I recently got sent an article from Rydale entitled ‘16 ways horses make humans healthier.’ (https://www.rydale.com/blogs/news/16-ways-horses-make-humans-healthier) When I received it, I had just come in from a wet weekend of not hugely successful competing and my immediate reception to the piece was understandably slightly lukewarm. In that moment, horses seemed to me to be a sure-fire way to mental anguish, financial ruin and joint pain. But after I’d dried out and de-stressed, I had another look and it got me thinking about how being around horses had improved my life.
I started riding when I was six. I had no reason to ask for riding lessons. My mum rode a bit when she was younger, but that was it. My parents likely thought it was going to be a strange, short-lived phase. Unfortunately for their bank accounts it turned into a life-long obsession. I loved them and loved being around them. They were a source of real stability for me throughout my childhood and teenage years.
I moved away from horses a little whilst at university. I rode a bit outside of term time, but I spent most of my time living the ‘student’ life.
Once I graduated from university, I had no idea what I really wanted to do. I was in a slightly confused, listless phase of my life. I didn’t know what I wanted, I didn’t know who I was or really have any idea where I wanted to go. Thankfully rather than slip further into indolence I started to ride again regularly. This had a profound effect on my mental and physical well-being. Having a horse that needed care and attention re-injected my life with some purpose and blew-away the cobwebs of my post-graduation slump.
If I’m honest I’d been living without any real structure or purpose and when I re-engaged with animals who thrive on routine, it forced me to become far more responsible. I imagine it’s like a slightly less stressful version of having children. You have to care for something that depends on you and I fully acknowledge that having to do so really helped me to mature and begin to find my feet as an adult.
Almost completely by accident I ended falling into working with horses full-time. I’d gone from listless graduate to full-time rider and coach in the space of a few short months. I’m incredibly lucky in that regard. Very few people get the opportunity to turn something they love doing into something that they can do all day every day. And I’m continually thankful for that.
I think my relationship with horses is similar to that of many others trying to find their feet in the 21st century. The relative turbulence of these first two decades of the 21st century, coupled with the rise of technology has created a whole host of new pressures for us as individuals. Having access to these amazing creatures that are so distinct from our increasingly city-bound and technologically driven lives means they can fulfil a critical role in helping people to cope with the pressures of 21st century life.
As my initial reaction to the infographic showed, it’s easy to overlook the benefits that horses bring to our lives amongst the hustle and bustle of preparing them to do a specific job and perform. It’s often in the quieter moments – out on a hack or those few minutes spent with them in the stable before or after riding – that I’m able to reflect and realise how much they bring to my own life.
Of course, they’re often moronic and frustrating. But their naivety and innocence is half the fun. And their occasionally vile moments are more than balanced out by the fact that they’re frequently hilarious, always truthful and (when it suits them) affectionate. This is what is so rewarding about being a riding performance coach, I get to find ways to bring out the best in them, whilst they bring out the best in me.
It’s rare to find somebody who’s only kind of into horses. If you’re into horses, you’re really into horses. Once the equine bug has bitten you then these wonderful animals become omnipresent in our lives.
All of us who ride owe a huge debt to them. They’re not perfect and neither are we. But they put up with us at our lowest ebbs, keep us fit, carry us at breakneck speeds, teach us compassion and patience; and most importantly they force us to be honest. And if that isn’t healthy, then I don’t know what is.
Surrey-based event rider, Hugh Train, is one of the youngest to achieve the Level 5 Performance Coach in Complete Horsemanship. He is a Centre 10 Sports Psychology Coach which gives him a unique empathetic perspective to his rider training in Surrey and surrounding counties. www.hughtrainequine.co.uk
I really love my horses. I’m not yet at the point in my life where I have kids, but I imagine having a horse is a bit like having a child. Both rely on you for love, sustenance and education, however, from where I’m standing horses seem superior. They can’t talk and they’re strong enough to carry you on their backs, run at high speeds and jump obstacles – but maybe I’ll come to think differently somewhere down the line.
I think the fact that we have an emotional bond with our sporting equipment adds an extra layer of complexity to riding. A cricketer or tennis player might love a bat or racket that they’re playing with. They may even feel that it’s the secret to their success. But they don’t have a relationship with it. If they were to break or damage it, whilst frustrating, it isn’t unique or irreplaceable. A closer comparison might be a musician and a prize instrument, but even then, unique instruments don’t have feelings. Playing a Stradivarius badly will only make you (and your audience) feel terrible, rather than cause the instrument pain or distress.
