It doesn’t matter what it is: an important show, a training session with the world’s greatest trainer, a once-in-a-blue-moon trip to the beach with your mates. You’re really looking forward to it. You’ve trained your socks off for it. You’ve planned the whole thing to within an inch of its life. You’ve worked so hard on your mental and physical fitness that you’re considering changing your middle name to “Nijna”.
And then, on the big day, it all goes TERRIBLY wrong.
The weather, the judges, the organisers, the traffic, the quite simply enormous waves – everyone and everything seem to be conspiring against you. To add insult to injury, as you pull your horse of the trailer, you discover that he’s undergone a personality transplant without your prior knowledge. The polite, well-behaved equine gentleman (or woman) you’ve known for years has morphed into a fire-breathing dragon and you forgot to bring the fire extinguisher. Or your superman reincarnation on four legs suddenly appears no bigger, nor fiercer, than the average field mouse. No coaxing, pleading or bribing can persuade him to go near his own shadow let alone any other horses…
It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. It’s enough to question your preparation, your planning, your training. Enough to doubt anything you’ve ever done with your horse.
You know what? That’s both normal and understandable. If faced with circumstances we’ve never had to deal with before, even the most confident among us might get a case of wobbly knees for a a second or two and worry what we should do.* But it’s what you do next is that counts.
And for many riders, the thing to do next is… errr…panic!
All at once, they stop doing what they’ve always done. The routine they’ve built up over the years and their horse has got used to vanishes in the blink of an eye. No more tacking up in a specific order (for example), no more walking for 10 minutes to warm-up (for example). No more 15 minutes of easy loosening up, before horse and rider start to work in earnest (for example).
Oh no! Circumstances change, and the temptation to adopt a state of emergency is simply too great. Tack is thrown on, riders jump on board. Reins are tightened and the horse is told to “behave” in no uncertain terms.
And the horse? He quite literally has no idea what’s going on. He simply reacts to a situation that has now gone from a little scary to absolutely terrifying. And we all know what that means … The rider, already in a state of heightened arousal (to put it mildly), more often than not interprets such behaviour as yet another reason to take drastic measures. A vicious circle of behaviour ensues that is tricky to break. I think we can all agree that it’s much, much better to not get sucked into it in the first place!
Horses thrive on routine, especially in times of stress or uncertainty. Doing the same thing, following the same order of events, applying the same aids, using the same cues and rewards will help a horse settle much more quickly than any abrupt changes of proceedings ever could.
So especially in situations that are different to “normal”, you should try and stick to your tried-and-tested routines as much as possible. That way, there’ll at least be some things your horse is familiar with and derive feelings of security from.
By the way, there’s an added bonus too: reminding yourself of how you always do things in times of crisis, will also help you feel more secure and keep that feeling of rising panic at bay. Really, it’s just another behavioural circle, only it’s not vicious: a calm(er) you resulting in a calm(er) horse; a calm(er) horse resulting in a calm(er) you.
And even though things might still not go quite the way you might have hoped, they’ll at least not turn into a complete disaster!
*Please note: A little bit of self-doubt once in a while can be a good thing (but only when you’re not smack-bang in the middle of a stressful situation). It makes you reevaluate the status quo, question where you’re currently at and where you want to be. It might even make you think outside the box and allows you to come up with innovative solutions (this, incidentally, is why I’ve argued in one of my previous blogs that a bit of trauma can be good for you – it teaches you how to cope).
More about Dr Inga Wolframm: HERE