Mind & Body
By Heather Sansom & April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist
Is it mind over matter? Or just do it until your thinking and feelings catch up? How much of your ride depends on your mental frame? How much depends on your physical self-carriage and ability?
We say: both. It may seem like the old chicken-and-egg question, but when we are working with riders, we see the mind and body working together. We may each approach solutions for better riding from different angles, but as athletes and coaches, we know that a riders’ performance improvement is a package — a fine balance maintained by shifting attention back and forth between a rider’s physical and mental fitness and preparedness for the sport.
Most top level athletes have a team of supporters, including massage and other bodywork therapists, a personal trainer, sport coaches, and a sport psychologist. For most of us, having an entire team of support is not in the budget. However, we can take a page from best practice in high level competitive sport by making sure that we are addressing our ride from those same angles. Clinics are one way to gain access to more expertise in areas that are new to you, or from coaches you might not be able to afford on a regular basis.
This fall we teamed up to offer a combined Mind and Body clinic at Huntleigh Equestrian Centre, an eventing and dressage barn near Ottawa, Ontario.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
We wanted to help participants make the connection between mental tools and awareness, and physical aspects such as muscle memory and strength balancing, which affect your ride whether you are aware of them or not.
When you get in the saddle, you bring with you the mind and body you had when off the horse. In the heat of the moment, your mind and body default to the patterns you have trained the most. Your default patterns and responses can have either a counterproductive influence on your ride or a productive one that helps accelerate your progress in the saddle.
The day began with clinic participants and auditors taking part in a two hour sport psychology workshop. Riders learned about and discussed essential mental skills and how they might incorporate them into their daily rides. Topics ranged from self-talk, to visualization, breathing, mental tension, and more.
At the conclusion of the session, riders were asked to choose a mental goal for the riding portion: something they had learned about in the workshop and wished to apply to their ride.
The second portion of the clinic involved a riding evaluation for biomechanics, strength, flexibility, and other fitness and conditioning issues that affected participants’ riding and which the rider would be able to address through some exercises at home between rides. Riding under a clinician tends to heighten stress levels, and the riders’ nervousness was an added mental challenge.
The clinic concluded with a fitness workshop and opportunity to tie in what participants were experiencing, psychologically and emotionally, with their specific riding goals. Coach Sue Ziereisen was on hand as a resource to her students and us all day. It was very exciting to be able to identify critical areas that lined up with her observations from working with each rider on a regular basis.
We had a fantastic turnout with 15 riders and several auditors. Riders ranged in age from under 13 to over 60. About half were fairly ambitious eventers and half focused on dressage. We selected two case studies for this article, which we thought were excellent examples of how your mind and body work together to help or hinder you in reaching your riding goals.
Paula, 67, presented as a very committed and fit amateur rider. It was clear she was eager to learn anything that could improve her riding experience.
Photo: Courtesy of Heather Sansom
For the riding portion, Paula chose to experiment with the connected breathing that was practiced in the workshop. She enjoyed doing the exercise in the workshop and felt confident she could regulate her breath. But she was concerned about transferring this to the back of a horse. She indicated she knew how important it was for her to master this skill and how much she believed it would help her riding.
After her ride, Paula commented on how, with so much to focus on, she lost sight of her goal and ended up going to her default of not breathing, which was quite visible to me and Heather.
However, the experience gave her some important insights into just how holding her breath was affecting her ride. She realized how difficult it was to sustain the energy she needed when she did not breathe properly. She also realized how challenging it was to focus on riding and relaxing simultaneously.
Photo: Courtesy of April Clay
Like many riders, Paula was frustrated and felt discouraged in grasping the skill of relaxing her body using her mind. Going forward, we discussed how important it is to have a reasonable goal for each riding session for building this skill.
To begin with, she would practice the connected breath only at the walk. After gaining confidence, she could progress to using the skill at other gaits. As well, she could take breaks in her riding to facilitate a “check in” of sorts with the state of her body.
If at this point she discovered her breath was becoming trapped in her upper chest and her shoulders were creeping upward, Paula could use the connected breath strategy to “reset” her breathing.
When Paula entered the ring for her riding time, I had no idea about the one-on-one discussion about breathing goals she had with April. As I did with each rider, I asked Paula about some of her fitness and sport background, any injuries or conditions she had that would affect her riding, and her riding goals. She lost no time in telling me that she couldn’t canter for more than one circle and requested that I not push her to do more than that. We had a discussion about cardiovascular conditioning options for her.
Very uncharacteristically, I gave her some suggestions before I actually saw her ride. She seemed to be on the right track with some power walking she was doing and I really couldn’t see why cantering more than a circle should be such a big problem. I expected to see some imbalance in her seat, which might account for nervousness or excessive activity.
Paula also had quite severe scoliosis, but had managed over her life to achieve a high degree of symmetry in her shoulders and hips anyway. She had picked riding back up again in the past couple of years after 15 to 20 years of not riding.
As we went through her evaluation, she seemed to be doing very well. She was tentative, but overall I found that she had much straighter position than expected with her scoliosis. She had some tension in her shoulders and back from trying too hard to hold them straight and some of her exercise recommendations involved stretches for shoulders, sides, hamstrings, and inner thighs. She had a tendency to let her feet creep forward, which happened more easily the more fatigued she became through her ride.