I’m unbelievably lucky at the moment. Alongside my more established mare Iris II (Nellie) I’m working with two wonderful young horses bred by the Jesmond Stud, 6YO Jesmond Jasmine (Jazzy) and 5YO Jesmond Shakala (Boo). Producing these two youngsters has been a massively enriching experience for me. They’re – mostly! – brilliant to work with and endlessly funny. Like all young animals they’re constantly learning, changing and developing, which provides new challenges and rewards every time that you ride.
Outside of Jazzy’s occasional stratospheric bucks and Boo’s recent obsession with her new 12.2hh boyfriend Fang, the biggest learning curve for me has been the fact that they genuinely trust me.
Up until my early twenties I’d predominantly ridden horses that had been around the block a bit – or around the block a few times in the case of a couple of them! With that age comes a bit of canniness and a slight withholding of implicit trust. Murphy who I rode throughout my teenage years and my first pony Joe had both had owners before me and seen human fallibility first-hand. Predominantly they took my direction on board. However, if, for example, I put them to a fence on an abysmal line with insufficient canter then they reserved the right to say to me ‘no mate that’s a terrible idea,’ to take ownership and stop or duck out. Crap at the time, but a necessary learning experience.
This changed a bit with Nellie. She was nine when I got her and had been produced by a more experienced rider than me. If I put her to a fence on a terrible line with insufficient power she would still say ‘no mate that’s a terrible idea, but let’s do this instead’ and find a way of bailing me out. At least until her goodwill was used up and I had to upskill, and we had to rebuild our trust again.
Jazzy and Boo take this a step further. Their inexperience coupled with their willingness means that if I make a mistake then they say to me ‘I’ve not really got any idea what’s going on, but you’re great and you feed me. So, I’ll have a go!’ even when they have no right to.
I’ve had a couple of moments like that in competition with the young ones recently. Moments when there was a little mistake that led to a negative experience for both of us. Both physically over the fence and subsequently as I’ve felt that I’ve let one of my horses down.
Learning to progress past the feelings of guilt when I’ve made a mistake has been a real challenge for me over the past few months.
How can we come to terms with feelings of guilt about imperfect riding and its repercussions for our horses?
Whilst riding we need to accept that sometimes things will go wrong. Even when you think you’ve nailed it with a young horse – or any horse for that matter – sometimes things will still go awry. There will be whoops-a-daisy moment when you or your horse misjudges a fence or distance and you have to struggle to get to the other side. Beating yourself up for every mistake that occurs in training or competition isn’t emotionally sustainable and so acceptance of you and your horse’s imperfections is crucial.
It’s a case of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m a perfectionist. I’m currently engaged in a personal battle to accept that sometimes good riding isn’t perfect riding. This sport is difficult because tiny errors can very quickly turn into big problems. A missed half halt or touch with the leg can be the difference between a perfect spot and an impossible spot. But whatever you’re on, it’s often more about being effective and committed than perfect.
Horses look to you for confidence and for validation that they’re doing the right thing, rather than perfection. A lot of the time they don’t know what a perfect stride is either. Gibbering and freezing – a personal speciality of mine – when you can’t see a spot leeches away the horse’s confidence and fills them with doubt, thus compounding the original error. Accepting occasional moments of imperfection and riding positively regardless is paramount. So long as you’re making decisions your horse will feed off your conviction and keep trying for you.
It’s also important to remember that it’s never as bad as you think it is. We’ve all had jumps that feel catastrophic at the time, either you’ve buried your horse so deep that the fence may as well be your tombstone, or you’ve taken off about ten metres too early. You’ll have come out of the ring and asked the people watching about that particular fence and often they don’t have the faintest idea which one you’re talking about. Mistakes feel worse when you’re the one making them and experiencing them.
Getting somebody to record your riding is a good way of re-evaluating and processing these situations. Upon watching you’ll either be pleasantly surprised at how it looks; or even if it is a total horror show, then having it on film makes it easier to break down mistakes into their constituent parts and figure out a plan for how to move forwards.
Whilst watching Liverpool cruise their way to a well-deserved 6th Champions League Title a couple of Saturdays ago, I heard the Gambleaware slogan ‘when the fun stops, stop’ endlessly during the advert breaks. On the surface it’s a trite phrase that grossly oversimplifies how easy it is to break an addictive pattern of behaviour. However, I think that the sentiment has an application to some people in the horse world.
Riding is in that strange category of high-octane sport alongside things like free-climbing or big-wave surfing where it isn’t irrational to find it quite scary at times. The fear (but also a lot of the excitement!) arises from the fact that these sports are legitimately dangerous at times.
