Many of us will recognise the feelings of moving towards doing something that had in the past once caused us pain. Whether it be physical or emotional pain - the sensations are still very real.
The physical changes of holding the breath, the jittery stomach, mind racing and dry mouth are just to name a few. These sensations are often strong and uncomfortable. They are enough to prevent us from doing something even remotely close to the original traumatic experience.
Of late, I have had several new clients come to me after having had a fall, or experienced some sort of challenging event looking to find a way out of the fear and frustration. Recently a new client came to see me after her horse reared and fell over on her. She had lost all confidence with the horse and found her self dismounting if her horse did anything as much as lifting his head. Those close to her thought they were helping the best way they knew by saying “just get back on, kick him and get over it” or “It wasn’t that bad, he only fell sideways” As much as it was all well intended, it certainly wasn’t helping her to functionally process the event and create a way forward.
I like to share with you an overview of the process that we worked through to get her to where she was once again able to ride her horse calmly and effectively managing any situations as they arose. She is now back enjoying her riding and her horse is a much more confidant and willing partner.
There are three parts to managing the traumatic riding experience. Trauma may sound like an over dramatic word, but there are different levels of trauma, and if you are the one experiencing it, any event where even for a brief moment felt life or death, or caused a situation where you sense of belonging and connection (love) was compromised than traumatic would describe the event aptly.
We need to look at our responses in the past, the present and the future to bring about both mind and body breakthroughs
Part 1 - Managing your stored memories and emotions.
Emotions impact where and how memories are stored. The more emotional an event is, the more likely we will remember it and those memories will have more clarity. Think of the last time you smelt something familiar and it bought you right back to your first boyfriend or first breakup.
Our brain does this so it can collect as much data as possible to prevent us making the same mistake again in the future, or to help us experience a positive event again. It collects a visual time stamp, and many other pieces of information from the senses. This has helped us to survive, find food and reproduce for eons.
We no longer need to try berries to decide what ones are poisen and what ones are healthy or fend off hungry lions but we still have experiences that will shape the rest of our lives. Often the more emotional the event is, during recollection of the memory in your mind the colours will be brighter and the picture clearer and more vivid. Many suffer flashbacks when confronted with triggers of the past event which can lead toward a full blown anxiety attack.
Our brain is so advanced that our thoughts can cause the brain to release chemicals into the nervous system which cause changes in both feelings leading to actions and unconscious bodily functions. It can be tricked though, and we can use this to our advantage.
During meditation or deep relaxation the brain can move into theta brainwave patterns, this means that the brain is in a very suggestive place. Here we can change the emotions and thoughts connected with the event. This will directly change the automatic response from the rider should the event arise again in the future.
I do this process in a very structured manner with my clients but you can do it at home by yourself. Simply take some time to sit quietly and remember the event in your mind. Pay close attention to the colours in your image, whether you are looking through your own eyes or as an observer and what emotions or feeling in your body come up for you.
Then, say to yourself that you no longer want to feel that way. Decide on how you would rather see the event. You can decide to feel empowered because you are now learning how to better communicate with your horse. You can feel calm as you have seen how the event ends and know that you are safe. You can change the outcome of the event by creating a different ending in your mind. Your subconscious brain is such that when in a deep state in can’t always tell the difference between what is real and what has been created in your mind, therefore you can quite literally change the emotional responses attached to the event.
In the above example, the rider found even thinking about her horse rearing caused her anxiety and created her body become rigid and tense. Her decisions became erratic and her mind foggy. This had an obvious effect on her inability to manage her responses when the horse was needing direction and confidence from the rider.
We changed the emotional responses by attaching pride in the fact she is still riding and wanting to understand both herself and her horse more. We also attached calm and compassion for herself in the situation. Finally we added a layer of security, a safety net if you like where no matter what happened she knew she could handle it. We replayed the rear over several times until she no longer felt fear, but instead felt certainty and calm.
Then it is onto the practical Steps.
Step 2 - Knowing what to do if the situation were to arise.
Uncertainty can be incredibly daunting for many people. As a human race we love to be certain of an outcome. It is why we like to “line all our ducks up in a row” before we proceed with a task. The more certain of the outcome we are the more likely we are to pursue it. This is a problem when we are wanting to dare greatly and take big steps but that’s a whole conversation for another day.
Right now, we want to increase some certainty by knowing what to do if the horse was to rear.
