Craving Control in Equestrian Sport

Annika McGivern, how to relax about horse riding, understanding my horse, angry at horse, hate my riding skills, equestrian psychologist, horse psychology

By Annika McGivern

Do you enjoy feeling out of control? 


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. Those of us with a high need for certainty and control can live in a near constant state of stress. The stress stems from attempting to predict and control the future to protect themselves and others, which is, of course, an impossible task. 

As riders, we grapple with control more tangibly than most. Anyone who has been on a bolting or panicking horse has come face-to-face with this difficult reality: We do not have 100 percent control over our horses.

This can be a difficult reality to accept. Often, after a traumatic experience such as a bolt or a bad fall, part of our coping mechanism is to do everything we can to feel more in control in the saddle. Ironically, however, an over-focus on control while riding can steer things in an unhelpful, possibly dangerous, direction. This article will talk you through some mental strategies to develop a healthier relationship with control. Implementing these strategies will support you to develop confidence, manage nerves and fear, and help you create a stronger and more positive relationship with your horse.

Reframe Uncertainty

In a famous study, researchers presented participants with two choices. Option one was to go into a room and receive a small electric shock (slightly painful but not harmful) and then go home. For the second option they would stay in another room for an unknown length of time and that something would happen, but they wouldn’t know ahead of time what that thing was. Which would you choose? Most people chose the electric shock, which gives us some insight into how humans feel about uncertainty: We do NOT like it! In general, we prefer the known negative (in this case, getting an electric shock) to the unknown.

This is because when faced with the unknown, our brain usually jumps to the worst-case-scenario due to our natural negativity bias. However, this tendency can severely limit our thinking. In the study, most people assumed option two would be worse than option one, but the few participants who chose option two were simply given a cup of coffee and sent on their way after 10 minutes. When faced with the unknown we subconsciously assume uncertainty means danger, but this isn’t true. 

Uncertainty simply means possibility. When we don’t know what is going to happen, that means there is an amazing range of possible outcomes from terrible to wonderful and everything in between. If you don’t know how high your horse can jump yet, then he may not get as far as you hope, or he might surpass what you currently imagine is possible. Facing the uncertainty of the future can be scary if we believe we need certainty to be okay. It is only through accepting that we can never be truly certain about the future and recognising that we can thrive without certainty — and in fact we have been doing this our entire lives — that we can start to be free of our fear of losing control.

Related: The Two Faces of Perfectionism in Horse Riding

Form a realistic understanding of what you control and what you do not. 

Most individuals who have an unhealthy relationship with control sit on the extreme ends of the control spectrum, which ranges from zero control to absolute control. On the zero control end, they decide that one cannot control anything in life and accepting that is the only way to be okay. Those on the absolute control end decide that one must control everything to be okay. Neither extreme works very well, because reality sits somewhere in the middle. Yes, we can’t control a lot of the things in our lives. But, instead of letting that overwhelm you, the most helpful thing is to recognise that the short list of things we do fully control is powerful. 

What if we became exceptionally good at putting our focus and energy into this short list instead of getting constantly distracted by the things we can’t control? When we control the controllables we can have an amazing amount of positive influence over the quality of our rides, and our lives.

Here is a list of things we DO NOT control, but which often distract us:

  • The weather;
  • The thoughts and opinions of the people watching us ride; 
  • The decisions and actions of other riders sharing the arena; 
  • Our horse’s reactions and decisions; 
  • How this moment will impact our future possibilities; 
  • Past events and experiences. 

Here are the things we DO control that we benefit from focusing on while riding:

  • Our thinking. Think about what you want to have happen instead of what you don’t want to have happen. I want to ride a balanced trot through the corner, instead of I don’t want my horse to spook at the jumps in the corner; 
  • Our beliefs. Choose to focus on all the evidence you have that demonstrates you are a good, capable rider. Choose to back yourself and be your own biggest cheerleader;
  • Our reactions. Choose to react with curiosity instead of emotion. I wonder why that didn’t work? Instead of, Oh no, that was so embarrassing; 
  • Our focus. Choose to look for the calmness of the present moment by focusing on the task at hand. Notice when you’re getting distracted by the stories your brain produces and return to the present moment. 

Choose an Internal Locus of Control instead of an External Locus of Control 

Having an internal locus of control means deciding that you are the biggest driving influence in the outcomes of your life. From this perspective you believe that no matter what happens to you, you will ultimately be able to influence the outcome through your own actions and reactions. This belief is empowering and promotes responsibility and accountability. 

In contrast, an external locus of control comes from believing that the events of your life are more powerful than your choices. From this perspective you believe that it doesn’t matter what you do or how you react, larger forces such as luck or fate will ultimately control the outcomes of your life. This belief can create hopelessness and even a victim mentality where we believe everything is against us.

A rider with an internal locus of control is realistic and understands that she only controls a small list of things. Critically, she believes the things she does control are the most important and influential factors shaping her experience and results. Interestingly, research shows that people with an internal locus of control are happier and much more satisfied with their lives than people with an external locus of control. There is a lot to gain from taking on this perspective.

Because horse sport carries a real physical risk, it’s important to realise that striving for total control is not the best way to keep ourselves safe. This approach only leaves us increasingly tense and anxious as we inevitably do not achieve the total control we seek. Tension and anxiety then influence the horse and make unwanted behaviour more likely. Counterintuitively, we are safest on a horse when we accept that we do not and cannot have complete control. We instead direct our energy into the things we do control, such as our state of mind and reactions, which then positively influence the horse and our ability to handle unexpected behaviour.

Any time we mount a horse we choose to put ourselves in a situation where we do not have 100 percent control over the outcomes. Yet we continue to ride horses because, as riders, we know that if we can surrender our need for absolute control and trust in ourselves and the horse, the joy and growth we get from the experience is 100 percent worth it. In this way riding is an interesting metaphor for life. It takes courage to get on the back of a horse, just as it takes courage to keep living fully in the face of an uncertain future. Ultimately, I believe that this is one of the biggest lessons horses teach us: You can still accomplish amazing things in the absence of complete control. It is only through accepting uncertainty and relinquishing control that we can create room for possibility in our riding and in our lives.

Related: How to Build Supportive Cultures in Our Horse Barns

Related: Practice Emotional Resilience for a Better Horse Ride

To read more by Annika McGivern on this site, click here.

Photo: iStock/AnnaElizabethPhotography


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