“No one knows for sure exactly why this works, but ‘bilateral stimulation’ of this sort helps to dissipate emotional distress,” says Peggy, who offers this kind of therapy in her own private practice (oakzanitaranch.com). “When you tense up out of fear, one part of your brain has hijacked the rest. Bilateral stimulation–in this case, alternating toe taps–can help break up the negative feelings, so you can program in your positive responses instead.”
Bonus benefit: You’ll be able to use this same reprogramming technique to quell pre-show jitters, making it easier for you to ride effectively in competition.
Fear Buster #3: Ride with intent, using a bend-and-stretch exercise to engage and relax your horse whenever his attitude or actions make you fearful.
How it works: By focusing your horse’s attention on you and the task at hand, you keep him too preoccupied to be naughty, which, in turn, lowers your anxiety. “This approach is preferable to patting or caressing your horse to soothe him, which he may interpret as a reward for his fractious behavior,” says Jessica Jahiel. “Instead, put him to work on an exercise that will relax him and, when he complies, then reward him.”
How to do it: This strategy overlaps with #2. When you feel your horse tensing up, or you sense that he’s about to, “sit tall, take a deep breath and continue to breathe slowly,” says Jessica. “At the same time, ask your horse to bend smoothly to the left for a few steps, as though you were intending to circle left, then straighten him and ride him absolutely straight for one step, then ask him to bend smoothly to the right for a few steps, then straighten again, then bend left again, straighten and continue on in this fashion.”
As your horse responds, praise him and give him more rein, to encourage him to stretch his neck forward and down. “This loosens his neck and back, which will relax him emotionally,” says Jessica. (Note: This part of the exercise works best if your horse is wearing a snaffle bit.) “This strategy short-circuits the classic feedback loop–where your horse startles, which causes you to tense up, which makes him more anxious, which makes you more anxious, and so on.”
Bonus benefit: You’ll improve the coordination and subtlety of your cueing, and enhance your ability to feel and anticipate your horse’s actions.
Fear Buster #4: “See” and speak success, using the proven methods of visualization and self-talk.
How it works: By replacing negative self-talk and mental images with positive ones, you reprogram your mind to make the most of the skills and confidence you do have. Then, over time, success begets success, and your confidence blossoms.
As licensed psychologist Richard Jontry points out, these types of mental skills are no longer considered “far out”–they’re mainstream. “The U.S. Equestrian Team, professional athletes, and professional sports teams use these methods routinely,” he notes. So can you.
How to do it: Start by identifying your negative self-talk–expressions (voiced or internal) such as, “I can’t do it.” “I’m afraid!” Or, “I’m going to get hurt.” Whenever you catch yourself making such a statement say, “Stop!” and then offer yourself a positive message instead. According to Doug Lietzke, a licensed psychologist and endurance rider, effective messages are:
- personal (“I” statements);
- positive (“I’m strong and balanced,” not “I won’t get dumped”);
- present tense (“I know exactly what to do if my horse misbehaves,” not “I handled him well yesterday”);
- and true (“I’m well-prepared and ready to ride,” not “I’m the boldest rider in the world”).
To make the most of your positive self-talk messages, use them whenever you think of it, as often as possible throughout your day.
For visualization, create a “mental video” in which you experience yourself riding the way you would like to. Equestrian performance coach Barbra Schulte suggests you begin by sitting in a comfortable chair, away from all distractions. As you listen to calming music (no lyrics) you’ve recorded in advance, tense and then relax each part of your body to bring on a relaxation response.
After about 3 to 5 minutes, your music should change to something you find powerful and stirring–perhaps the rousing soundtrack from your favorite movie. Let your emotions rise, then visualize yourself riding your horse boldly and with confidence. Imagine every detail of how you look and feel, using all your senses. Hear the wind in your ears as you lope a pattern. Smell the tanbark in the arena. Feel the warmth of the sun on your back. Above all, experience the exuberance that comes from riding without fear.