We have all at one point or another experienced fear whilst riding. For some people that might have come when you asked for canter for the first time and for others it might only have come when you were jumping your first 1.50m. But we’ve all felt it.
In high-risk sports we’re looking to enter a state of ‘managed fear’ whilst engaging in them. In riding this would be the point where confidence in your own and your horse’s ability overrides the fear of the inherent risk of the situation. When these variables are balanced, riding is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. When they aren’t it can quite quickly turn into one of the most unpleasant – I don’t know about anybody else, but I certainly still have traumatic memories of being tanked off with by first pony etched into my mind.
Most people who ride do it solely for personal satisfaction and for fun. There isn’t a financial incentive that helps them to get on their horse. In fact, usually they’re paying distressingly large sums of money for the privilege. And so enjoyment has to be paramount in the minds of these riders.
Which is why as a coach I find it genuinely sad to find people as I go around who aren’t having fun. They’re nervous to the point of feeling nauseous and can barely function on top of their horse.
The most amazing – or baffling depending on your perspective – thing about these riders is the fact that they keep going. They keep trying to ride. On the one hand this is inspirational. The desire to graft and succeed at their sport is admirable. However, as Albert Einstein said: ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’
So what do we do in this situation? Well I believe we have to swallow Gambleaware’s bitter pill and stop.
Now by that I don’t mean: hang up your boots, sell your saddle and never darken your horse’s stable door again. Instead, I think sometimes you need to stop trying to force yourself to feel better. And instead, ask yourself why is it not feeling better? Why am I still not enjoying this?
Only by having a frank and honest conversation with yourself or your coach (who I guarantee will only be too happy to have it with you) can you start to put together a plan about how to move forwards.
I mentioned in a previous blog how I’d ended up in a situation similar to this a few years ago after I’d had a fall at Brightling. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, but it shook my confidence in my own ability badly. I’m very much a confidence dependent rider and this knock meant that my finely balanced ability/fear ratio had gone seriously awry. As a consequence, my results started to rapidly deteriorate. Rather than confront the issue I kept trying to bludgeon my way through this awful patch in my own riding with fairly dismal results. All I succeeded in doing was falling off a couple more times and damaging my own horse’s confidence.
I probably would have continued in this vein if I hadn’t had an enforced stop when the event season came to an end. But this stop meant that I had to reflect on what was going wrong. I realised I lacked real clarity, structure and direction within my own training and competing. The fall itself might have been less of an issue if these things had been in place. However, instead it highlighted the lack of a framework to fall back on when things went wrong.
Thus, I made a wholesale change to the way that I trained. I streamlined the number of coaches I used and started to take my training and competing much more seriously.
I wish I could now say that stopping and reflecting cured me of my nerves, but unfortunately life isn’t that simple. To this day you can still catch sight of me at events looking a bit wide-eyed and pallid. However, the alteration to my approach gave me the impetus to move forwards, rather than bashing my head against a brick wall in the hope that it would break before I did.
Factors to consider if you’re no longer having fun:
It’s now been 8 months since I made my foray into sports psychology with Centre10 and it has massively enriched my life. I feel I have made huge strides both as a coach and rider. However, my new approach to horsemanship was put under some strain whilst eventing last weekend at Rockingham. Things didn’t go exactly how I’d wanted them to. And I felt pretty dismal at the time.
I’d headed up to Leicester early to get a few days of really productive training in. My 6YO Jesmond Jasmine (Jazzy) felt tuned up and raring to go for what was her first ‘proper’ BE100. We’d done our homework and I felt ready to go out put it all into practice.
And for 95% of the day I managed that. A good dressage of 29.8 to kick things off. And a lovely clear round cross country to finish the day. But the show jumping threw a bit of a spanner in the works.
8 of the 9 fences were brilliant. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that it was some of the best show jumping I’ve ever done with Jazzy. But 8 out of 9 fences isn’t usually good enough in this sport.
The fifth fence was triple bar. As I walked the course, I thought to myself ‘have I ever jumped a triple bar with Jazzy?’ My question was answered during my round when she came off the turn, saw it, went a bit green, wobbled and asked, ‘what’s that?’
The correct response in that situation would have been to support her with my leg and say, ‘it’s just a slightly different style of jump, but over you go!’ But instead, I went a bit green with her. I tried to half halt my way out of a situation that was screaming for leg. So, a slightly perplexed Jazzy came gently to a halt in front the fence.
I covered myself in glory by swearing loudly (apologies to the families with small children spectating). But I managed to pick myself up, get Jazzy motoring and jump the triple bar and the rest of the course. But that one fence added enough penalties to my score to scupper any chance I had of being competitive that day.
