re excited to introduce a new column by Seana Adamson Ph.D, a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians and USDF Gold Medalist.

Have a question for Seana regarding your mental game? Send it her way!
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Seana and her horse Eragon. Photo by Morgane Schmidt.

Psychologically speaking, equestrian activities are pretty sketchy. I mean, what paleo person came up with this great idea? “Hey Gork, see that giant creature that runs really fast and bucks really hard? I’m going to go get on its back and make it prance around in little circles, never mind that it weighs like 10 times as much as me….” Maybe that’s what happened to the Neanderthals. Time goes on and evolution winds its convoluted path. Now Sport Psychologists consider the equestrian sports to be some of the most difficult of all competitive sports because of the unpredictability of our “equipment” (the horse). How demoralizing would it be for tennis super star Novak Djokovic if suddenly his racket decided that it didn’t want to leave the locker room? How would Tiger Woods feel if suddenly his putter decided it was afraid of the ball? Actually that did sort of happen last week….

That lack of control and unpredictability can make for all sorts of challenges and rewards. Today I rode a client’s horse who was working in a new venue for the first time in years. I predicted he would be a hooligan but in fact he was total trooper. The bonds of training and trust held up despite the stress of the new situation. Or perhaps because of it. This is an example of one of the things that Sport Psychology can help you do: build healthy relationships with the horses and the people surrounding you. That in itself can be a lifetime of learning!

Here are some more ways Sport Psychology can make a difference.

Fear And Anxiety

The most common reason people seek my services is because of lingering fear and anxiety following a fall and/or injury. This can be emotionally exhausting because while you love your horse and want nothing more than to have fun again, the primitive parts of the brain are on red alert and are intent on reminding you that you might die, at any moment, in a really brutal way. Fortunately there are many ways to work through this fear. For some it can resolve very quickly, others have to delve a little deeper.

Performance Anxiety

Do you ever feel so nervous that it interferes with your ability to concentrate? This is called performance anxiety and it is a very common occurrence in athletes of all sports. Do you leave your best performance at home? Does your body feel like a stranger the moment you enter the competition arena? There are strategies for working through this type of experience. For many people it is as simple as repetition and competitive experience, for others there may be patterns of self-talk, self-esteem issues, or family or origin coping styles that are getting in your way.

Improving Communication

Effective communication with your equine partner is what makes the whole partnership work.  This means we have to speak clearly when expressing our training goals, and it also means we have to listen carefully to how the horse responds, both mentally and physically.  A good trainer is an effective communicator, and a good listener will notice quickly if the horse is sore, depressed, stressed, or just naughty!  Horses are labor intensive and often there is a network of caretakers that must be involved to take care of all the, uh, poop.  Whether it’s your trainer, the barn manager, the groom, or your next-door neighbor a lack of trust or warmth in the relationship can make the whole experience a drag. Even a human stable mate who is depressed or angry can impact the energy of the whole barn and turn your haven into a hot mess. Often the solution is some sort of communication. But even the best of us can have trouble coming up with the best thing to say.

These are just a few of the common areas where Sport Psychology can be useful for equestrians. In this column you can Ask The EquiShrink for advice on any of your horse related problems. I will do my best to offer some reasonably coherent solutions, or to find someone who can. You can email your questions to me directly at [email protected]

Seana Adamson Ph.D, is a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians. She is a United States Dressage Federation Gold Medalist, has been training dressage horses and riders for over 30 years, and is the author of “Memorize That Dressage Test: A workbook of mental games to improve focus and flow.” Learn more by visiting seanaadamson.com.

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