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Dealing with too Many Emotions in the Saddle

I’ve had more really horrendous rides than I care to admit.

The kind of rides where I would’ve been ashamed for someone to be watching,

I was far too emotional of a rider.

CP would start to trot too fast so I would yank back on her mouth, hard. She would start to canter faster than I cared for, so I would rip my inside rein & spur her in a tiny circle. She would spook at something I didn’t see so I would whack her with my whip or give her a big kick.

I am not the slightest bit proud to admit these moments, but I think it’s important to be honest about where we’ve been so we can explain how we’ve gotten to where we are.

I am pleased to say I haven’t had any borderline abusive rides in a very, very long time.

How did I go from an emotional wreck in the saddle, essentially at ticking time bomb of anger, to a peaceful rider, assessing each moment objectively? This has been a long process that has happened gradually over time.

It didn’t happen overnight or in one single ride where everything just changed for me. It has required me to be unwaveringly committed to self-improvement, related to things far deeper than just horseback riding.

Here are the three most important steps I've taken to leave my emotions out of the saddle & become an effective, fair rider:

1. Getting a handle on my mental health & not letting my personal struggles impact my time in the saddle. It’s been no secret that I struggled with anxiety, depression, & panic attacks for several years through my late teens & into my 20s. I had a lot of emotional baggage & mental instability to work through, but trying to get that sorted out while riding a green chestnut mare was simply not a viable option.

Although horses have always been a version of “therapy” for me, riding was becoming something that was negatively impacting my mental health more so than helping. Yes, grooming, hand grazing, being in the presence of horses was peaceful to me, but the act of riding was becoming too much for my already fragile emotional state to handle.

I went to therapy every week for over a year. I learned tools & strategies there to help deal with my anxiety & depression. Although this was helpful & I have no regrets about going to therapy, it wasn’t until I truly decided my mental health was my personal responsibility that I overcame my anxiety and depression (read more about that here).

Lifting weights 5-6 days per week consistently over the past several years has truly been the most life-changing thing I could’ve done for myself. The effects of exercise on my mental health are so profound, I wish I could put it into words so everyone who was struggling would see this incredible lifeline that they have access to.

Once I could handle my emotions in smaller situations (yanno, where I am not aboard a 1,000 pound flight animal who could easily kill me if she so chose), I could slowly start to translate that into the saddle. Instead of thinking so reactively and riding in a dangerously defensive way, I could assess the situation from a new light. Reframing my entire perspective from, “CP is just acting naughty, she knows better than this, & she I just out to get me,” to, “how can I help CP with what she is struggling with right now? She is a prey animal simply acting how she believes she needs to in this instant,” enabled me to be a better rider & a better partner for CP.

2. Getting fit enough to be confident that I can physically handle any challenge thrown my way was essential in my riding transformation. I was never overweight or seriously unhealthy, however I was weak & very unaware of how to effectively use my body. I would get frustrated if I couldn’t properly ask CP to do something & take it out on her, even though it was truly due to my lack of holding myself accountable as an athlete.

As riders, we are just that: athletes. Anyone who says that horseback riding isn’t physically challenging clearly hasn’t done much more than a pony ride. I wanted CP to be an athlete & move like a physically fit animal, but I wasn’t requiring the same from myself. I would take out my anger on myself for not being in shape on her. Completely unfair & it’s one of my biggest regrets in my riding career.

Making the choice to become “the girl who works out every day” wasn’t something I took lightly. It was an entire reframing of my identity. I used to pride myself on being the girl who never worked out (which I now find despicable). I made the decision that my physical fitness would not be something I would let hold me back.

The stronger I got, the more confident I became that I could truly handle what CP was going to throw at me. Being balanced, strong, & agile are all so essential for being a quality, effective rider. Without this piece, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish half of the things I do on CP’s back today.

(Learn more about my equestrian focused fitness program here)

3. I credit working with a trainer to learn the tools to actually be an effective rider, so I don’t have to resort to frustration, to so much of my success with CP. When I was at the peak of my frustrating rides with her, a GIGANTIC piece of the puzzle was that I wasn’t a capable enough rider to fix the issues we were having. Although I considered myself quite advanced because I’d been riding for nearly 20 years at the time, I now realize just how little I knew (and how much I still have to learn now)!

Finding the right trainer who just got CP & could hand me the tools I needed in order to overcome our obstacles was worth every penny I’ve spent. It would change my rides form “Oh this isn’t going good, let me rip back on my reins or spur her into a tiny circle while I get super angry & emotional” to “oh yes, I know the tool to fix when she rushes like this! How exciting that I have things to try that will work!”

I can’t ever exclaim loudly enough the importance of working with the RIGHT trainer. Depending on where you and your horse are at in your journey, there is a trainer out there for you. It may change over time, you may want to go get new tools, & new pieces of information, but don’t ever stop learning.

I tried for a very long time to just watch YouTube videos, read training blogs & books, & basically DIY CP’s training… but it just didn’t work. Not that I didn’t learn some valuable things from all that research, but having a trainer on the ground, watching firsthand what I was struggling with or being able to hop on CP’s back to feel what I was feeling was priceless.

If you’re struggling with too many emotions while riding, take a step back. Take the pressure off yourself to make some sort of deadline & go back to square one. Work through your own mental health issues, get into the best physical shape you can, & find a trainer who can give you the tools you need to ride your horse effectively!

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