I would like to say that the outcome had no bearing on me emotionally and that I was able to calmly reflect on the fact that most of the course had been great. But in reality, I was livid. I felt I had let myself and Jazzy down.
I then went down a bit of a mental rabbit hole. Not only was I angry about my performance, I was angry about the fact that I was angry about my performance. I came to the conclusion that evidently the months spent trying to alter my mindset had been in vain. In reality my new mindset just hadn’t had any proper hardship to contend with. I’d had a good start to the season and that had hidden the fact that nothing had changed. It had been easy to claim I’d changed my mentality whilst I was being placed, but it wasn’t until I was sitting near the bottom of the pack that I could really say it had been tested…sounding really rational I know.
I was lucky enough to have my coach Ginnie Turnbull there to pluck me out of this downward spiral. The most important thing she said to me on the day was that it was ok for me to feel angry and disappointed because it showed that I cared.
I appreciated the sentiment at the time, but it wasn’t until the drive back from the event that I really reflected on the significance of those words.
Why acknowledging and confronting negative emotions is crucial if you want to move on from them.
Negative emotions when you don’t achieve what you want to in sport are vital. They drive you to improve so that you hopefully won’t have to feel them next time. It’s ok to be competitive. To want to win and to be a bit pissed off if you don’t. Without these feelings sport would end up a little bit vanilla.
In my efforts to create a more positive mindset I had forgotten the importance of allowing yourself to feel a bit bitter when things don’t pan out the way that you’re hoping. The purpose of creating a positive mindset isn’t to stop you from ever feeling any negative emotions ever again. That’s both impossible and undesirable. The purpose is to give you the tools to process those natural negative emotions and to move on from them, rather than retain them as unhelpful emotional baggage.
I said in my blog last week that a training and competition journal can act as an emotional outlet for you to vent into. My entry in my own journal for Rockingham doesn’t make for a cheery read. However, an honest appraisal of the events of last week and accepting the fact that it was permissible for me to feel disappointed has helped me to shake the majority of my negative feelings. The cathartic act of writing it down and letting it all out has steered me away from two possible pitfalls of a perceived failure:
In turn, a bit of self-reflection has allowed me to see the many positives that were there to be drawn from the day and to move on from Rockingham ready to be better.
According to folklore magpies are renowned for picking up shiny objects to decorate their nests. Recent scientific studies have shown this to be an urban myth. But despite this, the image of the thieving magpie remains popular within our culture.
In the equine world I come across a lot of people who I think of as coaching magpies. Now by this I don’t mean they go around collecting shiny objects; instead, they collect coaches. They will have a whole roster of coaches across all the disciplines, some of whom they see more regularly than others. For some people this works brilliantly. The breadth of knowledge that they can draw from is immense and this can result in some truly exceptional riders.
We are incredibly lucky in the U.K. We have a huge number of highly qualified and experienced coaches. Whatever part of the country you’re in and whatever your need, you can guarantee that there will be somebody there to offer his or her help and experience.
For the most part all quality equestrian coaches should be striving towards the same ideal. But, that doesn’t mean that we have the same methods of getting there – we’re all individuals after all! On the one hand this is fantastic, it means that if a particular coaching method isn’t working for you then there will be a whole host of other options for you to choose from. However, I think herein lies a danger for our magpies.
The risk is that you could be overwhelmed with contrasting coaching philosophies and methods. You can end up picking up bits and pieces from here, there and everywhere that clash with each other and don’t fit together to form a workable system. This can result in riders and their horses ending up in a bit of a muddle and (at worst) totally lost.
Success in sport isn’t just about a single good performance. We all have days where we ride like gods. Successful athletes are the people who are capable of replicating good performances day in day out. This comes from developing a method and system that works for you and sticking to it. It is about getting a process embedded into your mind and getting it locked into your body via your muscle memory. Building a system takes time, but more importantly it takes continuity and consistency of practice, which can be facilitated by a regular coach.
If you’re going to be a magpie, I think it’s really important that you have a clear understanding of how you want your horse to be going. If you’re able to keep an overarching vision in mind then you’re better equipped to go to multiple coaches and to just take things that you know will fit into your system.
As a caveat, I’m not advocating complete coach monogamy. There’s always a risk of stagnation if you only use one coach indefinitely. As both a coach and rider I’ve had occasions where I’ve hit a bit of a wall and can’t seem to see the wood for the trees. And sometimes it takes somebody external to give a different exercise or to phrase something slightly differently to give you that ‘light bulb moment’ that allows progression.
