“Negative emotions are the equivalent of horse-eating dragons for those of us who hate conflict. Whenever I feel a negative emotion coming on, my first instinct is to flee – to the pantry.”
Sometimes I am amazed at the similarities between humans and horses. If a horse feels stressed, anxious, or fearful (cue all the horse-eating plastic bag comics!) that animal will get tense and unfocused, and perhaps spook or worse. “Fight or flight” is the name of the survival game.
When under emotional stress, humans, likewise, figure out ways to fight or flee. For me, “flee” was always my default. And my “flee” took the form of snarfing the nearest fat- and sugar-laden food I could find. Dopamine release, I need you.
As one progresses in one’s horsewomanship, one is taught to handle an anxious or distracted horse in this way: “Ride him forward! Use light half-halts for focus, and ride him forward!” (hat tip to Eliza Sydnor Romm). Why forward? Why add more energy to a horse who is already about to jump out of his skin?
Because a horse focused on moving forward has little time to boo at the horse-eating dragons that live all around the arena or on the trail. Also, when we riders remain calm and focused and give our horse a job to do, a la “forward with focus, ” our riding partner is going to sense our calm command of the situation and settle right back down to – you guessed it – moving forward and focused.
Major life changes like divorce demand time and attention that most of us would rather invest elsewhere. This past winter, I have dealt with a good bit of stress and change and sadness and “all the things.” The rainy spring has been conducive to reflection and finding peace and closure, which is good; looking backwards for too long, however, is counterproductive.
Humans need other humans to help us through the stressful times, the anxious times, the fearful times. I am blessed with friends and family who have supported me these past few months, including many of you readers, and I am grateful for each kind word, believe me.
My life coach, Katrina, has been instrumental in encouraging me to “focus and move forward.” While lessons learned bring wisdom, regret has no place in one’s future. And dwelling on past sadness depletes any possible happiness in the “now.”
So! Like any true horseperson, I turned to my dear mustang for solace, comfort, and to rediscover my purpose – my own reason to refocus on the here and now and move forward.
Kaliwohi could not care less if he’s ever ridden again, frankly. He loves to nap. He loves to eat. He doesn’t love to sweat. He is far more “whoa” than “go.” But he is a young horse with a metabolic tendency towards obesity and I want my mustang to stay healthy and vibrant for his entire lifetime. And that means he needs to sweat.
So do I.
Along with being a great detox for the body, sweat is good for the soul. Riding with focus requires 100% of our mind and body. So, while in the saddle, there are no available brain cells left to mope, rehash, or otherwise be unproductive. If we are giving our riding partner 100%, we are constantly evaluating the dozens of things going on with each stride and asking ourselves, “how can we do better?” “How can I more clearly communicate to my horse?” “Did I reward him quickly enough, or could my release timing be better?”
These days, Kaliwohi is working on being more forward. I am starting to ask him to engage his hind end more and be more aerobic in his workouts. As this week’s photographs illustrate, Kaliwohi is giving me his best efforts.
As I reflect on his progress, and begin to refocus on moving forward again on my weight-loss journey, I find it helpful to invest some time in similar questions about my own behaviors regarding food. “How can I do better?” “How can I more clearly communicate to others – so I no longer ‘flee’ conflict or other emotional stress via food?” “Do I reward myself quickly enough with non-food rewards, or could my self-reward system be better?” “Am I spending too much time metaphorically looking around or behind me; if so, how can I refocus and re-energize myself?” After all, as the saying goes, “don’t look backward, you’re not going that direction.”
The steps to riding an anxious horse “forward with focus” are relatively simple. First, the rider’s mind must be forward and focused. I must ignore the horse-eating dragons – such as blowing winds and scampering barn cats – if I want Kaliwohi to do the same. Once the rider’s mindset is forward and focused, the rest is mechanics. Maintain good contact, keep your legs on but not clinched (clinching is a good way to encourage the horse to squirt forward or sideways instead of maintaining steady forward rhythm), breathe through your seat to keep your entire being relaxed and one with your horse, and give clear instructions via your seat, legs, and reins as to what you want your horse to do next. Do these things every step your horse takes and you’ll have a great ride, no matter what’s going on around you.
The steps to overcoming anxiety-based eating are somewhat similar. Make a plan – for your time, your food, and, as much as possible, for how you’ll handle whatever known stress is coming in your day, such as a difficult conversation. Planning helps one feel in control, and feeling in control is a great framework for overcoming fear. Then, as when riding, maintain good contact with your state of mind. Check in frequently by asking yourself, “How am I feeling? What am I feeling? Am I genuinely hungry? Or am I merely wanting to eat as an act of solace or to avoid feeling a negative emotion?”
Negative emotions are the equivalent of horse-eating dragons for those of us who hate conflict. Whenever I feel a negative emotion coming on, my first instinct is to flee – to the pantry. Practicing focused self-talk helps keep me moving forward and gives me the strength to actually allow myself to experience the negative emotion. By finding the courage to “ride through” the dragon of a negative emotion, I find myself moving forward on my journey towards fitness.