Hi, my horse spooks seeing a cow/peacock when we are practicing and sometimes even bolts. I've fallen during some of these occasions. My fear now is if he spooks during competition, its going to be a problem, Pls suggest (Sukh)
Sukh – One of the greatest challenges I face as a sport psychologist is to explore the fine line between a horse training problem, a riding skill and experience issue, and a rider’s psychological challenge. In the circumstance you describe, my instinct is that the initial focus should be on the horse and working on the spooking issue. There are many talented horse trainers that could help you with your horse’s reaction to distractions on the farm such as cows and peacocks. In this way, you may face fewer dangers from spooks at home as well as in competition. (Click on Question Title above to read full answer)
I've had so many near-misses when hacking I now fear it more than I do a round of jumps. My horse is as safe as any horse can be on the roads and I know it's good for him to get out of the school but I get to the point of being physically sick at the thought and I'm tense the whole time we're out. Can you give me any advice on getting past this? (Meghann)
Meghann – When we have strong emotional reactions to situations that we know are reasonably safe (or perhaps better stated as situations with acknowledged risks that are well within a range of risk we are willing to accept), problems often arise when we get too far outside of our comfort zone too quickly. The strategy for tackling fear and anxiety is simple and straightforward. Find the edge of your comfort zone. Step slightly out of it. Stay there until you get more comfortable. Reward yourself for your courage. While simple, this strategy is often very difficult to implement. It is especially difficult in riding because the traditional riding routines, along with other riding culture pressures, do not easily align with the pace, timing and patience needed to transform our experience. (Click on Question Title above to read full answer)
Typically, when a rider seeks out my assistance, they have a problem and are looking to get it fixed. Often their problem involves a strong emotional reaction to a specific situation that interferes with their riding, such as anxiety as they enter the show ring or panic as they approach a triple combination. Many are surprised, after they have described their problem, when I ask them to take a step back and look at the broader picture. Like most of us, my clients are highly focused on the problem and often believe that the solution lies in directly addressing that problem; changing some specific thing about themselves that causes the problem to vanish. (Click on Blog Title above to read full entry)
I recently participated in a training course on techniques and strategies to build core mindfulness skills. While there were many interesting strategies that will be helpful to my clients over time, I was struck by Sheri Van Dijk‘s presentation regarding states of mind. She focused her presentation on two specific states of mind, the Rational Mind and the Emotional Mind and talked about the distinction between them. I think the ideas she presented are directly relevant to what we desire as a performance state of mind. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)
Ellen asks…"My question: How do I go from being seriously anxious about lessons etc, to just being nervous but excited? I had a great time at Adult Camp, but it wasn't until almost the end of the 3rd day, I started to 'flow'. Thank you"
Thanks for the question Ellen. From my experience, dealing with anxiety in one form or another is the number one challenge that riders face. Whether it is anxiety about performing, anxiety about riding a specific horse, anxiety about a specific activity like jumping or cantering, or anxiety about lessons and/or riding in general; they all share the same basic challenge which is how do I regulate strong emotions. (Click on Question Title above (in blue) to read full answer)
A reader asks… How does someone get over a traumatic fall? Basically, I had a fall several years ago and got hurt. It shook my confidence, etc. It took years to come back from it, but there are times where I still struggle with it. I think it's because at that time, my coach had told someone else that I should stop eventing, because of that spill and I had to hear it from the grapevine, but never from my coach. I've had people doubt my abilities as I was recovering; yet I was still riding and trying to move on, and 'practice my guts.' That spill wasn't even the worst one that I've had, yet it is one that has stuck with me. Why?
There are several parts to your question which I would like to address. The first is the question of “Why this fall?” Many riders have numerous falls or other horse related injuries and, for seemingly no reason at all, one of those falls or injuries sticks with us more than the others. I would be disingenuous if I was to claim to know with any certainty the answer to the question “Why?” What I can do is highlight some of the factors that may help determine the impact of any one incident. (Click on Question Title above (in blue) to read full answer)
Recently a friend and trainer Lesley Stevenson posted a question on her Facebook page asking how people recover from a bad ride. I loved reading the responses. Sharing ideas and experiences with each other is an essential part in maintaining our resilience in the face of challenge. I also admired the wealth of knowledge, creativity and humor in everyone’s responses. As I read each comment, I started thinking about how the responses naturally fell into several categories which reflected the strategies for recovery recommended by sport psychology consultants. As a tribute to all the riders that responded to that post, I thought I would try to summarize those strategies here so we all might benefit. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)
"I would like to know if you have any strategies for dealing with intense anxiety. I become anxious just thinking about a jump lesson, let alone a show or event. My anxiety amps up my horse, and then we don’t do nearly as well as we could. My horse is a saint and takes very good care of me over jumps, but he does feed off my anxiety. My main instructor and several clinicians insist that I am extremely well prepared for the level at which I’m competing, so I’m not overfacing myself or my horse. Thank you in advance for any help you can provide!" ~ Erin
Erin – One of the several bright spots in your story is that your intense anxiety, while impacting your performance, is not preventing you from participating in the sport. This opens the door for one of the most time honored and empirically validated approaches for tackling anxiety. It is called “In Vivo Systematic Desensitization,” more commonly known as exposure therapy. “In Vivo” refers to direct or live exposure to the anxiety provoking stimulus. “Desensitization” is exactly as you would imagine. It refers to inhibiting avoidance reactions long enough for you to “get comfortable” with the problematic situation or stimulus. “Systematic” refers to a compassionate measured approach where you start with situations that evoke milder anxiety, and then work your way toward more challenging situations as you master the less provoking ones. (Click on Question Title above (in blue) to read full answer)
One of the things that many people don’t know about me is that I hold Bachelor of Science degree in Physics. I have always been interested in the scientific knowledge of our natural world and how the insights from advanced scientific study enrich our understanding of ourselves, our horses and our relationship with them. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)
Dr. Haefner's Corner "Ask the Doc", Question # 3Ashleen asks… I have a brain block when fences get bigger than 2'6". I have previously jumped 3'6" in my riding career but it's been a while. Now it seems like as soon as I hit 2'9", it looks insurmountable. I trust my horse like no other because I know she'll take care of me. And she routinely clears our 4'9" standards so it's definitely not a question of her ability. What can I do to work through this?