So there is a balance to be struck. It’s sometimes important to go outside your comfort zone, have a fresh set of eyes look at you and rattle your cage a little bit. But it’s also important to have a pre existing structure in place that you can incorporate it into.
Or in other words, feel free to go and pick up that coin or piece of jewelry, but make sure you’ve got a well-built nest that you can display it in!
How to start to give structure to your training:
Most equine coaching is done verbally. The drop off for retention of information after a verbal presentation is worryingly sharp. After 10 minutes we can have forgotten up to 50% of what was said, after 24 hours up to 75% and after a week up to 90% of what was covered is likely to be gone.
But we can combat this via the use of effective note taking. Now, writing stuff down doesn’t necessarily help you to remember a higher percentage of things. However, it makes you far more likely to retain key information. By this I mean that the 10% that you are going to remember in a week’s time will be the crucial elements of the session, as opposed to a random jumble of moments.
Whether you’re a magpie or not, keeping a training and competition journal is one of the most useful tools available to you for helping to both retain information and structure your development. If you manage to start writing an honest, reflective training journal then it can:
Studies have shown that for long-term memory retention then hand writing is the most productive way of recording information (but if you really can’t face it then typing is better than nothing!).
So whether you’re on a laptop or notebook, start by noting the date and what you’re recording (i.e. training or competition). Then try to reflect on what was covered or what happened. There’s no need to feel under pressure to write pages and pages, just as much or as little as feels natural.
As this process starts to become part of your routine then you can increase the detail that you go into. And start to provide aims for what you want to achieve in future sessions as opposed to it merely being a reflective exercise.
I used to be a very late person. And by that I don’t mean I was fashionably late to things. I was quite capable of turning up hours late to events that I had organised myself.
Being perpetually late wasn’t so much of an issue when my life didn’t revolve around horses. In my experience, unless the stakes are massively high – i.e. being late to your own wedding or something – then humans are relatively forgiving and understanding about being late. Even if this is a pattern of behaviour that goes on for years people might become exasperated, but rarely will it cause significant fallout.
But horses, they love punctuality. Predictability and routine contribute massively to their mental and physical wellbeing. And moreover, they end up bearing the brunt of the negative consequences of our lateness in our interactions with them.
I was at a dressage competition a few years ago when I experienced my own high water mark for lateness. I was riding my (now retired) dressage horse Murphy. I’d worked hard over the previous few weeks on my test and felt in a good place to come out and obtain a result. I went to bed the night before with a plan that would allow me about forty-five minutes to warm-up and get in the zone before my test.
Now, if memory serves, on the day of the competition I managed to: oversleep, forget my chaps, get caught in traffic on the way to the yard, get caught in traffic on the way to the competition and forget my stirrups (which meant I had to go around begging for a pair). The result of this was that I was left with about three minutes and twenty-six seconds to get on and warm up for my test. I had reached a hitherto unknown state that I have now branded ‘peak lateness.’
Now being late is bad, it makes you a bit tense, a bit terse, a little hurried; but you’re still ostensibly in control.
Peak lateness is another beast altogether. You’re rushing at 100mph, but moving through treacle; gasping, but still breathless; mind whirring, but not present or engaged; unsure of whether you want to scream, laugh, cry or some awful combination of the three. And your horse – quite understandably – hates you for it.
But despite being destined to fail I cracked on anyway. With three minutes to go I was wondering why Murphy was not coming soft. With 2 minutes to go he was tense and rushing. With one minute to go he stopped accepting my aids. And then as my name was called I announced that I hated dressage anyway and that Murphy was having a bad day.
This is the main problem with being late. It is a selfish act. No matter how you justify it to yourself, the blame ultimately lies with you. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow. One of the main reactions to it is to deflect the blame outwards: to your horse, the traffic, your alarm clock, your mum, whatever. All to avoid accepting the fact that ultimately it is you that has let you down.
Nowadays, after some soul-searching and hard work, I class myself as a predominantly ‘on-time’ person. And I’m doing my level best to turn myself into one of those mystical people who is early for everything.
How to become more on time:
1) Admit that you might have a problem – I was so far down the rabbit hole of being late that I was unable to accept that I had an issue. Cutting it fine was an essential part of my being. And I imagined that everybody operated at this breakneck pace, rushing between things but never really on time. Furthermore, there was always a perfectly rational explanation as to why I was so late, so it was never really my fault. It took me several negative experiences and a stern talking to from one of my coaches for me to finally accept that my lateness was my own fault, rather than the universe conspiring against me.
