Brain Training for Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniqus for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo
$12.88 on Amazon
I think it’s nearly impossible to be an equestrian and never to have experienced a moment of fear, or worry, or self-doubt. In fact, I might argue that if you sail through all horse-related endeavors with perfect confidence and ease, you’re doing something wrong.
Andrea Waldo is an eventer and trainer based out of Charlotte, Vermont. (Full disclaimer: I’ve known her for years and did an eventing clinic with her many years ago. She’s just as terrific in real life as she comes across on the page!) She was also a practicing psychotherapist for nearly two decades, and holds an MA in Counseling. So she is uniquely positioned to write a book about the brain demons involved in horse sports.
Andrea has also graciously agreed to be part of this three-part review of her book. In this part, today, I’ll summarize and review the book itself. In part 2 (next Monday), I’ll do an interview with her, and then in part 3 (next Friday), she’ll answer your questions.
I’m also hosting a giveaway for a copy of the book. SO. At the end of this post, ask any questions you might have for Andrea – and be sure to enter the giveaway widget when you do so!
The book has five major sections, and I’ll go through each.
Sometimes, book introductions aren’t terribly useful, but this introduction actually sets the tone of the whole book. Andrea is really aiming for a full system in this book, and so she starts by laying out a few of her baseline assumptions and theories, as well as what she’s trying to do as a progression through the rest of the book. She also confesses to her own stress and anxiety issues to show that no one is immune.
The most useful takeaway for me from the introduction was her firm argument that relaxation is not the “ideal performance state for riding.” Such a simple and overlooked idea! Trainers so often talk about being “relaxed” like your mental and physical states should be the same whether you’re sipping fruity drinks on a beach or galloping toward a cross country fence. Andrea blows that myth up right away, and the book is immediately better for it.
The progression for the book is to start by laying out some concepts and exercises to get you in the habit of using simple techniques, then to apply those techniques to everyday riding situations, then really difficult riding situations, then show a variation on them that can be useful to trainers, rather than just riders.
In this first chapter of the book, she introduces the idea of the Lizard Brain: that primordial part of our brains that is responsible for self-preservation and stress responses. She points out that the Lizard Brain does not distinguish between an actual tiger and an imagined tiger: it floods the system in response to both. In understanding that, we can start to take a step back and simply acknowledge the feelings flooding through us without getting towed under by them.
She writes a lot about negative self-talk and how to work through it, the differences between bragging and assertion of competence, and advises us to “make a habit of noticing when things go well.” The best thing about her discussion of these things is that she actually lays out a compassionate, straightforward, well-written and well-argued way to go about it. She’s not talking down to her reader: she’s taking the reader’s hand and actually coaching them.
The entire book is chock full of exercises that serve as building blocks for working things through – hence the “training” part of the book’s promise. There are a lot of them, and even if you don’t have the time to physically write out your answers, I found just closing my eyes and thinking them through to be enormously helpful. They complement and add to each other as you go through.
I found one directive from this chapter particularly useful: “If you need to air your anxiety to relieve some stress, make sure you also talk about what you are going to do to address it.”
Focus, Confidence, and StressLess Performance
Once you’ve internalized the training lessons of the first section, Andrea starts to put them into practice in achieving good mental states while riding and competing.
There are a lot of different things you can do to help; the first is to establish a good sense of focus. If you’re totally in the moment, you’re responsive and not worried. I love that she pointed out that focus is not some magical personality trait – it’s a learned, repeatable behavior. I also loved that she suggested an exercise for practicing how to transition your body and mind from tense to calm.
Practice is also highlighted: what quality practice looks like, how to manage the mistakes you’re going to make, and how to start to ramp up the outside stressors. She writes about how to give yourself intentional exposure to mental and emotional risks, and shares the story of a student who had a bad fall and then wrote out a multi-step program for how to move herself past it.
Plans are really important – and setting good goals is a cornerstone of making a good plan. If you don’t know what a successful show season or ride looks like, then you’re always going to feel like you’ve come up short. It’s important to be clear and honest with yourself – Andrea writes that “luck favors the prepared.”
One of my double-underlined notes from this chapter was a summation phrase that really hit me: “you don’t have to feel okay to be okay.” Your Lizard Brain lies, and you need to recognize and work with that.
Battling the Big Demons
We’ve all had at least one really Big One – a fall, a failure, an injury, something that has taken over our brain to an outsized degree. This section moves all the techniques of the previous chapters past the everyday worries and into tackling problems that take up residence in your brain and just. won’t. let. go.
One of the best things about this chapter, for me, was how Andrea balanced things you can do yourself with when to know you need more help – from a trainer, from other people in your life, from a therapist. Books can’t do everything!
There are some things you can do on your own, though. First, it’s important to think about psychological injuries in the same way we would a physical one. She points out that we would never put our horses back in work right after a bad injury, and we shouldn’t tough out a brain injury either. Acknowledging the emotions that come up is important, and letting yourself feel it all is the way through.
I’m sure we’ve all had people in our lives ask us why we keep doing these crazy things, and Andrea has a bit about how to work with your family and friends who ask all the frustrating questions you can imagine. I admit, I’ve fallen into the trap of getting snippy and angry right off the bat with people who ask me those things, because I have people in my life who are assholes about it, but Andrea’s methods here are much better!
StressLess Techniques for Trainers
Technically this section is for trainers, but trust me, it’s useful for riders too. Basically, Andrea works through different types of challenges that students might present, and how to teach them. I particularly liked her statement that “every emotional, relational, and social issue in a rider’s life eventually shows up in the riding arena.” I thought “how true!” and then “yikes, my poor trainers.”
Now that you’ve read the summary of the book, I’m sure you want a copy of your own! Check out the Rafflecopter giveaway below; I’ll be drawing the winner on Friday, February 16.
And if you have any questions you’d like to ask of Andrea, comment away or email me: beljoeor[at]gmail[dot]com. She’ll answer questions in Part III of this series, on February 16. You can comment with questions up to midnight on Monday, February 12.