Ride Interrupted: Staying Sane 'Til You're Back in the Saddle
By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist
It can be hard to be separated from your sport. Your routine gets thrown into chaos. Suddenly, you have this extra time on your hands and seemingly nothing to do. You might be looking at just a short time off due to weather restrictions or a much longer stretch resulting from an injury to yourself or your teammate.
Either way, an idle rider with an idle mind can be a dangerous thing. You risk losing your fitness, your sanity, or both. It’s not going to be okay to just stay home and wallow in your misfortune. It’s time to figure out how best to use this unexpected windfall of free time to your advantage.
Acknowledge and accept
As with any considerable change in life, the first course of action is always to acknowledge the change and just how you feel about it. Laura, an experienced dressage rider, found this much more challenging than she anticipated: “When I badly sprained my ankle I never thought it would have such an impact on my whole world. I tried to immediately return to riding but aggravated my injury and set myself right back. Then I was mad and more than a little depressed. It took some time for me to come to terms with taking a little time off, and what I would do.”
There are many reasons a rider or other athlete would want to ignore the obvious. Every athlete separated from his or her beloved sport undergoes a small identity crisis. Your source of exercise has disappeared, your social outlet evapourated. That long awaited release at the end of your stressful day is no longer there to greet you. Who could blame you for wanting to enter the realm of denial?
Uttering those horrid words to yourself, “I cannot ride right now,” is tough but necessary. If you can call it like it is, you can begin to deal with it and you’re already one step closer to that mounting block.
The feeling of isolation is commonly associated with being apart from your sport. Because you can’t ride you stay away from the barn, your horse, and your riding friends. You may also feel jealous and resentful that everyone else is carrying on while you’re stuck waiting to get back in the saddle. When you can’t ride, it might seem cruel to suggest that you get yourself out to the barn, but it’s the first and best thing any sidelined athlete can do. Don’t take yourself completely out of the game; instead, find ways to stay connected.
If you can’t ride your horse due to an injury, then how about doing a little relationship-building groundwork? Your relationship doesn’t end with your teammate; you just have to take it to a different level. Training from the ground can give you new and refreshing insight into your horse. By the time you are ready to return to the saddle, you could be blessed with a whole new perspective with which to inform your ride.
Want another way of developing your ride from the ground? Ask your trainer if you can play assistant coach for the day. There is great opportunity in changing your role in your sport. You’ll be using your time to increase your knowledge, which will keep you feeling positive and goal oriented.
Develop a plan
While you’re making the most of your horseless days, start to develop a plan to get yourself back in the tack. If you are injured, what kind of assistance do you need in terms of professionals — physiotherapists, doctors, or other health care? How about finding ways to cross train specific to your sport? This may be an opportunity to find out how well you can ride after developing abs of steel.
Jenny, a junior jumper rider with big goals, was at first devastated by a bad fall that broke her arm. Suddenly her dreams for the season were in jeopardy. But she rallied all her energy with the focus on coming back better than ever: “I felt so much better when I made myself a plan. I got a personal trainer and worked on my lower body strength. I helped my coach with her horses and just hanging around like that taught me so much. I knew my goals were not going to happen when I wanted, but I decided that didn’t mean they would never happen.”
If your horse is injured, he or she will likewise need a plan of care. Time will be essential in any scenario, but there will always be actions you can take to assist the process along. Learn all you can about the type of injury and options for rehabilitation. Decide you are going to lead your team back not just to the status quo, but to a better state. By developing a positive outlook, even looking for that lesson to be learned, you can return as a stronger, more confident rider.
Train by imagination
Countless studies reveal that muscle activity and brain processes of imaging athletes have a direct correlation to the actual physical event being imagined. So if you imagine yourself doing a dressage pattern or a jumper course, the same areas of your brain and the same centres of muscle activity are mobilized. This is why so many elite athletes utilize the mental skill of visualization; they understand that images are the next best thing to the real thing.
Since you now find yourself somewhat lacking in the “real” department, it’s time to move to the theatre of your mind. Not only is time off an ideal opportunity to teach yourself a new mental skill, you get to be totally in charge of your rides. You are the director!
Replicate your riding using visualization. See, feel, and experience yourself training your horse according to your regular schedule, and better yet, play around with just what you want to rehearse. Have you been working on a specific skill, or do you need to rehearse some strong consistent rides to boost your confidence? You may also want to attend a few virtual horse shows while you’re at it – rumour has it you’re a strong contender for big prizes.
To get started, first make a decision as to whether you will be attempting to image from your perspective (being “inside your body”) or as a “member of the audience” (as if you were watching a video of the event). The research on imagery reveals that the “inside” orientation is the more powerful one, but both are deemed to be effective.
Next set a rehearsal goal — what do you want for yourself? Do you want confidence in coping with mistakes or errors? To better deal with stress at horse shows? A better body position? Make sure you take the time to put yourself in a comfortable place (a favourite chair for example) where you’ll be free from distractions. You will also want to take a few minutes to relax your body and clear your mind. Consider that you want only positive emotional and physical states associated with your visualization work.
Remember, there are always two rides going on – your “outer ride” and your “inner ride.” They are very correlated; in fact, what is being created in your head gets translated into the physical world. The good news is this means you do have the power to change your ride from the inside out. So if you do find yourself confined to a temporary horseless existence, get out your virtual mount and work on that inner ride. Your horse will thank you.
Main article photo: When you’re forced to take a break from riding, make the most of your horseless days by developing a plan to get yourself back in the saddle. If your horse is injured, set a plan for his recovery the same way you would set a plan for yourself.