Rider confidence coach Sue Gould-Wright shares her advice on taking control of your nerves — and explains why they're there in the first place
Losing your nerve is no fun and very frustrating. Sometimes it happens for a reason (a fall, a scary experience) but sometimes there appears to be no explanation for it whatsoever.
There is probably a part of you who is trying to tell yourself that there is no need to be concerned, you KNOW that you can cope with whatever happens. So what on earth is going on? Well, I am sorry to say, that your rational brain is being hijacked by Amy and a Reptile!
Let me explain… (or if you just want to know how to combat your nerves, click here)
We evolved from reptiles and our brain stem is a throw-back to that evolutionary process which is why it is referred to as the reptilian brain. This part of our brain is ‘instinctive’ and doesn’t have the capability to think about things rationally; its response is just what you see in reptiles today — flight, fight or freeze.
So who the heck is Amy? Amy is a part of your mammalian brain, again a throwback to our evolution but from a later stage in the process, from mammals this time. Amy is an abbreviation I concocted to refer to a part of the mammalian brain called the amygdala.
This more evolved part of your brain does have some degree of rational ‘thought’ but the content of the amygdala may have you believing otherwise… Amy holds all those fearful, painful memories, a bit like an old haunted house rattling with ghosts of the past.
The final, and most useful part of the brain we need to know about is the rational, thinking part, the voice (being drowned out by Amy’s incessant chattering) telling you that you KNOW you can deal with anything that your horse offers you — your neocortex.
Your neocortex has the ability to rationally evaluate situations and take the appropriate action(s). However what can happen is Amy can become too reactive; you develop what is known as a ‘hot amygdala’.
Amy’s response also triggers the area of your brain responsible for releasing hormones such as adrenaline; so often the physical symptoms of fear due to hormone release (increased heart rate, shaky legs, shallow breathing) can make us less able to think rationally… and so the downward spiral of fear and anxiety continues.
Now I would bet that now you know about Amy and the Reptile you feel a little more ‘empowered’ already — true? You know you aren’t mad, you know there are things working away in your head, in theory, just trying to protect you but in practice making your life miserable! So now you can begin to take control again.
How to take control of your nerves
1. WHOA! As soon as you hear those niggling voices of doom shout ‘whoa!’ ‘No!’ ‘Amy!’ or whatever works for you; you have a split second to take control and stop the release of those jelly-leg hormones (you can shout out loud or in your head — either works!)
2. Breathe: take a big breath in and sigh as you breathe out, do it a couple of times and then normal size breaths in, but continue to sigh as you breathe out. Your horse may also respond to the outward sigh as a signal that all is calm, panic over.
3. Count your breath: breathe in one, out two, in three, out four, etc. until you reach 10 and then you start over again at one. This focuses your attention elsewhere and helps you to control your breathing rate; the slower your breathing, the more your heart rate will lower.
4. Do a top-to-toe scan of your body to check for physical tension:
- Face and jaw are relaxed
- Shoulders away from ears
- Ribcage relaxed and not lifted and tense
- Elbows heavy and hands soft
- Backside isn’t clenching
- Thighs heavy and lengthened downwards
- Lower leg relaxed
5. Focus your gaze on the area between your horse’s ears, not a ferocious stare but a soft, almost out-of-focus, supportive gaze so he knows you are just paying attention to him and not the ‘scary’ thing. You can do this out of the saddle too by finding a part of him to focus on rather than looking around you which will unsettle you both.
6. Count your hip swings; as the horse walks he will move your pelvis side to side, the more relaxed you are the easier it is for him to do so. Count to 10 and then start again. You can then use this hip swing to slow his gait too, slow your swing — he slows too. If you are on foot, just count your strides instead.
7. Start small: if you are feeling anxious about hacking out try breaking it down into small, achievable steps:
- Tack up, get on and get off again
- Tack up, lead your horse on foot for a short distance then return home
- Tack up, get on, walk a short distance with someone you trust on foot beside you
- Walk a bit further with your ‘foot soldier’ for support
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8. And continue with these small steps remembering that it needs to be at YOUR pace, nobody else’s — it has to feel right for you. So long as you are making progress it does not matter what anyone else thinks or says.