Developing Your Cool Ride
By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist
Ever wish you were one of those unflappable, serenely calm competitors? You’ve seen them. The weather is bad, their horse is hot, and their trainer is missing. The in-gate calls for them early. You can hardly watch; you think it’s going to be ugly for sure.
But, this rider saunters into the ring and produces the best ride of their life. You’re left slack-jawed and green with envy.
It’s true some athletes seem to possess this trait by way of genetic blessings, but you too can develop your cool ride.
In the sporting realm, keeping your cool means not being derailed by events that come between you and your goals. When such situations do arise, the cool rider takes things in stride, maintains composure, and looks for solutions.
Self-control is essential to cool riders. This means using your emotions instead of letting them use you. It’s not that the cool rider has no emotions; he has just mastered the art of redirecting them. Self-control also refers to the ability to regulate internal states. This kind of rider has practiced shifting from a stressed and frantic mind to a clear, directed state.
Cool corresponds most definitely with confidence. The cool rider has faith in his ability to use his skills when it matters most. He is not bothered by others watching, important classes, or seemingly better riders. This is because the cool rider only concerns himself with his ride. His focus is on what he’s got to work with and how best he’s going to work it.
Learn to be a cool rider by practicing reducing your stress levels with breathing and posture exercises and refocusing your thoughts. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Cool State of Being
Your ability to think in a cool and clear manner is very much influenced by your state. If you are vibrating on the inside, rest assured multiple thoughts will be ping ponging around your cranium. That is the unscientific description.
Real scientific research suggests that when we are under stress, our natural judgment system is turned down and more primitive responses are turned up. During the stress response, certain neurotransmitters actually deactivate higher brain functions associated with problem solving, concentration, and planning. Your body is saying this is a time for action rather than deep contemplation. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into your blood stream to give you a surge of energy. Your very survival (or so it seems) is at stake. You feel out of control and you must do something.
It’s easy to see how stress can lead to panic and attempts to control your environment in order to feel better. With your thinking brain compromised, your primitive one shouts: “Do something, anything, move it!” So you might over-ride, over-think, and generally over-function. Rather than looking and feeling cool, you’re a frenzied mess with an upset horse.
Fortunately, you can learn to counteract the stress response and redirect yourself back toward a cooler state of being. The most effective way to cool off is to breathe more slowly and fully. In altering one of the effects of stress (a faster, shallower breath rate) your body begins to move in a different direction and more importantly, your mind follows along for the ride.
Practicing breath control need not be difficult, but it does need to be consistent. Try this exercise both on horseback and off: first choose a two-word phrase that is relaxing and pleasing to you. For example, let’s imagine you chose cool riding. Say your first word slowly to yourself as you breathe in: coooo-oool. Then your next part as you slowly let the breath go: ri-d-ing. Keep repeating, drawing out your words until you can feel other parts of your body slowing down as well, such as your heart rate or your thoughts. Practice and perfect, then pull out this tool whenever you feel your body and mind are in need of some cooling down.
Cool riders learn to develop the ability to distinguish between feelings and actions. We know feelings to be a collection of sensations, but what we choose to do with those sensations is entirely separate. So often you hear people say: “I got so angry I had to do it.” Do not buy into this. You always have a choice about how to respond to your emotional cues.
That’s just what they are: signals or cues are information. Every emotion is there to tell you something. The message may be that you’re scared, frustrated, worried, or angry. When you first recognize the feeling, ask yourself if you need to or can act on the feeling in that moment. The answer is usually no. It’s not likely appropriate to scream, cry, or otherwise emote at a horse show. It also won’t help you to let your emotions take over and dictate your actions. Athletes (yes, that’s you) have a job to do and a desire to do it well.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore your feelings. Acknowledge them; in this way they already begin to have less power over you. Observe and name the emotion. Then make a conscious effort to remind yourself of what riding you are trying to do in that moment. Just as you would not allow a fresh horse to misbehave, do not let yourself do the same when in the grip of a feeling. If your horse was acting fresh and goofy, you would lead him firmly back toward his work and this is what you need to do with yourself.
Cool riders don’t get rattled by outside forces like bad weather, spectators, or other riders. They have faith and confidence in their abilities and calmly look for solutions to any problems that may arise. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
We all know that our perceptions determine how we will respond to our environment. Think disaster, think negative, think worried, and you can and will create a poor ride.
It’s worth mentioning that hot horses (as well as hot riders) can benefit from cool talk. Repeating words or mantras such as easy, soft, slow, pause, and chill can calm the whole team. In the absence of using deliberate, repetitive phrases you will still have words going through your mind but they will be a whole lot more panic inducing.
There are two thoughts that are especially fear inducing and cool repelling: These are have to and what if.
Have to thoughts are a problem simply because they add pressure. And the more have to thoughts you entertain, the more pressure you will create.
I have to place in this class.
I have to be perfect.
I have to get every lead change or I’ll look stupid.
To combat have to, practice changing it into want to. When you want something, you can’t wait to do it — you want to move toward it, not avoid it.
I want to ride my best today.
I want to challenge myself and keep getting better.
I want to use what I’ve learned to improve on my lead changes.
What if is another thinking trap that undoubtedly leads to higher stress levels and less cool rides. This kind of thinking has you searching out every possibility and its corresponding solution. Your mind becomes literally overloaded with thoughts.
There are two keys to combating what if thoughts. First use the phrase what is to direct yourself back to the present moment. What if takes you far into an all too imaginably horrid future. What you need is to come back to what is, which is almost always a preferable place to reside.
When you ask yourself the what is question, make sure you answer it in your head. Even repeat it a few times. Your response might be something like:
What is? I am riding around a warm-up ring preparing for competition.
What is? I am feeling frustrated by my horse’s behaviour.
Now, if you get really good at answering this question (and you will) you can take care to insert some reassurances into your answers:
What is? I am riding in the warm-up ring, preparing for competition with all the tools I have learned in training.
The next key is to choose a simple focus. When what if thoughts complicate your thinking, go back to an elemental part of your ride. Focus on your pace, cornering accurately, or your body position. Tell yourself you’ll choose something you can control and let the rest take care of itself. What if thoughts hate this kind of stuff, and usually quiet down accordingly.
Having correct posture is about more than just looking good, it’s about feeling good. When you feel good it will definitely boost your coolness factor.
It has been said that the mind leads the body, but the body can also lead the mind. Changing the way you stand (and sit on your horse) can actually lead your mind in a different direction.
To test your standing posture, have a friend try to tip you backward by giving you a push (not a shove) near your collarbone. Then have them do the same from the other side by pushing into your upper back. Many people tip quite easily and are surprised to learn how unsteady they are.
Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that correcting your posture means standing straighter, stiffening up, and throwing your chest out. This just makes you look and feel uptight and uncomfortable. Try instead: choose a focal point at eye level, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and roll your shoulders back and let them drop naturally. Now imagine a string being pulled from the top of your head that aligns your ears, shoulders, and hips. Finally, take a deep breath in and imagine it travelling all the way to your feet, securing you to the ground.
Now have your pal give you another posture test. Chances are it will be a little more difficult to knock you off balance. Feeling more secure in your body can definitely lead your mind into feeling more secure. With your chest open for easy breathing, your eyes focused ahead, and your body properly supporting your weight, you naturally feel more ready to take on a challenge. Try it next time you’re standing around the horse show feeling less than cool. Assume cool posture and note how it begins to lead your mind to a different, happier, and cooler place.
Main article photo: The cool rider has self control. She has mastered the art of redirecting her emotions to put her mind in a clear, directed state. Photo credit: ©Shutterstock/Oskar Schuler