There are two biggies: death and embarrassment/rejection. Often these are divided by age: people under 30 tend to fear looking foolish, while people over 30 more often fear serious injury. When you’re younger, you haven’t lost the invincible feelings of adolescence, or the self-consciousness of that phase, so you are less concerned about the physical risk. As we get older, we have more experience with the consequences of danger, both our own and other people’s; we also have more responsibility, so we worry about things like how to pay the mortgage if we are injured badly enough to be out of work. Having children is a significant game-changer too: many women tell me that they became much more cautious once they had kids of their own. Fear of embarrassment or failure is still there as we age, but it’s usually less powerful.
Q: A lot of the challenges you describe are problems of action: you can act to change them, or at differently, or apply work to get through them. What advice would you give for riders facing problems of inaction? In other words, what the brain gets up to when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing. I know I’m not the only one who has turned around halfway home from the barn to go and make absolutely sure I latched the grain room door securely, or turned off the lights, or gotten the blanket changes right, or other, similar weaselly thoughts. How do you recommend easing the brain through those kinds of anxiety moments?
At that point, it’s practicing anxiety tolerance, or getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. You have to do nothing, then discover that everything turned out ok, before your brain will allow you to do nothing without the intense anxiety. This SUCKS, btw!! To make it a tiny bit easier, it helps to give your brain some crutches, or something else to focus on. You could write yourself a note when you close the grain bin: “Hey, I closed the grain bin today, Jan. 28th. You don’t have to check again.” While you’re riding it out, give yourself something else to focus on–practice leg-yielding while you’re hacking, keep your horse on the bit, talk to yourself about your goals for the year–anything to keep yourself occupied while you wait to see that everything turns out okay. Getting past any anxiety, though, is all about learning to sit with the discomfort and realize “I’m anxious, it feels awful, and I’m still okay. I hate this feeling, and I’m still okay–it’s just a feeling, and it will pass.” Our Lizard Brain needs to recognize that every anxious thought isn’t true, and that anxiety isn’t fatal. It doesn’t know this on its own; we have to train it to listen to our Rational Brain.
Q: I personally tend not to worry about my own skin. I guess I’m lucky in that. I figure if something bad happens to me I made my choices, and I have pretty high pain and embarrassment tolerances. But I do worry about causing harm to my horse. If he bolts outside, the panic in my brain is not “what if I fall off and die?” it’s “what if he keeps running and never comes home and gets trapped in the woods and colics and dies or gets hit by a car or…?” Yells of “loose horse” at a show scare me almost more than the ambulance does. Any thoughts on overcoming that niche fear?
I think this must be what parents deal with on a regular basis when they send their kids out the door every day. The fear of loss is the flip side of love. To a certain extent, we have to do the same thing we do with the danger of riding: accept that there is inherent risk in dealing with flight animals, and that sometimes they make bad/downright stupid decisions, and that we can’t control every single thing that happens. In the moment, though, what we need is action: never mind what *could* happen, the question is, what do you need to *do* right now to prevent those things from happening? He’s loose-grab a halter and grain. Also, remember what you know: “What if he never comes home?” Remember that horses are herd animals, if he gets lost, he’ll do his best to find buddies–so put the word out that he’s lost. And remember that you’re not alone–horse people come together in crises. We look for lost horses, we hook up a trailer as fast as we can to get someone’s horse to the surgery clinic when they’re colicking. We can’t 100% rid ourselves of the anxiety, but we wouldn’t want to–it’s the thing that reminds us to buckle throat latches on halters, to do night check when we don’t feel like it, to notice when a step sounds a little bit off when they’re walking next to us.
Q: Horse people are not always the easiest to get along with. There’s a reason we chose a sport in which we relate to one-ton animals instead of other humans. Are there any StressLess techniques you’ve found useful in applying to barn drama?
Haha I think you just handed me my next book subject! First, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves: what role do we play? No one thinks that they create drama! Notice whether you join in group bitching sessions, or get worked up when that person does the annoying thing she always does (my biggest habit–why am I surprised when people are who they have always been?), or roll our eyes behind someone’s back. Second, I live by the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” If it’s not my problem, I try to find something better to do. If it *is* my circus–it’s happening in my barn–that doesn’t mean they’re my monkeys–it’s not necessarily my job to solve it or get involved. If they are, in fact, my monkeys–two of my students are sniping at each other, or I’m pissed off at one of my business partners for something–then it’s time for me to deal with it, and deal with it directly, not by complaining to someone else to let off steam and then not do anything to change the situation. Like I said, I could write a whole second book on this one!
Q: Your section on how to transition people on from a horse that’s not a good fit for them was fantastic. I’m starting to think about retiring my partner of over a decade. I was in the same position as the young rider you described – I chose him over a specific discipline or specific goals. I hope my next horse will be a bit more competitive and ready to event, though. Any advice on transitioning from a longtime, beloved-but-not-easy partner to a new horse?
It’s a bit like dating someone new after you got out of a difficult but meaningful relationship. You have to let yourself grieve for the old one, no matter how right the decision to move on is. Next, be sure you’re not getting the old guy in a different package–we all have a type we gravitate towards! Bring along a friend who is willing to say, “Stop picking the bad boys in leather jackets!” I can’t emphasize this one enough, because we’re comfortable with what’s familiar, and we gravitate toward it. I’ve always had challenging horses; when I was shopping for Chauncy, I tried a horse down at Sue Berrill’s. She told me to stop picking at him and just soften the rein on the way to the jump. I did, and he sailed over it. I looked at her and said, “I could be a monkey up here and he’d jump.” She just said, “Yup.” I said, “But it doesn’t count unless you suffer for it!” She just about fell off the jump she was sitting on, she was laughing so hard!
Once you find a new horse, then you have to be aware of the baggage you’re bringing to the new relationship. When you get into familiar scenarios with the new guy–you’re working on going through water, and your last horse was allergic to getting wet–it’s really important to remind yourself to ride the horse you have now, not the one you used to have. And you have to give yourself the same patience that you give your new horse: it takes time to get used to a new horse, even when the last one was easy, and getting over “baggage” always takes longer. You’re going to make mistakes, but you’d be making mistakes anyway, right? A good trainer or any good set of eyes on the ground is really helpful at this point. After I sold my ditch-phobic Dutch mare, my business partner Mary came to the start box with me at every event and said, “Remember, ride Sizzle out there–don’t ride Lizzy.” The first time I jumped a ditch on Sizzle, I separated the poor girl’s ribs with my spurs. She was like, “WHAT?!? I’m going already! What’s your problem?” Fortunately she jumped it, instead of bucking me off, which was what I really deserved!
3 thoughts on “Brain Training for Riders: Interview with Andrea Monsarrat Waldo”
I really like the idea of giving my brain some crutches. Thank you for the insights!