By Margie Sugarman
Someone recently approached me with this story, which might sound familiar to many of you: “I’ve been riding somewhat more confidently and comfortably for the past year. Then a Facebook memory reminded me of when I broke my arm and collar bone years ago. The day after that Facebook reminder, I went to the ring to watch a few rounds before it was my turn to compete. First, a woman next to me in a golf cart was recounting her recently broken leg and telling me about a mutual acquaintance who broke her ribs. Then I stood up to walk and review the course with my trainer. As I was walking, I saw a girl walk by on crutches. Now I’m thinking, Is this a sign? Should I scratch? I decided to compete, but couldn’t get the idea out of my head that I was going to hurt myself. Consequently, I pulled at every jump. What is the best way to handle situations like this? How can a rider get these negative thoughts and fears out of their head?”
Riding brings with it a significant amount of mental pressure. Walking hand in hand with that mental pressure is stress that gets played out in various ways—in and out of the ring—and can impact any and all equestrian endeavors. Although horseback riding is extremely popular among Americans, it comes with a potential price.
Many of us grew up hearing you weren’t considered a rider until you had fallen off three times. That’s an interesting perspective, when you consider riding is more dangerous than motorcycling and 81% of equestrians get injured at some point in their riding careers (I think I’ve personally surpassed that stat!). Nonetheless, we keep going back for more! Why do we return? Riding adds excitement and a thrill with the added surge of adrenaline we get from participating in this sport.
Riding accidents occur for a variety of reasons, from the rider’s behaviors to the actions of the horse to third-party influences. Many of these accidents are preventable.
Frequently we feel more confident than we should. We inflate the value of our experiences and ride a horse that requires more than we have in our skill set. Of note, statistics show that the more experience we have, the more likely we are to become injured. Confidence can compromise caution.
Answering the question of how to deal with the thoughts and fears associated with a past injury requires a multilayered response. Foremost is the acknowledgment that the fear exists. There is no shame in accepting it. When we feel a situation is threatening, our anxiety levels increase, leading to changes in our ability to focus. Stress negatively affects an athlete’s ability to pay attention (reduces peripheral vision, causes distraction, enhances irrelevant thoughts), increases muscle tension (which impinges normal coordination) and impacts proper breathing (raising the brain wave).
Developing skills to counteract these physical and emotional responses to stress, such as relaxation techniques and diaphragmatic breathing, allows positive psychological and physiological changes to the mind and body, and can change performance when challenged by the same questions that caused the injury. This is not a one-step cure! The healing process from an injury is much deeper than the physical wound. The mind thinks and the body responds. Small goals should be set and achieved before moving on to more challenging riding situations. Remember, it’s more than just being able to ride around a challenging course at home. The show ring brings different pressures and challenges. How often have you asked yourself why you can do it so well at home and seem to be another rider at the show?
And let’s not forget about our partner, who also responds to environmental changes as well as the tension he feels from his rider.
Utilizing such skills while working with an understanding and supportive trainer will allow you to work towards and ultimately reach the level of competition you’re striving for after an accident.
The mind and body work together. Addressing one without caring for the other leaves one out of balance and vulnerable. Take control and have control. Your mindset can make or break your comeback.