2) Double the time you think you’ll need – Whatever I was doing I used to leave myself the bare minimum of necessary time. This worked brilliantly when my day went smoothly, however, that was only once in a blue moon. Invariably something would go wrong at some point, which would throw my whole day and all my timings out of kilter. At competitions now, I find myself with the luxury of spare time, this has drastically improved my performance as I have time to relax, focus and prepare. There will always be things that go wrong, but having enough time to deal with those things is crucial. Because if time itself becomes an additional factor then it can be the killer blow within a high-pressure competition environment.
3) Do less, but do it better – The horse world is a highly pressurised environment. Whether you’re an amateur rider trying to find time to ride around your day job; or a professional rider trying to cram as much work around your own horses as you can. Whatever the case, we often find ourselves trying to fit in far too much in far too short a timespan. And the result of this is that we – whether intentionally or not – do too much, but not at full effectiveness. Not only is this an ineffective way of developing your skills, it is also dangerous in a risk sport like riding. You can’t be fully present within a task if you’re worried about time pressures and it’s unfair to expect your horse or athletes to be present if you aren’t either. If it seems like it’s going to be a bit of stretch, then it almost certainly will be. So take the plunge and set yourself realistic aims for the day/week rather than always straining for that bit extra, because that path ultimately leads to burnout for you and your horse.
I find showjumping incredibly difficult. Up until fairly recently I would joke with my mum at events about how badly the showjumping was going to go that day. I used to head over to the showjumping arena telling myself that I was awful at it. I would warm up telling myself I was awful at it. I would ride around telling myself I was awful at it. And I would head back to the lorry telling myself that – even though I was awful at it – at least it was over for another week.
To nobody’s surprise – except possibly my own – this narrative had rather a negative impact on my ability to showjump.
This narrative that I’d created about myself wasn’t without logic. You could trace it through my whole riding career. It started with a bad fall I’d had jumping when I was eleven. I didn’t successfully come to terms with how much it had knocked me mentally at the time and so the narrative that I was scared of jumping and awful at it took hold of me. I tried throughout my early teens to force myself to enjoy my jumping, but aged sixteen I concluded that I loathed it and never really wanted to leave the floor again. Thus, I ended up getting an older horse on loan, who couldn’t really leave the floor without coming up lame, which was perfect for me.
I scarcely left the ground for the next four or five years, other than to train for and get through my BHS assessments. And despite my success in those exams, my mentality was ‘I am awful at this, scared of it and I was lucky to pass.’ However, whilst training for my Stage Four, I had the strange experience (for me) of starting to enjoy my jumping. Now this isn’t to say that I didn’t think I was awful at it. But at least I was starting to like it a little, which negated a bit of the fear.
This newfound enjoyment changed something within me, it made me think that this was something I wanted to do more of. And so, I ended up going out and looking for a horse that could facilitate it and ended up purchasing Iris II (Nellie).
Nellie didn’t really care about my narrative; she just took me by the hand and jumped whatever I pointed her at. And this was working fine until I wanted her to make the jump up from novice to intermediate. That extra 10cm was pushing her to the upper limit of her scope and suddenly she needed support from me. However, how could I – somebody who is awful at showjumping – help her to get over these fences? The problem at this point wasn’t physical; I had the technical knowledge and ability, but I’d reached the end of the line for my mindset.
Our lives are defined by the narratives that we tell about ourselves, whether they are overarching narratives that shape our whole existence i.e. ‘I’m just a really positive person.’ Or more specific narratives that inform a small part of our lives i.e. ‘I’m really bad at showjumping.’ The important thing to note is that these narratives don’t have to remain fixed, you can change your narratives and come up with better ones.
How to start to change a narrative
We’ve all done it. Gotten half way through a dressage test, showjumping or cross-country round and thought: ‘have I actually taken a single breath in the time that I’ve been riding?’ The answer will invariably be yes, however, the more prescient question would be ‘have a taken a single good quality breath in the time that I’ve been riding?’ For many of us the answer is a resounding no. We’ve probably just about managed to keep enough oxygen in our systems via a series of huffs, puffs, gasps and wheezes to stop us from passing out. But, the consequence of this is that we grow light-headed, tense and our concentration becomes hampered because the body is crying out for air.
In my previous blog I spoke about reconnecting with the breath as a means of becoming more present – whether in your day to day life or your riding. Breathing well is really difficult. For the most part our breathing is irregular. It ebbs and flows depending on what we’re doing and what kind of mood we’re in. Thus, breathing effectively in competition is really really difficult. As the pressure and necessary extra concentration required in competition diverts your attention even further away from the breath. This usually means our breathing is one of the first things that becomes affected. However, if you manage to (to any degree!) regulate and keep a sense of rhythm to your breathing then there are tangible benefits to be gained.
