Anxiety in riders is a very common problem and, as is often the case with anxiety, it presents itself in a number of ways. For some people it’s over-thinking things, for others it’s doubting themselves, and for others it’s worrying about what might happen.
It doesn’t just affect competition riders; it can affect riders at all levels and with a range of experience. It is typically seen in riders who have had a break and gone back to riding later in life, or a rider who has got a new horse, or a young horse they are bringing on.
The good news is that people can get past anxiety and enjoy riding again. In the first of two parts, rider psychology coach Helen Rennie uncovers two of the most common rider worries and advises how to tackle them.
Issue: Thinking “I’m not good enough”
What it means: when a rider doesn’t think they are good enough, it fundamentally comes down to a lack of self-confidence.
Symptoms: often, riders question what they are doing, which can lead them to not be decisive or not quick enough to make decisions, or they can overthink it which makes them override and overcomplicate things.
Solution: I advise riders to keep a journal of what they are thinking and try and work out the patterns in their thought processes. Typically, when you don’t feel good enough, it will relate to two or three things in particular, not necessarily everything. Becoming more aware of the thoughts going through your mind helps you understand what is causing you to feel like that. Once you have identified that, you can confront it and challenge it and ask, “Is it true all of the time?” Think of the times when you did feel good enough, which dispels the myth that you aren’t good enough all of the time.
“I am” statements tend to relate to our belief systems, so if you tell yourself you are not a good enough rider, it is typically a belief, so it’s about catching those and challenging them positively. Find evidence to challenge those thoughts, such as “I went on a hack yesterday and was fine, so I can’t be a bad rider all of the time”. You will make the negative thoughts less credible and real.
Top tip: have a plan in your mind about what you want to achieve in a session. Break it down into steps to work through and concentrate on them when you are riding. Imagine in your mind how you want your horse to go and how you will achieve that. By having a focus, you will be doing something positive instead of thinking of the negatives.
Issue: performance anxiety
What it means: performance anxiety usually stems from someone feeling that something isn’t achievable. For example, competing in a dressage test at a new level for the first time.
Symptoms: thoughts about what might go wrong or that you can’t do it can precede and create a feeling of anxiety, and once that takes hold, people can feel sick, their mouths go dry, they stop breathing properly, and they have an elevated heart rate. Horses are programmed to sense when another animal’s fight or flight sense is activated, so our physical anxiety symptoms make them think there is something to worry about, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Solution: first, by addressing those thoughts, you can get rid of the physical symptoms. Be aware of what you are thinking and try not to dwell on it. If you allow a thought to pass instead of focusing on it, it won’t be so powerful and escalate into physical feelings. Second, take the pressure off yourself. If you are doing something for the first time, treat it as a data gathering exercise, an opportunity to baseline your performance on, rather than say it was good or bad, or pass or fail.
Whether you do it successfully or not, you are going to learn something. If you succeed, you learn that what you did works, and if you don’t succeed, you’ll learn what didn’t work. You can’t achieve something unless you start from a position of not being able to do something.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Feeling fully prepared for something will also help ease anxiety, whereas not feeling ready will only add to it.
Top tip: Focus on one step at a time and run through a checklist of what you are going to do in your dressage test or jumping round to keep you in the present moment.