McGivern, Annika Articles

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Motivation and Expertise - I want to be the absolute best rider I can be. But I’m also terrified that my best won’t be good enough. What do I do when it feels like it’s not working?

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Have you ever felt like you’re getting in your own way? If so, you are not alone. As equestrians, we can be at particular risk of “self-sabotaging” when moving up a level in competition. This article will explore why this happens and what we can do to work against our tendency to make things harder for ourselves than they need to be. It is possible to tackle each new level with self-trust, confidence, and effective riding. All we need is the support of some mental skills and strategies.

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When you tack up your horse each day, what are you looking to accomplish? Regardless of your discipline, and whether you compete or not, I’m willing to bet that your goals are always related to learning. As riders we want to learn the physical, technical, and mental skills involved in partnering with a horse. We also work to help them learn the aids, manage their own bodies and nervous systems, and respond consistently and safely in a variety of circumstances. It all comes back to learning.

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Last summer I was watching a warm-up ring at Thunderbird Show Park in Vancouver, BC and noticed a rider who seemed to be having a hard time. Her horse was quite tense and wasn’t paying attention, despite her best efforts to create a contact. The horse seemed very distracted and when they trotted up to a practice jump he refused. The rider was fighting to retain composure, but her tension and frustration were evident. She managed to get over a few jumps at the trot but when they began cantering, the horse rushed the jumps and nearly bolted away on landing. After a couple of jumps she pulled up in the corner of the arena and I could see from her face that she was working hard to hold back tears.

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What are your personal values and why do they matter? Have you ever temporarily fallen out of love with riding? In my work as an equestrian mental performance coach, many clients share with me that they’ve lost the joy that riding used to give them. Sometimes the challenges of your sport can feel like they’re outnumbering the positives and equestrians can find themselves wondering: Why do I do this?

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Do you enjoy feeling out of control? No? That doesn’t surprise me. Losing control is one of the most prevalent fears we experience as humans. At the root of this fear is the belief that if we are not able to control the present and the future, something terrible will happen.

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Facing Fear - Real and Imagined - The Mediterranean waters glistened below me. As I stood on the edge of the rockface, contemplating the 25-foot drop into the clear blue sea, it felt like my body was screaming at me to not jump. My knees were shaking, making my legs feel unsteady. My mind felt fuzzy and slightly disconnected from reality. I was more acutely scared than I had been in quite some time. But here’s the thing: I really wanted to jump. I was in Croatia and the sea was warm and inviting. I had watched about 10 people make the same leap quite safely and I knew, rationally, that it really wasn’t that high. I was determined to push through my nerves and do it, but in that moment I wasn’t entirely sure my body would let me.

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If you could choose the way you feel every time you sit on horse, what emotions would you choose? When I ask this question of my clients, their responses usually include the words calm, present, happy, relaxed, and confident. If you agree, it begs the question: Why don’t we feel this way more often in the saddle?

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Start Rewiring Early - Habits are mental shortcuts created by our brain to reduce the need to make conscious decisions every moment of the day, which would require far too much time and processing power. By associating certain events and experiences with specific actions and responses, our brain can respond quickly and efficiently without our conscious “input.” For example, when a horse pins its ears and shifts its weight, we typically have moved out of harm’s way before we have had time to think about what we are doing.

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How to Bounce Back - As I sit down to write about burnout, I step back through time into memories of moments where I felt overwhelmed by frustration, exhaustion, and an agonizing feeling of not achieving. A feeling of not measuring up to expectations. When I was in this mental place, every unsuccessful show and difficult ride left me feeling stressed, anxious, and like a failure. The thoughts, Why do I do this? and I can’t do this any more! played on repeat in my head. I was spending so much time and money and I wanted success badly.

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Integrating sport psychology training into our daily lives - Ten years ago, I was moving up a level in three-day eventing and fell off during cross-country at my first two events. They were simple falls and luckily neither I nor my horse were injured, yet something still felt seriously wrong. After my second fall, I struggled to see a distance to even the simplest cross-pole. My confidence plummeted and my horse started stopping. I felt as if I had forgotten how to ride overnight and the frustration and embarrassment were completely overwhelming. I am forever grateful that it occurred to me to reach out to a sport psychology coach for help because, after several sessions I finally understood what was happening and felt equipped to solve the problem. It was an “aha” moment for me because it opened my eyes to a whole new side of competitive sport that I had not been considering: the mental game.

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You may think your barn community is too small to have something as fancy as its own culture, but it does. Whenever groups of people come together through common goals, interests, and patterns of behaviour, a culture is formed. A culture is a set of shared beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, practices, and behaviours. A strong culture can help all involved reach higher and further than they can alone. However, when a culture isn’t shaped intentionally, it may not serve its full potential. In some cases, a culture can even become harmful to those within it.

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Most of us see perfectionism as a harmless tendency to hold ourselves to high standards, or a reluctance to accept mediocre results. In fact, many of us consider perfectionism to be a positive trait, a sign that someone cares and is deeply driven to succeed. Unfortunately, this casual acceptance of perfectionism conceals a potential danger because a lack of clarity around what perfectionism is and isn’t opens us up to a fatal error. Unknowingly, we celebrate and endorse a habit that leads to unnecessary pain and suffering, as well as impacts our performance.

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In my work as an equestrian sport psychology coach, I spend a lot of time talking with riders about guilt. It seems that we riders experience a lot of guilt in response to an amazing variety of circumstances.

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Beliefs shape us. They are an essential part of the framework we use to understand ourselves and how the world works. They shape our perspectives and choices, and influence the very realities we create for ourselves. In short, they are an extremely important element of performance. And yet, because they exist at a subconscious level, we are rarely aware of their influence on our outcomes and success.

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Every equestrian knows the magic of our unique bond with our horses. It is a relationship that sits at the centre of our lives, supporting us and challenging us in equal measure. Every minute spent with our horses has a big impact on our well-being, which is an individual’s personal experience of good mental health and satisfaction with life. Research now supports what horsey folks have known for years: spending time with horses is good for us, so much so that horses are increasingly being used as a source of therapy. Studies have demonstrated that time spent interacting with horses increases positive emotions, decreasing depression and increasing social connection skills in children and adults alike.

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Finding and Owning the Equestrian Athlete Identity - At its core, equestrian sport is a partnership between horse and human. This relationship is unique, and it affects both the culture of the sport and our identity as athletes. Today, we are going to look closely at our equestrian athlete identity.

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A couple of months ago, reality shifted as the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped our lives. We were all left facing challenges beyond anything we could have imagined. The equestrian community is no different from any other community in finding itself cut off from normality, but we are dealing with the added emotional challenge of being disconnected from the thing that grounds us in difficult times: our connection with our horses. We may also face distress over the financial impact of this unprecedented event on our lives, businesses, and the welfare of our animals.