Ashleen – It may not surprise you to find out that you are not alone. As humans, we frequently connect meaning to observations and/or situations we encounter in our riding. Often, the meaning we make of a situation is far more potent in determining our reaction to a situation than an objective, sensible evaluation. It is likely that you have made a personally meaningful connection (albeit a seemingly negative one) between a specific fence height and some element of angst, anxiety or fear which is creating the block you are experiencing.
I had the pleasure of auditing the William Fox-Pitt Clinic at Morningside Training Farm last week. While I was struck by many things I heard and observed, the most striking for me was his focus on the fundamentals of good horsemanship. Whether he was working with 3*/4* riders and their horses or with riders and horses of less experience, he started at the beginning. The first day’s sessions on the flat started with a discussion of, and work on, the warm up. This was followed by a focus on connection, relaxation and rhythm. All of this before any upper level movements. The second day’s jumping sessions started over fences at the trot and the walk before moving on to more challenging exercises. The focus of all the jumping work was on supporting a positive attitude in the horse and encouraging the horse to “find” the jumps. His commitment to good fundamentals and to the welfare and nature of each horse was both admirable and refreshing. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)
Clients ask me great questions about a wide range of issues. They want to to know how to achieve positive performance states, deal with anxiety, accelerate their learning, regulate their energy, strengthen their motivation, and manage their behavior, just to name a few. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)
Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of presenting my annual local seminar on equestrian sport psychology – Five Pillars of Success. I look forward to this every year because it gives me the opportunity to reflect on how my thinking and my practice has grown and changed. Each year I seem to have one or two new insights/ideas which need some time to germinate and grow before I am ready to incorporate them into my practice and talk with clients about them. This year it was the seeming disparity between what people want or expect from sport psychology and what they ultimately need. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)Dr. Haefner's Corner "Ask the Doc", Question # 2Sharon writes: Other than perhaps golf, is dressage the most technically difficult sport to learn and do you see orders of magnitude more frustration among dressage riders than with any other 10 sports combined? How do you help people who are crumbling mentally over trying to learn dressage?
How many times have you entered the arena to compete and found yourself obsessing about what someone else was thinking about you? Sure we worry about what the judges think, but we also worry about what almost everyone else thinks. We worry about the judgments of our trainers, other people’s trainers, family, friends, peers, as well as other competitors. Yet, at the end of the day, we have to wonder how many of those people, whose judgments we worry so much about, gave our performance more than a passing thought. The reality is that we are most often the only ones that are judging ourselves so harshly and ruthlessly. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry)
Dr. Haefner's Corner "Ask the Doc", Question # 1: I struggle when my horse bolts. I go straight to my hand and get in the waterski situation. Is there any way I can train my brain to be quicker to use my seat? (Claire)Claire, Thank you for the question. In every consultation, my first concern is the welfare of the rider and the horse. This is always a challenge for me when I don’t personally know the horses, trainers, and riders involved. So, before sharing some thoughts, I want you to know that in responding to your question I will assume that you and your horse are well matched for your skill and experience and that you have the assistance of an experienced and competent trainer who can help you progress safely and efficiently. With that said, you are asking an important and fundamental question about methods for “re-programming” instinctive or reflexive responses. All of us have instinctive responses to perceived threat. You can think about someone coming up to you and unexpectedly snapping their fingers in front of your face. The vast majority of people will blink in this situation. Your challenge is tantamount to finding a way not to blink when confronted with the snap. You can play with this at home if you have someone willing to snap their fingers repeatedly for you. (Click on Question Title above (in blue) to read full answer)Dr. Haefner's Blog post # 2: Courage
While I understand the importance of "mental toughness," I have never liked the phrase. One problem I have encountered is that it often evokes images of pushing through no matter what, without any consideration of context. In my career as a sport psychologist, I can honestly say that there has been more real damage done when clients have been pushed (or pushed themselves) to "cowboy up" and exhibit their toughness in situations that were objectively unsafe either physically, psychologically or emotionally. On reflection, I think we are much better served by exploring the many foundational qualities and characteristics of mental toughness such as courage, resilience, and persistence rather than the dogged pursuit of mental toughness itself. (Click on Blog Title above (in blue) to read full entry.)
Recently, I have been following the reports about David O’Connor’s approach to the USEF Eventing High Performance training sessions. It got me thinking about coaching and mentorship and how it relates to attitudes about sport psychology. In every sport, athletes seek out and receive coaching regardless of the their level of accomplishment and their knowledge of the game. For the dedicated athlete there is always room for improvement. There is always room to hone skills, expand knowledge, and strive to get better. (Click on Blog Entry above (in blue) to read full entry)
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