My friend Beth recently organized an evening of dinner and discussion with Andrea Waldo, the author of Brain Training for Riders. It was followed by a morning of mounted instruction for a lucky few. My horse is currently in Aiken, and I couldn’t find another mount to take for the day, so we had to sit out the riding part of the program.
Andrea generously gave us a three-hour-plus lecture/discussion of almost everything in her book. That’s more than enough material for me to work on. To keep this blog from being as long as War and Peace, I’ll break it into two parts.
When I arrived, I walked in with another rider who came from up near Baltimore, which was a sold hour away. I expected there to be just a dozen or so people there. But Beth had arranged to hold the dinner at the Waredaca Brewery. I’m not sure whether it was the location or the topic, but this was very well attended. While I couldn’t count, there must have been nearly 75 of us. There was a good mix of amateurs and professionals, juniors and adults, and a variety of riding levels. It was a relief to see some familiar faces in the crowd. After a generous dinner, we got right down to it.
Who Is Andrea Waldo
To put it bluntly, Andrea is one of my new heroes. Her previous career was as a psychotherapist, so she knows about things getting into people’s heads. And she’s a professional eventer, so she knows exactly what it looks like to have a course call for a downhill gallop, followed by a crazy-looking jump. Admittedly, my Beginner Novice challenges aren’t nearly as demanding as her advanced events, so she’s in a unique position to tell me how my brain is reacting, and give me some tips on how to deal with it.
Give Yourself Some Credit
To show how we sell ourselves short so often, Andrea started off by asking everyone to write down 10 things that you can do with a horse, that a random person couldn’t do. It could be as simple as picking out a hoof, or as advanced as galloping downhill at full speed. Everyone had a hard time coming up with 10 things in five minutes. Andrea said it works out that way in every group she speaks to, including advanced riders.
To begin with, Andrea took us through some basic brain anatomy. Specifically, she talked about the amygdala (pronounced uh-mig-dull-uh) – or lizard brain – that controls the base emotions of being happy, sad, mad, and afraid. Did you notice that three of the four of the amygdala’s charges are negative emotions? It’s the amygdala’s job to keep us safe. But sometimes, it takes that assignment a little too far. This lizard brain is precisely why we get butterflies in our stomach, and tingly fingers, and can’t remember our damned dressage test.
Be serious! We put a little plastic bucket on our heads, sit on a 1,200 pound prey animal, and aim to jump over fixed obstacles in an open field, with a myriad of spectators, signs, dogs, and other distractions all over the place. What else would our amygdala think it should do but panic?
Enter Louie the Lizard
One of the ways she recommended we consider dealing with our own individual lizard brain is to externalize it, and talk to it like it’s a separate person. Andrea talked about one student who told her lizard brain that she was taking an adventure, and he could come along, but he couldn’t drive, set the destination, choose the music, or pick the snacks. He had to sit in the back seat and be quiet.
The mental image I got from that description was so vivid! Just so you know, I’ve now figured that my inner lizard looks like a cross between the Mucinex congestion character, Randall the slimy purple lizard from the movie Monsters Inc., and Jabba the Hutt. Going for the alliteration, I named my lizard brain Louie.
As the conversation progressed, Louie seemed to notice that his previous free-reign was about to change. I was making my initial attempts to bring some level of control him. And he started making snarky remarks, just as Andrea hinted that he would.
So What Are You Afraid Of?
We tend to imagine things, and then run them to their illogical extremes. Just because we’re nervous doesn’t mean we’re going to fall off, or have our pants fall down. The problem with these scenarios is that they either don’t usually happen, or they aren’t nearly as bad as we imagine they will be.
But think about it. How many times have your breeches actually come off mid-ride? They haven’t. Just that unfortunate guy in the video that’s going around social media again. And what happens when you fall off? Usually you get mad, your breeches get dirty, you get back on, and you finish your ride.
Louie: “Yeah, you fell off in that clinic with that super snazzy instructor!”
Me: “Yes, I did. But I got through that. It wasn’t fun, but I got through it. Now be quiet!”
Fear of embarrassment is a big one. Like Andrea, I worry that if I fall off, people will think I should just go home, that I don’t belong on my horse. But as she pointed out, when she has fallen at an event, that wasn’t people’s response. Instead, they asked how she was, and how her horse was. And many times, they didn’t even notice her fall, because they were in their own mental bubble, focusing on their own ride.
Louie: “I remember that Phillip Dutton had to park your trailer for you at his farm. Wow! How embarrassing.”
Me: “Yes, he did,” I said. “But he was a complete gentleman about it, and I felt fortunate that he was around to help me out. No embarrassment here!”
It’s Not Just You!
Whenever we get to an event, and launch into battle with our inner lizard, it feels like we’re the only one who goes through this. But we aren’t! Heck, I was sitting in the middle of a room full of riders who were all thinking the same thing. And we all laughed nervously when we heard the story about the 4* rider who barfed on her way to dressage at Rolex. Talk about validation that it isn’t just you.
Louie: “It is just you.”
Me: “No it’s not.”
To be continued…