In the horse rearing example, I spent quite some time discussing how a horse rears and why we need to keep forward movement to prevent the horse from going up. I also explained position and what we need to do with our body to prevent the horse going over and to have us in the most secure position once the horse come down to effectively manage the behaviour and ride away.
If we are in a position to practice the movement until it become subconscious then we would do that, but in the rearing example we were never going to encourage the horse to rear simply to practice what to do in the case of.
Instead we visualised the scenario, remembering we teach our body to behave in certain ways simply by imagining. We did this over and over again until she felt 100% confident that if the horse was to rear, she could predict how she would respond.
Step 3 - Knowledge is key, and prevention is better that cure.
In this step, we look at what caused the horse behave in this manner in the first place and how can we prevent it happening in the future. It where we become empowered simply through knowledge.
In the rearing example we looked at the riders aids, and made adjustments where necessary. We clarified the why’s and how’s of the aids as well as defined the outcome. I tweaked her position and we had him looked at by a equine body specialist to make sure there was no pain triggers in the horse.
We then looked at the horses responses to the forward aids and whether they were appropriate. We found that this horse’s initial response was to go sideways rather than forwards off the leg. In the past the rider had then pulled him over with her reins. He reacted by popping up and down on the spot. First I needed to ensure she was using the correct aids appropriately and help her with her feel and timing.
Over the next several rides, we retrained the forward aids, and engaged the sideways leg aids. I helped her to establish an a forward contact that allowed her horse go into the rein rather then resenting it.
To help with understanding the process, I taught her the ice-cream example of becoming aware of and responding to the “little things”
The “little thing” Ice cream example
Imagine you are watching a mother and child interact. The child has asked for an ice cream. The mother says No, and the child then drops her lips and cries a little. The mother holds her ground knowing full well that the no matter what the child does, he will not be getting an ice cream that day. After a minute of two the child gives up and forgets about the ice cream.
The next time the child asks for an ice cream and the mother says No, the darling little mite will give up sooner as he knows that an ice cream is not coming as a result of tears.
Now lets look at another mother and child. The child has asked for ice cream and the mother says No. The child drops the lip and begins crying, the mother get angry and the child cried a little louder and harder. Eventually the mother gets sick of the tears and give up. The child gets an ice cream.
The next time this happens, the child will know that if he tried hard enough, eventually Mum will give up. After the initial No, the child starts screaming this time, and even throws himself to the ground. This embarrasses Mum who then rushes to the ice cream man to get an ice cream as quick as possible to get this kid up off the floor. Each time this happens, our darling little human thinks he has to get a little worse in order for mum to give up and get him an ice cream
The same can happen with horses. If a rider notices the horse make a tiny drift sideways when unwanted and he corrects it early the horse puts up little confrontation. It is actually quite a pleasurable conversation.
However if the rider didn't notice it until he had now gone a fair bit sideways, it becomes a lot harder to the rider to enforce the aid, and harder to the horse to correct himself. The horse may react by pulling the reins and lifting his head, or even pushing into the leg and going the opposite direction. If the rider then gives up because it got too hard or he became concerned and stopped asking for the correction, the horse will then put more effort into the wrong behaviours the next time. It wasn’t the horses fault, we have taught the horse to offer inappropriate responses to aids.
Knowing what to notice, and being aware of the subtleties of horse movement and behaviour is key. Timing is crucial and when to take the pressure off is actually more important then when you put the pressure on
Developing this knowledge and experience takes time, but working with a coach who is able to take through this process and offer suggestions and information that is relevant to you and your horse at this time in your journey will make the process faster and far more enjoyable.
In the example of the rearing horse, the rider had many challenges to overcome in the process. However she worked through this process feeling inspired. Her goals of completing a elementary dressage test were achieved and developed a far deeper connection and understanding than ever before.
She now knows what to do should he rear which gives her certainty. She is aware of the tiny little subtle changes in the horse that if left alone will become big problems in the future and could lead to a rear. In those scenarios she is able to help the horse and respond appropriately when the little things come up. She is no longer paralysed by the prior memories and is in fact grateful for them and where it has led her.
I have used these three steps for many other traumas that come up for horse riders. From fears around jumping oxers and ditches, to fears of cantering and riding out of the arena. You can adapt this process to help you through many of life's challenges.
I hope you have as much fun playing with this concept as I have. It really has been a life changer for me xx