In yoga the practice of controlling the breath is called ‘Pranayama.’ The first part of the word prana means ‘breath’ or ‘life force’ and the second part ayana means ‘to control.’ In yoga breath control is used to help:
1. Connect the body to the mind.
2. Direct energy around the body.
3. Connect you to the universal spirit.
Before I go completely off the deep end, let me bring this back to riding. Taking those three points and slightly modifying them, I would say that practicing breath control in and around your riding can help:
1. Connect the body to the mind (help you to become present).
2. Enable you to relax parts of your body whilst riding (notice the difference in trying to relax a part of your body whilst holding your breath in comparison to whilst you’re exhaling).
3. Connect you better to your horse (in Latin the word animus could be translated as breath. Thus, when you stop breathing you could be said to be ‘inanimate.’ I don’t think you can expect your horse to be capable of maintaining a profound connection with an inanimate object).
Sounds good right? However, the management of the breath has to be something that is practiced and honed if you want it to be part of your toolbox in the heat of competition.
Before I provide you with a simple breathing exercise that will act as an introduction to breath control; I just want to clarify what a good quality breath is. Signs of a good quality breaths are that they are diaphragm led (i.e. your stomach moves more than your chest does), deep, smooth, energising, and consistent. Once you feel capable of stringing a few of these breaths together then move onto the simple exercise detailed below.
How to practice at home:
1. Sit on a chair with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor and place your hands on your lower abdomen.
2. Relax your head and allow your chin to drop towards chest, whilst keeping the throat open and avoiding straining the neck.
3. Bring your attention to your breath and allow yourself to breath normally for about a minute.
4. Then begin to regulate your breath, breathing in for 3-5 seconds and exhaling for the same amount of time. Maintain this for a couple of minutes (stop if you start to feel lightheaded or dizzy).
5. Allow your breathing to return to normal and breath this way for about a minute before getting up and carrying on with any activity.
You should come out of that feeling calm, relaxed with a regular heart-rate and with a sense of focus. Obviously, this exercise is difficult to do in its totality whilst riding. However, try to sprinkle in some deeper, more managed breathing whenever possible and make a mental note of the effect that it has on you and your horse. Good moments to try would be before you ride, as you’re walking to loosen your horse up, in breaks between work and after you’ve finished riding. The more you practice the full exercise at home the easier it should become to switch into more controlled breathing whilst on the horse.
I realise that practicing one’s breathing can seem dull and sits very low down on one’s list of priorities. But If you treat your breath like a muscle that needs to be worked. Then you have a better chance of accessing the benefits that good breathing provides.
At a jumping clinic the last bit of advice that Captain Mark Phillips gave me was to ‘never trust the bastards.’ I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. Horses are wild and fickle creatures and often they remind us of that at the worst possible times. However, I feel that it is perhaps a little damning, as a level of trust between horse and rider is crucial. But that trust has to be reciprocal and measured, not spilling over into blind faith.
So I’ve developed my own little interpretation of Mark’s advice, which is to ‘trust that your horse can do it, not that they will.’
I’m going to delve back into another eventing mishap to demonstrate this point. I was competing at Firle in 2016, I’d done a good dressage and gone clear showjumping. This was enough to see me lying in third place. All I had to do was ride a clear round cross-country inside the time on my horse Iris II (Nellie). I had no qualms about this, we’d never had a refusal cross-country and the course seemed inviting and within my ability.
We set off in style, sailing through the first three-quarters of the course without incident. We were flying; nothing was going to stand between my third place rosette and me. My mind was drifting between thoughts of bragging rights and prizes in kind as we came to the one of the last combinations of the course – a fairly straightforward boat placed a couple of strides before a splash though some water. No problem.
But at about five strides out I began to feel Nellie slowing underneath me. Was I concerned? Of course not. I thought: ‘she’s probably just collecting herself a little to give herself time to process the question.’ I allowed my mind to drift back to sparkly grooming kits and ill-fitting exercise sheets.
Three strides out and she was really starting to back off, but I thought ‘she’s never had a stop with me cross county, why would she stop now?’ and I slipped back into my reveries.
But then we were there, in front of the fence and – to my genuine surprise – not leaving the floor. My heart sank. I shouted Nellie’s name in anguish and despair. There would be no wild celebrations for me. No polite applause as I collected my rosette. No pink hoofpick to treasure forever…
Now we can all quite clearly see that this was my fault, but at the time I couldn’t. At the time all I saw was that my perfect Nellie, who I trusted implicitly, had let me down. She’d stopped for no good reason and taken my placing away from me. So I did what any mortified eventer does: gave her a tap with my stick, got her back in front of my leg, wheeled her around and cleared the fence without any trouble. There were about five fences left and I jumped them perfectly. To this day I think those are five of the clearest jumps I can remember. My embarrassment had dragged me back to the task at hand and I was completely mentally and physically present for every one of those jumps.
