Anxiety, fear, competition nerves, general nerves, fear of failure and awareness of vulnerability and the possibility of physical injury. Ever felt like this? Ever felt it before you got on a horse or even before you got to the yard or on the drive to a competition? Of course you have. Ever felt physical symptoms? Stomach ache, diarrohea, vomiting or even just sweaty palms and the little flutter in your chest? I bet you have.
On social media I don’t think we have ever been so aware of or supporting of nervous riders. I think this is a good thing. It has encouraged people to talk and to be open about their feelings. I wrote a piece on it myself a while back you can read it here:
Nerves often got the better of me for a long time and it was something that for my own sanity (literally) I had to put a stop to. There are so many remedies and potions to help with nerves from rescue remedy to CBD oil to the homeopathic remedy I swear by myself. There are clothing and accessory ranges that celebrate being brave enough to try things. There are so many support groups where people can gain support from those who fear and those who conquered fear. All of this is brilliant.
That said, its great to talk and think and discuss being nervous, but can we allow it too much of a voice sometimes?
The thing about discussing and being open about nerves is making sure that we still take action and that we don’t allow them to become an excuse. If this happens, nerves grow to the point where they become an identity and then the reason for nothing happening. I have seen this happen – “oh I was going to get up and trot but I got nervous” “I got all the way to the yard and tacked up but got nervous” this then feeds into nerves being part of every conversation. From “I want to canter / jump / hack but I am too nervous” to an a basic level “Hi, My name is X, I’m very nervous”. As an instructor it is daunting to hear phrases like “I want to canter but I am too nervous” because we as instructors can encourage and support but we can’t force a rider to do something. We understand people are nervous, we expect them to be nervous but when the nervousness is presented as nearly being more important than the wish to do something it is hard to work through. In fact when someone is describing themselves as “too nervous” to do something I feel personally that at the point it has been decided that they are not going to do it and “too nervous” has been designated the reason. Whatever we feed in life is what grows, simple as, so when we feed our nerves too much we allow them to grow like a weed. Instead we can acknowledge nerves while trying to feed and grow confidence through achievement.
So how do you go from being “I am too nervous” to “I am apprehensive but I am going to”? It really is a case of changing the mindset a little but – read those two phrases again – the difference appears subtle but the intent is hugely different. It is something I do every time I am in danger of competition nerves getting the better of me – I draw a line for myself that I do not cross. My line is simple because my nerves relate specifically to competitions or exams so my line is always – you are going to enter the ring. Once I have drawn that line I can be as physically sick as I want and fret in the venues toilet as long as I want but I am getting on and I am doing it. The very second you entertain not doing the thing you want to do is the very second you decide not to do it. I always find this when I am teaching show jumping with tricky lines – the riders who lock on to the line and commit to it will make it even if its not pretty whereas the riders that mentally say ‘I cant do it’ have a run out as the horse can sense that lack of commitment. That’s the other thing, horses like clear instructions and confidence so the more you commit to doing something the more likely you are to actually do it. One thing I reminded myself of last week was “what is the worst that can happen”- for example I am doing dressage on an 11 year old sane Irish cob cross with good schooling and a willing temperament and not on a sharp four year old that’s high as a kite – I am not at risk of physical injury.
So, if you are nervous and you have thought about and have let it creep in out of the shadows and sit like a cat on your lap that you acknowledge and understand and if you have worked with the encouraging coaches and have enjoyed the support groups and literally have your brave pants on – what can you do next if you are still tempted to let nerves be the identity, the introducing statement, the reason or the excuse?
- Get on the right horse. If you are genuinely scared that the horse you are going to ride will willingly and / or deliberately cause you physical injury and harm because of behaviour / temperament / youth / sharpness / greenness, then get off as its not the horse for you. Genuine fear of injury is not nerves it is common sense and it is probably your brain trying to save your ass. I read something about over horsed amateurs the other day and yes – if your afraid of it for legitimate reasons just get off and get one you enjoy. Bear in mind we all have our own triggers so if a horse is hitting yours, it’s not for you. My horse was sold to me as people found his speed frightening – I don’t I feel perfectly safe on him but I would be unnerved on a very sharp horse – we all have our triggers.
- Consider physical limitations. I have back issues. I try to ignore it and refuse to be limited by it but at a very deep level I know I am when jumping partly afraid that I will hurt myself. I hate admitting that, it pains me to write it but I am not capable of doing 1.20 sj or 2 star eventing on any horse even one with buttons because of self preservation. Again it makes sense. If you have a physical injury, talk to yourself, is it nerves or is it sensible self preservation? If it’s the latter, revise your goals accordingly. Only an idiot goes out to do things they are afraid will cause them pain, harm and further damage to an existing condition.
- Draw your line. This is the single biggest most important step. Doing nothing is not an option. Going all the way to the yard or show and not getting on is not an option. The second you tell yourself that and commit to it is the second you start doing things and stop bailing out and giving up.
- Set realistic goals. If you are worried about cantering you wont be cantering around a field or sand gallops next week. However if you set sensible SMART goals e.g. by next Tuesday I will have cantered a 20m circle on my horse on three separate occasions, well that’s achievable. Setting unrealistic goals just feeds into not taking action and making excuses.
- Stop introducing yourself as a nervous rider. Its not AA. You are not Mary who is nervous I’m sure your Mary who loves dressage or Mary who has two kids and a dog or Mary who is looking forward to learning counter canter but Jesus your not allowed to define yourself as a feeling.
- Watch your language. You are not “too nervous to” you are “apprehensive but going to” you are not “too scared of” you are “inexperienced at”
- Help your coach. Your coach cannot force you to do something that you have just said you are too scared to do. Explain what your goals are and let them help you achieve them instead. Yes by all means state that you are cautious of things but commit to actually doing them.
- Remember you do not have to do this! I don’t know honestly is it an Irish thing but my god the amount of people who seem to torture themselves by making themselves jump when they are terrified and hate it astounds me. If you really and truly don’t want to do something – then don’t? Do something else! If you hate show jumping and its terrifying then do dressage or hacking instead. If you hate competing then don’t. Doing what everyone else wants to do has no benefit to you. Ask yourself what you want to do and set your goals around that – what you want to do not what others are doing / what you think your horse should be doing / what you wished you liked doing.
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