The tendency toward a chair seat was coming from a combined lack of flexibility in her legs and weakness in hip musculature, particularly her gluteals. The legs coming forward threw her centre of gravity forward and made it difficult for her to have a deep or centred seat. In other words, there were physical reasons behind her feeling of insecurity about cantering. I gave her some exercises to address those areas, including single leg squats and side leg raises to improve her sense of balance.
However, the moment that stands out for me in Paula’s evaluation was when she was cantering her first circle. I suddenly noticed that her face was completely red. Before I could think about it, I heard myself asking her if she was breathing. She stopped and said that in fact, now that she thought about it, she’d been holding her breath. I had her walk before picking up her pace again, but I had just uncovered her apparent cardiovascular stamina problem. April was in the arena at that time observing. She and Paula started laughing and we all realized the connection for Paula between her balance, stamina, and mental focus on her breathing.
Once she relaxed a little, Paula could sit more deeply in her saddle. My suggestion was that she not worry so much about “correct” shoulders and back and what her scoliosis might be doing to her position. Since horses “hear” your seat aid much more strongly than your shoulder placement, I suggested that it was more important to make sure the connection of her seat bones and legs was symmetrical. Doing so would help her regain her balance and confidence as well. I also recommended that she control more of her movement through her torso so that she could ride with more effective aids and less tension generally.
Emily, 14, was a very determined young rider. She wanted the best from herself, but was sometimes frustrated with her results. Emily had trouble sustaining her focus when nervous, and often felt defeated.
Photo: Courtesy of Heather Sansom
For her riding session, Emily chose to practice anchoring her focus to something associated with her ride rather than allow it to get too “locked inside.”
During the workshop, we had been discussing how, when nervous, riders can get trapped in a kind of bubble with their nervous thoughts and feelings.
In an attempt to make themselves feel better, they natter away to themselves resulting in getting stuck in their heads. Their focus begins to drift from their task and from their horse. Without the connection to their team mate, their ride suffers as do their goals.
After her ride, Emily commented on how she felt somewhat nervous but did do a better job of anchoring her mind on her horse. As a result, her nerves did not get out of control. As we talked, Emily admitted that part of her nerves came from her desire to please others. Focusing on her horse’s needs was calming, so I wondered how she felt about trying to focus more on riding for herself instead.
Many riders can relate to Emily’s struggle. It’s easy to get pulled into worry about making coaches and parents happy. No one wants to “disappoint” those they care about. But, athletes must do their sport for their own reasons; it’s how they get the motivation, the fuel, they need to perform. Emily’s new plan is to ride for herself by setting her own daily goals and using those as a measure of her progress, not other’s opinions or moods.
As I observed April’s morning workshop, Emily’s concern with riding well and not disappointing others really stood out for me. She seemed to be quite an athletic girl, with good overall muscle tone for her age; I noticed this because it’s much more common to see young girls with very little muscle tone and slouchy posture, which has a big impact on their riding position and ability to pull things together in the saddle. I knew in advance that Emily was one of the younger riders who also did eventing.
Photo: Courtesy of Heather Sansom
I’m really big on strength training and core training for eventers, because it’s one of the most demanding of the equestrian sports on the riders’ body. When I work with kids, avoiding injury and minimizing risk is more important to me than performance itself. So I was glad to see so much muscle tone for Emily’s age. I learned that she was also quite active in sports at school and in very good cardiovascular condition as a result.
One of her riding goals was to “not hang on the reins so much.” When a rider gives me a goal, I just say “okay,” and then watch to see what happens as they ride. Often a presenting problem is part of a kinetic chain: a series of movements and compensating patterns along connecting muscle systems.
As I observed Emily’s ride, she seemed to be compensating with more developed areas (her arms) for a lack of “athletic vocabulary” in other areas. In other words, a weak core (common for her age) was being compensated for with strong arms and using her hands to balance on the reins.
Instead of having her work harder, most of my recommendations to Emily were in the direction of neuro-muscular connections, control in more precise movement, creating new reflexes by stimulating different muscles than her body was in the habit of using, and creating new muscle memory. We also worked on connecting her upper and lower body through a more solid core with more rotational control, so she could relax her hips and let them follow her horse’s motion better, improving her control without having to resort to hand riding. Emily also had some homework related to building up her back strength to balance out her frame, since she tended to be quite tight across the chest due to the overuse of her arms.
Only during the debriefing time at the end of the clinic did I learn that the focus I was asking her to bring to her athletic activities was repeated in the direction she had discussed with April. It’s very hard to focus on “riding better.” It’s a lot easier to teach yourself specific steps such as “engage your core” and “roll your shoulders back while lightening your hands.” Putting the pieces together gets easier as the muscle memory for each part becomes physically anchored. Once you can reprogram your physical automatic responses, you are a lot freer to put your mind where you need it to be, like riding your next fence or next movement.
Main article photo: Some riders worry about making parents or coaches happy, and in their desire to please others they focus inward on nervous thoughts and feelings, and away from their horse and their riding. Remember to ride for yourself and use your own goals to motivate and measure progress.