On reflection the warning signs had been there. Nellie had slowed down and backed off and yet I failed to react. I simply trusted that she would jump the fence because that’s what she’d always done. However, in that moment she wanted reassurance and guidance from me, but my overabundance of trust had allowed my mind to wander and made me incapable of providing it for her.
Being consistently present whilst performing any task is exceptionally difficult. As human beings we are always liable to having our focus slip. In sport the ability to achieve a level of focus where your mind no longer strays to the future or past and you are simply present within your body at the moment is one of the signs of mastery. My results driven fantasies that day had made being present impossible for me. I was no longer riding in the moment and so couldn’t see or feel the multitude of warning signs for what was about to unfold. And I believe that these lapses are what cause a lot of the problems in competition and schooling for riders.
So what can we do to help ourselves become more present?
I’ve heard various coaches use words to this effect, but I think it was one of my dressage trainers Eileen O’Connor who distilled it into the above mantra.
The clearest personal example I have of not abiding by it was eventing at West Wilts in 2017. I was coming off the back of a fall earlier in the season that had – whether I admitted it to myself or not – seriously negatively impacted my confidence. I’d been riding poorly for a while, but kept competing in the hope that I could ride my way back into some form.
Needless to say my plan wasn’t massively successful.
I found myself warming up for the cross-country phase at West Wilts overly adrenalized to the point of nausea. Worried at the prospect of falling off or making a mistake. I had no plan beyond ‘go clear’ – which is a pretty dismal plan by anybody’s standards.
This meant I started the round riding by the seat of my pants; tight down my leg, tight down the rein, but loose in my brain. Random thoughts and bits of coaching were flying through my head at a million miles an hour, distracting me from the task at hand. This state was just about sustainable for the first thirty seconds of my round. However, five fences in we came to our first combination: a fairly straightforward double of skinnies. I didn’t balance or present Nellie correctly and she (very understandably) ducked out the side door. There was an opportunity here for me to pause and compose myself. Instead, I wheeled her round, failed to present her properly again and had a second refusal.
I’d managed to accrue sixty penalties by the fifth fence and if I didn’t do something I was about to be eliminated. So I halted and took a few deep breaths. The act of stopping was enough. I was able to collect my thoughts enough to see that I was no longer capable of being competitive that day. I was only there to help rebuild the rapport between my horse and me. Once those two thoughts had landed, I grew much calmer. I softened mentally and physically, picked Nellie up again, took a longer approach, popped through the combination – and the rest of the course – perfectly.
We all have moments like this in our day-to-day riding and competing. Moments where our mental state gets the better of us and we act irrationally. We take frustration out on our horses, we grow tense, our vision clouds and our judgment becomes impaired. It’s impossible to ride well in this state; your horse only feels your tension and frustration. You are no longer in synch because you’re wrapped up in your own ego, you’ve become an alien to your most important partner at that moment.
Although I managed to claw a positive experience out of West Wilts, that was more by accident than design. In reality I shouldn’t have been competing that day. My confidence had been knocked and I hadn’t addressed it. This meant my mental state was compromised. Despite being physically ready to go you can’t compete successfully if your mental state isn’t. If you feel stressed, depressed, unduly anxious or just pissed off then there is always another day.
I think this is especially true in competition where you also have to contend with the addition of pressure. When you’re feeling mentally well, pressure can act as a tool to give your mind a laser-like focus. But in situations where your head isn’t in it, it can be the factor that pushes you over the edge.
2. Try to set goals that you can control:
My goal that day was to ‘go clear,’ which isn’t something you can have complete control over. ‘Going clear’ is an outcome that is achieved via a huge number of elements working together to achieve a result. The lack of clarity surrounding what I wanted to achieve that day almost certainly contributed to my muddled mental state. In our riding and competing we should aim to set ourselves goals that we have control over and can fulfil regardless of the result.
For example, two sensible and achievable goals for that day would have been:
The fulfilment of those two goals would have given me a much greater chance of ‘going clear.’ They also provide a clarity and structure to what you want to achieve on that competition day. Even if I had still had the sixty penalties, so long as I had managed to fulfil those two goals then you can chalk that up as a successful day. Whereas, if your aim had simply been to ‘go clear’ it would be impossible to view a day like that in a positive light.