At the end of the day we are all primal beings. Humans are predators designed to hunt (and horses are prey designed to avoid us!). Yet we can work together in a beautiful partnership and achieve things only dreams are made of.
Humans when they are put under pressure or stressed will release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These are designed to heighten your awareness and increase your reaction times. Although they can have the opposite affect if they get too high and they can put you into “fight or flight” mode and that stops your logical brain from functioning and switches to your primal survival brain function.
Being focused and very aware of your body is amazingly powerful for as a rider. When you are totally “in the zone”, focused only on your body and your horses’ body, you are able to make fast adjustments and support your horse to do their job. 4* eventers are 100% focused when they are xc because here is very little room for error without causing serious injury! However, they don’t focus on the potential for injury (although of course they are aware of it and wear the best safety kit they can to prevent it). They focus on the task at hand. The speed, impulsion, direction, line, feel of the horse and the route they have decided to take (always with an option b if needed). Top riders even understand the necessary rhythm of the footfall and breathing rate of the horse to reach the desired MPM and avoid time penalties. This focus on the physical aspects of riding means there is no room in the brain for fear or worries.
By keeping the level of hormones low, so they don’t reach levels that trigger fight or flight, you can use them to your advantage to keep your brain focused and your body able to make lightening quick changes. These are made when necessary and in reaction to minute changes from your horse and the environment around you. That way changes are adjusted before they escalate to become an issue in anyway. Top dressage riders are very accomplished at feeling the tiny changes in their horse and correcting them quickly, so the untrained eye doesn’t even notice what’s going on.
You can identify the triggers that make you stressed and what happens to your body when your hormones flood in high levels. You might grit your teeth, feel sick, shake, talk lots, go quiet, become angry at those around you, tense up etc. It’s very individual to you and your stress/ nervous tolerance will be different in many situations. If you feel any of these and do nothing about them you will simply take this way of being up onto your horse and they will react by being tense, backing off, spooking, dancing about, tuning out or many other less than desirable behaviours. None of which are associated with top performance. Here are some things you can do to work with nerves to help you both perform at your best…
1 – Identify that your behaviour has changed and also to think about what may have triggered it.
2 – Work out the best way for you to bring down your hormone levels and use them to focus your mind and body. Normally breathing deeply is a very good start.
3 – Take a moment to get present. This means focusing on the sounds around you, your body, and your breath. Let any negative thoughts flow away for now.
4 – Think about releasing tension in your jaw, shoulders, neck, back etc all the way down to your toes. This is very quick to do.
5 – Put things into perspective. There will always be another test, another show, another day. This is about doing your best. Your best is very rarely achieved in fight or flight mode!
6 – Remember why you are here. Why you love this. What is motivating you to do it and how much you love riding your horse!!!