Winter Doldrums Got You Down? 7 Ways to Banish the Blahs

By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist

Blah. Blech. Sigh. There are more colourful words to describe the prospect of riding on a cold winter’s day, but no editor would allow for their presence. So I’ll trust you to fill in the appropriate adjectives at your discretion — and to your satisfaction.

It’s amazing how that same body that tingled at the opportunity to go for a ride this summer is now locked in a horizontal position on the couch. Inertia seems to have set in, and it may take some serious convincing to get some movement going again. What can you do?

1. Use the Situation to your Advantage

Believe it or not, winter does present you with some gifts, if you can learn to adjust your glasses a little. One of the hallmarks of any great athlete is their ability to turn around a tough situation and see what’s in it for them. Given that winter presents us with less than comfortable conditions, it can be a great opportunity to develop some more of that mental toughness you keep hearing about.

Training yourself to be tougher begins with an awareness that you are not feeling motivated or that in some way your state is not right. It seems simple, but many of us don’t pay attention to the way we feel, we just let it dictate our actions. The next step is to ask yourself: “what can I do about this?” Recognize that you can do nothing about the source of your feelings — because we can never have complete control over our external surroundings. Being angry at the season and all its inconveniences will not help you be a better rider. However, you can and should take action on what you can control — your internal environment.

Experiment with “calling up” positive feelings you have experienced before, much like an actor tries to “get into character”. Practice turning around a low mood/motivational state. Just think how far ahead of everyone else you will be at the next rainy cold show! You’ll be the one riding around in your zone while everyone else struggles to get tacked up. The bottom line: instead of seeing the cold as something that is challenging you, decide you will challenge it.

2. Think Warm Clothes and Thoughts

The more comfortable you can make the experience, the more likely you are to follow through. So invest in those lined riding gloves, cozy vests and fleece pants. Layer up and throw in a couple of those hot pocket packs just in case you need some extra juice. Follow up your riding session with hot chocolate or other cozy reward.

Instead of seeing the cold as something that is challenging you, decide you will challenge it. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

There is also the possibility you can think your way to comfort.  I recall one rider telling me she would always put on a right-from-the-dryer toasty undershirt to get her feeling and thinking warm thoughts. Experiment with “comfort cues”, prompts or words that put you in a contented state of mind.

3. Goals Can Give You Meaning

If you don’t have any targets to strive for, it will be easy for you to say “I’ll just do it tomorrow, maybe it will be warmer”.  So do make sure you set goals for yourself. Begin with long-term goals and then break these down into a list of skills you will need to accomplish these goals.

Next, rate these skills on a scale from 1 to 10. Where are you right now? Realistically, how much can you seek to improve over the winter months? You may also want to consider plotting these numbers on some kind of graph or other visual, with the aim to record progress every two to three weeks. This will give you a way of “checking in”, and make you accountable to your training program. As well, it can be a quick way to eyeball your progress.  It can be motivating to notice your upper body control has improved two points in the last month, and your discipline is paying off.

For extra motivational oomph, you can also post a visual cue alongside your chart. This could be a picture of your favorite rider, or even a photo of you and your horse. It doesn’t really matter what or who the picture is, as long as it elicits an emotional response when you see it. Whenever you glance its way you want it to scream, “Hey, this is why you ride! Because of this feeling it gives you!” It is normal for all of us to lose motivation at one time or another, winter or not. Using this type of cue can help you reconnect with the “why” behind your riding.  Your “why” can be just the fuel you need to slog through those tough times.

4. Don’t Go It Alone

There is something to be said for the old buddy system. You know, if someone is waiting for you at the gym then you are less likely to wimp out. The same seems to hold true for the barn. If you have a riding buddy/car pool partner, the two of you can bolster each other. Strive to make realistic “riding dates” that both of you can stick to.

5. Set Up A Test Date

Students are more likely (at least some are) to go to class right before the big exam. You might find it helpful to set aside dates for small schooling shows, which may just be comprised of your barn-mates or even your lesson group. This way, you know there is a “test” coming up on your skills that you would do well to study for. 

Mock shows can be a wonderful team building activity as well.  Don’t underestimate the importance of the relationships you have with others in the barn and the influence they can have on your riding pleasure and success. So have some fun — try a wine and cheese or potluck post competition.

6. When Old Man Winter insists you stay in... Options for Horseless Training

You are going to love this form of training, I guarantee it. You can do it by a nice warm fire or even tucked into a down comforter. Visualization is a powerful mental tool that many athletes use when either finances, conditions or injuries restrict them from training.

Photo: We all need to step away and regenerate from time to time, so when you feel “barn sour” it’s okay to yourself some time off.

For simplicity’s sake, there are two ways you can set up your training session. One is to focus on a technical skill you would like to develop. An example may be improving your upper body position. See and feel yourself holding this position effectively through a variety of gaits or over jumps.

Your other choice is to engage in some “feel good” visualization. This involves focusing on seeing yourself perform or ride in a way that brings up feelings of confidence or other positive emotions. If you find yourself with more than one blustery day on your hands, you can even strive to develop what I like to call your “peak performance video library”. This contains snapshots, video clips and entire performances of you at your best. Getting to know these images well, through all your senses, can help you reach your goals by setting your mind and spirit on the right track.

Whichever type of visualization you choose, make sure you prepare yourself for your “session” by relaxing your mind and body. Take the time to do several cycles of deep breathing, or alternatively tightening and loosening all the major muscles in your body until you feel free of tension.

Another form of horseless training involves looking for ways to cross-train. If you were to make a list of all of the skills and attributes you feel a rider should possess, what would it look like? You may include things like: balanced, confident, sensitive, focused, strong, determined. Make a list that is meaningful to you, there are no wrong answers. Now in what ways, other than riding, could you seek to develop these qualities?

You could take a yoga class to develop your balance, a martial arts class to train your focus, or a class in horse communication to help understand your teammate better. An “indoor clinic” could easily be arranged with you, your stable-mates and a good stack of horse videos. Even an acting class can leave you better equipped to draw forward the kinds of emotions you will need in order to compete at your best — and what a fun way to work out your emotional muscles. You get the idea: you are only limited here by your creativity.

7. Take a Break

Finally, don’t be afraid to give yourself permission for you and your horse to have some time off. We all need to step away and regenerate, horses included. I believe the correct term is “barn sour” and it’s an affliction that can strike us humans as well.  Sometimes a well deserved rest on the couch is just what you need to overcome those blahs and renew your interest in riding.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article photo: CanStockPhoto/secheltgirl

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