With nationals coming up ive been having lots of chats with the riders i coach about how they deal with mistakes and problems in a test. weve spoken a lot about this recently on the podcast, how to make sure tests go well, how to ride accurately, what to do when mistakes happen. And there have been a lot of conversations that ive had off the back of these episodes about how everyone responds slightly differently to problems, in life not just in horses and i think it can be really important to know and be aware of how you deal with stressful situations so you can be better prepared when those mistakes happen or when things go wrong in a test because ultimately, there will be times when things go wrong, were human, were riding an animal that is a lot stronger than us and we all know there are times where what we want and what we plan to do doesnt always align with what our horses want to do. So thats what i want to talk about today, what are the different ways riders react to problems and how can we use this to help us better prepared for when mistakes go wrong.
So before we dive in i want to talk for a second about that feeling when things go wrong in a test. You know, that moment when the nerves kick in, and you feel like your brain and body just won't cooperate? We've all been there and it really kicks in, in that moment where we make a mistake or something goes wrong in a test. Or you may have had it in training when maybe one too many things have gone wrong, you cant quite work out whats going wrong or how to fix it and it feels like everything just falls apart a bit. Trust me when i say we have all been there.
When this happens, generally i tend to see riders react in one of 3 ways, they either fight, flight or freeze. You may have heard these terms before, we speak about them a lot in terms of daily life or when were talking about the instincts animals have. Some animals, like our horses, are flight animals so their natural instinct is to run away from predators. And equally i think some of us are flight people, some of us are fight people and some of us are freeze people. Now i am not a psychologist, nor do i have any training in this area but this is purely coming from my observations of my own riders and clients and what i have found has worked really well for them.
But what does this have to do with our test or training? Well these 3 different types of riders all react slightly differently when things go wrong and i think once you understand what type of rider you are, you can then be better prepared and know how you are going to react in those situations. So when things do go wrong, you know what your natural instinct will be, if you prefer to run away from the problem, fight the problem or freeze and stop riding. None of these options are really very helpful when you're in the middle of your dressage test so we need to learn how we naturally like to react and then find ways to help us work through that feeling and get to the other side where we are able to make the best possible decisions to get our test back on track.
What type of rider are you?
In a research study, done by Dr Christine Aurichs group at the University of Vienna, they measured the stress levels of both horse and rider by measuring the level of stress hormone in saliva and the regularity of their pulse. They found that, in competition, both horses and riders showed symptoms of stress but it was in fact the riders that showed significantly higher stress levels, especially when there were spectators around the arena. It may be that you feel stressed at a competition, or you feel pressure to do well or gain a certain score or you may be nervous or anxious and these are all totally normal emotions and can trigger that fight, flight or freeze response.
So lets take a look at the 3 different categories and see which one best applies to you:
Fight Response: These riders may feel the urge to try even harder at a competition or when they make a mistake in tests or in training. They might use more leg, more rein or more seat aids and may get frustrated when things go wrong. The fight response can make riders ride more aggressively but this isnt always the case, it may be more subtle and under the surface.
Flight Response: These riders might feel like they just want to get the test over and done with and get home as quickly as possible. You might feel like you second guess yourself or become more cautious or hesitant in a test or feel like you lack confidence. Others may feel the urge to flee and may become overly cautious or hesitate when performing jumps or other manoeuvres. This can lead to a lack of confidence and poor performance.
Freeze Response: These riders tend to feel like they have a mental block. You might suddenly forget your test or where you're going, you might feel overwhelmed or feel like everything goes downhill once you may a mistake.
Why is it a problem for dressage riders?
Ultimately, i think we all have a tendency towards one of these three categories, or you might feel like in some situations you may react in one way but in others you might react differently. So how you react to a mistake in training might be totally different to how you react to a mistake in a competition.
And this is partly why i wanted to talk about this because weve all been there when we feel like we dont get what we get at home in the arena, or we get everything right in the warm up and it just doesnt transfer to the arena. But when we get stuck in this fight, flight or freeze response, ultimately its going to make us change how we ride. We're going to end up asking for movements or riding our horses in a very different way to how we ride when we are relaxed, at home and riding in perhaps a slightly more rational or less stressed environment. The fight response can make us tense and overly forceful with our aids, causing a lack of harmony with our horse and those dreaded tension issues. The flight response might have us doubting ourselves, hesitating, or losing confidence, making it difficult to ride with conviction and finesse. And let's not forget about the freeze response – it's like a mental hiccup where our brains go blank, and we can't remember our next move or make decisions in the moment.
What can we do now in training?
Okay, so now we need to start putting some things in place to try and stop that fight, flight, freeze response in its tracks.
If you are training the easiest thing to do is stop for a second. If you have got yourself into the fight, flight, freeze response in training, its more than likely that what you are doing currently isn't working; if you've had that feeling for a while that you've tried some things, they haven't worked, or equally you've been trying the same thing for a while and there's been no improvement stop.
