What do you do when you’re terrified of what you love?
Seana Adamson, Ph.D, is a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians and also is a USDF Gold Medalist. Click the #equishrink hashtag above to see more of her columns!
I just read your article on Horse Nation and thought I would ask your advice since you are the “EquiShrink.” I am suffering from some pretty severe PTSD — not from one event like a fall, but from the behavior of my previous horse. She was extremely unpredictable and scared of many objects that passed us while riding: baby strollers, small dogs, people with wagons, people with umbrellas, tarps, skateboards, trucks, etc. My arena is on a residential street so anything could pass by at any time. I tried for 4 years to help her overcome these issues to no avail. Every ride was a “white knuckle” ride, and I forced myself on her. When she was good, she was really good: smooth gaits, fabulous transitions, etc. But when something unpredictable would come by, she would either bolt or shy.
I loved her so much but finally cut my losses and moved on to a new mare who is young, but grounded. I’ve been desensitizing her to tarps, tractors, boards, dogs and everything I can find, and she could care less. Unfortunately, I am still nervous to ride in the arena since becoming so aware of everything that could scare us, even though new mare most likely doesn’t care. Before I know I am going to ride, I get nervous and my body starts taking over: butterflies in my stomach, shortened breath, increased heart rate, and so on. But this is not the same horse! What can I do to help combat these anxious feelings on this new mare? I know she can tell and I’m sure its inhibiting our growth. I get annoyed with myself about it and just want riding to be enjoyable again.
Thanks! Sick of PTSD
Dear Sick of PTSD,
I’m glad to hear that you have cut your losses, as hard as it must have been to sell your spooky mare. It is so heartbreaking when a horse you love does not work out, but to continue tolerating unreliable or dangerous behavior is like choosing to stay in an abusive relationship. There is a terrible price to pay. Still, I must compliment you on the grit you demonstrated by staying with your old horse for so long. It sounds like you gave it every chance to work. This kind of determination bodes well for your success in the future with a more compatible partner.
To better understand your Post-Traumatic Stress it helps to understand how your logical thinking brain works with your nervous system. It’s almost like we have two different minds. The logical thinking mind is the part we are all very familiar with. It is responsible for forming language, solving math problems and deciding which route to take home when the traffic is bad.
Our second mind, the nervous system, keeps the body up and running appropriately despite all the crazy stuff the logical mind puts it through. It tells the heart when to speed up or slow down; it is also your own personal in-house alarm system that sends out warning jolts at any sign of danger. If it had a voice it would probably say stuff like “Oh no! Here comes a bunch more Doritos and chocolate!”, or “Ok, Fight or Flight systems get ready. She’s heading out to ride that 1000-pound furry creature that devours carrots one moment and tries to turn us into a lawn dart the next moment. Clearly these creatures cannot be trusted! Start sending out some warning signals. Let’s start with shallow breath and increased heart rate. If she doesn’t respond we’ll proceed to numb lips and finger tips. If we get desperate we’ll go to hyperventilation and then we can shut down all signals to the logical brain. All systems get ready to go primal!!”
Your nervous system had four years to learn that horses can be terrifying. Now it needs to relearn the fun and joy that can come with a successful horse relationship. Part of the difficulty is that your nervous system is right: any horse can be dangerous. Horses are big and powerful and it is good to stay vigilant around them. Finding a balance between carelessness and terror is a difficult task. Learn to hold a relaxed awareness when you’re working with horses. Monitoring the relaxation in your body will help assure your nervous system that there is no danger, but staying aware and present in the moment will also allow you to notice potential problems before they occur. So no distracted rushing around, thinking about the work you just left or the dinner you’re going to cook tonight. Stay present and mindful.
You have already shown that you have great grit and determination. So now you can apply that grit to rewiring your nervous system. This is the fun part because now it’s all about getting more in touch with your body and remembering joy! Here are a couple of ideas to help you on your way.
Learn to relax. You have spent the last four years unintentionally training tension, so now you need to do some intentional relaxation training. Here’s an audio recording that will guide you into a deep state of relaxation:
When you go through a relaxation routine, think of the relaxation reflex as a muscle that you must train. Through practice relaxation will become a more familiar state, and you will become more capable of untying the knot of anxiety that comes with fear. Look for other sources of anxiety in your life. Did you drink too much coffee, or forget to eat? How well are you sleeping? Fear can be triggered much more easily if we are tired or wired.
When you feel your nervous system starting to get excited, use deep diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing signals to the nervous system that all is well. Here’s an audio recording on basic breathing techniques:
When you start feeling butterflies use long slow deep breaths. Many horses will tune into the sound of your breath and will relax if they hear a long, slow exhale.
Communicate with your nervous system through imagery. Imagine your spinal cord is the trunk of a tree with branches extending out into arms and legs. Imagine the whole tree relaxing its branches. Imagine the trunk of the tree, your spinal cord, becoming rounder and softer. Breathe inward and imagine your spinal cord filling up with soft energy, exhale and imagine relaxing all of the branches of nerves in your arms and legs. When you feel butterflies in your stomach you may not be able to completely get rid of them, but you might be able to get those butterflies to fly in formation. Intentional, positive thinking is a powerful way to signal to your nervous system that all is well.
Set yourself up for success. Until you get to know your new horse, find an arena where you feel more comfortable. Move to a safer facility for a month, skip the super windy day, and guard the quality of your experiences every day. To begin rebuilding your confidence you need to string together a series of successful experiences. A good knowledgeable friend or a kind trainer can be super helpful here. A bad trainer who scolds or humiliates you can be super damaging. Choose your experiences wisely in order to take care of yourself.
When you start to feel anxious, first check your surroundings and make sure there is nothing dangerous going on. Assuming there is no obvious threat then focus on your breath. Inhale and elongate your exhale. Now tap into your inner prosecuting attorney and argue with your fear. Tell your anxiety all about the love and joy you feel when you ride, and that you’d like it to adjust its warning system to be less sensitive.
Come to each day’s ride with a plan. Have an arsenal of school figures, patterns and exercises to work on. By using geometry you will help your mind, and your horse’s mind, stay on task and focused on the positive.
Give it time. Good experiences must be layered on top of each other over many days or weeks before rewiring gets strong. Build a multi-layered cake of good experiences.
If your symptoms persist despite diligent relaxation training then seek out a therapist in your area who specializes in treating trauma. They may work with modalities such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), Energy Therapy or Hypnosis. I also do telephone consultations for those who need more specific, personalized help.
In the end, remember that all you have to do is shift your attention from “What is out there that’s scary” to “What do I want to accomplish in my training at this moment?” You have true grit, so keep your focus and you will find your joy again.
Have a question for Seana regarding your mental game? Send it her way!
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.