A great method i use for a few of my riders is to say "If you can see and picture in your head the image of what you are aiming for and what you are trying to achieve, go and ride for it. If the image is a bit distorted or confused or foggy then stop.. The reason behind this is that when you're in that fight, flight, freeze response your ability to think logically and clearly is drastically reduced and along with that, our effectiveness as riders and trainers of our horses.
Once you have stopped, take a look at where your heads at. If you're feeling frustrated, angry, upset; take a breather, let all those emotions calm, down first so you're able to answer these next questions in the most accurate way possible. Once you feel a bit more calm, ask yourself two questions:
What am i trying to achieve here?: this gives you that visual in your head of actually what you're trying to achieve. It may be that you are trying to get your horse more active and in front of your leg, of make your shoulder in more supple or the contact more even.
How are you going to achieve it and is it working?: this is a two step process because you may have already tried a few things; if they didnt work, can you think of a reason why? If you cant, have a think about any other exercises or ways you could try to achieve what youre aiming for. Once you have a solid idea of what you are aiming for and a clear idea of what you are going to do to achieve it you can carry on with your training.
If however you find that you cant get that clear 'this is what im trying to achieve and this is how i will do it' logic then its possibly a good idea to park this for today and talk it through with a trainer to help you find a way through to achieving that aim for your session. It might be your trainer can provide you with an exercise or an adjustment to your riding or the aids youre using but they'll be able to provide you with that clarity on exactly how you will achieve whatever it was you were trying to get with your horse today.
So, when things go wrong in training and you get that feeling that everything is going wrong, youre feeling frustrated and youre falling into that fight, flight or freeze response; your main aim is clarity. What am i trying to achieve and how will i achieve it. If it doesnt work or you cant find a way through the problem stop and take the time to work it out or ask someone rather than fighting your way through.
When it comes to competitions i think its more important to know what specifically you do when things go wrong or you get in that fight, flight, freeze response. For some this will kick in as soon as you arrive at the show or whilst you are plaiting up at home, for others it might only happen if you have a mistake. And its much more difficult because you cant just stop and take a second to regather your thoughts and get yourself back on track.
So ultimately your job is to get yourself back, thinking about that next movement and how you're going to prepare for it so that movement happens well and you get yourself back on track. This process of being able to stop yourself and keep yourself on track and thinking positively when everything feels like its going wrong is really quite a skill and it takes a lot of practice so, in a way, you almost want mistakes to happen, especially at those local shows, so you can practice exactly how to manage and deal with those mistakes and become really good at handling these situations so when you are at a major championship you have this skill really down to a T.
Now obviously we dont want to be wishing mistakes into our tests but if they do happen, focus on using it as a way to practice this skill of not letting yourself fall into that fight, flight, freeze response. Mentally stop yourself in your tracks and bring your focus back to the test, the next movement that is coming up and what you are going to do to prepare and set up that next movement.
If however you are one of those lucky people that don't seem to be getting mistakes and chances to practice or equally if you want more practice, we can use visualisation which is a great tool used by so many top athletes to practice their competition strategies. Your brain isnt able to distinguish between what you visualise and what actually happens in real life so you visualising running through the test in your head is just as effective as running through it on a horse. Ive talked before about visualising your test going really well and that is a great tool to help you feel more positive in the lead up to a show however, for this i want you to visualise a mistake-full test. Now you will know yourself well enough to know whether you do this the day before or a few weeks before as you dont want to get yourself into a position of feeling negative before your competition however, imagining all the possible mistakes that you might have in your test is going to get you thinking about how you will deal with those mistakes, what the best way is to correct them and how we get ourselves back on track. So you will visualise yourself running through each movement, imagining what could go wrong and visualising what you would do to fix it. Why does this work? Well when you come to compete and if that mistake happens in real time, your brain will already have practiced how to deal with that problem, youre going to feel far more in control because, from your brains perspective, youve already dealt with that problem once before. So visualisation can be a really powerful tool not just for helping us to feel positive and ready to compete but for also giving us practice for our tests too.
Now the next thing i want to talk about is your breath (dont worry were not going to go to wishy washy here!). But its already well known that when we feel anxious or nervous our breath comes in shorter, shallower bursts. Taking a few deep breaths lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. When i was a teacher, we were taught the 4, 7, 8 breathing technique, both work really well for reducing stress and we taught it to the kids we taught too and it really did help so ill talk you through it.
Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breathe for 7 seconds, breathe out through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
This is a really good one to do if you find you get a bit nervous or anxious in the lead up, whilst plaiting, in the lorry, whilst tacking up or in the warm up but you can still add in a few of these breathes in the competition arena too. It will help to reset your mind and get you back on track.
So, knowing yourself and knowing how you react in different stressful situations is super important for learning how to ultimately deal with it and make sure it doesnt affect how you end up performing in the ring. Give these a try and let me know how you get on. They do take practice and to start with it will feel challenging to stop yourself in your tracks when you feel like everything's going wrong but it is doable and, with practice, it does become much easier and youll get to a point where those mistakes or moments in training or your tests just dont affect you anymore and you stay riding on your a-game the whole time.